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Post Tribune Unschooling Article

Alternative form of homeschooling embraces child-directed learning
2007

It’s a Tuesday morning. As children throughout the Region are waking up, packing their bags and heading toward the school bus, Adele Schiessle turns to her children and asks them if they wanted to spend the day playing on a 6,000-square-foot indoor inflatable play area at Jump Central.

Collin, 6, and Amber, 7, agree that would be a pleasant way to start the morning. After they played on the bouncy furniture, they headed back to their home in St. John, where they spent the rest of the day watching TV, navigating XBox, working on art projects and playing games. It’s just another day in the Schiessle household, where the children learn through a branch of homeschooling called unschooling.

While the definition of unschooling varies, it generally reflects a concept of child-led learning.

For Carol Pozos’ oldest child, it meant self-taught reading at age 4.

For 18-year-old Abby Stewart of Chicago, it meant the news last week that she had won early admission to Princeton.

“It’s an awareness that learning is always happening because it’s part of living,” said Jane Van Stelle Haded of Hobart, who unschools her two children. “It’s almost trying to capitalize on whatever your children are interested in.”

Unschooled children don’t go to school, but unlike many other homeschoolers, the unschoolers don’t necessarily learn through workbooks, educational guides or study sources. Instead, the children are free to pursue what interests them. The unschooling concept has been around for decades, but it’s been slow to catch on, as initially most parents shy away from letting their children have such control over their own education.

“I’m trying to get rid of the idea that learning happens at a certain time in a certain place,” Van Stelle said.

And while homeschooling students far exceed unschoolers in terms of numbers, the unschooling movement appears to be slowly increasing. There aren’t any statistics on unschoolers yet, but their popularity is reflected in the number of unschooling message boards on the Internet, in the abundance of unschooling clubs, in the frequency of unschooling conferences and in the slow but steady movement of unschooling into the vocabulary of educators.

Part of the increased attention on alternative education may be the rebellion against educational initiatives such as No Child Left Behind. It was one of the reasons Janna Odenthal of Chesterton embraced unschooling for her child.

“The testing doesn’t do any good,” she said.

The focus on alternative schooling hasn’t been missed by the media, who have featured unschoolers on the talk show “Dr. Phil,” and in a recent report in the New York Times. In a 2003 survey by the U.S. Department of Education, the number of children educated at home nationally was 1.1 million, an increase of 29 percent from the previous study in 1999. The study didn’t ask about unschooling specifically, but homeschooling parents continue to strive for other educational methods, with unschooling becoming a more popular second to traditional homeschooling.

Ten-year-old Seth Odenthal has been unschooled since he was about 5. He went to preschool, and tried going to kindergarten, but dropped out after a few days because he preferred being at home. He even tried going to school for a few days in the first grade, and then in the second, but he continued expressing interest in staying at home, so his mother researched the unschooling methods.

“I went ahead and gave it a try, and I fell in love with the things we could do together, the flexibility in our schedule,” Odenthal said of unschooling her only child.
When Seth took an early interest in cooking and baking, Odenthal embraced his curiosity, and the two of them cook together. She even signed him up for a local cooking class. Seth never formally learned math, but Odenthal said he excels at it because it’s a natural progression from his cooking interests.

“He learns all about math and science through a lot of cooking that we do,” said Odenthal, a writer who occasionally freelances for the Post-Tribune.

The state of Indiana doesn’t require the unschoolers to do any standardized testing, and parents are allowed to give their unschooled children high school diplomas when the parents believe the children are ready to graduate. Since education laws in Indiana are loose, the unschooled parents can take different approaches to learning. But most tend to have a few commonalities.

They don’t sit at desks to learn, as the parents believe learning happens all the time. And while they aren’t taught how to read or write or do science; the children usually ask their parents enough questions that they eventually learn on their own.

“My oldest was reading on her own without being taught before she turned 5,” said Carol Pozos, who unschools her three children in her Michigan City home. “I did not do anything except read to her, and she soaked it up and was reading full sentences. I thought to myself, ‘Obviously, this works.’ ”

While Pozos has a degree in elementary education, there were many aspects of traditional schooling that disgusted her. She said many schools care more about the business and the money involved with schooling, instead of focusing on the individual needs of the child. Pozos enrolled one of her children in preschool because the child had been begging her to go to school since she was 3. But when her daughter refused to return to school halfway through the year, Pozos decided to try teaching her children herself.

Her children are 8, 7, and 4, and other than a half-year of preschool, all three have been learning at home their entire lives. They also have chores they’re required to do every morning. And once they finish their chores?

“We do whatever we want,” said 8-year-old Isabel, who spent a recent afternoon on the floor of her living room flipping through a picture book with her 4-year-old brother. On Thursday mornings, the children attend an art class, filled with unschoolers and their parents. “Books are out, and if they want to draw, they can draw,” Pozos said of the class. “If they don’t want to participate, they can go off in the corner and play.” The point, she said, is to encourage them to do whatever interests them and makes them happy and inquisitive children. The same applies to the unschooled children’s higher education and career goals.

Schiessle said she was a college graduate, and her husband wasn’t. But even after all that schooling, Schiessle still feels like her husband has more knowledge about the world than she does. “I looked back to my schooling, and yeah, I was an A honor student, but what did I know? I was just memorizing for the test. I was so focused on that grade,” Schiessle said. When she teaches her children, “They’re not being measured as a person by that absolute number.”

Traditional school does teach children to memorize complex mathematics scenarios and scientific equations, and Schiessle said if her children decide they want to go to college, she’ll buy the books to help them learn the advanced information that they may not necessarily learn through her. But only if they want to go to college and want to learn about algebraic equations and the periodic table.

And some do. To prepare for the SAT college admission tests, 18-year-old unschooler Abby Stewart bought some test prep books and took some old subject matter tests. She posted knockout scores: an overall SAT of 2,350 out of 2,400. Not all unschoolers or home-schoolers have Abby’s scores, but on another popular college admission test, the ACT, test-takers who identified themselves as home-schoolers have scored a notch above the national average for the last decade. This year, they averaged 22.4 on a 36-point scale compared with a national average of 21.2.

At Harvard University, admissions director Marlyn McGrath Lewis said, unschoolers without transcripts can submit college admission scores, and then “tell us what they have done in the way of academic preparation for college, and we’ll take it from there.” But just like traditional schoolers, not all unschoolers want college.

Pozos said she’d be happy if her children went to college, but she’s also be happy if they didn’t, as long as her children were happy with their decision. “I’m not one of those people who says, ‘I want my son to be a doctor and my daughter to be an attorney.’ I just want them to be happy. If Armand wants to be a stay-at-home dad, and Isabel wants to be a marine biologist, that’s just fine.”

Isabel, who was listening as her mother explained the philosophy, turned and asked her, “What’s a marine biologist?” Pozos answered, teaching her child without her daughter ever knowing she was being lectured.

Some children, however, aren’t as inquisitive as Isabel, making unschooling difficult, said Marilyn Haring, professor of educational studies at Purdue University. She said that while the unschooling movement is valuable because it questions aspects of traditional schooling, it is not without problems.

“With regard to unschooling, I believe this is best described as utopian,” Haring said in an e-mail. “A miniscule few youngsters may have the high intelligence and motivation to inquire broadly and also learn how to learn. The vast majority, however, have no idea what might be learned and why it is important.”

Schiessle contended unschooling parents can still guide their children without forcing education upon them. She often reads books to her children about a variety of topics, from ancient Egypt to farming, and if her children express an interest, they can explore that idea further. “It’s not that I don’t lead, but I don’t make the decisions for them,” Schiessle said. “I look at it like I’m their guide. I’m there for guidance for everything.”

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