Article in North Carolina’s Herald-Sun
Unschooling: Unconventional teaching approach gaining popularity
By Carolyn Norton : The Herald-Sun
CHAPEL HILL — Charles Morris and his wife, Robin, agreed early on they would homeschool their children.
They chose a curriculum and began teaching their son, Quinn, now 9. But when Quinn was 4, something happened.
He struggled to learn some subjects. He was miserable. And Quinn’s parents talked about sending him to public school.
“Literally, we were sitting at the table talking about how he was going to learn physics if we didn’t force him,” Charles Morris said. “Then Quinn would come in and lecture us about the solar system and how he had memorized all the planets from a book he had been reading.”
Suddenly, it dawned on the Morrises. What if they threw out the curriculum and let Quinn — and his little sister Zoe, now 5 — decide what they learned?
So the Morris family decided to switch to a radical approach called “unschooling” — a form of home education that is attracting more and more Americans.
“I’d say that unschooling is absolutely growing,” said Shana Ronayne Hickman, editor of “Live Free and Learn Magazine,” a publication about “natural learning.”
“As homeschooling grows in popularity, so does unschooling,” Hickman said.
Unschoolers are generally thought to make up 10 percent of the more than 1 million students who homeschool in the United States, said Hickman, who lives in Texas and unschools her 9-year-old son, Kenzie.
The number of homeschoolers has risen exponentially in North Carolina. In 1988, 1,385 children were homeschooled, according to the state Division of Non-Public Education. By 2005-06, that number jumped to more than 64,387.
About 69 percent of homeschooled students go on to college, according to the Homeschool Legal Defense Association.
Last year, UNC had 86 homeschooled applicants and 25 were accepted, said Stephen Farmer, the assistant provost and director of admissions.
The applicants ranged from students who spent much of their learning time in community colleges to those who “never had a teacher other than a parent.”
While those students were required to submit the same letters of recommendation, writing samples and application as traditional candidates, it’s sometimes more difficult to evaluate them, he said, when they don’t have dozens of classmates to be compared against.
“It’s tricky,” Farmer said. “Considering them fairly is tough. It’s not only the lack of transcript; it’s the lack of context.”
While most of those families rely on curriculum guides, in-home classrooms and lessons to lead children through learning, many rely on none of that at all.
Also called natural learning or child-directed learning, unschooling describes a practice of letting the students decide what they want to study, based on their needs and interests. It’s hard to define, advocates say, because each family does it differently.
Zoe, for example, recently spent a morning working on a computer game that teaches Spanish — something her father called “the closest thing to a curriculum we’ve ever had.”
Later, she wandered across the living room to build a structure out of plastic crates. Quinn reread a Harry Potter novel he’d read dozens of times before, and eagerly showed a visitor a book about computer programming he was studying.
“I don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘What are we going to do today?’ ” Charles Morris said. “We just get up.”
Both children decided they wanted to learn to read when they were about 3 years old. Quinn writes and speaks at a college level.
Both students learned alongside their mom — who now is working outside the home — when she took an anatomy and physiology class at UNC.
Quinn types up mailing labels and calculates shipping costs for his father’s home-based repair business for diving suits.
“The kids are thriving in this environment,” Morris said. “That’s what drives this. Will they ever eventually go into public school? Probably. But this is what is working right now.”
Still, there are struggles.
Quinn dislikes learning about handwriting, for example, and doesn’t practice math, something that sometimes worries his dad.
“But he does know the math he needs,” Morris said. “I don’t see him sitting down doing drill sheets. Whenever it comes down to real-world math, though, he knows.”
Unschooling can be difficult.
“Sometimes the dishes or the laundry have to wait,” Hickman noted.
And every couple of months or so, Morris’ children become grumpy, and he’ll have to make their environment a bit more or a bit less structured.
Often, however, Morris finds that if he just backs off, his kids will learn. Quinn, for example, avoided studying handwriting until he saw his little sister was interested in it.
And Carolina Cameron, who unschools her two children in Raleigh, credits her 5-year-old daughter with teaching herself to read when she was 2.
“We don’t take credit for teaching her,” Cameron said. “I believe that our efforts at engaging her in reading from such an early age impacted her abilities.”