Is Unschooling the Uber of Education?

Is Unschooling the Uber of Education?

Devin Martin, 16, tries on a chainmail hood he made. Devin is fascinated by Viking times and participates in reenactments. His parents use the "unschooling" method to educate their four children at home in New Hampshire. Unschooling allows children to choose what topics they're interested in pursuing without a set curriculum or testing.

SourceMelanie Stetson Freeman/Getty

Why you should care

Rather than putting children in a box, we need to creatively show them how to think outside it.

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With robots increasingly blurring the lines between human intelligence and its artificial equivalent, the essential human qualities of ingenuity, agility and curiosity are more important than ever. Despite leaving the industrial age for an era of innovation, our compulsory mass schooling model reflects old-fashioned factories. If we want to distinguish ourselves from robots, we need an education model that cultivates creativity rather than crushes it.

In 19th-century America, the rise of compulsory mass schooling dovetailed with the Industrial Revolution. Emerging factories valued large-scale efficiency and standardization, and these principles seeped into the early “common school” movement, shaping education over the next 150 years. Schools, in turn, began to resemble factories. “By creating more tightly coordinated productive hierarchies, such as in factories, industrialization promoted the values of punctuality, subordination and regimentation that came also to characterize schools,” historian Carl Kaestle writes in Pillars of the Republic.

Disillusioned by a factory-style system of schooling that has persisted for over a century, many parents and educators are rejecting schooling in favor of “unschooling.” Pioneered by author and teacher John Holt in the 1970s as part of the burgeoning home-schooling movement, unschooling has evolved to include a host of alternatives to school. It focuses on self-directed education, either at home or at a school or learning center, with a young person’s emergent interests rather than a set curriculum guiding the learning process. Unschooling’s popularity is growing, buttressed by research from Boston College research professor Peter Gray that shows “unschoolers” do well in adulthood, attend college if they choose and frequently become entrepreneurs.

In the age of robots, human creativity is our key differentiator.

For Zachary Dettmore, an unschooled childhood allowed him to nurture his passion for craftsmanship at an early age. “I was always interested in tools, and I was a very kinesthetic learner, so I was in my element doing hands-on work,” he recalls. His parents found a local woodworking class for him, and at age 10 he wrote down his goal: “To own a construction company and build my own house.” After taking a rigorous timber framing course at 13, and apprenticing for a local contractor during adolescence, he launched his own company at 19. Now 29, Dettmore has a thriving New Jersey custom contracting business with more than 40,000 Instagram followers. He credits unschooling with providing the opportunity for a curiosity-driven, immersive education. “The beauty of unschooling is if you’re able to figure out what you want to do at a young age, you are able to trend that way much earlier,” he says.

In a dynamic global economy, a fixed curriculum and a classroom inspired by the past can hardly meet the needs of the present, let alone the future. The World Economic Forum reports that some of today’s most popular and necessary careers and skill sets did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and most of today’s elementary school students will work in jobs that have yet to be created. The future of work, in other words, depends upon creativity.

John Hagel III, co-founder of the forward-looking Deloitte Center for the Edge, reinforces the economic need for a contemporary transformation of American education that tilts toward creativity. In a recent interview he told me: “Rather than thinking about narrow re-skilling, there will be a need to focus on cultivating much more fundamental human capabilities involving curiosity, imagination and creativity. This shift in focus will require us to rethink our approach to education from the ground up.”

Entrepreneurial educators are leading the way in rethinking education through unschooling. They are launching places like Natural Creativity, a nonprofit, self-directed education center for young people ages 4 to 17 in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. Chris Steinmeier, Natural Creativity’s executive director, began exploring alternatives to school when he was a classroom teacher. “It was so clear to me that the school system didn’t want a series of positive relationships,” he says. “The mechanisms that were set up, the outside control, the strict reduction and almost elimination of autonomy at every level — it’s a systemic problem.”

Today, Natural Creativity nurtures the talents of a diverse group of young people who are legally registered as home-schoolers but attend the center up to several days a week. Eighty percent of them receive tuition assistance. “We don’t have a curriculum in the standard sense, because it’s driven by a young person’s interests,” says Steinmeier. “We create the space for learning, and support that in many ways.”

In the age of robots, human creativity is our key differentiator. Yet compulsory mass schooling continues to operate on an assembly line model better suited to producing widgets than wit. To successfully move into the innovation era, we need a new model of education that supports a child’s natural creativity, exuberance and ingenuity. If schooling was for the past, then unschooling is the future.

Kerry McDonald is the author of the forthcoming Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press).

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