Free Minds & Free Markets

Do Kids Need School? Inside the 'Unschooling' Movement

"School is a place where children go to learn to be stupid," said author and educator John Holt.

Anita Rios-Sherman has six children under the age of 18, and five of them are on the autism spectrum. When the local school system failed to meet the needs of her oldest son, Rios-Sherman decided to try a homeschooling curriculum. When one of her kids resisted, she took a more radical step: drop the curriculum altogether, and let her son decide what he wanted to spend his time learning. In her view, he benefited from a totally unstructured approach. Next, she tried the same method with her other children. It's an education philosophy known as "unschooling."

On a typical weekday, the Rios-Shermans might visit a local museum, go to the park, watch a documentary, play with each other at home, or surf the internet.

"Most days we just kind of finish up where we left up the day before on a project, or sometimes we're just spontaneous," says Rios-Sherman. "There are many things about the unschooling philosophy that work well for kids on the autism spectrum. A lot of it has to do with allowing them to explore their passions and them not having to earn that time."

There are unschooling groups in every major American city, with some specially themed versions—even Pagan unschooling. The movement dates back to the 1970s and was shaped by the work of educator and author John Holt.

"School is a place where children go to learn to be stupid," Holt once said in a televised interview. "And the process that makes them other people trying to control their learning."

Holt, who died in 1985, began his career as a progressive school reformer, but lost hope that meaningful change was possible within the formal system. So he turned to the burgeoning homeschool movement as the most promising avenue for fixing what he viewed as America's broken education system. Some modern homeschoolers reference Holt as the movement's founding father, but his radical vision differed from that of the conservative religious practitioners who dominate public perception of homeschooling today.

Holt argued that children are natural learners, who intuitively act as "scientists", learning through the empirical processes of observation, experience, and trial-and-error. Rather than fostering that instinct, schools quash it with standardized curricula that discourage creative and independent thought. Holt ultimately concluded that any intervention, by either teachers or parents, to direct the education of a child is more likely to disrupt learning than to encourage it.

"[Educators] treat [children] like empty receptacles into which they are going to pour whatever learning they think they ought to have," Holt said.

Holt's approach is being tried in a growing number of arenas. Homeschooling rates roughly doubled between 1999 and 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). And as Reason contributor J.D. Tuccille notes, NCES found that only 16 percent of survey respondents homeschool for purely religious reasons, while an increasing number cite "school environment" and dissatisfaction with the instruction. In addition, alternative schools that prioritize "self-directed learning" exist in all 50 states.

Watch the video above to learn more about the history of the unschooling movement, and to meet some of its modern practitioners, like the Rios-Sherman family. We also visited a school in Houston, Texas, that operates on the "Sudbury model," in which the kids decide how to spend their time, and vote on issues such as how to handle disciplinary matters and the allocation of school funds.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Jim Epstein, Mark McDaniel, Brynmore Williams, and Weissmueller.

"Float," "Ether Oar," Don't Force This," "Goodnight Shapeshifter,"Bubble," "Tides," and "Sanguine Bond" by Joel Corelitz are licensed under a Creative Commons attribution license.

"Static Shoes" by Loyalty Freak Music is licensed under a Creative Commons Universal 1.0 license.

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  • Uncle Jay||

    "School is a place where children go to learn to be stupid," said author and educator John Holt.

    No, we have colleges and universities where people can go to learn to be stupid.
    Just ask Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

  • Rockabilly||

    According to Comrade Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the world will end in 12 years!!

    You've been warned.

    Party on!!!

  • BarkingSpider||

    Also known as.... Occasional-Cortex.

  • Trainer||

    Kids don't need school and that's why school choice is not a libertarian concept- choosing your child's prison even if it's a curriculum at home is still having to choose a prison. Educational freedom is, however. We now have decades of children who were unschooled how have proven that you can grow up to be educated, responsible adults. All of my children are included and have chosen different life paths (on is an business owner, one a part-time gymnastics coach and mom of 3 children, one is getting her master's degree in higher ed management and one is an actor and magician) but they are are capable adults and great people.

    BTW, the only of my children to ever go to school before college was my youngest who went to the Houston Sudbury School for a year. All I can say is a school is a school is a school. I was not impressed nor was she.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    You take too narrow a definition of "school". Remember the school of hard knocks -- the word has a much broader meaning than you recognize.

    "Home school" means not indoctrinated in government schools.

  • Trainer||

    As long as there are laws regulating homeschooling, the government will still decide the body of knowledge that children must learn and many times the methods used to teach it. That is still indoctrination, just not as intense.

  • Kevin Smith||

    That is only true for 5 states (NY, PA, VT, MA, and RI require homeschoolers use a state-approved curriculum)

    Another 17 states require you to submit test scores and/or evaluations of student progress, which could mean the states exert some control over what must be taught

    The rest merely require notification be sent to the state

    Ultimately the issue isn't so much with regulation over homeschooling, but whether the homeschooled are considered to have graduated high school (and thus eligible for college, and most jobs) but that is an entirely different can of worms

  • Trainer||

    As long as parents are giving the "privilege" of homeschooling, the state is still controlling the education of children. As a member of that community (and I homeschooled in 5 different states), homeschoolers are generally making choices based on what would make the state happy if they were to be contacted as opposed to educating their children the way really want. The big exception is Texas but people had to go to jail to get to that point and fundie christians still make people think they have to "do school".

    As far as "graduating high school", all of my unschooled children are considered high school graduates because I said so and are or have been employed and all have gone to college with two working on advanced degrees. It's up to the colleges and like a free market, many colleges (included state colleges) want homeschoolers/unschoolers' money and have developed various ways that kids with an alternative education can apply and be accepted. Many colleges also want their knowledge and skills and actively recruit homeschoolers/unschoolers. Many employers both large and small also recruit homeschooled kids. When I had my business, it was often the topic of discussion at business owner get togethers when the subject of how to get decent employees came up.

  • Kevin Smith||

    If colleges and businesses are recruiting homeschoolers for their knowledge and skills it sounds like they are the ones you are trying to please with the knowledge and skills you choose to teach at home, not the state

  • Trainer||

    Yes, of course. That's exactly what freedom is about. Are you even libertarian?

  • Kevin Smith||

    That's what you just described doing though. You are the one who is claiming a lack of freedom

  • Trainer||

    Parents and children themselves deciding to work toward college or a career if they want is a far cry from oppression. Forcing young children to spend most of their waking hours in a place they have no to leave is the definition of oppression.

  • Rockabilly||

    A public school is a place for democrat progressive communist indoctrination

  • Priscilla King||

    Believe it or not, I remember leftists in the 1980s who thought the public schools indoctrinated children toward the Old Right! (Holt expressed moderately left-leaning views in his books; that appealed to them.)

  • Trainer||

    As an 80's unschooler, it was more about preserving the love of learning and creativity in the kids than actually dealing with any indoctrination for the community.

  • Trollificus||

    @Priscilla King
    I'm old enough to remember (60s-70s) when that was actually the case. We had what was called "Civics Class" taught by the most reactionary anti-communist on staff. I was well-read enough by 10th grade to recognize Grade A Bullshit when I heard it and we were pretty much at war for the duration of the class, which lead to starting up an "underground" school paper and actual physical assault of some of the students involved.

    So that was wrong. Not sure indoctrination in the opposite direction is an improvement, though.

  • Trainer||

    Public school has always been about control. What type of control depends on what was going on at the time.

  • Troglodyte Rex||

    My ex did that with our spawn. The oldest focused on what interested him and never graduated high school.

  • Echospinner||

    I suspect a lot of the kids raised in the "uschooling" movement will find themselves in the "unworking" movement st some point.

  • Priscilla King||

    For some I think that's the idea...religious types might want to raise farmers and homemakers; quirkier libertarian types (like Holt) might want to raise creative artists and entrepreneurs.

  • Trainer||

    Exactly and that's what educational freedom is about.

  • Trainer||

    It's not the unschoolers that you see standing in line at the welfare office. Since I headed an unschooling group for years and have stayed friends with many of the families, I'm pretty much aware of what goes on in the community. More own four kids are very independent and competition adults now.

  • Trainer||

    Should read "My own four kids..."

  • Trainer||

    ...and competent adults.

  • Longtobefree||

    Well, at least two are currently working full time, one with lots of offered overtime.

  • CMurph||

    To the extent that a piece of paper is often used as an artificial carrot or workforce admission ticket to compel people to jump through the indoctrination camp hoops (schools), your suspicion has some degree of merit. Fortunately, the solution for many unschooled people is to accept the carrot in the form of the GED. It's not like the bar is very high and most unschooled individuals are fully capable of snatching it in relatively short order (compared to the years of time wasted in schools). Sometimes unschooled people simply elect to avoid employment that requires an admission ticket and find or create alternate paths for themselves in life--usually to the detriment and loss of the admission ticket taking employers!

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Yesterday's article on private/charter schools compared SAT/ACT scores to each other and public schools. Where do the unschoolers fall into on this spectrum?

  • Trainer||

    My children have never taken an SAT or ACT yet all have gone to normal colleges- community colleges, state colleges and one is now attending a private college. Two are now working on advanced degrees and one of those works as a college admissions counselor at the local community college while she finishes her Masters and then her doctorate.

    Of the unschoolers I know who have taken those tests, they generally test where they want just like most high schoolers. If they want to get into an ivy league school, they study really hard and prepare for the test and do well. If they just want to go to a local college that doesn't require a high score, they don't prepare as hard and get a mid-range score. And the few that I know that just took because they needed to did well enough to get into a general college.

    Of course, there is a whole subset of unschoolers who don't care and won't ever take the test and that's okay. There are plenty of schools that don't require, jobs available for people without college degrees and business to be started but enterprising young people.

  • madam margaret||

    consider how the prison schoolers might do on the unschoolers tests

  • Trainer||

    One day a woman who just found out we homeschooled asked my then-12 year-old son who discovered America. He explained several theories and then told her about a skeleton that they had just found in Washington (I think) that was making people question those theories. When he finished she said, "thank you" and he walked away. She looked at me and said, "I expected him to say 'Christopher Columbus'."

  • Echospinner||

    "School is a place where children go to learn to be stupid,"

    Trust me they are perfectly capable of that on their own.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Or perhaps most people are born generally stupid (or not). No learning required.

  • Roger Knights||

    "All that is taught to the end of grammar school could be imparted to an intelligent child, by genuinely scientific methods, in two years and without any cruelty worse than that involved in pulling a tooth. But now it takes nine years."
    —H.L. Mencken

  • Trainer||

    And once you've removed yourself from the school system and you start to question whether the most of the things that are taught in elementary school are even worth teaching. After you've made the determination that most of it is not, and you cut it, it takes even less time. I would say 3-6 months to "teach" everything that is academically important in elementary school.

  • Trollificus||

    Let's see...scientific method and two years wages for teachers?


    some kind of 'lolest-common-denominator', everyone passes standard and NINE years wages for teachers?

    What could possibly explain a preference for the latter?

  • Trainer||

    I'm sure the teachers' unions can help us understand the answer.

  • CE||

    I didn't learn anything I didn't already know at school until 7th grade, but that's because I was taking 8th grade math.

  • Grumpa||

    My unschooled kids now in their 30s are successful independent fully functional adults with real jobs and careers.
    Unfortunately the unschooling movement needs to expand to the college and university level as they are the new place to get stupid. Fortunately today is is possible to get a good education from WWW, and dispense with the nonsense and debt associated with traditional post K-12 education.

  • Trainer||

    There you go! The prefect job for unschoolers!!!

  • Echospinner||

    Which job? The scammer or the sucker who clicks on it?

  • Trainer||

    Maybe both. Or maybe it was sarcasm.

  • Cthulunotmyfriend||

    I am all for educational choice including unschooling, but think it quite ridiculous to think that you can just let your kid do whatever, and it will all work out. The hard sciences and mathematics aren't easy, and do require practice. Americans do suck in these subjects compared to most other countries, which just shows that kids aren't doing very much in most schools, not that there isn't anything worthwhile to learn.

  • Trainer||

    Which is typical of people who support school choice- you can choose from the list that I approve of but you can't actually be free to chose what you feel is best for your family and your children. Yet, almost all of the people on welfare were "educated" in publicly funded schools and many of them don't know the hard sciences or math yet you'll still allow that choice, I'm assuming. And you'll ignore the unschoolers who have gone on to get educations in the hard sciences and math because it doesn't fit your narrative. Or are you just ignorant of the fact that many unschoolers have gone that direction?

  • EWM||

    School is forced association. Forced association is immoral.

  • CE||

    Not to mention the forced funding, when kids whose parents pay tuition do better on pretty much every measure of achievement and people without kids are forced to pay the way for everyone else.

  • joemomma||

    As a Libertarian, I would highly recommend Sir Ken Robinson as a source that attacks what we know exists. Skills Gaps are in all Regimen, not just the Trades. Our economy, now more so than ever, depends upon our young embracing what interests them, not someone else's idea.

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