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Unschooling: What is it and how one family does it

(Photo by Penny Hewitt)
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Thirteen-year-old Fin Hewitt and his 10-year-old brother Rye sport belt knives instead of backpacks.

At an age where many children are learning to ride bikes, these boys could operate a tractor and were on their way to becoming licensed hunters. They tend to goats and help with the planting on their family farm in northern Vermont, forage wild berries and mushrooms, craft objects out of whittled wood and spend hours and hours wandering freely through the forests and streams that surround them. What’s perhaps most stunning: These boys don’t go to school and their parents provide almost no formal instruction at home.

Rather, the Hewitts believe in learning through what’s come to be called unschooling, an extreme approach to homeschooling, which, depending on your perspective, could seem either idyllic or irresponsible. Unschooling values autonomy over structure and posits that you don’t have to confine kids to a classroom – or even a desk — because children are natural learners.

The boys’ father, Ben Hewitt, describes the lifestyle he, his wife Penny and their children lead in his book Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling and Reconnecting with the Natural World. Home Grown is less an attack on traditional education as a chronicle of one particular family’s lifestyle choice and a reflection on what it means to learn, become self-sufficient and at home in the world.

For Hewitt, himself a high-school dropout who has published three books and operates a 40-acre livestock, vegetable and berry farm, less is clearly more when it comes to formal instruction. “At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education,” he writes.

Here, he talks about what he’s learned from the experience and why Shakespeare should not be required reading.

Unschooling is a catchy term, but you note in your book that it really doesn’t do justice to the unconventional and unstructured education you’re providing your children. Explain what you mean by unschooling.

The long version is that unschooling is self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning. The reason I don’t like unschooling as a term is that it describes what we’re not doing, but not what we are doing. Some people hear “freedom” and “self-directed” and assume we are totally hands off. Any parent who spent a day or a week with us would come away realizing it’s a hell of a lot easier to put the kids on the bus.

As a family who, to a large extent, lives off the land in rural Vermont, what do you have to tell a suburban or urban parent who may be interested in a less traditional approach to education?

Unlike the standardized, institutionalized model of education, unschooling can be a million different things to a million different families. I know many unschooling families who live in suburban or urban environments. The commonality I see is that they all really believe that children learn best when they are immersed in the community in their environment. Many see a structured school environment as something of an artifice and they believe there are better opportunities for our children to learn outside of the school. The setting for my family happens to be rural Vermont because we do place a lot of importance on connection to the natural world. But I know a lot of urban unschoolers and their priorities are a little different. The common theme is immersion in the environment … and hopefully it is a healthy environment.

Absent formal instruction, when did your children learn basic reading and math that is so much of the focus in elementary school?

Reading came for our older son when he was 8. Our younger son learned when he was 9. Even though we did not sit down and teach reading, we read to our children ceaselessly. We immersed our kids in books, and they just picked it up.
Math is a little more challenging. We’ve started to examine our approach and implement some basic instruction.

What’s your plan for later years? Can unschooling work for calculus? Physics? Shakespeare?

I am always struck by how we determine what it is we believe our children must learn. I do think we have an obligation to ensure our kids have a strong grasp of basic math, up to and including some basic algebra. But for me, calculus and physics are not required to be a functioning member of society. My belief is that if my kids determine they need certain skills in their adult lives, they will get them. I have a tremendous amount of faith in my children’s ability to fashion the world they envision. I believe giving them some autonomy is only going to give them more resourcefulness and confidence. And I know from experience this will not necessarily preclude them from choosing a more conventional career path.
I have nothing against Shakespeare but you might ask why it’s not just as important for our kids to be able to go out and identify every tree in the forest outside the house? We believe in the value of our kids knowing their way in the natural world. Now, if you are unschooling in an urban environment, I’m not sure it would be as important to be able to identify every tree in the park. But I think it’s critical to have an intimate connection to place and community. I think that is where some of the most meaningful experiences would come from.

Your boys are acquiring life skills. But are they the right skills?

People often ask me if I think my kids will need to take remedial math to get into college. I always respond that that would put them on par with a lot of kids in traditional high schools. We base a lot of our assumptions about education on what children are supposed to be getting from a standardized curriculum, rather than what they are actually getting.

You spend a lot of time describing how rich your kids’ lives are. Are there things you think they are missing?

Of course. There seems to be a first world belief that we need to expose our kids to as much as we possibly can. The reality is that everything we expose them to is a choice that will effectively deny them exposure to something else.

What have you learned so far? What’s been the biggest upside?

I have been overwhelmingly surprised at how resourceful and capable my kids have become at fairly young ages and I don’t actually think this makes them all that unique. I think that most children are inherently able to becoming capable of that same level of resourcefulness. General school erodes resourcefulness and confidence. Not only does it put children in a position of subservience, it provides few opportunities for them to be trusted. If you want your child to be responsible you have to give them responsibility. If you want them to be trustworthy, you have to trust them.

Andrea Orr is a Washington writer and mother to a 7-year-old daughter.

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