Public, Private, and Unschooling: Considering the options


I’ve been doing a lot of reading about homeschooling recently.  Since Carys is only 20 months old it is admittedly a little early, but I do like to be prepared.  I thought you might be interested in a summary and analysis of what I’ve been reading to save you from having to do it all yourself, and also give you the opportunity to dive in where things look interesting to you. (There’s a list of references at the bottom, in case you lose track of them in the text.)

I will say that I’m still formulating my thinking on this topic – it’s early days, and I’m considering a variety of viewpoints (if you have one to offer, please do so!).  I might change my mind, and I’m open to new ideas.

Our Educational Background

Both Alvin and I went to public schools for our primary and high school education.  We both did reasonably well; me in large part because I figured out how to work the system and I’m good at memorization.  It’s not hard for me to remember large chunks of material for short periods of time and even though the English testing system is a little more difficult than the American one (your final grade in a subject comes down to an test or an essay – externally graded by an examination board – that you write on one day at the end of your high school career; if you have a bad day, you’re kind of screwed), I was able to regurgitate what the examiners wanted to hear, and I did well.   Alvin got paid $20 for an A, so that was a different kind of motivation.

I feel somewhat fortunate that I came out of my school experience with a love of learning.  I read voraciously and am always trying new projects and ideas.  I’m not really sure how that happened; the school system certainly didn’t nurture that in me.  If I had to pin down one goal for Carys’ education right now, I’d say it would be to instill in her a lifelong love of learning.

Are Public and Private the only choices?

Which brings me to reasons not to attend public school: I just can’t envision an environment which must legally teach to the Common Core test ever being truly supportive of a child’s interest in learning about topics that interest them.  They just can’t do that for 30 kids in a classroom.  A private school might be a bit better in the short term (elementary levels) but in the long term I think the goal of most private schools is to get kids into elite universities – and what if Carys doesn’t want to go to university?  Why spend 12 years of your life memorizing facts of questionable use in the future, when you could instead learn what you think you need to know and – more importantly – learn how to learn what you need to know so you can do it for the rest of your life?

private public school

(Note: The photos in this post are entirely gratuitous)

I read Ben Hewitt’s excellent essay in Outside Magazine shortly after Carys was born (given the August publication date, I was quite probably reading while nursing…).  It’s a short version of his book Home Grown which, while well-written, is essentially a series of essays about living on a farm – the article provides as much useful information about unschooling (‘“self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of their own unique interests” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so unschooling it is.’) in the essay as in the book.  Hewitt and his wife basically turn their kids (then aged 12 and nine) loose on the property they and their neighbors own; the kids build shelters, forage for berries, hunt animals with home-made bows, and also have chores on the family farm.  No classes, no books, no curriculum, no tests.

Honestly it all seems just a little bit wild for me – which is not to say that I reject unschooling, but the impression that comes across in the book (perhaps it’s different in real life) seems to be one of minimal parental involvement in Hewitt’s kids’ learning.  Plus we don’t live on a farm in Vermont.  Hewitt (briefly) mentions a family in Boston who also unschool – but the mother in that example is clearly far more involved in the childrens’ education since she says “the city is our curriculum,” whereas Hewitt’s children don’t have a curriculum.  It’s hard for me to articulate the difference between them without it coming down to an uneasiness over lack of parental control over – or at least, knowledge about – the learning environment.

But I love the idea of learning what you want to learn when you feel the need to learn it.  After all, isn’t that how we learn best?  Hewitt’s son Fin figured out how to make a pop gun because he wanted a pop gun, not because his mother gathered the materials and showed him how to do it (she did, but he figured it out for himself first).  I learned plumbing and tiling because I needed to install a bathroom.  I’m teaching myself about parenting because I don’t have any intuition about how to do it.  We learn what we need to know to get the job done.

Toward Homeschooling

Hewitt’s article led me to John Holt, who wrote a series of books on kids and the educational system; I jumped in in the middle with Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling but I should probably now jump back out and read the earlier books for context.  (Holt died in 1985; the 2003 edition of the book adds commentary by Patrick Farenga who now manages John Holt GWS (Growing Without Schooling)).  I had been trying to figure out how I would learn what I needed to know to teach Carys but Holt says that teaching ability is neither rooted in knowledge of the subject nor in teaching qualifications:

I learned whatever I have learned about children by prolonged and careful observation, and even more importantly, as a result of continued failures to teach them, in more or less orthodox school fashions, the things people said they should learn.  There seems to me a suggestion …that in learning about the world, other people’s books are more important than observation.  With this view I most emphatically and strongly disagree.  This is indeed part of what I am trying to tell teachers – that the things they learn or feel they are learning from their direct contact with and observation of children are more important and what is even more important more to be trusted than what the theoreticians may tell them.

[Farenga adds the following commentary:] John came to feel that parents can do as well as he did in the classroom, if not better, because, if they are careful in nurturing their relationships, children will show parents (or other patient, concerned adults) how they learn best. (Holt & Farenga p.xix-xx)

So: observation and relationships are key to teaching children.  Sounds a lot like a certain parenting philosophy to which we already subscribe.

Hewitt tells us that compulsory public schooling in the U.S. was introduced in Massachusetts in 1852, and by 1918 it was provided in every state.  Even though Holt wrote his first edition of Homeschooling in 1981, he noticed something about how our society has evolved since the advent of compulsory schooling that really rang true for me:

Even though many and perhaps most adults today dislike and distrust children, there is at the same time a growing minority of people who like, understand, trust, respect, and value children in a way rarely known until now.  Many of these people are choosing to have children as few people before ever did.  They don’t have children just because that is what married people are supposed to do, or because they don’t know how not to have them.  On the contrary, knowing well what it may mean in time, energy, money, thought, and worry, they undertake the heavy responsibility of having and bringing up children because they deeply want to spend a part of their life living with them.  Having chosen to have children, they feel very strongly that it is their responsibility to help these children grow into good, smart, capable, loving, trustworthy, and responsible human beings.  They do not think it right to turn that responsibility over to institutions, state or private, schools or otherwise, and would not do so even if they liked and trusted these institutions, which on the whole they do not. (Holt and Farenga p.13)

I think every parent wants what’s best for their child, and I’m no exception.  I do see it as my responsibility to help Carys gain these qualities.  I try to critically examine the potential options for the major decisions about her care, seeking out pros and cons of arguments on each side, so I’m trying to figure out how a public school can support the development of the qualities I think are important.

homeschool unschool

So, why send a kid to public school?

Allison Benedikt over at Slate stirred up a big debate a couple of years ago with an article called If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are A Bad Person – her basic premise is that if all the people who were sufficiently (financially and otherwise) invested in their kids to send them to public school, the public schools would be great (perhaps in a generation or two; Benedikt’s assessment, not mine) – although she offers no evidence that this would or could happen.  Holt basically acknowledges the same idea, but instead argues that since your responsibility is to your child right now, since you can’t change the public school system right now you should save your energy and take your child out of school.

In a Huffington Post article Robert Niles argues that we have a poverty problem, not an education problem, and that kids who have enough money for lunch and parents who will help with homework generally do fine in public schools.  All this may be true, but it rests on the assumption that learning what you need to know to pass a test is what you need to know in life, and with this assumption I disagree.  He’s also basically saying that if parents are sufficiently involved then public schools won’t do your kid too much damage.  Great; that’s just what I’m looking for

Holt devotes an entire chapter to ‘Common Objections to Homeschooling’; I will summarize the ones I found most helpful here:

Q1: Aren’t compulsory public schools the easiest and best places to make social glue to hold people from different backgrounds together?

A1: We do need social glue, but schools – which “also have the job or sorting out the young into winners and losers” (p.26) – are not the best mechanism to do this.

Q2: How will children get to know people from different backgrounds if they don’t go to school? (This issue is almost invariably cited by writers who are pro-public schools.)

A2: Children are segregated and self-segregate in schools.  They are segregated formally in academic tracks (which also separate rich from poor) and “from fifth grade on, in their social lives, children are almost completely separated into racial groups…so the idea that schools mix together in happy groups children from widely differing backgrounds is for the most part simply not true.” (p.28-9)

Q3: If children are taught at home, won’t they miss the valuable social life of school?

A3: “If there were no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough.  In all but a very few of the schools I have taught in, visited, or know anything about, the social life of the children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, snobbish, full of talk about who went to whose birthday party and got what Christmas presents…” (Holt and Farenga p.33-4)

Q4: How are children going to learn what they need to know?

A4: Holt quotes a parent: “‘…During his early years, my wife and I and a couple of friends taught him all he wanted to know, and if we didn’t know it, which usually was the case, it was even better for we all learned it together.  Example: at 7, he saw the periodic table of elements, wanted to learn atoms and chemistry and physics.  I had forgotten how to balance an equation, but went out and bought a college textbook on the subject, a history of discovery of the elements, and some model atoms, and in the next month we went off into a tangent of learning in which somehow we both learned college-level science.  He has never returned to the subject, but to this day retains every bit of it because it came at a moment in development and fantasy that was meaningful to him [Author’s emphasis]'”  (Holt and Farenga p.49).

Ben Hewitt also notes that homeschoolers graduate college at a higher rate than their peers (66.7% vs. 57.5%), and also earn higher GPAs along the way (citing the Homeschool Legal Defense Association’s 2009 Progress Report).

Q5: How will we prevent children from being taught by “unqualified” teachers?

A5: [This one is long, but important]:

We can sum up very quickly what people need to teach their own children.  First of all, they have to like them, to enjoy their company…  They have to enjoy all their talk and questions, and enjoy equally trying to answer those questions.  They have to think of their children as friends, indeed very close friends, have to feel happier when they are near and miss them when they are away.  They have to trust them as people, respect their fragile dignity, treat them with courtesy, take them seriously.  They have to feel in their own hearts some of the children’s wonder, curiosity, and excitement about the world.  And they have to have enough confidence in themselves, skepticism about experts, and willingness to be different from most people, to take on themselves the responsibility for their children’s learning.  But that is about all that parents need…these are not qualities that can be taught or learned in a school, or measured with a test, or certified with a piece of paper. (Holt and Farenga p.46).

So it seems to me that the common arguments to send a child to public school – or really, any school – aren’t that strong at all.  More than anything they seem to be a holding place for kids whose parents (like us) are at work.

john holt growing without schooling

Considering Holt’s view alongside other Constructivist approaches

This brings me to the Reggio Emilia approach to education, which is founded in constructivist theory.  (You might recall that I set up Carys’ playroom with the Reggio Emilia approach in mind; now I’m reading more about the theory behind it so we can use it more rigorously as Carys gets older).

Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio approach, said that:

What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught.  Rather, it is in large part due to the children’s own doing, as a consequence of their activities and their own resources. (Edwards, Gandini, and Forman, p.44)

I read The Hundred Languages of Children (from which this quote is drawn) before I read Holt, and when I went back to Hundred Languages I couldn’t help but be struck by the overlap between the two authors: both reject the behaviorist notion of learning (which is like the pouring of knowledge from the teacher’s pitcher into the child’s waiting and open cup) and instead embrace constructivism, where “children are constructing an understanding that they are building their own theories and constructing their own knowledge through interaction with a knowledgeable adult and other children” (Chaille p.5).

To be sure, in the town of Reggio Emilia this constructivism usually occurs in a preschool setting (Newsweek annointed the town’s Diana preschool the best in the world in 1991), not in homeschooling / unschooling, and as far as I know, not beyond preschool either.  But why couldn’t it?  Why not have the child create his own knowledge throughout his life?

Photos of Reggio classrooms typically show furniture in muted colors, art materials freely available, and the childrens’ creations on display (the “hundred languages of children” refers to the myriad of ways they express their knowledge).  Yet these principles are all secondary to the ovearching theory of teaching “big ideas” – an “idea that unifies, inspires, and resonates with children, an idea that is rich with possibilities and permits teachers and children to work together in many ways” (Chaille p.9).  Critically, these “big ideas” are child-selected and child-driven, although teachers may facilitate. So a constructivist approach isn’t about the clay pottery that many children make in a Reggio classroom, but about what the figures represent: maybe the children make pottery flowers because they are learning about how things grow; they’ve also planted seeds and drawn them at various stages of development, and studied how animals grow, and how pumpkins deteriorate after Halloween – they’ve learned about the cycle of life.  The beautiful pottery and artwork is a representation of their learning, not the endpoint in itself.  Ben Hewitt might reject the idea of a parent shaping the child’s knowledge by encouraging them to explore multiple ideas on a theme, but the Reggio approach sees this as a way to deepen understanding; to move beyond a series of observations about plants to a connected worldview.  I could very much imagine this kind of learning taking place in a homeschool environment.

ben hewitt unschooling

In Conclusion (For Now)

I want to bring this idea full circle by returning to Ben Hewitt, who says:

Every so often, I fall victim to the manufactured educational expectations of our culture, and I worry that my boys will remain forever out of step with twenty-first-century America.  Could Penny and I be condemning them to a life of toil and meager wages, bereft of the information they need to land the sort of job parents are supposed to want for their children?…Of course, I cannot know with any real certainty that I am not failing my children.  This is the cross all parents must bear: We cannot know…We cannot know what their future will be, if they will end up as bankers or boatbuilders, lawyers or linesmen, doctors or ditch-diggers.  We cannot know if they will be happy and contented, or bitter and maladjusted…If everything goes according to plan, we will die before their journey is anywhere near to being over and we will know even less.  One of the most important jobs I have as a parent – and perhaps simply as a human – is to learn how to peacefully coexist with this uncertainty. (Home Grown; I returned the book to the library and forgot to get the page number.)

We can never know that we made the right choice regarding our child’s education.  But we can consider the alternatives and make the choice we think is best, involving the child in the decision-making process when she is old enough.  And the husband, I suppose, who is currently in favor of public schools.  We have a bit of time to ponder our options, though…

What do you think about unschooling?  What arguments in favor of public schools have I failed to consider?  I’d be interested in your thoughts.


Benedikt, Allison (2013). If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are A Bad Person. article.  Available here.

Chaille, Christine (2008).  Constructivism across the Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms.  Pearson.  Available here.

Edwards, C., Gandini, L, and Forman, G. (Eds) (2012).  The Hundred Languages of Children. Praeger. Available here.

Hewitt, Ben (2014). Home Grown.  Roost Books.  Available here.

Hewitt, Ben (2014).  We Don’t Need No Education.  Outside Online article.  Available here.

Holt, J. and Farenga, P. (2003). Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling. Da Capo Press.  Available here.

Newsweek Staff (1991).  A School Must Rest On The Idea That All Children Are Different. Available here.

Niles, Robert (2011). Why I Send My Kids To Public School.  Huffington Post article.  Available here.

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