You May Now Ask Questions: Vermont Father Explains 'Unschooling'

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Hewitt's sons have never been to school. (Courtesy Shambhala Publications)
Hewitt's sons have never been to school. (Courtesy Shambhala Publications)

The average day for two school-age boys in Cabot, Vermont, doesn't actually begin with school.

Instead, Fin and Rye — who are 12 and 9 years old, respectively — work on homemade bows, build shelters in the woods, weave basket, tap maple trees for syrup or — if the weather is particularly nasty — sit down with a good book.

That's because Fin and Rye's parents are "unschooling" their children.

It's a form of home schooling, but there's no curriculum, no tests and vry minimal desk work. In the words of their father, Ben Hewitt, the boys "learn by living."

This conversation originally aired on November 18, 2014. 


Ben Hewitt, author of "Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling and Reconnecting with the Natural World."

Vermont Father Explains 'Unschooling'

What is "unschooling"?
Ben Hewitt:
“A term...I’m increasingly favoring is immersion learning. Because really, that’s the point of what we’re trying to do, is immersing our children in their environment. And so, through the course of that immersion, that’s how their learning happens on a day-in, day-out basis.”

What is a typical day like for "unschooled" kids?
"This time of year, every day starts with chores. After chores, we will have breakfast as a family, and then...with the weather starting to become a little less cooperative, the boys will often spend as much as a couple to a few hours reading. Then we will have lunch. Usually in the afternoon there is some project...They have a part-time job working on a local dairy farm. So, often in the evening they will go down and do evening chores. Family dinner. Family read time, and then bed...We work really hard...This is not about...shoving our kids out the door or giving our kids total autonomy over their days, or letting them do whatever they want whenever they want...The kids have many more responsibilities than a lot of contemporary schooled children in regards to their duties around home and farm.”

What is it like for parents to be full-time teachers?
"I haven’t always felt as confident as I do now...I do feel extremely confident not only that a.) we are doing the right thing by our children but that b.) we are providing them with the tools they’re going to need no matter which path they choose in life, be that a traditional career or a more, sort of, land-based existence that we have chosen...I think one of the reasons that we, culturally speaking, lack that sort of confidence, is that most of us, as adults, were sort of placed into a compulsory educational environment. So, the only thing that we can imagine, ourselves, is that a child’s education must sort of be this hierarchical thing that is sort of taught to them. It’s very difficult for us to get out of that frame of mind where we can actually imagine that, 'Hey, you know what? Children learn. And in some ways the best way to stop them from learning is to force them to learn.'"

What about standard-schooled kids?
"I do believe that, for a high percentage of school-going children, I think they experience the same sense that I felt, of sort of, my time not belonging to me. Of being, sort of, force-fed. Being told what I must learn, how I must learn it and when I must learn it. And feeling incredibly powerless as a result...Some kids can actually survive and thrive in that sort of environment, but I’ve talked to a lot of adults and I would say a majority of adults that I've spoken with do not recall their school-going days favorably."

What if your child wants to go to standard school?
“My kids could go to school if they really wanted to...And I think this is sometimes another mis-perception, that we’re sort of living this isolationist life where our kids are under lock and key. They have no interest. They have absolutely no interest. Part of the reason they have no interest is that my wife and I go to tremendous effort to facilitate opportunities for them that, you know, actually makes school, for them, pale in comparison...When I talk about 'unschooling,' or immersion learning, or whatever you want to call it, I’m talking about our version of it...One of the things that I think is so great about this model of education is that it can be a million different things to a million different families. So, I’m talking about the antithesis of a standardized, compulsory education that is really one thing to a million different families.”

Are you concerned about opportunities children might miss in standard school?
"Of course that’s the case...just as those children who are in school are not being exposed to certain opportunities that my children have. Every parent anywhere in the world can never expose their children to every opportunity the world has to offer."

Do children learn a diversity of subjects when they are “unschooled”?
“One of the very reasons we actually chose this sort of education is that we actually believe that it exposes our children to a much broader range of subject matter. And more importantly, it does it in a way that feels very tangible to them...In the real world, subjects are not divided into...segregated 40 minute blocks where the bell rings and you run from math to English to science...I struggle to talk about my children’s learning in the context of subjects because it just doesn’t look like that, and yet those subjects are in their lives, every moment of their lives.”

Can “unschooled” children go on to college?
“I actually interviewed a fairly broad array of adults who had been unschooled...I actually struggled to find one who hadn’t gone on to college. I think I interviewed 14 in total, and of those 14, 13 had gone on to higher education...Every one of them felt also that [unschooling] had given them an advantage as they chose to pursue higher education because at that point in their life they had found a self-directed path. They knew what they wanted, they knew what they were going to college or university to get and they were prepared to work really hard to get it.”


WBUR: These Kids Grew Up With The Woods As Their Only Classroom

  • "I have to say I actually recently have been veering away from the term unschooling. I prefer 'self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning.' Unfortunately that doesn't exactly fall out of the mouth."

Outside Magazine: We Don't Need No Education

  • "At least not of the traditional, compulsory, watch-the-clock-until-the-bell-rings kind. As a growing movement of unschoolers believe, a steady diet of standardized testing and indoor inactivity is choking the creativity right out of our kids. The alternative: set 'em free."

This segment aired on September 7, 2015.


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