Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Breaking News: Unschoolers Not as Good at School as Schooled People

Seems there was a study that came out a few weeks ago, which came to the conclusion that unschooling does not "work" as well as either schooling or structured homeschooling.

I realize I'm a little late on addressing this one, considering it's a study that was published in early September, so has already been blogged about pretty extensively, but with how little time I've spent at home (or at the very least in my home city--my family is currently staying in an apartment while some major repairs/renovations are going on at our house) in the last month (I've been in Ontario, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine) this is the first time I've been able to get around to it!

I'd suggest reading the whole press release, though I find these parts especially relevant:
"The investigation compared 74 children living in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: 37 who were homeschooled versus 37 who attended public schools. Participants were between 5 and 10 years old and each child was asked to complete standardized tests, under supervision of the research team, to assess their reading, writing, arithmetic skills, etc."

"The study included a subgroup of 12 homeschooled children taught in an unstructured manner. Otherwise known as unschooling, such education is free of teachers, textbooks and formal assessment.
'Compared with structured homeschooled group, children in the unstructured group had lower scores on all seven academic measures,' says Martin-Chang. 'Differences between the two groups were pronounced, ranging from one to four grade levels in certain tests.'
Children taught in a structured home environment scored significantly higher than children receiving unstructured homeschooling. 'While children in public school also had a higher average grade level in all seven tests compared with unstructured homeschoolers,' says Martin-Chang." 
Upon reading that, a couple of things immediately come to mind:
  1. The method of judging "success" that was chosen was standardized tests.  Schooled kids and schooled-at-home kids practice tests all the time.  They get good at taking tests, because they take tests.  Young, unschooled children who are not used to tests obviously will not be as good at taking tests, regardless of how much knowledge they have in the areas they're being tested on.  Unschoolers don't generally aim to be "successful" by being good at tests: they aim to be successful by being good at living life!
  2. Unschoolers learn on their own timeline.  The children in this study were between 5 and 10, and were being tested on the things the educational system has decided should be known at age 5 or age 7.  I couldn't even read until age 8 or 9, so if I had been tested at age 7 or 8, I would have been way below "grade level." However, that doesn't seem to have harmed my ability to read now...  I don't really agree with using standardized testing as a way to judge achievement and success at all, but even just going with those by-grade-level tests as a way to meassure such things, I feel that were the study to instead look at teenagers, say, between 14 and 18, the results likely would have been quite different...
  3. The definition of unschooling that was used seems less than accurate.  No teachers or textbooks?  As I've said before, unschooling doesn't have to mean unstructured.  It just means that unschoolers have the freedom to choose more or less structure.  So if (rather unsurprisingly) the authors of the study--the ones separating the children involved into different categories--don't even know what unschooling is, it doesn't seem that that separation will be very accurate. 
I also take issue with the fact that one of the professors overseeing the study notes that this is one of the first "nonpartisan" studies to compare school, homeschooling, and unschooling, when as Wendy Priesnitz points out, an academic institution, using the tools and criteria of an academic institution, is reviewing academic institutions (like schools), it's hardly nonpartisan.

Of course, the author of the study also had to throw in a little comment about how structured homeschooling may provide academic success, but that school is an important place for socialization.  I don't think I even need to add any comments to that one.

This study joins the many other studies showing that homeschoolers do better on standardized tests than do schooled kids, which isn't really surprising.  And I don't personally feel that yet another study saying so adds anything to the home education movement as a whole.  We already know that, and personally, I'm just tired of standardized tests being held up as the one and only sign of success for children and teens.  Instead, I worry that, as flawed as the methods in this study are, it will add fuel to the fire of disapproval directed at unschoolers, both from society at large and from within the home education community.

And all of this just brings me back to a question that seems to keep coming up in my life lately: what, exactly, constitutes success?  If you're using test scores as your criteria, then those 12 young unschoolers who participated in the study are failures.  But if your criteria are different, if instead you're looking--actually looking, not just marking tests and studying at a distance--for things like passion, joy, involvement, curiosity, excitement, learning, then I'm quite sure your results are going to look very different.

And really, which one would you prefer?


  1. I love the title and this post! When I first read that article the first thing that went through my mind was that school kids and school at home homeschoolers focus is on doing well on tests I would sure hope they would do better then those who don't focus on them at all..

  2. One of the test questions was completing nursery rhymes. Um, well gee my children do not learn those because they have no interest or need to know those but that was one of the basis of being a well educated child. No thanks.

    BTW we are in Nova Scotia and unschool

  3. Excellent analysis of the flaws, Idzie. I think from looking at your blog you are good at seeing flaws - oh my gosh, could it be critical thinking? I wish researchers could measure true critical thinking skills and the true measures of what makes a life successful and worthwhile.

  4. Awesome post. What a silly study. One of the "problems" with unschooling (for those who don't do it) is that it's nearly impossible to measure results. As the parent of two young children who have never been to school, I don't need to measure results. I live them every day. I see my children learning and loving life. What could be better than that?

    I'm surprised the "unschooling" families agreed to be in this study. It seems pretty obvious how it would turn out.

  5. Very well written. We are "unschooling" our 10 1/2 month old boy; we love every day of it. Success to us is that he is happy, healthy and safe-even if by some odd chance he is never able to learn to read and write. I trust he will be able to, but even if he is not, and spends the rest of his life at home with us, we will be happy as long as he is following his dreams and delving into the things he is passionate about. It makes me sad that there are more parents out there that DON'T want that as the favourable option for their children.

  6. Well, for me, being successful has two sides, one of which you did noticed when mentioning attributes such as: happy, curious, passionate, involved.

    The other side of success is the ability of being independent. Not so much academically (since I pretty much expect all unschoolers to become independent lifelong learners), but rather financially. That is, someone capable to sustain him/herself (and the rest of the family, if one is started) into a lifestyle that fits his/her personality and level of comfort.

    IMHO, "making money" is the point where the idealism of the growing years meets the realism of the adult world. At such a point most people are usually compromising, giving away something they wish (e.g. travel, sport, time for their own thinking) in exchange for something they need (money, which are then used to "buy back" some of the items on the wish list). A compromise that is not always easy to make.

    Therefore, I regard a successful person as someone who is capable of earning enough money to sustain his/her lifestyle while still keeping him/herself happy, curious and involved in the world around.

  7. I just want to start with saying that I love your blog and have already bookmarked it. With that said, as someone who has been formally schooled all of my life and therefore experienced at standardized tests, I definitely agree with your assessment of the aforementioned study. Children who have been taught how to test for most of their life will obviously do better than children who have never even tested before because testing is a game with it's own rules and those rules must be taught - people don't wake up just "knowing" how to test. Furthermore, it's just sad how we, as a society, have become so reliant on standardized testing that doing well on them has become important for it's own sake and there are now students, parents, teachers, and administrators who measure other's worth and effectiveness based on some numbers.

  8. I have 4 children, and while all of them attended schools, I am not a fan of testing. My children are all individuals and learn differently. One is a musician, singer and songwriter, the other a nurse, and one a young married marketing professional who just received her MBA. All went to college. The youngest is actually not doing well in school though she is a talented visual artist and budding musician, an indigo child, if you will. I still want her to attend some sort of secondary education program because I feel that it is vital to her success as an adult. My parents did not feel that an education was necessary for a girl, and I had to fight like hell to obtain a high school diploma and attended college classes with a baby strapped to my chest. I'll be dambed if I'll let anything get in the way of my daughters obtaining a good education, and I worked long hours to pay for their tuition. Proof in the pudding will be if these home schooled kids grow up and can support themselves and their families adequately and I don't mean depending on some man (or woman) for food and shelter. That also doesn't mean depending on some social services agency for anything like food, cash or medical assistance because we all know that that aid can be wiped out by and "sequester" or other stupid program that an administration makes up.

  9. My family would like to thank you HEAPS for inspiring us to embrace unschooling. It was my 18 year who first discovered your blog and it strengthened her decision to to have a gap year and become successful "living her life to the fullest". Do continue to inspire the young and free spirited minds.