Monday, December 26, 2011

My 12 Most Favorite Ways Unschooling Rules

In his book Unschooling Rules, Clark Aldrich sets out to teach those who’ve been schooled, a thing or two about ed reform with insights and lessons from the world of homeschooling / unschooling.  Aldrich and I share this passion and knowledge that there are many lessons to be learned by studying those who have opted out of school and taken ownership of their learning and their life. We had the pleasure to speak together on the topic in this webcast. The book does an excellent job of sharing what really works for quality learning by identifying and framing 55 guidelines to successful learning that home/unschoolers have uncovered.  

Here are my 12 most favorite ideas from the book.

Rule 6 - Avoid the false dichotomy of the vocational OR academic track
Aldrich points out that the two-tiered approach of an academic and vocational path is an immoral sorting system with crippling consequences that presents a false dichotomy. Instead, true wisdom comes from a synthesis of these two perspectives and more. Unfortunately, in the culture of high-stakes testing, this lesson has been lost on politicians and publishing companies looking for huge boosts to their egos and financial gains. Additionally, the new Common Core Standards is seeping its way into schools with the intent to force everyone down the same narrow academic track.

Rule 9 - Sitting through a classroom lecture is not just unnatural for most people, it is painful
Students are psychologically ravished daily by this onslaught. As a result, sadly they are often mis-diagnosed and drugged to keep sitting still and compliant.

Rule 10 - Animals are better than books about animals
When I met Peter Kowalke who is a professional filmmaker and writer I was surprised that he didn't begin reading until he was 11. He explained for unschoolers reading at an early age isn’t a big deal like it is for school children. The reason is that unschooled children get to do things, while school children read about doing things. Once he started reading he was soon on his way to a professional career that harnessed writing and filmmaking, when he, not an outside force, decided he was ready.

Rule 16 - Embrace all technology
Of course, innovative educators will agree and love this rule, but not only because we love tech. The rule makes sense because school life is supposed to prepare kids for real life and in real life there is technology. It’s time to stop keeping students trapped as prisoners of their teacher’s past and start empowering them the freedom to learn with the tools they own and love.

Rule 18 - One computer + one spreadsheet software program = math curricula
Brilliant. As someone who was forced to suffer through years of math that I never learned and loves the opportunity to tell math teachers this in #mathchat on Twitter, I greatly appreciate this advice. In her homeschooling blog, Penelope Trunk shares her experience with math that mirrors the experience so many of us have had. She explains how she excelled in everything but math throughout school and snuck into remedial classes. Her teacher told her, “When you grow up, don’t go into business." Today she is the founder of three, successful startups and a career advisor who loves building financial models. How could that be? It is because she used the real world math tool of the 21st century.  She says this: “Excel is amazing. It taught me how to think algebraically. And as I got better at Excel, the formulas showed me how to think in terms of possibilities, and the columns and rows taught me how to look for patterns in business models to evaluate feasibility.

Rule 26 - Biologically, the necessary order of learning is explore, play, then add rigor
Aldrich provides a great example of learning that most people can relate to: Swimming. It follows the best and most natural way to learn. Unfortunately, more and more our schools are ignoring this and what’s worse, recess, where exploring and play are at the core, is on a fast-track to extinction.

Rule 29 - Homework helps school systems not students
The main reason I’m not flipping over the flipped classroom is because I don’t believe in homework. The amount of homework has increased dramatically in recent years. Children are left with less time to explore their own passions because they are forced to do work they often do not care about. The time when there is daylight after school that was once used for play, time with friends and family, downtime, and/or learning about different fields through part time jobs, is often taken up with homework today. We need to release children’s hold from the curriculum when they leave school and provide them with the necessary time they need to be with friends and family, explore passions, and play. I share how teachers can help with this in #5 of this post.  

Rule 31 - Avoid the Stockholm Syndrome
It is not unusual for parents to see the traditional public school in their neighborhood as their only choice. Most recently I experienced this as I was speaking to a man in the airport when our flight was delayed two hours. After discussing my work as an educator, he shared with me that his daughter has become extremely depressed due to school and the doctors now want to medicate her saying she is bi-polar. He shared how she is smart, gifted, and creative, and wanted to know how he could get her to be okay and just finish school.  When I explained to him there were options outside of school, he just couldn’t wrap his mind around it...even though school did not lead him to the career he has today. He kept bringing the conversation back to how to make her better with school rather than consider giving her the freedom to learn outside of school. This is not unusual. I have run up against this before when parents can clearly see school is hurting their children, but come up with a million excuses to defend the school rather than consider alternatives. This is reminiscent of the Stockholm Syndrome when victims, who are under total control of a few all-powerful people, develop sympathy toward their captors.  

Rule 42 - Grouping students by age is just a bad idea
Not only is there no research to suggest that grouping kids by date of manufacture is effective, what's worse is there is research showing the detrimental effects of doing so. When we force children to move like widgets through a narrow curriculum regardless of developmental readiness, we can permanently retard their growth. Expecting all students to have the same aptitude in every subject at the same time is unrealistic. The consequence is students unreasonably left behind, perhaps because of one subject or one test and teachers unjustly being rewarded or penalized for an unreasonable standard that even our secretary of education and president admit do a poor job of assessing children.  Additionally, school life should prepare students for real life. In real life we are not grouped and sorted by the year stamped on our birth certificate.  

Rule 45 - Tests don’t work. Get over it. Move on.
School should be preparing students for real life and in real life there are very few tests. I haven’t taken one in nearly 15 years and I don’t plan on taking any in my future. If we don’t have tests in real life, we don’t need tests in school. Unschooled kids are lucky. They make it all the way through childhood without tests and can still manage to get into college should they choose. There are many more effective alternatives to standardized tests as well as better ways to know if students have acquired knowledge.

Rule 46 - The future is portfolios, not transcripts
There are thousands of young people Occupying Wall Street and beyond with nice little transcripts that got them nowhere. In the 21st century the transcript is a dime a dozen, but it doesn’t tell a college admissions officer or employer all that much about you. An ePortfolio on the other hand not only provides insight into a candidate, it also makes them searchable, potentially leading to future success. Schools need to get their heads out of the past and start preparing students with what they’ll really need for success.  

Rule 53 - Parents care more than any institution about their children
Parents often tell me about the struggles their children are having in schools that are all too quick to label children so they can be prescribed drugs that will help them sit still and comply. Unfortunately, these medications can have life-long negative ramifications and in many cases, it is the school that should be fixed to adapt to the child, rather than the other way around. This was the impetus behind writing my Fix the School, Not the Child guide. Unfortunately many parents don’t believe they should have a say in their child’s education and parents that do, like Gretchen Herrera, often fall victim to a virulent meme that Aldrich identifies. “Parents get in the way and are incapable of making intelligent decisions for their children.  Aldrich points out that this is the defense mechanism of institutions that cannot change and is as corrosive as any other form of discrimination. The reality, as this mom’s story exemplifies, is that parents care the most for their children and should have the right to inform how their child is able to learn.

Those are my 12 most favorite unschooling rules, but the reality is, I didn’t read a single rule without nodding my head in agreement. Especially when I read the conclusion to Aldrich’s book in his last very important rule which is the key to transforming education. You’ll have to buy the book to read that one though ;)

If my 12 favorite rules have peaked your interest, you can click this link to get your very own copy of Unschooling Rules by Clark Aldrich.  


  1. Thank you for this. I have blogged about it and added some of my thoughts.