Can Learn - or Not
Daniel Scarpinato, Arizona Daily Star, November 11, 2005
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schoolchildren are sitting down for their morning classes,
Taylor Gavin is just rolling out of bed. "Sometimes I get up at
8, sometimes not until 9 or 10. It just depends," the talkative
Each day is different for Taylor and his 10-year-old sister,
Karina. Activities range from video games at their East Side
home to dance lessons to museum and national park visits.
The Gavins are "unschoolers," a small branch of home-schoolers
with parents who reject the structured and authoritative nature
of today's education system. Some call it "discovery learning"
because of its laissez faire attitude.
Unschoolers defy the trendiest new styles of learning. Their
methodology - or lack thereof - is a slap in the face of school
accountability measures. In a post-No Child Left Behind Act
world, federal education spending is up, standardized testing is
a required part of the classroom and the word "rigor" is
experiencing a renaissance in education circles.
Unschoolers don't take tests and don't typically have homework.
There are no single-file lines of boys and girls, no cafeteria
lunches or crashing lockers. But it's the lack of any kind of
concrete lesson plan that makes unschooling far different from
normal home schooling.
Unschoolers learn what they want, when they want, how they want.
And that could mean learning nothing at all.
It's a concept that's totally legal in Arizona, though it's not
without critics. Some say unschooling is irresponsible and
question whether it allows for healthy child development.
But advocates maintain that the usual ways of learning aren't
the only way of learning. Socialization doesn't have to happen
in classrooms. And letting kids chart their own course, they
say, will give them more choices and provide more of a
"I think when kids have the idea that their learning is up to
them, they'll do interesting things with their time," said
Tucsonan Debbie Gubernick, who has four children who have been
unschooled, including a son who's now a junior at the University
"Most kids are waiting for life to start happening."
General home schooling surged in the past five years, according
to the National Center for Education Statistics, increasing
nearly 30 percent from 1999 to 2003. That's about 2.2 percent of
U.S. school-age children.
Unschooling has remained a small but steady part of it.
Estimates of the number of unschoolers in Southern Arizona vary
and could be as high as 50 families, though no organized
unschoolers group exists in the Tucson area. Unschoolers make up
about 10 percent of the entire home-school population, said
Patrick Farenga, president of Holt Associates, a consulting
company founded by John Holt, the author who coined the term "unschoolers."
The term and original movement came about in the late 1970s with
the book "Instead of Education." Holt adopted the name "unschooling"
from the popular 7-Up "Uncola" advertising campaign of the time.
"The beauty of unschooling is you're learning in real life,"
Farenga said. "Unschoolers have a very strong sense of how the
world works because they've lived in it."
Many other home-schoolers stay away from public schools because
of religious values or because they don't feel school curriculum
is competitive. But unschoolers rarely incorporate religion and
generally oppose barriers that stand in the way of kids enjoying
For example, what if a child wants to spend the day watching
soap operas? That's fine under certain circumstances, parent
"I think it's important for teenagers to do absolutely nothing
And it's still possible for unschoolers - or any other
homeschooler - to attend college, since an SAT score - not a
high school diploma - is enough to get into many universities.
Home-schoolers, such as Karyn Parisi, co-president of Tucson's
Southeast Side chapter of Christian Home Educators, are quick to
distance themselves from unschoolers.
"Our philosophy is totally different," Parisi said. "We're not
rebelling against education. We just want to have more control
and more say over what our children learn, which often times is
tougher than what you would find in public schools."
John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, a
teacher lobbying group, also is skeptical.
"Parents have the right to make decisions that are right for
their children. In a home-school environment, it's up to them to
set the structure," he said. "If unschooling is where the
child's will is the child's way, there will be some hard lessons
when they grow up."
And while Wright doesn't doubt that parents can provide
socialization at home, he said it might be harder to accomplish
in a home environment, especially without a structured
Still, unschooling is perfectly legal in Arizona, says Kim
Fields, program coordinator for the Pima County School
Superintendent's office. Home-schoolers need to file an
affidavit with the county to remove children from school, she
said. The same process applies to unschoolers.
The affidavit requires they be taught reading, grammar, math and
social studies, but there's "no rule they have to be taught a
certain way," she said.
Arizona's home-schooling laws are among the most liberal in the
nation, Fields said. Parents aren't required to provide any
proof their kids are learning. There are a bit more than 3,000
home-schooling affidavits in Pima County, Fields said.
Taylor's and Karina's mother, Eileen Gavin, became interested in
unschooling when she first had her children. She tried out a
private school for a few months, then decided to give
unschooling a shot. She admits she isn't an absolutist, and she
sometimes steers her kids toward certain subjects.
She isn't sure yet if her children's interest in self-discovery
will carry into the teen years. But, for now, Taylor and Karina
seem to be doing just fine.
There are no signs these children have problems socializing or
are behind the curve. They have lots of friends in their
neighborhood, answer questions about their daily lives with
excitement and show almost no signs of insecurities.
And just what do they do all day? There's a lot of reading.
Taylor learned the countries of the world by setting up Pokemon
characters on a map. And Karina worked on math by figuring out
how she'd spend the $340 million Powerball jackpot.
"I like it much better than when I was in school," Taylor said.
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