School's never out for 14-year-old Zoe Bentley. Nor is it ever in.
The perky teen from Tucson, Ariz., explores what she likes, when she likes as deeply as she chooses every day of the year. As an "unschooler," Zoe is untethered from the demands of traditional, compulsory education.
That means, at the moment, she's checking out the redwoods of California with her family, tinkering with her website and looking forward to making her next video on her favorite subject, exogeology, the study of geology on other planets.
"I love seeing the history of an area," Zoe said. "Maybe a volcano erupted and grew taller over time, or wind eroded rock into sand dunes, or a meteor hit the ground and made a crater. Finding out how these and other formations formed is something I just really like."
Zoe's cheer: "Exogeology rocks!"
Unschooling has been around for several decades, but advocates say there has been an uptick as more families turn to home-schooling overall.
Reliable data is hard to come by, but estimates of children and teens home-schooled in the U.S. range from 1.5 million to 2 million. Of those, as many as one-third could be considered unschoolers like Zoe, meaning their parents are "facilitators," available with materials and other resources, rather than topdown "teachers."
There's no fixed curriculum, course schedule or attempt to mimic traditional classrooms. Unless, of course, their children ask for those things.
Zoe, for instance, wanted to know more about geology once she turned 12, so she signed up for a class at Pima Community College. "I had to take a placement test, which was the first test I'd ever taken," she said. "It was surprisingly easy."
She has since taken several other college classes, including astrobiology, algebra and chemistry. Maybe, Zoe said, "I'll earn a degree, but the important thing to me is to learn what I need to and want to know. Everything else is a bonus."
John Holt, considered the father of "unschooling," would have been proud. The fifth-grade teacher died in 1985, leaving behind books and other reflections that include his 1964 work "How Children Fail."
The book and others Holt later wrote propelled him into the spotlight as he argued that mainstream schools stymie the learning process by fostering fear and forcing children to study things they have no interest in.
Colorado unschool mom Carol Brown couldn't agree more.
"Being bored makes school miserable for a lot of kids, plus there is the element of compulsion, which completely changes any activity," the filmmaker said.
Brown and her husband unschooled their oldest daughter until she left for college and their youngest until her junior year in high school, when she chose to attend Telluride Mountain School, a small, progressive school near home.
"Unschooling parents are doing what good parents do anyway when they're on summer vacation," Brown said. "We just had more time to do it."
Like other unschoolers, Brown's girls had books and films, art supplies and building materials growing up. They visited beaches, museums and forests. "There's no one right way for every child to learn or grow up," Brown said. "Freedom is essential for that reason."
For Clark Aldrich's 16-year-old son in Connecticut, that meant raising hens for his own business selling eggs. "It's a good way to learn about animals, commerce and economics as well as inventory," Aldrich said.
Pat Farenga of Medford, Mass., unschooled his three daughters with his wife but said: "I don't see unschooling or homeschooling as the answer for everybody. It's the answer for those who choose it."
Farenga, who worked with Holt, said Holt coined the term "unschooling" in 1977 but was never terribly fond of it. It stuck for lack of a better description. He considers unschooling a subset of home-schooling, while some unschoolers see themselves more akin to democratic free schools, a century-old movement based on a philosophy of self-directed learning and equality in decision-making.
As an educator, Holt's journey began with his career in posh private schools, then more progressive ones.
"He called progressive schools soft jails and public schools hard jails," Farenga said. "He described learning that takes place outside of school, but doesn't have to take place at home and doesn't have to look like school learning."
Rare, unschoolers said, are children who never find reasons to pick up the basics — and beyond. That could mean reading later than many parents might be comfortable with, or ignoring math until they see a reason on their own to use it.
Unschoolers operate under state laws governing home-schooling, which is legal in all 50 states. Such regulations vary tremendously by state, with some requiring standardized tests or adherence to a set curriculum and others nothing more than a letter from parents describing what their kids are up to. Unschoolers said they have no trouble meeting their states' requirements.
In Alaska, for example, home-schooling parents don't have to notify officials, file any forms or have their children tested.
In Sugar Land, Texas, Elon Bomani's 11-year-old son has never been to school and doesn't know how to write cursive. She doesn't care. When he was younger and had no interest in learning how to read, she found a video on the subject and put it on for him to discover — or ignore as he wished. He's a reader today. Her younger son, who's 6, learned to read when he discovered Garfield comic books.
"If children find something that they love, they'll read," Bomani said.
Ken Danford, a former middle school history teacher, has two kids who love their schools, but he doesn't think classroom learning works for all. That's why he co-founded and runs North Star, a program that offers an array of self-directed activities and welcomes teen unschoolers in Hadley, Mass.
Danford considers himself a Holt groupie, based largely on his experience as a dad and an eighth-grade teacher for five years.
"Coming to my class juiced to learn U.S. history was not that common," he said. "Kids wanted to know, was it going to be on the test, can we go outside, can we go to the bathroom?"
For parents interested in unschooling who don't want to quit their outside-the-home jobs, "we try to make it available, realistic, manageable for any regular kid," Danford said.
Unschoolers have their own publications, message boards and websites, like Theunschoolersemporium.com. The site's owner, mom Sara McGrath near Seattle, blogs regularly about unschooling.
McGrath, who has three daughters, notes the approach is more than hands-on, child-directed, experience-based learning.
"It doesn't describe a specific alternative to schooling. It just gets schooling out of the way so various unique dynamic personal creative ways of growing up, living, participating and contributing to communities can develop," she writes.
To McGrath, unschooling means looking at life "as a creative adventure," a cooperative lifestyle involving the entire family.
Kellie Rolstad is an associate professor of education and applied linguistics at Arizona State University in Tempe. She teaches a graduate seminar on unschooling and free schools each spring. She also unschools her three children, ages 11, 13 and 14.
"School was really wasting our time," she said. "The kids had so many things they wanted to do and places they wanted to go and things they wanted to talk about, and all we could do was mindless homework. It was very frustrating."
How does she know if her kids are learning anything at all? "You just do," she said, as parents know how things are going when their kids are babies or toddlers.
Rolstad's oldest, Xander MacSwan, completed fifth grade in public school before moving on to unschooling.5 comments on this story
"I felt like school kind of pushed things on you," he said. "In school, learning was just a boring event where you did a lot of math questions. Now I'm into music and science and all kinds of things."
Xander is building computers with his friends. He and some buddies spent a couple of months with a blacksmith to learn how to forge their own swords. He took a class on the history of rock 'n' roll at a college and plays guitar, piano, bass, violin and ukulele. He had to give up the saxophone when he got his braces.
Had he stayed in school, he said, his goal of pursuing music as a career wouldn't feel quite so real: "With unschooling you can do things how you want to."