Record: Kellie Rolstad and Kathleen Kesson, “Unschooling, Then and Now” Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, 7, No. 14 (2013): 29-67. [Full Article]

Summary: Kathleen Kesson was an unschooling pioneer during the early 1980s, and she is also Professor of Teaching, Learning and Leadership in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Leadership at LIU Brooklyn. A generation later, in a world transformed by the internet, Kellie Rolstad, Associate Professor of Education at the University of Maryland, began unschooling her three children in the early 21st century. Using a narrative research approach, Rolstad and Kesson reflect on their own roles as parents, educators, and scholars to discuss how unschooling has changed over time.

Unschooling rejects the paradigm of accountability and standardization that is promoted in many traditional schools and even some homeschooling environments. Although unschooling still lies on the fringe of social acceptability, it has existed since the 1970s when John Holt argued that any direction by others (parents or teachers) interferes with a child’s natural learning process.

Unschooling is a difficult phenomenon for educational researchers to study because unschoolers, to an even greater extent than homeschoolers, are wary of volunteering information about their educational practices. Furthermore, scholars of education are unaccustomed to studying an “educational” movement where learning is seen as something natural instead of a process that requires adult intervention. In order to study unschooling, interested scholars must first learn to recognize authentic, situated learning.

Kathleen Kesson worked with alternative education programs in the 1970s that emerged from the the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. Following the birth of her four sons, Kesson found that homeschooling was a logical extension of her beliefs regarding the reformation of traditional institutions. Although she was unaware of the term “unschooling” at the time, she has recognized in hindsight that their practices were more aligned to the unschooling end of the spectrum.

Throughout the article, Kesson describes many episodes of naturalistic learning that she observed in her children. The most detailed anecdote involves her six-year-old son who became heavily involved with drawing maps. Through his map-making, Kesson observed that he acquired knowledge of advanced geographical concepts (i.e. area, perimeter, population, borders, the equator, continents, hemispheres, latitude, longitude, etc.). Furthermore, he also taught himself to calculate sums, compare values using all four of the mathematical operations into the millions place, and learn alphabetical order.

Kellie Rolstad began unschooling her children 20 years later in a world dramatically changed by the internet. After pulling her children out of school, Rolstad was able to easily locate homeschooling groups in her area through the internet. However, through these groups, Rolstad discovered unschooling and people in her area who practiced it. With these families, Rolstad and her children met weekly for child-directed play-groups, field trips, and activities. For example, due to their interest in weapons, some of the teenagers learned to forge their own swords as apprentice blacksmiths.

Continuing the theme of technology in unschooling, Rolstad discusses the learning gains that her children made through playing video games like World of Warcraft. Contrary to fears that children spend too much time playing virtual games, Rolstad has observed extremely positive effects of unlimited video-gaming, even though she and her husband were initially concerned about possible ill effects. Ultimately they decided that they should give video games a chance due to the fact that several generations ago, many of the criticisms thrown at video games were also thrown at reading (i.e. that it promotes anti-social tendencies and obesity). Beyond video games, Rolstad’s children also found how-to videos on YouTube and Khan Academy to be great resources for their learning. Below you will find a quote of Rolstad explaining one learning experience that arose from the playing of video games:

When he was 10, Skye was playing Age of Empires, sitting at a computer desk in the kitchen. He paused a moment and turned to me, asking slowly and thoughtfully, “Did Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, and William Wallace live at about the same time?” “I don’t know,” I replied […] With no further word from me, Skye proceeded to Wikipedia, where he spent the next several hours reading and comparing the history, geography, and politics of Mongolia, France and Scotland. He then engaged an unschooling friend in a long discussion of the topic, which ended when they decided to watch a video portraying a fictionalized account of Joan of Arc, all the while commenting where they thought the fiction departed from reality, or was not substantiated by documentation. It is difficult to imagine 10-year-old Skye engaging in such an extensive study of history, geography and politics as the result of some school assignment directing him to do so. All he did was play a videogame where these topics caught his interest (pp. 56-7).

In summary it was recognized in both families that children can and should be trusted to (1) know their interests, (2) develop the skills they need to pursue their interests, and (3) ask for the help they need from adults, more knowledgeable peers, or family members. Furthermore, both families acknowledged that play, whether in-person or virtually, provides opportunities for the development of emotional well-being, social cohesion, societal problem-solving and the sort of creative innovations that are needed to solve our current and future global challenges.

Appraisal: The case studies of unschooling that are provided in this article are truly compelling. Through the least likely of activities (i.e. World of Warcraft), the children of these mothers were still able to demonstrate learning. It’s always nice when the authors are able to tell their own stories, as is the case here. Overall this is a piece that probably doesn’t do much to change a researchers’ understanding of unschooling; however, for a parent who is interested in unschooling, I think that this article would be great for understanding more about the movement.

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