How to improve the public school experience from an unschooler's perspective

As an unschooling parent, I often struggle with the thoughts of what happens to all the other children that are still in the public school system. While we believe very strongly in the benefits of having our children at home and following an unschooling lifestyle, I know that it is simply not possible for everyone. What can be done to help those children?

How can we care so much about our children while knowingly walking away from the other kids that are stuck in what I feel is a completely inefficient model for gaining knowledge? We can’t completely ignore these challenges. While I am not there in the U.S. to personally advocate changes, I can offer up some tips to help bring some homeschooling philosophies of learning into the classroom.  It will require an open mind and a willingness to try something new, but I believe these ideas could revolutionize the way our public education system functions.

It will seem idealistic to some, but isn’t that what we need? Our children deserve new ideas to help guide them into the quickly changing future. Our school systems are deeply rooted in an archaic mindset and it is vital that we change that sooner rather than later.

I started to think of what an ideal school setting would look like to me, as an unschooler. If we look at the ways in which home educators teach, there are many components that can be introduced on a larger scale and used in schools now! In my opinion, these things could make our children successful on a whole new level. Happiness, confidence, and seeking out their own passions can take precedence even on a large scale.

The following ideas are how I think that can be achieved.

5 Ideas from Unschooling to Help Public Education:

Change the way we view educating children
“The secret of education is respecting the pupil.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

First and foremost, we need to begin by looking at all children as individuals and make sure that they know it is okay to be exactly who they are. Acceptance by others is one of the easiest ways we can instill a positive sense of self esteem.  One of our biggest problems with a mass education system is that children are judged on one path and one centrally-dictated curriculum. They are also constantly compared to peers and encouraged to do things no matter what their ideas of happiness or success are.

Throw away the list of arbitrary rules that make children feel mistrusted right out of the gate.  Children need to feel like they are being guided, not controlled. Allow them the freedom to make choices individually about what they would like to do for at least part of the day, and then respect and encourage those choices.  By showing children respect, we will gain it too -- as well as boosting their self esteem and allowing them to pursue subjects of their passion.  This can be done by simply allowing them choice and encouragement!  This concept is already proving successful by some Montessori schools.

So many children dislike school yet they spend a huge percentage of their lives within those walls.  By treating children as equals rather than subordinates that need to be controlled, it's my opinion that they will enjoy their childhood and find excitement in learning.


Most people learn best by doing! As soon as kids are 12 or so, I think it would be a great idea to offer different internships in the fields that cannot be covered in the classroom. Get children out in the community learning from everyone around them. Let children follow their passion and see how far they can take it.

Very little about being confined in school resembles the "real world". Why not get children out in it as soon as possible? Mechanics, plumbers, electricians, contractors, computer programmers, and even artists are all people that have a wealth of knowledge to offer, yet it seems as though what they do or what they have to offer counts for very little.

Many high schools in Northern Europe use apprenticeships as part of their standard curriculum.  Most students graduate and can go right into a career already trained.  While others may only need another year or two of university to build on their specialty.  The whole system is less costly and more effective to educating young people for what profession they desire.

Accept that learning takes place all the time and in many ways
“Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore, do not use compulsion, but let early education be rather a sort of amusement, this will better enable you to find out the natural bent of the child.” Plato

Whatever a child shows interest in is important, period.  Let their creativity shine through in what ever way speaks to them. Offer as many possibilities in a day as possible, but never force anyone to partake. No real passion is born out of coercion. Passion is something we should be building up in children, that is how we will end up with happy adults that follow their dreams. Show them the possibilities in the world, not just the path that most take.

The hardest part is for adults (especially teachers and parents) to let go of what we have been taught is important.  Useless facts, dates memorized, etc are all wonderful if pertinent to your life, but when it is not it very rarely stays with us anyhow.  We need to show our kids that what they love has value, whether that is playing video games, learning about animals, or reading Shakesphere.  It all holds value and they ARE learning all the time.

Disclaimer:  Even most unschoolers feel that reading and basic math are important, as they are the basic tools that help us learn on our own.  However, even these can be taught in creative ways that tickle the passions of the student.  For instance, math concepts can be taught playing card games or calculating outcomes of reward system, and reading can be taught using only material the student wants to learn about.

Open the system up for competition

Class size is perhaps the biggest challenge to implementing some of the other changes suggested here.  Of course, homeschoolers are usually in a one-on-one situation which is obviously not achievable in public education. However, nearly everyone in education would agree that smaller class sizes are more beneficial to the students.  The question becomes how best to achieve this goal?

For years the debate has been about money.  Special interests on all sides say more money is needed to achieve this goal.  Yet, America already spends far more per student than any other developed nation -- with rather unimpressive results I might add. The U.S. government currently spends over $10K per year to educate each student. Sure, more money might be helpful to achieve this goal if spent properly. However, trusting that will happen with all of the special interests and bureaucracies seeking their cut is highly unlikely.

In my opinion, the only way to reduce class sizes in public schools is to open them to competition.  In other words, open public funding to private schools to compete with public schools.  Drop the centrally-dictated curriculum or board-certified teachers requirements for these private schools to receive funds and let the free market determine who's most effective at educating our children.  Naturally, parents want the best for their children and will choose a school that gains a reputation for success, however it is defined by the parent.  Whether the school is geared toward apprenticeships, learning foreign languages, the arts, meditation, or sports shouldn't matter in regards to how funds are distributed.  Again, it's more about choice.

We don't need to look any farther than Canada to find an example of how this could work.  In Calgary, students can choose between public schools, Montessori, Catholic schools, and a host of other private schools.  Each of these schools receives funding per student as if they're a public school.  However, each is still strictly regulated by curriculum and teacher certifications.  I say shave those regulations back even further and let parents decide what's important in a school.

Utilize technology
“If the schooling system does not rapidly close the gap between what it does, and what it should do in response to the demands of the 21st century, it will simply become irrelevant.” David Hood

I know that many schools and individual teachers are starting to see the importance of this but I think it needs to be happening at an even faster pace. The world is so much different decade to decade, we need to help keep our children on track.  I would argue that teaching and utilizing technology effectively in education may be one of the most important things to helping prepare our children.

So many jobs that are now supporting families did not even exist five years ago.  Personally, our family's travel lifestyle is only possible because of the Internet and this technology.  Keeping that knowledge from children or making them feel that it is a less valuable way to spend their time seems completely outrageous to me.  They need to learn it, in order to be able to make educated choices about their own future.

Tablets like iPads are just the latest gadgets that parents are told can be damaging to our children, but I wholeheartedly disagree.  Young boys and girls need to know how to function on these tablets in order to open up all possibilities to them in the future.  It's far more beneficial than spending countless hours practicing penmanship which still goes on in schools.  Besides the operation knowledge of this technology, the educational applications are endless and the Kindle app holds thousands of backpacks worth of books.

Finally, with these handheld devices, students literally have access to all of the world's knowledge in the palm of their hand.  The ramifications of that ability on our current brick-and-mortar educational paradigm are almost too many to list.  I do not expect that my unschooled kids spend the entire day on the Internet, but allowing children to play games and learn in unconventional ways online will allow them to discover technology first hand and learn how to harness it.

5 things to take out of schools:

Separation of children by age

The practice of separating children by age only fosters the idea that we cannot work with others that are different.  This couldn't be farther from the truth.  Not only is working with different ages good for development but it also keeps in mind the highly variable rates at which young children develop. Not all five-year-olds are on the same level. Why not offer them the opportunity to learn from older children or to help younger ones?

Having a wide range of ages in a classroom will do a couple things. For starters, young children seem to benefit greatly by learning from older children, as they love to emulate older siblings and peers. Older children gain a confidence and pride in helping others and learn to be more tolerant and considerate of others when they are helping younger children.  It benefits everyone and can easily be arranged.

Mentorship programs are wonderful and they work well. But why not offer that same type of interaction in school?  Institute an age range of possibly 3-4 grade levels together at least for certain subjects and activities.  Play with it and see what best works for the students.  Montessori schools are already doing this and it works well to foster creativity and self-esteem.  Two things that seem to be falling by the wayside in our school system at the moment.

“When test scores go up, we should worry, because of how poor a measure they are of what matters, and what you typically sacrifice in a desperate effort to raise scores.” Alfie Kohn

Testing our children is sold to us under the auspices of accountability. How on earth will we know what our children know and if the teachers are doing their job without the tests, they tell us. Accountability should come from parents and children’s happiness. Not every one will be pleased, but if the overall sentiment is positive and the children enjoy their days, that should be enough.  Again, if parents had choices, they could simply choose a school that emphasizes testing or one that does not.

Universal testing of children is no longer an accurate measure of ability.  Book smarts and ability are not universal. Additionally, many teachers complain that they are losing any autonomy they once had in the classroom in an effort to teach to the tests.  The quality and flexibility of education drops as the focus is solely put on what the test makers think is important. Meanwhile, kids are having creativity and diversity sucked out of their lives.  Finally, every answer to the questions on these so-called tests could be found or calculated with a tablet in seconds.  So, really, what's the point?

Busy work

Busy work is a huge component to homework and the need for children to be in school so many hours a day. Relaxation or free time is not appreciated at all yet we all need it.  Playing games and interacting with parents and siblings is a far more useful way for children to spend their time.  If they are done with their work in the classroom, allow and encourage them to do what they want.  They will still be busy, but busy working on what has value to them.  Isn't that important enough?  Even forcing them into full-time extracurricular activities can be harmful.

In my opinion, homework should be done away with altogether (I can hear all the children cheering now).  When a second-grader is in school all day, five days a week, why on earth do they need to do more school work?  It's madness! Mindless worksheets just to have the appearance that they are always working or always learning.  I have news for you, they are always learning and usually most effectively through play.  Get rid of homework all together, and allow children time to be with friends and family, play, and view the world on their own terms.

Long hours away from home
“We ask children to do for most of the day what few adults are able to do for even an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.” John Holt

Simply put, our children are overworked and separated for far too many hours from their family. Family ties are extremely important for child development, especially when children are young. Interaction with their siblings, parents, extended family and pets is vital to their formation of identity.  At this point, we see our children for a very limited time during the day, and that time gets quickly eaten up with duties like extracurricular activities, homework, baths, dinner, and sleep.

Cut back the hours that they are in the classroom spent on traditional means of educating.  If we have smaller class sizes, 4 hours a day should be plenty to gain what currently is achieved in 7 or so hours.  If parents struggle with work commitments, then use that other time to allow children creative outlets to explore their world.  Plant gardens, allow computer time, set up apprenticeships for older children, etc.  Let children decide what they want to do and get them involved in it.

Institutional feel of classrooms
“If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you would probably design something like a classroom.” John Medina

Schools and classrooms are overly institutional feeling, which is cold and unhealthy.  The oppressive rules are increasingly prison-like. This stifles creativity and curiosity and makes our children accept the life of living in a box.  I know building all new schools is not possible, but bringing the outdoors inside, allowing classroom time to be outdoors, colorfully painting and encouraging ideas from children are all things that can be done to help this.

When a new school is being built consider what would foster your own creativity, what would help allow you to see the world and all it's possibilities.  Isn't that the best we can give to our children?

The bottom line is that no matter what you think of homeschooling or unschooling, the public education system needs a massive paradigm shift. How can it hurt to incorporate new ideas into the classroom? I know many of you reading will probably question how to fund these changes.  But again I would argue that it may not be about increasing funding but rather a simple change in how and what we are funding.

"You may say I am a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."  -- John Lennon.  I know there are more people out there that see the pitfalls in the way our children are being educated. Let’s stand up together and make a change!

This article was originally written by us for Family on Bikes website !

If you enjoy this article please share with others!

Sharing is Caring

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. Brilliant ideas, Mary! Imagine the possibilities if these changes were implemented -- the benefits to this type of mindset for education are not just academic.

  2. Had to tweet this! THANK you

  3. I have been banging this drum for awhile; I left tecahing in public school two years ago and started my own school from my home, and my only regret is that I didn't do it sooner.

    The problem with your suggested changes is that many of them are changes of mind, much harder than changing action. Eliminating testing would go a long way quickly, but until we can truly change the way we think about all students in all schools, along with what we value in education, truly, no change will be lasting or effective.

  4. I absolutely agree with you. I wrote a previous article about the change in mindset that needs to go on. I think the way we view children in general needs the most changing. I guess only time will tell!

  5. Progressive Public School EducatorMay 6, 2012 at 5:14 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you say about testing and the (lack of) value of homework. I also believe that we need to find a way to honor the individual child and let him or her pursue his or her interests and dreams.

    However, I find your ideas about competition and the free market to be very damaging. First of all, are you prepared to give equal per-pupil funding to schools that do not teach evolution or other basic science? What about schools that teach children racist or homophobic values? In some areas, these schools might pull the majority of students.

    Additionally, a free market philosophy will hurt lower class children. You say, "Naturally, parents want the best for their children and will choose a school that gains a reputation for success." However, reality is that many parents work long hours and have several children; these families need a school that is within walking distance. Simply put, families with more resources will have more options, and their children will get a better education. Meanwhile, while the schools with good reputations pull students away from local schools, these neighborhood schools will lose both their most educationally committed families and their funding, which will hurt the remaining students.

  6. Progressive:

    I agree that there are serious challenges with opening up public funds to private organizations. Damaging, may be a bit strong though.

    I suppose I'm confident that by allowing a "free market" of ideas, science and tolerance will likely win out as it already has in the great majority of society.

    I don't agree with creationism or bigots, but their ideas certainly don't threaten me. But I do understand the hesitation to allow public funding for schools that would potentially not teach evolution as the leading theory.

    And I also agree that families with more resources have more options. I'm not sure society could ever get around that. But I'm also not sure why giving poor kids more options would be a bad thing?