No Books, No Classes, No Problem: These Students Teach Themselves

This independent study program is drawing lessons from the ‘unschooling’ movement of the 1970s.

(Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Jul 18, 2014· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

To most parents, it sounds like a scene from a John Hughes movie or maybe The Simpsons: Students take over a school, dismiss the teacher, and promptly eliminate tests, quizzes, and rote instruction. They then decide what courses to study—or not—and teach and learn from one another.

They include play as a part of the new curriculum.

What some might consider an education apocalypse is the reality in one Massachusetts high school. It’s also the driving concept behind a movement of parents and educators who have rejected the conventional apple-for-the-teacher model of education and embraced “unschooling” as the ideal way for children to learn.

“The commonsense orientation is, [children must] get a broad education in a broad range of things. They have to constantly be watched so [they] don’t get too selfish, don’t get too lost,” says Daniel Mydlack, a Towson University professor and educator. Mydlack, who is also a documentary filmmaker, studied a student-directed school in suburban Washington, D.C.—and he was astounded by the results.

“I’ve seen every kind of kid—from kids that were on the autism spectrum to kids that were ‘gifted and talented’ to kids that were good basketball players—[succeed],” he said. “Art school kids, science kids, nerds, middle American kids, urban kids—they all thrived.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the unschooling movement—allowing children to learn through self-guided, hands-on experience, pursuing personal interests or taking on a research project—has its roots in the feel-good 1970s. That’s when educator John Holt, considered the father of unschooling, launched a movement to junk the old-school “factory” education model and focus instead on a child’s natural curiosity and organizing skills.

Monument Mountain Regional High School, in Great Barrington, Mass., adapted Holt’s concept for the Independent Project, a school-within-a-school, independent-study program launched in 2011. Designed after a student questioned why he and his classmates couldn’t determine what they were taught, school administrators chose a select group of students and gave them relatively free rein (a faculty member coached them) over what they study and how.

There’s a loose, four-part curriculum: orientation, the sciences, the arts, and the collective endeavor, in which all of the students agree on a serious world issue and collectively find a solution. Students then create their own research questions, find answers, and teach the others. After a few evaluations and adjustments, the program blossomed. The college acceptance rates for participating students were so high and impressive that schools across the country adopted the model.

Mydlack, who had always been curious about experiential learning and unschooling, took on the subject himself—both as a documentarian and as an educator who’d taught in conventional schools. He said he went into the Fairhaven School in Upper Marlboro, Md., a skeptic but emerged a believer in self-directed education—even though the Fairhaven students could spend their time however they wanted, including playing.

“It scared me. I thought I was in free fall,” he said. “These kids are just playing—they’re playing all day, they’re playing all week, they’re playing for years.”

Then he got to understand the school’s philosophy: Play can be an essential way to learn, and “here was an example where people weren’t using that as a platitude. It was purely operational. It was protected; it was championed; it was made room for.”

“These kids...seemed centered, they seemed emotionally less stressed, they seemed terribly sophisticated in how they could talk, and they were willing to immerse themselves in subjects like chemistry and classical literature,” he said. “They were some of the best students I’d ever encountered.”

At the end of his first year at Fairhaven, Mydlack had become such a convert that he joined the faculty, then started his own student-directed school for his children and the children of friends. Their school, he said, has grown from a few kids to nearly 50 and counting.

Mydlack agrees with critics on several points: Self-directed learning isn’t for all students, particularly those who he says are “over-institutionalized,” have emotional issues, or have a strong need for structure. While students are free to follow their interests, they still need a teacher to provide guidance and input. It’s also difficult for students to explain their education to college admissions officials, though Mydlack sees that changing, at least at Towson University.

He wonders why, if the self-directed model yields such surprising results—students admitted to schools such as Harvard and Yale, reporting great success and high satisfaction with their lives—components of unschooling aren’t more widely used. You need look no further than the current fight over education reform, he concluded, to see evidence.

Change is hard, said Mydlack, and “education is even more loaded a conversation topic than religion.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.