'Unschooling' Appeals to Some
This is the second in a three-part series on alternative education.
Mack Burton, a 9-year old who lives in Pinehurst, doesn't attend school and has no set curriculum for learning.
On any given day, he wakes up when he wants to, walks around barefoot, and hunkers down in a big dish chair to play video games or work on a Lego project.
He has the fidgety, lively nature of most boys his age, bouncing around from activity to random conversation topic and back again.
"I'm planning to have one of my friends come over," he says of his schedule for one Monday afternoon. "I'll probably just play on the GameCube. We'll probably either play Starfox or Zelda The one game I've been playing recently is "Zelda: The Twilight Princess." What I like about that game is that I can change into a wolf."
Mack is a product of a movement known as "unschooling," an educational approach that exists under the larger, relatively more mainstream umbrella of home-schooling. Unschooling takes the flexible (non)curriculum of home-schooling to an extreme: Learning is completely directed by the child. If children want to read, they read. If they want to run around outside, they run around outside.
The idea behind the movement is that children are capable of educating themselves at their own pace and their own interests. The parents, instead of determining curriculum, accommodate their child's interests.
Most of the one million home-schoolers in this country follow some kind of parent-developed curriculum. They have textbooks and learning materials, and some even have tests or other regular modes of accountability.
Unschoolers don't have to have any of that -- unless, of course, they want it.
When Mack's parents, Wendy Weirick and her husband, Kirk Burton, started home-schooling Mack two years ago, they knew they didn't want to re-create a school setting at home.
"At school, he was absolutely miserable," Weirick says. "He was at the point where he didn't want to learn anything."
Now, the only testing Mack undergoes is the year-end standardized exams that are required for all home-schoolers. Although Weirick says Mack has done just fine on those tests, she prefers to track her son's progress through his self-education -- how fast he can count the money in Monopoly, how many new constellations he's found in the sky, and how well he can read the maps in the guides to his video games.
"It's learning what you want," she says, "when you want it, and the way you want to learn."
Earlier this school year, Mack soon became interested in how evaporative cooling works. In traditional school, Burton says, that subject probably wouldn't be addressed if it didn't show up on the curriculum.
"It lets us take advantage of their interests," Burton says. "Not all kids learn the same way."
Mack's interests run toward Lego-building and playing video games on his GameCube. He likes science, and some days he spends time looking at his rock collection or learning about astronomy. He can give a concise plot summary of the book he is reading with his parents, a novel from the Bartimaeus Trilogy, and he has been discovering new compounds with his chemistry kit.
Even something like playing a video game can be a learning opportunity. Whenever Mack gets a new video game, he must also use a lengthy guide book to walk him through the game. Weirick helps him find these instructions online. She says his reading skills have improved markedly as a result.
"He's read, at this point, probably 110 pages of 10-point font," she says. "That's just reading to your interest."
In North Carolina, there are about 50 families registered with N.C. Unschoolers support organization, a group that Weirick has been involved with since she started unschooling her son. Weirick is involved with other groups, such as the Moore Homeschoolers Network, which provide, among other things, moral support for her and playmates for Mack.
Both Weirick, who has a background in education, and her husband take pains to point out that this is not a lazy form of education, it's just whole-life learning. In some ways, they say, it's been harder to have Mack at home than away at school.
"It's a conscious decision to spend the day together and enjoy each other's company," she says, "because that's not the norm in today's society. Today's society is 'Woohoo, the kids are back in school, I'm free.'"
The decision to take Mack out of public school, where he had spent pre-kindergarten through second grade, wasn't an easy one. Burton, who works as a civilian technology consultant for U.S. Army Special Operations at Fort Bragg, says he had his doubts about the new, child-led approach to learning.
"I'd never heard of it before," he says. "There was the 'Aren't we supposed to make him learn stuff?' and 'How does this work? How can it work?'"
Once Burton's anxieties about unschooling were quelled, he and Weirick had to face the questions of their friends and family, some of whom were educators themselves.
"Our family," Burton says, "was like, 'What, are you crazy?'"
Weirick says Mack's education does attract questions -- some genuine, some confrontational -- despite the fact that she tries to keep a low profile. She was hesitant about being interviewed by The Pilot because she did not want to make herself a kind of target for people who didn't understand. Unschooling isn't for everyone, she says, but it's worked for their family.
"The hardest thing is being different," she says. "You get together with other people and they find out you home-school. That sets you aside. And then, if I'm in a conversation longer and people find out that I'm unschooling, they don't understand that it's just enjoying life. It's playing games and slowing down."
Mack, who once thought he wanted to be a geologist, isn't so sure now about a future career. He says he definitely doesn't want to go back to a traditional school.
Both Weirick and Burton think that's just fine.
"I want him to lead a happy, productive, self-fulfilling life -- that's it," Weirick says. "And I'm having a lot more fun. I feel like I have my child back."
Katherine Evans can be reached at 693-2480 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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