NPR Ed
6:51 pm
Thu September 4, 2014

These Kids Grew Up With The Woods As Their Only Classroom

Originally published on Mon September 8, 2014 10:24 am

On a typical morning on Ben Hewitt's small farm in Cabot, Vt., he and his wife, Penny, and their two sons wake up early. But after doing the chores and eating breakfast, Fin, 12, and Rye, 9, don't have to run for the school bus.

Instead, they spend the morning reading Gary Paulsen tales, or they strap on pack baskets they wove themselves, carrying small knives at their belts, and head out to build shelters and forage in the woods.

The Hewitts are practitioners of a particularly unstructured form of homeschooling, sometimes called "unschooling." As Ben Hewitt describes it in a recent article for Outside magazine, "Unschooling isn't merely an educational choice. It's a lifestyle choice."

And although he tells NPR's Audie Cornish this is a personal decision, Hewitt also makes clear that embedded within that choice is a deep critique of the modern U.S. educational system, from standardized testing to the very practice of segregating children from the rest of the community. These criticisms go back a long way in American history.

What you're doing sounds different from homeschooling. I don't hear you talking curriculum.

That's one of the most fundamental differences between homeschooling and unschooling.

And I have to say I actually recently have been veering away from the term unschooling. I prefer "self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning." Unfortunately that doesn't exactly fall out of the mouth ... also recently someone introduced me to the term "immersion learning." And I love that.

People used to call that the "school of life," and it doesn't sound all that new. It sounds like the 1800s!

Right, if you take a slightly longer historical perspective, this immersion learning alongside family and community enjoys a much longer historical precedent than does compulsory schooling.

How do you go about satisfying state requirements or assessments?

Vermont is considered to be one of the more strict states in relation to homeschool oversight.

You can take your kids in for standardized testing — that's antithetical to our view of a healthy learning environment. You can have your children assessed by a licensed educator, or submit a portfolio that shows your children's progress.

We do that by explaining how our sons' learning fits into what I consider to be somewhat abstract notions of subject matter.

For example, we can talk at length about how our sons' learning in the fields and forests around our home fit into geography. Or how my work on a local nonprofit and the Vermont legislature — and our conversations about that — fit into governance.

I notice in the comments to your story, people pointing out that this is a choice you can make as a family that has privilege. ... You write that you've made the choice between autonomy and affluence, but for many people it's about struggling to meet day-to-day needs.

So first of all, my answer is I'm not in a position to answer everyone's personal educational crisis. I wrote this article about our experiences and our views.

I will say, I'm not an advocate for closing public schools. Clearly we need public education in our society.

I do think there are aspects of what we're doing that could apply to public learning. So one of the things that has been in the news a lot recently, for example, is how the U.S. is struggling so much with academic performance, and there are countries such as Finland where children perform at world-beating standards and those kids spend much less time in the classroom and have much more time for free play and creative expression.

In this country what we seem to be doing is trying to solve our educational crisis by doubling down on techniques that are proving not to work.

You paint an incredibly negative picture of "compulsory education." It sounds like you never got to like school much.

I did not have a very good go of it in public education.

I dropped out of high school when I was 16.

Did I have teachers that were meaningful to me and that were helpful to me? Absolutely.

One of the things I wish to express very strongly is that in my view the problem with compulsory or institutionalized education is not teachers.

Every teacher that I've met is incredibly well-intentioned and well-meaning and wants to do the best for their students.

Frequently I hear from teachers expressing to me how frustrated they are that they're not able to do what's best for students because they're bound to a performance-based standardized curriculum that is in part determining the funding of their school.

What happens as your sons get older and become teenagers?

Well, we're almost there. Fin's 12.

In reporting my new book [Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World], I actually spoke with a dozen adult unschoolers. Eleven had gone on to college and every single one felt it was an advantage because they were hungry and eager to learn. They weren't burnt out on structured education.

We have enormous confidence in this path.

To kids, learning is as natural as breathing. It's only when we try to restrict that by making it compulsory that kids learn to dislike learning.

So I am very confident that, as my children get older, that love of learning will allow them to facilitate whatever life path they choose.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL BELL)

CORNISH: That's the sound many children across the country are getting used to again - the death knell of summer - the school bell. But not Ben Hewitt's kids - his sons Rye and Fin have never set foot in a classroom and nor are they homeschooled by Ben and his wife - at least not in the traditional sense. Ben has chosen to unschool his children. He describes this idea, unschooling, in an article in the September issue of Outside magazine. And he joins us now to talk more about it. Hey there, Ben.

BEN HEWITT: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So you live in Vermont, we should say. And your sons, Rye and Fin, would be in the seventh and fourth grade if they were attending public school this fall.

HEWITT: That sounds about right. I haven't actually calculated it out recently. But that sounds about right.

CORNISH: And you estimate they spend no more than two hours a month sitting and studying in the way we might recognize. So describe their typical unschool day.

HEWITT: Sure. A typical day begins - I mean, we have a small farm. And so the day will generally begin with chores, which might take anywhere from, you know, half an hour to an hour, depending on season. We gather for breakfast as a family. And the boys - Fin in particular is just a ferocious readers. So he often will sit and read for a while after breakfast. Sometimes we feel like he's reading too much and we have to encourage him to get up and do some other things. Also they will generally spend a lot of time outdoors in the morning hours. Somewhere in there, you know, we might do a little bit of sit-down math. And every evening, we read together as a family. So that's pretty typical.

CORNISH: So it sounds very different from homeschooling, which has long and popular history. I don't hear you talking curriculum.

HEWITT: No. And I think that's really one of the most fundamental differences between homeschooling and unschooling. Most homeschool families do follow a somewhat standardized curriculum. And we do not obviously. And I have to say I actually, you know, recently have been veering away from the term unschooling because I don't think it does a really good job of explaining what this type of education looks like - at least not in our family. Someone introduced me to the term immersion learning and I really love that. Because to me it really expresses, you know, very concisely what I'm talking about.

CORNISH: You know, people used to call that the school of life, right?

HEWITT: Yeah, sure.

CORNISH: That was the phrase. And the life you described for your children really doesn't sound all that new, right? It sounds a lot like the life kids had in the 1800s.

HEWITT: Yeah, isn't that ironic? It's really interesting to me. What I'm talking about, this sort of immersion learning alongside family and community, enjoys a much longer historical precedent than does compulsory schooling.

CORNISH: How do you go about satisfying any kind of state requirements or assessments?

HEWITT: The way we do that is really just by explaining how our sons' learning fits in to, you know, what I sort of consider to be somewhat abstract notions of subject matter. So we can talk at length about how our sons' learning in the fields and forest around our home fit into geography.

CORNISH: But to interrupt, do your kids at any point have to sit down and prove that they've learned a certain subject the way other kids have?

HEWITT: So there are a few different choices for parents of children who are homeschooled or unschooled. One of those is exactly what you're talking about. You can actually take your kid in for standardized testing. You know, that's sort of antithetical to our view of a healthy learning environment. So we do not choose that. You can also have your child assessed by a licensed educator. Or you can submit a portfolio at the end of the year that sort of shows what you've been working on and theoretically your children's progress.

CORNISH: Help us understand some of the socialization here. I mean, what's their interaction with other kids - with even modern pop culture (laughter) it sounds like?

HEWITT: Yeah, right. One thing is - we do - is that every week there is a gathering of home and unschoolers that meets actually at our house. And they usually work on some kind of handcraft, skills or go into the woods and explore. But generally, they're working on some kind of project.

And then another big part of their socializing - and one of the things that my wife and I really value is that by not having them in school for so many hours out of the day and doing homework so many hours of the day and just, you know, transporting back and forth to school, they have much more time to engage with other people in our community. So they have really really wonderful relationships with a lot of our neighbors. We have a 66-year-old neighbor who is a dairy farmer. And they are frequently down there helping him with chores and doing things with him and for him that they might not have the opportunity to do otherwise if they didn't have that kind of time.

CORNISH: Now you mentioned the article online and the response to it. And I notice in the comments a kind of running theme that I want to ask you about - people pointing out that this is a choice that you can make as a family that has the privilege, right?

HEWITT: Mmhmm.

CORNISH: Financially, socioeconomically - you coming from a background of very highly educated people. What's your response to that?

HEWITT: First of all, I guess my answer is I'm not in a position to answer everyone's personal educational crisis. You know, I wrote this article about our experiences and our views on this. Whether or not that can or cannot apply to other families, I don't really feel like I have the burden of proving that it can apply to anyone in particular. I will say I'm not an advocate for closing public schools. Clearly we need public education in our society. I don't think we should just expunge this type of learning from our communities. I do think there are aspects of what we are doing in our family that could apply to public learning.

CORNISH: Ben Hewitt, was there a time when you had a fabulous teacher or a good experience in compulsory school?

HEWITT: Yeah. (Laughter).

CORNISH: Because it sounds - you paint an incredibly negative picture.

HEWITT: As you know from reading the article, I did not have a very good go of it in public education. I dropped out of high school when I was 16 years old. Did I have teachers that were meaningful to me and that were helpful to me? Absolutely. In my view, the problems with compulsory education and institutionalized education is not with the teachers themselves. Every teacher that I've met is incredibly well-intentioned and well-meaning and wants to do the best for their students. But I believe there are inherent structural deficiencies and very sort of flawed assumptions about learning. That's what's really problematic.

CORNISH: Ben Hewitt, now that you've had more time and response from people about this idea - I know you said this doesn't apply to everyone - but have you thought more about, you know, how and why this could be feasible for more people given that you have such a specific kind of privilege?

HEWITT: I have. And I think you're totally correct that we are privileged. And we consider ourselves to be really privileged. And we are really grateful that we have this choice. I think it is really important to point out that we know of other people who are making this work in very very different circumstances. We know of single parents who are making this work. We know of people who are making this work in urban environments.

And again, I don't think it can work for everybody. And in some environments, you know, school is a way out. Unschooling and homeschooling are not inherently better than school. I think they can be done very very poorly. It's really dependent on very engaged adults who are able to facilitate their child's learning. Somebody left a comment to the Outside article that it sounded like the lazy man's version of educating his children. And I just had to laugh because I can't tell you how much easier frankly it would be if I just put my kids on the bus every morning.

CORNISH: Ben Hewitt - we spoke to him about unschooling. He's written a book called "Home Grown: Adventures In Parenting Off The Beaten Path." Ben Hewitt, thanks so much for talking with us.

HEWITT: Thanks, Audie. I'm really grateful for your interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.