Unschooling and Self-Directed Education: How children learn without school and homeschool

Welcome to the exciting world of learning called “Unschooling.” Many people also call it “Self-Directed Education.”

Based on the book, Unschooling To University, this video encapsulates how children’s brains develop, how children learn without teaching, and why self-directed education is the most motivating and individualized education possible.

Presented by Judy Arnall, BA, CCFE, DTM, certified in brain and child development, and master of non-punitive parenting and education practices.  Judy is the bestselling author of 5 print books and has unschooled 5 adult children. 3 children have graduated university, 1 is presently attending and 1 is a Masters student.

The book, Unschooling To University, is now available at bookstores everywhere including Chapters, Indigo, and Barnes and Noble. If your local bookstore doesn’t carry it, just ask for it.

ISBN Print 97809780509-93

ISBN E-Book 97817751786-06

Order on Amazon.com

Order on Amazon.ca

This book explores the journey of the Team of Thirty, a group of young individuals (and are either friends of ours or children of friends) who unschooled anywhere from 3 to 12 years each and were accepted or graduated at university, colleges, and technical schools.  10 went into STEM fields (4 into engineering), 10 into humanities and 10 into the arts. 22 have already graduated. 2 have gone on to Masters degrees. Learn more about what unschooling is, why it is beneficial (61 benefits of unschooling), how to unschool and how unschooling fits with brain and child development stages. This 384 page book outlines everything one needs to know about unschooling and self-directed education worldwide.


Did you know there is a world-wide facebook group for Unschooling STEM?

Join Unschooling STEM


Many unschoolers/self-directed learners often get asked the second most common question in home education, (after the one about socialization) which is “What about university?  Aren’t you messing up your child’s chances of eligibility?” This blog’s sole purpose is to assure you that unschooled children can go to college, universities, trade schools or the post-secondary school of their choice, if they choose to go. And many do go on to STEM careers. When the time is right for them, they will often choose self-directed education to help themselves earn the requirements for admission acceptance.

Most parents can teach their children without curriculum until a grade 8 level.  They just need to regain their parenting confidence after 150 years of schooling giving society the message that only teachers teach. Parents are the first teachers and self-learners are the best teachers.  If parents don’t want to teach, they can let go and watch their children soar with curiosity, learning, problem-solving, and critical thinking at all ages.

Believe me, my “math skills” end at grade 8 and I had 3 kids get accepted into STEM programs at university.  Parents do not need high school subject matter expertise.  They just need to be present when their child needs them, and help the child find the resources if asked.  Parents help the child self-direct their education by facilitating what they need, not teaching the program. Most unschooled children reach an age that they wish to learn more and seek out tutors, online courses or simply teach themselves from the internet, Kahn Academy, and their jurisdiction’s textbooks.  Whether they learn the entire high school program, or just the final year courses to prove previously acquired learning, or even challenge the leaving or entrance (SAT) exams, children that are motivated are serious, focused learners and nothing will stop them.

As Dr. Peter Gray outlines in his 2013 study of 75 grown homeschoolers, those children with the least number of formal schooling years (either in a classroom or homeschooled), were more likely to go on to post-secondary learning.  That has been our experience in the homeschooling community as well.  The more time children had for play and self-directed learning, the more likely they were to continue learning and became motivated for greater stimulation outside the family. They were eager to self-teach high school content and were excited to go into post-secondary learning, at a time when many of their school friends were burned out from 16 years (12 grades and 4 years preschool) of institutionalized education.

The other myth is that unschoolers tend to choose more arts and humanities fields when applying to post-secondary institutions.  STEM options are also available to unschoolers. Many unschoolers find that the years of experiential learning from play, projects and travel help round out a solid background of understanding that numbers and formulas can build on when the child reaches their teens and acquires their abstract thinking skills from the development of the brain’s pre-frontal cortex. They have real world applications for problem-solving with math and science tools. As they entered their teen years, they were more curious to learn about STEM from textbooks and online videos.

We know that not everyone aspires to go to post-secondary schools, and that is fine.  Many unschooled children start businesses, do research, learn trades, and master the arts as adults.  Most unschooled children are very successful because they are happy.  They are doing what they love to do.

Some families want their unschooled children to have a university education. We aim to help them navigate the transition from unschooling during the “school-age” years to a more formal learning environment during the late teen and early adult years.

Many of these insights come from our family of 5 children, in which we unschooled (self-directed education) the children anywhere from 8 to 12 years that they would have been in school. We had many family friends that also unschooled and I tell their experiences (The Team of Thirty) in the Unschooling To University book.  10 of the 30 children profiled, attended university in STEM careers. Some went the high school (and self-designed) diploma route and some did not.

We are not outliers.  The gates to education are still there but the walls are coming down. We now know that anyone can study anything, anywhere, anytime, and any way. School is only one method of many in obtaining an education. We hope you enjoy our experiences, thoughts and insights to help you make informed education choices. We also welcome your questions. Yes, unschooled children can go on to post-secondary education and they are excellent learners, free thinkers, employed and enjoy life.  We need thought leaders and world problem-solvers, but more than that, we need happy, contented, educated citizens of the world .

Many of these blogs posts are excerpts from the book but many posts are new insights from unschooling 5 productive and educated adults.  Welcome to this blog and inside our home-life!



#unschooling        #homeschooling      #unschoolingSTEM         #unschoolingtouniversity

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Unschooling STEM

When parents think of “unschooling” they imagine their child as a clerk flipping hamburgers at McDonalds. We all need hamburger flippers, but we also need to dispel the myth that unschooled children are uneducated. And especially in the STEM fields. Math is one area that many unschooling parents worry about and it is needless. Math is all around us.


When children unschool, they are empowered to explore their passions and for some children, that is interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Babies, toddlers and young children are natural scientists. My 2 year-old son’s favourite activity was to open the fridge door, reach high for the egg tray and drop each egg from the height of his eyelevel. He loved the sound of the eggs cracking on the floor. He was learning velocity, physics, and biology in an experiential learning environment. After we duct-taped the fridge door closed, he moved on to other science adventures.

We allowed as much exploration as our tolerance for mess and our need for safety would allow. The children learned math and science through play, watching Magic School Bus Videos and their own self-designed projects and experiences. And, by playing a lot of computer and video games. When they reached the age of 13, their brains developed their abstract thinking abilities and they took their first formal structured math class taught by a teacher at a grade 8 level. They skipped the grade 9 level and went structured again for grades 10, 11, and 12. Their first science class was grade 10. Many of these courses were self-taught by reading the textbook, trying the experiments and writing the qualifying exams. They were keyboarding at age 4 because we had few limits on computer and gaming time. They weren’t starting at a grade 1 level because math and science is all around us and they were familiar with many concepts at a experiential level. By the teen years, they were ready for textbook and workbook study. They were motivated because they wanted a career in STEM, not us.

Today, 1 child is now an electrical engineer, another has a degree in Bioscience and another is working on a degree in Chemistry. The other 2 kids could have persued a degree in STEM (their math marks in high school were 90’s) but decided on humanities instead.


The beauty of unschooling STEM is that the learner is in control of the learning insights, exploration and discovery. Do children need classes in STEM? No. If they desire them, fine, but STEM classes with proscribed curriculum can smother the joy, curiosity and creativity needed to succeed at finding out “why….?”


All children love science and are good at it…we just need to get out of their way and empower them to learn what they want to learn, not just what we want them to learn.



For more information about unschoolingSTEM, this video explains how to nurture interest in STEM and the appropriate times to introduce more structured learning. Be sure to join our dedicated world-wide facebook group on UnschoolingSTEM:



Yes, you can unschool and still have your child thrive in STEM careers.

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Create a Learning Environment that Teaches Without Textbooks

Emily is unexcited about filling out another workbook page for grammar. She is resisting Mom’s coaxing and eventual threats. At age 8, Emily wants to play, but mom wants to feel like some “academic learning” is taking place. Can both get their needs met at the same time? Yes!

Unschoolers often do not use textbooks or workbooks to learn. Some children may ask for them but many under the ages of 13 learn best through experiential learning.

Many families new to homeschooling want to know how to make learning more fun and unschoolers can share resources they use for facilitating their children’s learning. There are many ways to learn core subjects without textbooks, workbooks and boring zoom lectures, especially for children under age 13 whose brains are wired to learn in a 3D world, not a 2D screen setting. Teens are great online, and learn a lot through researching websites, but younger children need hands-on experiences to learn.

Here are ways to teach core subjects without using typical classroom workhorses such as textbooks and workbooks. These are excerpted from Chapter 13 Resources, from the book, Unschooling To University. In the book, there is also additional information on what video games teach.

Please note: Children do not need all these resources! Many were borrowed, bought at garage sales and many were not used because they did not appeal to the kids at certain ages and stages. This is only to give you an idea of thinking outside the box (of curriculum textbooks and workbooks!)

Check out the post “Ways to Learn Math Without a Workbook” for more math ideas teaching grades 1-8
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How to Motivate Children to Do Assignments Without Tears and Tantrums

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In unschooling, there is no motivation problems because children do not have to do assignments. Everything they do in everyday life contributes to their knowledge base without them even knowing because life is an education. We don’t separate learning from … Continue reading

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Unschoolers Excel in High School With No Previous Schooling

Many homeschooling parents and unschooled children do their own thing for grades 1-9 and then sign their kids or self up for high school grades 10-12 at a physical school. Usually there is no report card needed, nor testing for a child to begin a formal high school program. And the kids do wonderfully – academically and socially. Most of the grade 1-9 topics are covered in high school again, but at a higher level because the 15 year old’s brain development is proficient enough at thinking abstractly. Because they haven’t spent 9 years in a classroom, learners are self-confident, conscientious and eager to learn via classroom delivery. (It might take them awhile to get used to the immaturity of their classmates though.)

How can this happen? Is learning cumulative or absorbed in stages? Do kids not need 9 grades of schooling before high school for preparation? No.

The 15 year old is equipped to learn high school material because they have experiential learning of the education concepts from birth to age 14. Unless they are locked in a room for 15 years or denied access to books or the internet, they are picking up all the knowledge they need at each age and stage. By puberty, the brain is able to process information abstractly and understand theoretical concepts without information being tangible (physical: able to touch, see, hear, smell) or concrete. This means that a child can go from experiential learning (learning through hands-on activities) to a more theoretical learning (reading, analyzing concepts and writing). A teenager is more ready for paper-based learning. A child is not starting at grade 1 when they are age 15. They have still accumulated a massive amount of knowledge, except they did it in an informal way such as self-directed education and observation. This is the stage model of education. Children can learn in different stages because the brain is more developed as the child ages. The brain develops from the back to the front and from the bottom of the brain to the top. At certain ages, different parts of the Cerebral Cortex are sensitive to special types of learning whether motor control, visual processing, language development or mathematical/analytical learning. But these windows of opportunity are never closed to future use.

We used to think that education was cumulative – we put the child on the conveyor belt of education and each grade/year pour more content into their brains, so that by the end of Grade 12, they would have a brain full of knowledge, attitudes and skills. We hoped they would remember everything.

But they didn’t. We know now that brains operate on a use-it or lose-it pruning of neurons. If a child doesn’t keep using a language they learned at age 5, they will lose it. How many of us remember how to factor trinomials when we don’t use it everyday in our work? Yet, we all had to learn it. I was surprised that my 5 adult children didn’t remember most of the travels, birthday parties, childhood friends, or the many homeschooling experiences and lessons they did before puberty. I worked so hard to give them a huge range of experiences and learning opportunities. They remembered quite a bit from their teen years, but not much before puberty except a few out-of-the-ordinary moments or events.

We also know that children can learn a new language even as adults because brains never stop learning. In fact, adults can learn anything, anytime. It may not come as readily as when that sensitive window of language learning happens from ages 1-8, but they will learn enough to be proficient for their use.

Which now begs the question, why do we send children to school for 9 years if they don’t remember anything? The simple answer is that trains the brain. Learning fires the neurons to connect with each other and form pathways through the brain. But this occurs whether a child is working in a mathbook or playing Fortnite. The real reason we send children to school for grades 1-9 is employment support. When parents need childcare for 7 hours a day, school officials designed a “curriculum” to fill the time and keep the kids occupied. Over 170 years, the education industry, media, and society contributed to the myth that children only learn in school and absolutely can’t learn everything they need elsewhere. With digital access to unlimited education, we now know that learning happens everywhere.

We still need teachers. The best part of school is the relationships they provide to children while facilitating a learning environment. Parents do the same job at home. Most parents can teach grade 1-8 content without teacher’s manuals and provide the nurturing, warm relationships that children’s brains require.

What this means is that unschooled children are never “behind.” They can learn anything, at anytime, as their interest and need dictates and learning never stops. They can start formal direct instruction anytime they wish. For high school. Or not. Many unschoolers teach themselves high school material, write the SATS and move on to post-secondary studies.

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All Children Learn to Read Without Direct Instruction

From our website at www.unschoolingcanada.ca

Worried that your child is not reading yet?  Tried phonics? Tried Whole language? Tried APPs?  It is not your child’s fault or your fault. It is because your child’s brain needs time to mature.

There are no studies (zero in fact) out there that show children learn to read naturally on their own, because most studies on child development began in the 1950’s when all children were in school.

Learning to “crack the code” in reading, is a developmental task that all children accomplish on their own, much like toilet training, learning to walk, and learning to talk, without direct instruction, when their brain is ready and coordinated to work in conjunction with other parts of the brain to accomplish the task. The parts of the brain involved in language processing are the Occipital Lobe (seeing), the Parietal Lobe, and the Temporal Lobe, which begin working together to decipher sight words and sounds at the beginning of what is traditionally called Kindergarten in school. Because this happens from ages 4-12, which is a normal range, when most children are in school, most people think children learn to read in school because their developmental mastery happens to take place during the same time as the school grades of 1-6. Most people assume it is a skill that is taught, by teachers, rather than a developmental leap of brain connections that occurs naturally in a stimulating environment.

Our world today is so full of words, whether from street signs, screen advertising, to radio and media and printed material. One can’t escape the printed word!

The bottom line is that reading will happen when it happens. We know now that no baby walker is going to help a child walk before they are developmentally ready, (and thus, they are now banned in Canada due to their danger), and we also know that no amount of direct instruction is going to help a child’s occipital lobe, temporal lobe, parietal lobe, and frontal cortex work together to read words before it’s time.

Your job is to cultivate a love of reading and enjoyment of the written word and all children will learn to read eventually! Have an environment rich in the printed word such as a variety of board, picture books, novels, graphic novels, non-fiction, reference books, story books and cartoons for your child. These can be digital or paper-based or even auditory (great for vocabulary). Curl up on the sofa with your child cuddled near and read to them or have them sound out words if they want. Let the child lead! It will come!

Why are some adults illiterate? It could be an undiagnosed learning challenge or sight problem. It could be a lack of books in the home for the child to enjoy. For evidence of a child’s brain ability to crack the code, look at the hundreds of thousands of kids that self-direct their learning and all have learned to read by age 12. Without a teacher. Perhaps someday…someone will do a research project on this!


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Children Learn To Write When They Have Something To Say


Many people are worried about teaching their kids to write. Children will learn to write when they have the passion to say something. And it may not be until high school or even when they are in post-secondary schooling.

What most unschooling families forget is how children’s brains grow – a big reason why I wrote the book, Unschooling To University, and listed children’s capabilities in each chapter by age. By age 13, your children are going to know more than you do about a lot of subjects. They will know how to research their interests, argue on Reddit, and critically discern information from the internet. Again, writing is a skill developed from a passion. Most children need a passionate reason to write and more importantly, to be heard, and then they may decide to learn the 5 paragraph essay method. There are lots of Youtube videos showing how. (Anything that one wants to learn is on Youtube!) If they are passionately interested in writing, as my one child did, they will live, breathe and learn about writing improvement every day. My other 4 kids were not as keen to learn about writing, but did self-learn the basics in Grade 10 and wrote pretty good research reports in University when they self-discovered the need to learn how for their assignments. All of my kids didn’t do any formal writing until grade 10 when they had to write an essay or 2 for for meeting APS outcomes in courses for credits. The one child who is going into a Masters program this Fall (the writing fanatic) only did 1 ELA course in high school – Grade 11. She challenged the  grade 12 diploma exam because she probably knew as much as any English Language Arts teacher with all her independent self-taught research and knowledge. She also had the time to self-learn everything about crafting novels.

As far as children’s capabilities are, unschoolers go from playing video games/life learning/play/projects and interests to mandatory textbooks in high school pretty easily –  again we have to be aware of how much more capable our children are in the teen years. My math skill ends in grade 8. My 3 children who persued STEM careers had the ability to self-teach from textbooks beyond grade 8. They are average kids. All kids have the ability to self-teach from the interest. By age 13, they have their abstract thinking skills so they can pick up a textbook/or screen and read it. No problem. It’s like the difference of toilet learning between an 18 month-old and a 4 year-old – one takes months and the other can do it in a day – because they are cognitively, physically, and emotionally ready. Have trust in your children’s brains. Their learning will bypass your knowledge.  You can’t force and child to learn and you can’t stop a child from learning. Learn more about how children read and write:

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You Did It!


You can’t force a child to learn and you can’t stop a child from learning!  Life is learning…and all children are born curious…let them lead their learning.

#unschooling     #homeschooling    #letlearnerslead

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New Homeschoolers! Relax! Children Never Stop Learning!

New Homeschoolers! Please-Stop-Worrying! If you have a child between Kindergarten and Grade 3 that you are homeschooling this Fall, please DO NOT worry about whether they will be academically ready to go back to school Fall 2021. I guarantee you that they will be ahead of the pack, not behind.

Grades 1-3 is about “learning to read” so that in Grades 4-6 kids can “read to learn.” You absolutely can’t go wrong no matter what curriculum you use or what you teach! Many unschooling parents empower their kids to play until high school and beyond and the kids go on to universities, colleges, tech and art schools just fine. The kids learn but it’s just that they don’t learn through workbooks and textbooks. They learn math and literacy every day that they are alive and breathing. You can’t force a child to learn and you can’t stop a child from learning. When an unschooled child is motivated (and everyone is motivated to learn) nothing will stop them. Nothing. 

I know it’s hard not to worry. To assuage your worry, if you want, go to Costco and buy one of those graded workbooks for $10 so you have a plan of what gets covered in each grade for your country. Then, you can cover those topics in more fun experiential ways other than a workbook, which is how young children learn anyways – through hands-on activities.

Trust your child and grab those teaching moments in real life! For English, make time to read to your child, and cuddle up and enjoy books together every day. Learning to read is not a taught skill.  It is a developmental skill that occurs naturally for every child when they are ready.  Have lots of conversations with your child with rich and varied vocabulary. For math, get in the kitchen and bake. Take them with you to the store to compare prices. Set up a lemonade stand. Let them play LEGO, video and board games. Get them watching Magic School Bus videos – they cover the entire grade 1-6 science topics. Go explore your country this summer for Social Studies. Go camping and take some day trips to places of interest that is local.  Visit museums, science centres, and zoos. Watch age-appropriate films and discuss them as a family. Let the learning come alive for them! You will not mess them up!

My 5 children unschooled for 8-12 years of their school years. They did no workbooks and learned everything through experiential life learning (and a lot of video games!) See the blog post on Video games are Educational!  3 are university graduates, 1 is studying in university and 1 is about to go.  This Fall, we have our first grad student beginning a masters program. Children do not need school or workbooks or textbooks to learn. They need you and their innate curiosity! Your biggest problem this year is that your kids will be so enriched and so far ahead of their grade, that next year, if you put them back into school, they may be bored!

Video Games are Educational

Continue your learning on unschooling with the book, Unschooling To University.

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Unschooling and Self-Directed Education: How children learn without school and homeschooling

Most parents can teach their children without curriculum until a grade 7 level.  They just need to regain their parenting confidence after 150 years of schooling giving the message that only teachers teach. Parents are the first teachers and self-learners are the best teachers.  If parents don’t want to teach, they can let go and watch their children soar with curiosity, learning, problem-solving, and critical thinking at any age.

This video encapsulates how brains work, children learn no matter what, and why self-directed education is the best education.

Presented by Judy Arnall, BA, CCFE, DTM, certified in brain and child development, and master of non-punitive parenting and education practices.  Judy is the bestselling author of 5 print books and has unschooled 5 children (3 of whom are university graduates so far).

Further your learning at Amazon.com https://amzn.to/2X1ueGn

Stay Tuned for the Next MasterClassSDE

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16 Problems with Online/Virtual Learning

5 senses

Is your child not loving online school? Is motivation is a daily battle?  You want to quit but you are worried your child might get “behind”?  Don’t worry. It is not your child’s fault. The fault is an education delivery method that is not compatible with your child’s brain and how learning works at different ages.

E-Learning, distance learning, virtual schooling and online learning is NOT homeschooling or home education. It is government school in your living room and you and your child have no control over it. For a parent, it can be as painful as overseeing homework. Yet, students are now borderless. In true home education/unschooling, the parent and child controls everything: goals, content, methodology, pace, resources, scope, sequence, and assessment. The parent and child can choose what to learn (the world is the classroom), when to learn it (morning, or night), where to learn it from (many countries have excellent courses online), how to learn it (auditory, visual, kinesthetic) and if (may the child is not interested for now…) a child wants to learn it.

*Listen to the article instead of reading!

Virtual schools

Online learning in the past decade has grown exponentially. Our entire education system seems to be moving toward digital teaching. However, I don’t think it is the only way, nor best way, to go. Children should delay taking online courses for as long as they can, at least until the teen years, and continue instead to learn in the physical, real world. Currently, online learning takes place either in the home, where it is called distance education (not homeschooling, because it is not parent or self-directed), or in a school.

Face-to-face relationships are difficult to foster in the digital world, but are critically needed in the teaching-learning dynamic. In response to that need, a hybrid of online and face-to-face learning called “blended learning” is gaining popularity. All of blended learning is school directed, but some of the instruction takes place directly from a physical classroom, and some occurs through online content and/or correspondence.

Online education has some benefits, but more challenges. It certainly is not for every-one. As well, many asynchronous courses just have the student read text from a screen and do an assignment. Read more text and do an assignment. Much of what is learned is forgotten by the next grade. Some courses are synchronous and have a teacher doing a zoom or live teaching. Those are more engaging and better suited for children ages 13 and up that have enough executive function (self-control) brain development to sit and pay attention for an hour at a time. As well, young children’s brains are wired to learn in 3-dimensions, not 2-dimentions through a screen. That is why children learn best through play during their first 12 years.

For younger children, under age 13, the best solution might be to have the child do a home education program that has hands-on learning and experiential activities, and then the parent or child can choose online learning from a variety of engaging apps.  They can pick and choose from apps that deliver quality, engaging, programming. Thus, they are not locked into a year-long online school course that a child is not motivated into doing and the parent is frustrated while trying to engage the child to pay attention and do the work.

Unfortunately, many schools teach online courses through boring text on a screen because they don’t have the funding for licencing agreements that would bring the new, fun, engaging apps to the student population. For example, my kids loved Kahn Academy.  They learned all their science and math through that fantastic website (no, not getting endorsement funds here!), yet, none of the government school online courses recommended or used any of their content for teaching.

This is  Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning and it shows parents what the learning retention rate is through various methods of delivery.

Many schools are scrambling to retain their student rosters in order to retain funding, by offering online programming, but is it really in the best interests of the child’s learning abilities?  No.  Do home education or unschooling instead if you want your child to retain what they learn through real life, experiential teaching moments.

Disadvantages of online learning through government schools

There are numerous disadvantages to distance education through online delivery. Let’s go through them.

1. Relationships are difficult to maintain

Online learning only delivers academic content. The physical, social, and emotional needs of the learner go undetected when there is no visual contact between the teacher and the student. Academic content is easy to find anywhere on the internet, but the best part of school is the teachers’ relationships with students that is missing in online courses, especially when teachers have 300 – 800 students in their virtual classes. The teacher role is that of paid marker or accreditation conferrer, and many teachers have assistants who help with marking. The interaction is mostly one way. As mentioned before, it falls to the parent or even the at-home student to switch to the teaching role the moment the learner needs help. A 13-year-old at home can spend his whole “school day” on the computer and may learn the names of his teacher and his classmates, but he does not talk to anyone until his parents get home from work. This is isolating and lonely. Children need relationships.

2. Bussing

Bussing to a school in order to learn online is unnecessary, a waste of time for the student, and harmful to the environment. Children need adult attention daily, not peer attention.

3. Motivation needs monitoring

Successful online education needs structured parental oversight in the home, or daily interaction with a teacher, or an extremely self-motivated student. Very often none of these scenarios exist, and this is the reason online courses have such a high dropout rate.

Teachers are reduced to being pokers, prodders and markers, trying to motivate learners who literally have to teach themselves the online content. This is degrading to the teaching profession.

4. The learner teaches himself but is constrained by the government agenda

Many online courses have no synchronous live instruction from a teacher, so the experience is no different than students self-teaching by reading text from a screen or   a textbook. After reading the assigned screen text or book pages, they churn out short answers, essays, discussion comments, reviews, quizzes, and lab reports to “prove”  they were engaged in the course. There are no oral responses because there is no synchronous interaction. If students have questions, a teacher’s email response often comes far too late—and by that time, kids have often figured out the answer, or no longer care about it. Or they might search for the answer online. Or watch videos from the Kahn Academy, or from other online teachers not affiliated with a school. Or they ask a knowledgeable parent. In some cases, they acquire an external tutor. This is not online learning. Whoever is doing the personalized explaining is doing the teaching—and they should be giving the mark in the course, not the school. And if a student teaches himself, he should also mark himself, because he knows exactly what he has learned.

A true online course that is delivered by a teacher is one in which content is indeed read by the student, with the student then interacting with the teacher by phone or synchronous live video feed equal in time to at least half the number of regular classroom instructional hours. Anything less than this means the student is teaching himself, or the parent is teaching him, outside of the constraints of school.

5. The parent teaches the child but is constrained by the government agenda

I have learned so many new things by searching and finding answers together with my children. Kids today are products of the “instant gratification” generation. They want things right away. When my children took online courses, they didn’t want to wait days for a teacher’s answer, and they asked me. As noted in the previous section, whoever does the explaining is the de-facto teacher, regardless of who does the marking. If a book or computer screen cannot adequately explain a concept to your child in a learning style they understand, and you have to supplement the written instructions with your own explanations, drawings, manipulatives, and further resources, then you are actively teaching the concept and the course. Schools conferring a mark and commenting on the output does not constitute true teaching. If the parent is explaining a concept in a way they know their child will understand, they should also be empowered to bestow the course marks. As the “explainer” I don’t get paid to “teach” the course, but I do it because I hate to see my child driven to tears of frustration. As a byproduct, my unpaid labor subsidizes the education industry.

One parent describes this pretty well: “The course states, ‘Online education works  with students who can work independently without assistance.’ This is the biggest misconception about online education. Those students that succeed have invisible support and assistance at home. I put my daughter in a Grade 7 English class to help her with accountability. While a teacher did the primary program delivery, I was still very much involved with helping to create schedules, identify deadlines, proofreading, ordering library books, helping with technology such as how PowerPoint worked, figuring out how to split files too big to upload as an attachment and other things. I found that I continued to play just as active a role in supporting my daughter as I did when I was delivering the subject under home education. Only, I couldn’t give her the mark.” (Colleen J, 2008) So if the parent is taking over many of the teacher’s duties in a classroom, why not just have the student self-study from textbooks and from videos on the internet, and allow parents to assess the work and give the mark as they do in homeschooling?

6. Online learning only tickles two senses

Experiential learning encompasses sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste, as well as talking and feeling, which embed learning in the long-term memory portion of the brain. Online learning and textbook learning, the economically efficient methods of delivery, are not the optimum methods for deep learning, because they only involve the sense of sight, and possibly, hearing.

Knowledge gained from online learning is present in the working memory but gets dumped soon after the final exam; it never moves to long-term memory. Pamela Gordon states that “Many studies show that we ignore, forget or misunderstand about 75 percent of all the words we hear.” (Gordon, 2012) Anyone who sends an email and has it misread knows what I’m talking about. To get those ideas to stick, people need to make notes and talk to others about their impressions and reactions. That’s why it is so important in adult education to get adults to write their own handouts or at least fill in the blanks—it helps them to remember key points. As the brain processes images better than words, it is often helpful to write notes with diagrams, mind maps, Prezi, or drawings rather than words. Talking about the concept moves information along neural pathways in the brain and takes it from short-term to long-term memory. That’s why we often say you have to teach a concept to really learn it.

When Ryan was taking an online high school math course, he was having trouble self- teaching linear equations. Neither of his two older siblings who were attending university close by could help my son with his math. They had forgotten how to do these equations, even though they had taken the same math course less than two years before.

Schools try their best to help a child retain information by requiring a written “discussion” component from each online class. They require a learner to write at least one posting on a new topic and respond to three postings from other students to earn a certain percentage of the course mark. This type of discussion is not the least bit purposeful. Students hate it; they learn nothing because tone and intent is lost, so they do the minimum required, and check it off the list. And completely forget what they might have written. No learning occurs.

Now, even if online courses were adequate for visual and auditory learners, what about the majority of learners—the kinesthetic ones? Many children want to dissect a real frog, not a virtual one. Who doesn’t remember forever the familiar smell of formaldehyde? Two of my children couldn’t read well from a screen. Some children can’t write on a keyboard either, especially for math problems. Many kids need a classroom, where the simple act of writing notes helps them remember, and a teacher to explain concepts live and in person on a visual board. Then the kids will get up and actively engage physically.

7. Children need to move

Excessive time spent sitting is not good. For many years, I felt bad that my children were on the computer as much as they were, playing video games and learning by reading. I thought that at least if kids went to school, they would move around in the classroom. Teachers soon quashed that notion! Children in classrooms spend a lot of time on their tablets or watching videos of a teacher explaining a concept. Hands-on learning is very much obsolete, especially in the junior high and high school years. Then they come home and spend an average of seven more hours a day online, according to the Vanier Institute. Where is the balance in their life when the majority of their school day is spent online—and then the majority of their off-time as well?

Increased screen time has detrimental health and social consequences. Continuous viewing causes eye strain and headaches. Even when children request a paper textbook, they often can’t access one because schools will not pay for paper copies.

8. Online kids can not hand-write

Many kids cannot hand-write anymore because of their ever-increasing reliance on key- boards. This handicaps children who use a computer all through their school years, but must write high-stakes exams with paper and pencil, slowing them down tremendously. Many professors at post-secondary institutions will not allow computers in their rooms for exams or even lectures. That means kids who never hand-write will be forced to do so for timed exams, and lose marks because of this physical “disability.”

9. Virtual schools require technology support

It’s not the role of parents or teachers to provide technology repair, upgrades, and computer trouble-shooting, but as more schools go digital, funding for the maintenance of technology becomes more important. Even internet access is now an essential service for educational institutions, and the debate rages on as to who should pay for it.

10. Technology creates errors

Computers are machines. They cannot use discretion when they mark online exams. Learners must get the short answer exactly correct with the right characters, capitaliza- tion, and spacing, as their work is computer marked and the program is designed to receive only a specific prescribed response. A teacher with 60 kids in her class cannot look for discretion in answers that are indeed correct but worded differently than what the computer is programmed to accept. Kids may never even know that a correct response was incorrectly marked wrong, as schools will not release marked exams to students to use as a learning tool. Schools are concerned that children will copy digital exams for their friends. This doesn’t help a child learn.

11. Parents are shut out of their child’s education

Of even more concern is the fact that ever more of their children’s day will become invisible to parents. It’s easy to open a textbook or binder to see what one’s child is learning in school, but much harder to log into a website with the child’s password—if the parent is lucky enough to have it, when the child can so easily change it. Many parents do not have the ability to navigate a website, and they remain locked out of their child’s work and his marks. One school board I know of will not even allow their administrators to communicate with parents outside of their own website. The parent must log in to access the teacher and discuss their child’s progress—the teachers are not allowed to send private emails to parents. This is wrong. Firewalls, compatible software, and passwords all contrive to isolate parents from their own child’s education, in spite of all the research supporting the fact that that children do better academically when their parents are actively involved.

12. Online education shifts costs from the school to the learner

Many schools now require students to bring their own laptop to school. But the initial cost of the laptops is only the beginning. Kids will lose and damage memory sticks. The laptops will be dropped, lost, and stolen. They will get infected with viruses. Who pays for ongoing tech support when kids cannot load videos or exams because of incompatible software? Who pays for help in upgrading software? Or lost or damaged headphones and microphones? Who pays for technology trouble-shooting? Will the school offer orientation sessions to parents to support the learner with hardware, software, and networking?

And of course, textbook companies now want to provide online textbooks rather than printed ones. Think of their cost savings! As an e-book author, I know that printing is half the cost of book production; in addition, there are writing, editing, and layout costs. But the e-book cost savings are rarely passed on to the consumer; rather, the non-existent printing costs are still being passed on to you as parents! Just as businesses shift the cost of printing bills to consumers, charging them if they wish to receive a paper bill instead of an e-bill, parents are expected to bear the cost of the electronic tools to educate their children. If parents accept the financial burden of providing electronics, they should have choice in where the content comes from, and it may not be the government or the school.

13. Poor content

Even though there is no excuse for outdated content in digital courses, they are designed by humans and humans make errors. Factual errors, spelling errors, grammatical and editing errors.

14. Online courses are designed to have a heavier student workload

My children took Grade 10 Physical Education online. The course included 50 hours of writing assignments—three essays, ten quizzes, two projects, three discussions, and more. They had to log and prove 75 hours of physical activity. The kids learned all the vocabulary of soccer—but not how to actually play it. The school justified the excessive writing component by saying that they had to give more marked assignments because of the lack of face-to-face visual cues of absorption and feedback that they would receive from an in-person class. This lack of trust in online students contradicts the usefulness of such courses. Understandably, teachers need output to prove learning, but such excessive written output for a physical education course literally has no context or value.

15. Some components of learning are harder to accomplish on a screen

Math characters, for example. Unless one has a math keyboard, it takes so many more keystrokes to write exponents, fractions, and other characters. It is also harder to do group and collaborative work by computer than meeting in person to discuss the project and organize the workload.

16. Poorly organized courses

Course efficiency and organization depends on the learning style of the course developer. Some courses are structured in a very orderly, linear manner and come with clear instructions and checklists; the assignments are easy to navigate and the due dates are clear. Other courses are scattered and unorganized, with assignments here, additional links there, hidden labs elsewhere, and too much visual overload. My children took an art course that was so poorly outlined that they missed deadlines because links were hidden. It may have worked for the course developer’s learning style, but it did not work for linear students. It is easy for a child to lose a vital bit of information such as an instruction to reprogram their graphing calculators because the test supervisors will clear it before your exam—and if you don’t, your answers will be incorrect—because the notice is buried in “visual noise.” As more and more of our lives are dictated by online instruction, we need more simplicity, not clutter. A book is linear. Online courses can be a scattered mess.

Advantages of government schooling through online learning

And there are distinct advantages to online learning, as well, some of which I list below:

  1. It is portable; the portal can be accessed and assignments submitted from any- where in the world. Caution: learners must account for different time zones for live tutorials.
  2. Text books can be outdated, while online content is easier to update and correct.
  3. Videos and recorded webinars can be watched repeatedly.
  4. Kids can ask questions When they “raise their hand” virtually, class-mates cannot see the hand nor hear the question, so it encourages children to ask questions without fear of embarrassment or ridicule from peers.
  5. Students do not need to socialize with classmates. They avoid being subjected to bullying. This is a relief for introverts who just want to concentrate on the learning.
  6. It is ideal for people with barriers that prevent physical participation: lack of child- care, mobility issues, transportation difficulties, and others.
  7. It works for both visual and auditory learners.
  8. Students can work ahead or fall slightly behind, within reason. Some teachers post the entire course at once, which is great for big-picture learners; however, many teachers will post the course in sections.
  9. Learners do not have to sign up for the full-time school package to get teacher- directed content and personalized feedback on individual courses.
  10. Learning is border-less. Learners can access courses that originate in other countries, if they feel they would be better served.

If kids are going to spend more of their time at school online, why not just stay home and pursue their own agenda on their own schedule? No matter what textbook learners read or which online course they take, they will learn enough math, biology, and literature to pass their exit exams, or post-secondary entrance exams, if they choose that direction.

If the internet were to become the main learner-centered educational hub, schools could provide valuable support as centers for teacher and tutorial help, supervised field trip coordination, technology support, and resource lending libraries. Post-secondary schools could provide the benchmark accreditation for getting accepted, and learners could learn anywhere.

Internet would be the “institution.” Schools would be the support. Not the other way around.

Excerpted from Chapter 19 of Unschooling To University: Relationships matter most in a world crammed with content, by Judy Arnall

Unschooling To University is available at Amazon


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