Students Teaching Themselves: The Unschooling Movement

By David Ngo, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

In our traditional schooling culture, there is a belief that children must be taught how to read, and most learn how to do so at a certain pace. In addition, the children who do not stay at the school curriculum’s pace are often looked down upon, while those who read at a higher grade level are applauded.1 However, Peter Gray, a psychology research professor at Boston College, discusses the “unschooling” movement and the Sudbury “non-school” movement.2  He claims that children can teach themselves how to read and will enjoy the process, rather than resent it like those who struggle with the conventional schooling system. The Sudbury “non-school” movement focuses on allowing the students to learn at their own pace, with no set syllabus or curriculum, among peers of various ages. Moreover, Gray summarizes the following principles:2

1)    For non-schooled children there is no critical period/best age for learning to read
2)    Motivated children can go from apparent non-reading to fluent reading very quickly.
3)    Attempts to push reading can backfire.
4)    Children learn to read when reading becomes a means to some valued end or ends.
5)    Reading, like many other skills, is learned socially through shared participation.
6)    Some children become interested in writing before reading, and they learn to read as they learn to write.
7)    There is no predictable course through which children learn to read.

Gray brings up several salient points.2 For example, his seventh principle discusses how each student is different; therefore, the method and time required to learn how to read will be different. This not only applies to children, but to learners of all ages.  Everyone has a unique approach to learning. This is related to learning styles including Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic. Learners may dominantly learn best in a certain way or a combination of these styles. VARK and the “unschooling” movement are related because it shows that not only does everyone learn at their own pace, but also that they will learn best in their own specific way. A child may learn best visually, by associating the word with the visual image of the object; or a child may learn by hearing the word aloud and associating that with the word; or a combination of both. Through the “unschooling” method, the child will approach the parents/teachers and will learn how to read in the manner that suits them best. Therefore, the “unschooling” or Sudbury movements have implications for learning because it allow students to learn in their own way rather than following a set curriculum that forces each student to learn in one specific way.

Moreover, pushing the conventional reading method upon a child may breed resentment and disdain throughout a lifetime, doing more harm than good. Children will learn more easily and find it more enjoyable once they find their own motivation to read.  Young learners may develop the desire to read because they want to know what a video game says, to write a story, or to emulate family and friends. This is related to the educational theory known as cognitivism. Cognitivism is interested in understanding how the brain functions, how learners think, and the influences of mood, feelings, motivations, and past experiences on learning.  In Sudbury schools, children learn with other students of various ages. Gray talks about how the younger children wanted to learn to read to be like their older peers. Once a child is motivated to read, he or she can learn the skill quickly and fluently. Although unconventional, the “unschooling” movement provides some interesting insights about how best to educate young students, and these are strategies that traditional schools and teachers should incorporate.

If children are able to teach themselves to read, adult learners can successfully teach themselves as well. Self-directed learning is becoming more important particularly as online schools and degree programs are becoming more established.  And more adults are going back to school. As a Shady Grove student at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, I was skeptical about how I could earn a Pharm.D. primarily through distance education and web-based strategies.  I’ve seen through personal experience that “unschooling” can apply to pharmacy students.  Personal motivation plays a major role in how well students learn in a self-directed, online learning format.  Shady Grove students are able to watch lectures whenever they want — not restricted by set class times. I have seen that this works well for some and poorly for others.  It works well for students that are motivated and set their own learning schedule. I found this freedom to be great, as I learn better in the afternoon and night.  So I schedule myself to watch my lectures during the afternoon. Other adult learners with families also find this method to be great because they can take care of their family and set aside time to learn. However, some students have difficult with this level of freedom and do not do any work until an exam looms.  Under extreme pressure, they have marathon lecture sessions, binging on as much materials as possible.  This may be effective for short-term learning but this method does not work very well for long-term retention.

“Unschooling” applies to medical residents as well. A qualitative analysis regarding self-directed learning among medical residents found that they believe self-directed learning skills serve as the basis for a physician’s lifelong learning.4  Moreover, they found that most residents viewed self-directed learning as important to themselves and their patients.  However, most medical residents felt that they lacked the skills to engage in self-directed learning and valued teacher-centered teaching approaches. Therefore, although self-directed learning has a lot of potential, motivation is important for it to be effective.

1.  Anderson R. Junior Knows Best. Utne Reader. 29 Jun 2006 [cited 2011 Oct 17]
2.  Gray R. Children Teach Themselves to Read. Psychology Today [Internet]. Freedom to Learn. 24 Feb 2010 [cited 2011 Oct 17]
3.  Gray R. Nature’s Powerful Tutors; The Educative Functions of Free Play. Eye on Psi Chi. Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. 12(1):18.
4.  Nothangle M, Anandarajah G, Goldman RE, Reis S. Struggling to Be Self-Directed: Residents' Paradoxical Beliefs About Learning. Academic Medicine. 2011 Oct 25;Published Ahead of Print.