FAQ About Unschooling High School and College
Alison McKee began unschooling her two children over twenty years ago and from their family’s experiences wrote the book “From Homeschool to College and Work: Turning Your Homeschooled Experiences into College and Job Portfolios.” She has written numerous articles on homeschooling which have appeared in Growing Without Schooling, Home Education Magazine, Homefire: The Journal of Homeschooling, The Relaxed Homeschooler, F.U.N.News: Family Unschooling Network and continues to offer support to individuals who seek information about homeschooling across the country.
We asked Alison McKee How She Used Unschooling
Q: What is unschooling?
A: Unschooling is a term that the late John Holt coined in the late ’70s to describe learning that is based on a child’s interests and needs. Unschooling does not begin with a parent’s notion of what is important to learn and then turn the choices of how to learn the content over to a child. Rather, it begins with the child’s natural curiosity and expands from there. Unschooling is not “instruction free” learning. If a child wants to learn to read, an unschooling parent may offer instruction by providing help with decoding, reading to the child, and giving the child ample opportunity to encounter words. If the child is uninterested in these supports, the parent backs off until the child asks for help. The most important thing about the unschooling process is that the child is in charge of the learning, not the adult. Unschoolers often do no traditional school work, yet they do learn the traditional subject matter. They learn it as a natural extension of exploring their own personal interests.
Q: Is Eclectic or interest-led learning the same as unschooling.
A: If the terms “Eclectic” and “interest-led” learning describes homeschooling practices that put the child’s learning needs before parental notions of what is important to learn, then the term “unschooling” applies. However, if “Eclectic” homeschooling simply means using multiple teaching methods, then Eclectic homeschooling is not unschooling.
Q: If your family chooses to unschool will the children have a chance to go to college.
A: Whether your children are schooled, traditionally educated at home or unschooled, college admissions is not a guarantee. Don’t fret, though, unschooled children are quite successful at getting into college. Not only are they getting into college but they are doing well once they get there. Make no mistake, unschooling works well for college-bound teens. Stories about them abound and some of these stories are being written up in widely circulated magazines and newspapers including The New York Times.
Q: How can our teen secure a college education without having to sacrifice their unschooling practices?
A: As a dedicated unschooler, there are two things you can do. First, begin researching college options early. There are many non-traditional and traditional colleges that welcome unschoolers. The non-traditional schools run the gamut from being typical residential colleges to colleges which offer degrees via “distance learning.” The unschoolers in our family, dad included, have used traditional and non-traditional colleges to earn bachelor degrees and a doctorate. Secondly, you might consider the plan our daughter devised. She is an adamant unschooler who fiercely adhered to her unschooling roots throughout her “high school” years. Her plan: try one college course during “high school,” as an eighteen-year-old take more college courses. At eighteen she enrolled half-time at the university and half-time at the local technical college. Doing so, she carried a full academic load and completed a full year of college work in one academic year. Having aced her courses, she then transferred into an out-of-state university to further her studies. She still considers herself to be unschooling because, “I’m choosing to do this.”
Q: How will our unschooler know if they want to go to college at all – can he “try it out.”
A: Often teens take a couple of college courses during their “high school years.” The process involves enrolling in a local college, university or technical school as a “special student.” “Special students” are non-matriculated students who register for classes based on personal interests or skills. Credits and grades earned as a special student become part of a permanent college record. If your son or daughter is interested in becoming a “special student” contact the admissions office of the college and explain your situation. Initially I learned to pose as a school counselor and said I was working with a high school student who was interested in doing college course work. This was a helpful little subterfuge. I was quickly transferred to the appropriate person and my questions about application procedures were answered. If placement tests are required, are free and can be taken before admission, consider having your son/daughter take them before formal applications are complete. If he/she scores well, attach the score to the application and the admissions process will probably move along quite quickly and smoothly. We used this method with our son and learned that sometimes it pays to put the cart before the horse.
Q: I’ve heard people talking about unschoolers who transferred into college. How can that be?
A: If unschoolers have taken college courses, the credits they earned can be used toward a “transfer” admissions record. Generally speaking, students are considered true “transfer” students if they have a year of credit established. If you are interested in the “transfer into college” method of admissions, be sure to work closely with admissions officers of the schools which interest your teen. Two things are important to remember. (1) In most cases courses taken as a “special student” will not count towards graduation if your son or daughter eventually matriculates at the same college. (2) It is important to note that you must not submit any college course work to an admissions officer with the stipulation that the courses were taken to complete high school work. If you do, those credits will not be considered college credits but, rather, high school graduation requirements.
Q: Please explain how enrollment in a technical school can benefit our teen
with regard to college admissions.
A: Many technical schools offer a two year AA degree in “liberal studies.” Often these programs are open to homeschoolers. Liberal studies programs offer courses which are typically required of all first and second year college students. Although a technical school program may not be a very prestigious way to complete “general distribution requirements,” the benefit of using technical school/junior college can be substantial. It is a considerably less expensive way to complete basic requirements and smaller class size offers individualized attention that is often unavailable at larger universities and colleges. After completing such a degree, transfer into a four year college is possible.
Q: Will my teen be required to take a standardized test as part of their enrollment requirement?
A: Unschoolers often consider utilizing standardized tests as part of the college admissions process. Good test scores have the advantage of indicating, to the traditionally minded directors of admissions, that unschoolers are capable learners and good candidates for college admissions. Good standardized test scores, in conjunction with a well thought out and presented homeschool transcripts are one of the simplest ways to obtain college admissions. There are a host of standardized tests that are available to college bound students, the most common being the ACT, the PSAT, and the SAT. Your library will have information about these tests.
Q: Are there colleges and universities which do not require standardized tests for the application process.
A: The simple answer to the question is, “yes.” More and more colleges are turning away from standardized tests scores as the means by which to evaluate a student’s potential for success in the college setting. Sometimes, students are required to take the tests, refuse to take them, and still gain college admissions based solely upon their unschooled “transcript.”
Q: How can we prepare ourselves to produce a transcript for our unschooled children?
A: Begin the process by documenting learning interests and activities in the early teen years. Waiting until the “high school years” may cause you to lose track of significant information that would be beneficial to include in a college transcript. Through trial-and-error settle on a method for documenting learning which is not too cumbersome and easy to keep up with. Keep the process simple. We used a 3 x 5 notepad for each child. Make notes as each individual situation demands: daily, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or even annually. Your need to document learning will depend on what is taking place in the lives of your individual teens. If your teen is involved in many regularly happening activities simply list those activities once. For activities which have a shorter time frame, list them and their duration. If there are specifics which are important (lead in a play, solo part, prize won…) list those. As you begin to gather your notes, consider compiling them into a meaningful context on a regular basis. For us, “a regular basis” meant once every 4-6 months. Begin the process of compiling notes for college admissions by using the traditional academic subject headings of English, Science, Social Studies, and Math. As you go along, add subject headings which more accurately describe what is happening in your child’s life.
Q: How do we turn our notes into a college transcript?
A: When you submit your child’s academic journal to a college admissions board, the notes that you have been keeping will make the final transcript writing process quite simple. To turn your notes into a transcript you need only complete a few more tasks. (1) Make the final document representative of traditional as well as non-traditional learning pursuits. (2) Re-name non-traditional studies with traditional subject headings in order to fit into the traditional “college prep work” categories. We re-named our son’s five year experience of studying fly fishing “science” and described the work by categorizing it in terms of ichthyology, physics, entomology etc. (3) Weed out any material that is unnecessary. (4) Visual artists, photographers, potters, dancers, actors, singers and musicians should put together a portfolio, video or audio tape of their work to submit with their application.
Q: What about diplomas, the GED, class standing, high school credits and grades?
A: There are five simple answers to these questions. First, as a legally established homeschool you will grant your child a diploma when your child has met your standards for graduation. You may formally or informally grant the diploma. Secondly, I advise all families to AVOID THE GED. It is a red flag which often warns admissions officers that the student did not complete high school, was a drop out or some such thing. Homeschoolers do not want to get branded in this manner. They have not dropped out but rather taken charge of their own education by “rising out” of the system. Third, in most cases your child’s class standing is #1. Your child, in most cases, is the only graduate in the class and you do not want to leave questions such as this unanswered on a college application. Fourth, do not try to establish “high school credits” for the work and learning that your teen has accomplished. This can open a whole can of worms regarding who approved the credits etc. which you want to avoid. And finally, fifth, let the merit of your teen’s work stand on its own. Do not demean it by reducing it to a series of letter grades.
Q: We are unschooling. Our children are not very focused in their work. We would like them to go to college, they seem to show no interest. What should we do?
A: I recommend that you converse with your teens about what it is they envision themselves doing once they become adults. Often you may be surprised by their well thought out plans for the future. As you have conversation with your teens consider reading The Question is College by Herbert Kohl. Consider keeping a journal of your teens experiences. Often times they are quite diverse and non-traditional. As the journal grows you may be surprised to find that your teen has skills that will transfer nicely into a well paying job. Maybe college will not be an immediate necessity.
Q: We are considering the use of traditional curriculum for our unschooled teens and pre-teen. This is not easy for us but all three children aren’t doing much of anything that we consider to be productive. Do you have any suggestions?
A: Just before our son entered his teens, and for a year or so more, his life seemed non-productive. I was comforted by my knowledge that teen and pre-teen developmental changes take significant “inner” work. If you are willing, simply be sure that your teens are actively involved in activities which motivate them when they are in active states of mind. This meaningful work or study is important because, in the future, it will help keep interests in learning alive. Standardized curriculum, at this stage of the game, may put squash any learning interests.
Q: When we started homeschooling a few years ago we were using a traditional curriculum. Soon it made our children just as miserable as they had been in the public school. We decided to go without curriculum so that we could become involved in more “real life” activities. Now that we are free of curriculum how do we go about getting involved.?
A: You have discovered one of the major advantages of being homeschooled – at the drop of a hat you are free to change your plans and experiment with different methods of educating yourself and your children. In my opinion, taking part in the “real world” is the core of the homeschooling experience. No doubt, being out and about can entail simple things like trips to the store or library, but becoming immersed in the real world involves a bit more than this. It means becoming involved with the work of the real world. This can be done on a few different levels. To help young children get involved in the real world requires the presence of a parent, family friend, older sibling, or a teenager. Our family relied on an assortment of such people to help in the process of linking our children to the life of our community. As your children begin to develop an interest in their larger community, talk to them. Listen, as they ask questions. Use your circle of friends, the yellow pages, the library and the phone to help find ways for your children to become involved in activities that interest them. With teens the process is both easier and more complex. Teens often know what interests them and are capable of making the inquires to get connected to people who can be a help to them. If they cannot do this for themselves, don’t push. Make the calls and connections for them. Remember, your goal is to get them involved in community life, not make them panic simply because they are uncomfortable talking to strangers.
Q: What are your suggestions for finding community involvement activities?
A: There are a few resources that our family regularly used. Read the local news paper, listen to local public radio stations, consult the yellow pages, visit the chamber of commerce, watch ads for events that are happening in surrounding communities or get suggestions from neighbors, reading public notices at the library, and participating in the activities and field trips offered by our homeschooling support group.
Q: Have other unschoolers grown up to lead successful lives? Has their non-traditional education served them well or hindered their future?
A: Graduate unschoolers I know are doing quite well. Their lives are rich and rewarding and include graduate school; completing a first year of teaching music in an elementary school, volunteering for CityYear Detroit in the inner city schools of Detroit, working as a chef in a “posh” restaurant, college, doing technical lighting and electrical work, working as a massage therapist… All of these unschoolers are self-supporting and happy individuals.
For further information about alternative colleges and a comprehensive listing of such schools consider reading Bear’s Guide to Earning College Degrees Nontraditionally.