Monday, May 9, 2011


In Roland Tharp's and Ronald Gillmore's (1988) seminal text, Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning, and Schooling in Social Context, they discuss the meaning of the term, school, and in many ways target the tensions felt today. Consider:

When citizens and their leaders hear of places and things calling themselves "schools" and those places and things do not correspond to the nation's internalized and shared vision, a deep offense is experienced, an offense to all the components of basic meaning-- the intellectual, emotional, activity, and historical components of the meaning of the word "school." The tendency of society is to gather back to the flock any errant geese.  It is no accident that the political movement for greater emphasis on higher academic goals has labeled itself the back-to-basics movement....Any social system will attempt to recapture those who deviate from its shared and internalized symbols; schools wander off the well-worn path at their peril. (p. 266).

Against this felt desire to maintain the known, there is also public dissatisfaction with schools. This leads to reform after reform regardless of how it is dressed that carries with it the subtext that "we're going to make it more like it was than ever before" (p. 267). Tharp and Gallimore write:
Political school-bashing and teacher-bashing are almost always based on the assumption that schools are no longer adhering to their real purposes: teachers are less knowledgeable than they should be; students are not as disciplined as they should be; the basic skills of reading, writing, and ciphering are not emphasized as they were in good old schools. (p. 267)
Tharp and Gallimore state that "intersubjectivity of the nation is the root problem--the shared meaning of school, the common history of schooling...the continual dousing of innovation and the restoration of the school to the comfortable conformity to the internalized image are reliable and reassuring political acts" (p.267).  Twenty-three years later, has much changed in the way we view "school"? Tharp and Gallimore conclude that "true school reform can come only about with a radical change in the meaning of school" (p.268).

In many ways the voucher programs and charter school movement hold the promise of something shiny and new, but nonetheless maintain the fundamental structure of school as a place students go to learn a prescribed curriculum. Yes, students may go to a charter school for a longer period of time during the school year. Charters may look more focused on the surface as they may be formed with connection to some type of occupation (the arts) or disposition (school of problem solving). Central here though is that the fundamental understanding of school as a location where students come to learn from teachers remains largely unchanged. And that's a problem.

I've been thinking a lot lately about learning and less about schooling.

Although still formative, what is emerging is an unschool: think of it as a commitment to learning that young people and some not so young make and in doing so form alliances based on interests, curiosities, questions, and passions. These alliances are not located solely in one geographic place, but can and do exist both in real and virtual spaces. Unschools have no prescribed state of national standards as the idea of a single prescribed curriculum runs counter to the stated goal of helping young people to compose themselves as learners.  Some critical ways of coming to know are privileged however, and find expression as composing and consuming--problem solving and problem generating, as well as the development of heuristics. Learning decisions are informed by mentors and peer-learners in concert with unschool community members, as well as peer-learner defined "expert practitioners". The mentor and peer-learner work is largely to fashion personalized learning that is inherently iterative and attends to the critical ways of knowing and doing. Peer learners, like mentors, are not restricted to a single place as virtual learning is part of the unschool design, although it is expected that there will be mentors and peer learners who will come together in real space for certain work.  Self assessment is privileged, alongside some external norms that the mentor and peer learner determine jointly.

That's what I am seeing currently and I would love to know what you think. Unschools will make most of us uncomfortable as they resist our understanding of school. As such, imagining unschools is difficult, especially as the remembrance of our own "schooling" is often romanticized and will be of little practical value, except in pointing at what it is not like.  Instead, it is better to think of a deep learning experience you have had that did not take place at a school and consider how that learning evolved, and trace as best one can the often nomadic journey of such learning.

There will be lots of ideas and content that unschool learners won't know.  What they will know and have experience with are the challenges, frustrations ,complexities, beauty, and perseverance necessary to learn well and deeply and to share that learning in meaningful ways. 


  1. Mary Ann, this resonates deeply with many things that have been floating around my brain lately. I can't help wondering if the path to this vision may be something like an "Unschool in School Clothing". If it is too radically different than what society is comfortable with, an Unschool will probably get rejected and fail before it even begins. Maybe if we dress it up in some of the familiar surface features, it will have a shot.

    There is also the possibility that those of us in Schools can begin to slowly advocate for Unschool-like practices that can start to change things from the inside out....

  2. Gerald, I hear you. I like the concept of unschool in school clothing as I do agree that it would be very foreign to many. I'm just very unsure as to what clothing it would need to include.
    I don't see anyway to do an unschool within schools as we know it now. The trend is towards more and more certainty: standards, national testing and so on. These limit what can be conceived via school. I am open though to you ideas about this. Curious what intersections you see between school and unschool.

  3. We already have an unschool, it is the 17 hours outside of school every day, the weekends and holidays, even summer break. The problem with those times is that while the student is self directed in learning, there is often no mentor to guide, push, or ask for reflection. Perhaps schools should be a place where we teach students how to guide, push, and reflect on their own?

  4. Dear Mary Ann,

    Many of the brightest (and educated) folks I know managed to develop their own unschooled ways, despite chunks of time wiled away in the traditional settings.

    Not sure any true unschools exist, but Dave Eggers' Pirate Supply Store comes close.

    Who knew learning to live could prove so baffling?

  5. Mary Ann -

    I think, like Gerard, about why we can't have "unschool in school clothing." Sadly, I feel that many of the qualities of schooling and education you discuss are found in private schools--schools with more creative privileges, no one-size-fits-all standards to follow (school-based ones), no pressurized national testing, etc... As a public school teacher and administrator for many years, I am committed to believing that we can have this "unschooling" in public schools as well. Thank you for the insight and stimulating post.
    Mary Anne Sacco

  6. Will, I want to think about the concept of unschool as being more structured than "free time" outside of school.It is all about the relationships between and among mentors and learners. Also it is built on uncertainty and that rarely feels comfortable. I don't see learners working in isolation, but with one another in the possibility of infinite combinations via the Internet and other "actual" connections.

    Not sure this can be done within school as we now know them as they are so constrained by certainty.

  7. Michael, I laughed when I read your response as a few of us were talking about the "Pirate Shop" as metaphor this afternoon. I don't know if it exists either (at last here in the states) but do think it is possible.

    It is rhizomatic, not hierarchical and that will be difficult to hold on to given the way our society works. I could see you there (or there).

  8. Mary Anne, I would love to explore with you how this might be possible within a public domain. So much would need to get out of the way, beginning with the absolute privileging of the myth of certainty.

  9. Excellent piece. You describe my personal journey. I have having so much fun learning in informal settings. Just said today, a lifetime is not enough to learn everything I want to. The world has opened up as our classroom and I, for one, want to exploit every opportunity to learn from and with others.

  10. Great article that so resonates with my work (in Australia). What I am doing is much like the unschool you speak of. The approach is simple but the work is not easy to do. Students (and myself) have been schoolled for so long that it is in our being and to make such a radical shift takes a great deal of unlearning. This is scary and at times terrifying. It takes time and trust to allow students to take ownership of their own learning.
    My blog:

    Each week I meet with 8 students in a Big Red Bus. It is set up with internet, tables, fridge and microwave. The bus is like a meeting place. It is an alternative school program based on the principles of or Australia

    Students are encouraged to follow their interests/passion and 2-3 days a week work with mentors in their interest area.

    During the other days of the week we support, explore, challenge each other with my role as guide/advisor rather than teacher.

    Students have their own personalised learning plans and each term exhibit their work/learning in from of parents, mentors and peers.

  11. Dear Joanne, your comments remind me of what I would want to value in mentors. Thanks.

  12. Dear Geoff, I immediately went to your blog and read and read. Your description of the work you are doing with learners in the big red bus is fascinating. I would love to travel along or perhaps connect via the net. Inspired by what you are writing and posting on your blog. Thanks:)

  13. I think unschool is an awesome idea. I've heard about it before, and I know that there are "institutions" which show that it can work. Interestingly, many of these types of unschool environments are intended to be used by at risk students who come into the programs typically failing in a more traditional environment.

    Some kids need the structure that a typical school offers, but my guess is that most people do not. Support for their learning, advice on how to proceed, maybe, but 100% hand holding? I don't think so.

  14. Would love to know more about those institutions doing unschools. Know of the "Not School" in England. You're right that it is a "school" for "disaffected youth".

  15. Mary Ann, perhaps that word hits at the core of the problem: certainty. Do we place unrealistic expectations on schools to provide certainty in a world that has none? Personally I think there is little in the world less certain than childhood. It is all undefined and unrefined potential.

    Unschools would, I think, embrace and even celebrate uncertainty and exploration. It would be Schrodinger's Cat with the box still closed.

  16. Gerald, it always interest me the allusions made in posts that resonates. Schrondiger's Cat certainly does and above a reply by Michael Doyle referencing Dave Eggers' Pirate Store did as well. Your line: "I think there is little in the world less certain than childhood" makes me wonder. Will think about that. Thanks:)

  17. love your post Mary Ann.. and all these comments. spot on.

    we've learned much this year from people that seem to get the idea of a unschooling. locally and virtually. some of them will be sharing their thinking june 1 on Steve Hargadon's Future of Ed. (Kate Fridkis, Carl Aldrich, Lisa Nielsen)

    last year, kids talked about how they would redefine school. this conversation really got us going:
    and they ended up crafting a 4 year plan of disruption (Clay Christensen) working both in and out of the system in order to create a district-wide non-compulsory ed by the end of the 4 years:

    this was year one, the lab failed/learned plenty:
    with a vision next year to declare interdependence, with 1-1 mentors in the community. our thinking - as you all have stated - that seems the only way to let learning be natural. learner/curiosity led - while mentor(s) model learning alongside. it's like we're taking a perfect family situation, and calling that school. to me that's equity.. making sure everyone has the support you find in deep relationships.
    not only could this prove a better definition of school, but the meshing (Lisa Gansky) up of people and space, would no doubt lead too fewer health care needs, fewer budget needs, etc.

    for those needing a boost back to self-directedness, like perhaps when they were 5, we've garnered the wisdom of expert self-directed learners and kid-speak to create such a guide. we're calling it detox.
    we found that even if the learner sets an agenda, that can compromise potential of learning/being. one could miss the adjacent possibilities Steven Johnson talks about in his TED:
    but even more so, miss the opportunity to be fully alive, to participate wholeheartedly, to be.

    Ellen Langer writes in Mindlessness, when we focus on outcome, we can encourage mindlessness.
    labels do that as well, our mind shuts down once we think we've got things figured out.
    a great post by Desiree about labels:

    Dennis Littky's work at the Met seems another great example - his for the last 11 years.

    how refreshing to read this post today. thanks again Mary Ann.

  18. Gever Tulley's BrightWorks school is not quite an unschool but shares a certain spirit

  19. In so many ways the learning model you are describing is what I have experienced since I took the plunge into social media. While I did very well academically throughout my traditional education one thing that was never fueled in my school experience was my love of learning.

    Perhaps an organizing "structure" for an Unschool could be a shared purpose or outcome. The networks of relationships I have naturally built online have come about based on synergy of interests, purpose and goals.

  20. Dear Monika,

    How I wish you lived & worked in NJ. The links you referenced I have bookmarked (List: Unschool)in diigo. I just have so much to learn from and with you. Plan to read through everything tonight. Thank you.

  21. Patrick, the site you recommended is wonderful. Reminds me of the work some of my colleagues have been exploring. Can't wait to share it with them. Thank you so much.

  22. Susan, right with you on this. We began to discuss this a bit on the phone. If we fail to inspire a love of learning, we have failed. Thinking more about it and will write more. Thank you for your insights:)

  23. Patrick, I figured that out. Thanks:)

  24. Mary-Anne thanks for stimulating some thinking!

    There's already an 'unschool' for teachers in the guise of virtual PLN (like Twitter). So why can't children have the same?

    I agree the 'traditional' concept of 'school' is so ingrained in society that any alternatives are often marginalised and ridiculed, like Steiner and Montisorri Schools for example.

    The only way alternatives gain any credibility is by being 'perceived' as a successful model-like the Reggio Emilia system in Northern Italy.

    Some might say the Khan Academy is an unschool but even though they don't have the school building they still have traditional model of tutor lecturing students.

    I'm going to go away and think some more about the unschool concept and will write a blog post in reply.

    Thanks once again for such a thought-provoking piece.


  25. Julian, thanks fr your comments. I've been at Waldorf (Rudolph Steiner) and Montesorri schools and have read about Reggio Emilia and agree that they are alternatives, but still resemble the structure of school in many ways. I am going to start to put on paper a proposal for an unschool will post as I work so others might add their voice, correct me when I head back towards traditional school concepts (that's inevitable), and provide feedback. Hope you will add your voice to that discussion. Thanks)

  26. Very interesting and well written article that generates many questions for the future of schools.
    Just a few scattered questions and comments. I wonder what Ivan Illiich would have thought about these ideas, in particular, how this would serve those in poverty because the suggestions in the article still seem to promote a new shared history of school without a place or nation. Does this address the social inequities that can arise that can be barrier to learning?
    Is this idea something like the organization ‘schools without boarders’?
    I enjoyed your article and wish I had more time to comment.

  27. Jake, your comments resonate. Certainly I have thought about Ivan Illich & Deschooling Society. This take on schooling & Illich is interesting: Love Scary school Nightmare ( )
    Social justice concerns matter and I am not at all sure that an unschool can address inequities without being deeply embedded in the local.

    Appreciate your comments. Made me think...