May 22, 2006 12:00 PM

un•school•ing (un skōō’ling), n. An educational philosophy in which kids—not parents or teachers—choose what to study

Every morning, while other kids in Jonesboro, Tenn., are gulping breakfast and racing for the schoolbus, Ren Allen’s four kids are, well, sleeping in. As their cohorts struggle with math and English in the classroom, Trevor, 16, may spend the day tinkering with his computer, while Jared, 12, draws dragons and Sierra, 9, and Jalen, 5, build Lego ships and dig in the garden. Sounds like a kid’s dream—but it’s also okay with their mom. “I’m just trying to get out of my kids’ way,” says Ren, a 36-year-old makeup artist, “and let them learn what they love.”

The Allens, like an estimated 100,000 others around the country, are putting into practice an educational philosophy called “unschooling”—the far fringe of the more familiar home-schooling movement popularized in the 1970s by American educator John Holt. Sometimes known as “child-driven learning,” unschooling lets kids concentrate on the subjects that interest them most, not what parents or teachers think they should learn. “Our philosophy is that it doesn’t matter if a kid learns to tell time when he’s 6 or when he’s 10,” says the Allen children’s dad, Markus, 42, a real estate broker. “If he learns what he’s interested in, it will stick.” For Maureen Carey, 60, a former high school vice principal whose unschooled daughter Aidin is now on full scholarship at Harvard, unschooling has been a respite from the regimented settings, standardized tests and rote memorization that, she believes, can rob a child of identity and independence. “If they’re allowed to be themselves and develop themselves, children do amazing things.”

Still, unschooling is controversial. Says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute: “It’s true that schools are immensely boring for some kids. But for disadvantaged kids or those who don’t have a stable family or community support to help them master basic skills, [unschooling] can be a recipe for anarchy.”

For the family of Aidin Carey, now earnings A’s and B’s in her Harvard history and literature courses, unschooling has been an undeniable success. “Until I was 10, I didn’t do any formal schoolwork,” says Aidin, 21. Instead, the precocious child went to museums, played with friends and signed up for lessons in calligraphy, piano, ballet and theater. The Careys, who live in Cambridge, Mass., traveled to Europe every summer and read to their kids religiously. Though Aidin knew her alphabet, it wasn’t until she was 10 that, sparked by the sight of her mother teaching her 5-year-old brother to read, she suddenly “sat down and read an entire book,” she recalls. “I said, ‘He’s not going to learn before I am.'” Adds her mother: “When Aidin decided to read, she did.”

At 15, Aidin began taking open-enrollment night-school courses at Harvard and, three years later, after earning an associate’s degree and scoring well on her SATs, was accepted there as a full-time student. At first, difficulty in chemistry and calculus “made me feel like maybe I shouldn’t be at Harvard,” she says. But now, “as hard as it is, I really love school.”

There have been no studies of unschooling’s long-term effectiveness, and whether it works for kids who are less gifted—or motivated—than Aidin is what worries educators. Unschooling is a legal option in all 50 states; some mandate annual testing, while others merely require parents to register their children with the local school district. For Ren Allen, the mother of four unschooled kids in Tennessee, there are no misgivings. “We’re just extending the same freedom to our children that we have as adults,” she says. “To learn what we want, and when.”

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