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Be My Guest: Unschooling Reflects Current Cognitive Research


Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning Magazine, the author of twelve books, and the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school.

As I wrote recently in Life Learning Magazine, unschooling is the way of the future, for all ages. So I’m always surprised that so many people think it is wrong, weird, or witless…or even anti-intellectual. In fact, it’s just the opposite; our current education systems are based on outdated science, and unschooling reflects current cognitive research.

When schools were created, it was thought that learning was a sequential process that involved structure, uniformity, and memorization, and relied on extrinsic motivation and control – things like praise, rewards, and punishment. Now science knows differently; modern cognitive research is demonstrating that learning is open-ended and spontaneous, and that people – including children – learn best when they are intrinsically motivated and can build on their everyday experiences.

There are different types of motivation, which researchers generally group into intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is about free choice, pleasure, a sense of satisfaction, and the desire to fill a physical, intellectual or emotional need. If we eat our dinner because we enjoy the taste of the food, the company, and our surroundings, and feel good afterwards, we’re intrinsically motivated. We might research a topic on the Internet out of curiosity or for the fun of learning something new – that’s intrinsic motivation too.

If, on the other hand, we undertake that research in order to get a good mark on a term paper, we are extrinsically motivated. Likewise, when a parent tells a child that she’ll get ice cream if she finishes her peas, the parent is using extrinsic motivation to create the behavior he desires in his daughter. (And we could safely assume that the little girl isn’t intrinsically motivated to eat her peas!) Extrinsic motivation involves doing something in order to earn external rewards such as praise, money, or grades, or to avoid punishments.

They’re not exact opposites, and are not necessarily exclusionary. Most of us need and benefit from extrinsic motivation from time to time. We might need the motivation of regular weigh-ins to keep on a diet, for instance. And even though we may be intrinsically motivated by the challenge of running a marathon, we sometimes will employ a dose of extrinsic motivation to keep us training through the long haul.

The Impetus to Learn
Intrinsic motivation leads to optimum learning, according to modern cognitive science. It’s something most parents intuitively know. Just watch any infant and you‘ll have evidence that children are naturally curious and interested in learning, exploring, and mastering challenges. They don’t need to be motivated to learn, nor taught how to do it.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, developmental psychologists at the University of Rochester, capped thirty years of research on the subject in 1985 by calling this “Self-Determination Theory.” Their work confirms that children are born with an innate desire to explore their internal and external surroundings in an attempt to understand and master them. They believe that the impetus to learn comes from within and isn’t separate from the activity itself. In fact, they say that allowing children the freedom to pursue their interests without interference is essential to creativity and learning – that is, self-determination is crucial for kids.

There are other things beyond interest and self-determination that support intrinsic motivation. In a 2004 book entitled Learning Disabilities: The Interaction of Students and Their Environments, Syracuse University psychologist Corinne Roth Smith says that interest isn’t sufficient. “A sense of competence (‘I can do this’), autonomy (‘I am making the decision to do this’), and relatedness (‘I feel secure and supported in doing this’) supports this intrinsic motivation,” she writes.

Thomas Malone, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Mark R. Lepper, a professor at Stanford University, published a paper in 1987 entitled “Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivation.” They noticed that most students find school boring and require extrinsic motivation to goad them into undertaking educational activities. Recognizing that video gaming is intrinsically motivating for kids and wondering how that differs from the school environment, they identified four major factors that lead to intrinsic motivation: challenge, curiosity, control, and fantasy.
In the words of Australian educational psychologist John B. Biggs, the intrinsic motivation resulting from these factors is “deep” learning, versus the shallower type that may be more about obedient memorization than real learning.

Sidetracking Learning
Researchers have discovered that offering external rewards for an already intrinsically rewarding activity can actually make the activity less rewarding. David G. Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan, says that unnecessary rewards can carry hidden costs to learning. “Most people think that offering tangible rewards will boost anyone’s interest in an activity. Actually, promising children a reward for a task they already enjoy can backfire, according to the research. In experiments, children promised a payoff for playing with an interesting puzzle or toy later play with the toy less than do children who are not paid to play. It is as if the children think, ‘If I have to be bribed into doing this, then it must not be worth doing for its own sake.’ ”

Richard A. Griggs, Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida, goes further, suggesting that many students will become suspicious when extrinsic motivation is used. In his text Psychology: A Concise Introduction, he writes, “With the addition of extrinsic reinforcement, the person may perceive the task as over-justified and then attempt to understand their true motivation (extrinsic versus intrinsic) for engaging in the activity.”

Some have even suggested outright that school as we know it inherently impedes learning. Educator and psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote in his 1966 book Toward a Theory of Instruction that, “The will to learn becomes a ‘problem’ only under specialized circumstances like those of a school, where a curriculum is set, students confined, and a path fixed. The problem exists not so much in learning itself, but in the fact that what the school imposes often fails to enlist the natural energies that sustain spontaneous learning.”

Deci and Ryan concur. In a 2000 paper published in the journal Contemporary Educational Psychology, they wrote, “Because intrinsic motivation results in high-quality learning and creativity, it is especially important to detail the factors and forces that engender versus undermine it.” One of those negative forces, they say, is extrinsic rewards, along with threats, bribes, deadlines, directives, and imposed goals.

This is just a small and simplistic sampling of the new thinking that demonstrates why unschooling works, and why our current memorization-based education systems are in trouble, in spite (or because) of increased testing and competition. Science has moved past the thinking of Behaviorists like Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, but most schools – and some homeschoolers – are still trying to educate kids via programmed instruction and the threat/reward mentality. And while some teachers try to use tools like Malone’s and Lepper’s principles of challenge, curiosity, self-control, and fantasy in their classrooms, but they are restricted by the structure of schools and school systems.

Unschoolers, on the other hand – or “life learners” as I prefer to say today – can create an environment that is the perfect catalyst for children’s “self-determination.” In doing so, we are providing for our children and youth the opportunity to learn from activities that are based on their own interests and that satisfy their innate psychological needs for competence and autonomy. Many of us began allowing children to do what comes naturally to them long before science proved it was the best way for kids to learn. I hope science can somehow, eventually, trump the vested financial interests of the education industry so all children can learn as Nature intended.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tami Spackman #

    Dear Chris ~
    I have been enjoying your blog since you started it, so thank you for your continued thoughtful offerings. I haven’t commented yet, but feel sufficiently inspired to share my experience as a former parent at the Brooklyn Free School, and now as a home school parent.

    First off, philosophically I am most definitely an unschooler. I have come to this as I have discovered over the years that personally I am more intrinsically motivated (even if there are extrinsic rewards) and I have observed in my 9-year old since he was born that he is not only intrinsically motivated, but completely shuts down the moment an extrinsic motivation is introduced, even if it is a subtle one. The challenge then became how to support him in his unschooling endeavors. Ultimately, we found that even the “Free” school he was attending, where we thought he would be supported in those three aspects that you cite that help interests to grow — competence, autonomy, and relatedness — had over the three years become subtly replaced by the introduction of classes and curriculum. Even though the curriculum was not mandatory, it’s very presence seemed to have a negative effect on our son. Suddenly he hated going to school and resented the increasing restrictions placed on his time and ability to pursue his interests. With the introduction of formal classes as the main structure of the day, that was enough to turn him off. He wasn’t interested in those, and the subtle message, although I’m sure not intended, was that the kids that took classes were “better” and “more competent” and the kids that didn’t take classes were, well, allowed to just go play, but were not going to be interacted with as “learners.” Suddenly, the teachers stopped talking to him about his interests, as it was assumed that perhaps he didn’t have any because he didn’t want to take their classes. I of course do not think that any of this was intended. I can only assume that the school thought they were responding to the desires of parents or perhaps even their own desire to be able to better quantify what it is they do all day … I really have no idea and when asked they insisted nothing was changing. Yet, the reality was my son’s interest in being there had changed drastically.

    I think it is important to realize just how easy it is to shut down a child’s learning. The actual on the court application of unschooling is challenging for parents, teachers and administrators. To accept a completely intrinsic learning environment requires a tremendous amount of faith and fortitude. I have learned that the only way to create this environment for my son is to do it myself. But what about the parents that want this for their children and can’t do what I did and take matters into my hands? I know this is your point, that schools need a paradigm shift, but what do we all do in the meantime? Even if you have a child that can somehow tolerate the existence of classes in a Free School that do not interest them, there then becomes the issue of economics. These private, “Free” schools are expensive. I know there is no quick or easy answer to my questions and concerns, I am just expressing my own frustration as a parent in trying to find an environment for my child to truly be free, thought I had found it, only to discover that it was changing directions, and then on top of it, became prohibitively expensive. Home schooling really seems to be the only solution, and I am grateful that, a) I figured that out, and b) that I am able to stay home with my son and slog through the messiness and excitement of living a truly unschooling lifestyle. Yet, I still have to answer to the DOE, and submit reports that reflect the conventional schooling that they expect is happening. If I want to opt him out of standardized tests, I imagine that will be it’s own production. It’s all very silly, but it has become the lesser of evils.

    Until the necessary paradigm shift happens in education, the parents of school-age children really are not left with many options, at least in NY state and city. Perhaps there are more options other places. This makes me sad and frustrated for all of us. Although I am truly grateful and feel blessed that I can pursue the option of unschooling as a homeschooling parent (even though I have to fudge a bit with the DOE) I have to say that it gets tiresome and lonely to constantly forge our own path that is so different than most people we know. Over time I am finding my own support system, luckily, but that hasn’t been easy either. Even among the homeschooling community, as you mentioned, most are forcing their children to take classes, or at the very least not offering them any other option, as the commonly held belief is that unless they sign their kids up for classes, they won’t learn on their own or won’t have enough “stimulation” and will “fall behind.” When did we as a society learn to mistrust our children so much? Well, I have some idea of when this happened historically and why, so I guess I more ask that question as a way to express my exasperation :-)

    I look forward to the day when the paradigm truly shifts, but until then, I guess we all can just do the best we can and hopefully support each other as we navigate the slippery slope of raising our kids to be happy, healthy, and empowered.

    Tami Spackman

    February 13, 2014
    • Hi Tami,

      I am the author of this guest post on Chris Mercogliano’s blog. I empathize with your frustration on behalf of families that are not able, for whatever reason, to help their children learn without school; they are at a real disadvantage right now. The rest of us can, as you wrote, support each other – and try to help other families on their own paths, whether they choose no school or democratic schools.

      For about 40 years now, I’ve been a home-based learning/unschooling advocate. But I’ve also worked hard to challenge the assumptions behind schooling in the hope of modeling change for our entire educations systems. And I’ve become optimistic about the pace of change. Even twenty years ago, I didn’t think I’d see substantial change in my lifestime. But now I believe we’re nearing a tipping point, partly due to the sudden wave of realization that there are alternative, learner-based and less expensive ways to get a “post-secondary education.”

      February 13, 2014
      • Tami Spackman #

        Thanks, Wendy, for your reply! And, for all the work that you do as an advocate.

        That is encouraging to hear that you think things are nearing a tipping point. Do you recommend any ways for a parent such as myself to be more involved with change?

        All the best,

        February 14, 2014
        • I think we all do our part when we bring up our children with trust and respect for the awesome abilities they were born with. I see how that radiates outwards now from my two adult daughters who lived and learned in that way.

          In addition to that, we all can – as our situations allow – share our beliefs (and the school-free lifestyle, where appropriate) with others in our communities. We can join and support those in schools who are taking a stand against things like testing and core curriculum. We can – again, where possible and comfortable – call out those who are vocal about children needing to be controlled and coerced. We can support (and lobby for public support for) those institutions that are democratic and that people use without needing to be coerced, such as libraries and museums. We can model free-range learning in our own lives and, as I wrote in my 2000 book Challenging Assumptions in Education, reconsider the currency of degrees by playing down their importance in our own lives – “letting our names go naked on our business cards. 😉

          I hope this gives you some ideas!

          February 17, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, Tami. Your frustration came through loud and clear, and I totally agree with you that the answer is a true paradigm shift that phases out the monolithic and archaic education system we are stuck with now and gives birth to a far greater range of different kinds of ACCESSIBLE educational settings for children. I speak from 40 years of experience when I say that hard as a school may try to be everything for everyone, which schools like the Brooklyn and Albany Free Schools really do attempt, it’s just not possible because children are so immensely diverse.

      February 16, 2014
  2. I just finished writing this letter to the editor.
    There is a country which forces children to leave their homes when they become six years old. Upon entering the building, they go to assigned seats, where they must sit for long periods of time. If they leave their seats without permission, they get reprimanded by the teacher. While they are sitting, they must also be quiet. If they talk without permission, they get reprimanded by the teacher. If they continue to get out of their seats and speak without permission, school officials will urge their parents to place them on drugs to calm them down. The children even need permission to go to the bathroom.This lack of basic freedoms are compounded by the fact that they must be attentive to instruction, which often is of little or no interest to them. As a result, they can usually be seen staring out windows, looking at clocks, passing notes, distracting others, doodling, and doing just about anything to break the boredom.They are constantly being threatened, coerced, bribed, and punished, as they resist the demands made by school personnel. The children do not understand why learning, which used to be filled with joy and excitement, is now a series of arduous tasks.
    The adults of this country also wonder what happened to their curious offspring who were once eager to learn about their surroundings. They do not understand why their children say that they hate subjects like math or reading, when they did not feel this way before they ever got on a school bus.
    Meanwhile, the school officials are usually found thumping their chests raving about the wonderful programs they have to offer. Their system of forced education has achieved the desired results of taking inquisitive young minds and turning them into mush, as the teachers are unable to comprehend the idea that children are capable of learning anything on their own. Perhaps we should tell them that in our country, children learn how to use video games, cell phones, and computers without adult interference. Of course, they would never believe it. Thank goodness we live in a democracy, where only criminals are imprisoned against their will.

    Bob Blumenthal

    February 13, 2014
    • Hi Bob,

      What a great letter! I hope it gets published. Would be interested in knowing if you get any feedback or pushback.

      February 13, 2014
  3. Sally Rosloff #

    This is going in my reference file for folks who ask me what unschooling is and/or how it’s even possible to apply it to the scale of the public school system.

    While I am now able (with my kids now young adults) to explain what it is, you have so nicely summarized relevant, supportive research in a clear understandable way. I always talk about intrinsic motivation, which is nicely summed up here as well. I also like that you name the people most responsible for the structured, piecemeal nature of our current system.

    Thanks for another great piece! I’m sure I’ll be using it often.

    February 14, 2014
  4. Christy Rodgers #

    I did an in-depth interview with an unschooling parent 15 years ago and became fascinated with the subject and convinced that it is truly an ideal worth striving for. However, it saddens me to continue to hear those who support facilitating children’s innate ability to learn talking past the parents who have fought so hard against an overwhelming tide of privatization fever (which is the only thing I can understand by the term “vested financial interests of the education industry”) to strengthen the public schools. So I am glad to hear some support for making common cause here, as a step on the path toward freeing all children to learn. I came to learn that homeschooling did not at all equal unschooling, as many of the parents doing it had strict ideological agendas and tight lesson plans that were anything but freeing for their children’s minds. Parents, not just schools, are fully capable of the fallacy of behaviorism. At the same time, work can be done, as you have pointed out, to make the public schools more conducive to facilitating the innate desire and ability to learn. I think this is where unschooling supporters can and should join with public school defenders to work towards a society that truly values the ability to learn freely, at any age. Unschoolers should expand their analysis to look at the economic and social factors that inhibit unschooling and find ways to address them as well.

    March 5, 2014
    • Some unschoolers have been doing just that, Christy. Here’s an article I published in 2010 in one of my other magazines about finding common cause. Unfortunately, the perspective isn`t always welcomed by the school folks. I recall a situation recently where some people – myself included – joined an online group to be supportive of a group of teachers and were chased away quite dramatically. I am a public education supporter in theory, and hope for the day when they look more like unschooling!

      March 9, 2014
  5. Thank you Chris Mercogliano for all the wonderful work that you have done through out your life in defense of children. And thank you Tami Spacman for your thoughtful, honest and open letter. I confess that I struggle with these issues everyday as a mother to a child with severe dyslexia but also as someone who believes adamantly in the rights of children to make their own decisions and as a co-founder of a democratic free school. My child has thrived and continues to so do in great part to the immense sacrifices we have made to keep her out of public school. At age 13, she recently declared that she wants to attend a public arts high school next year, and leave the free school that she herself was instrumental in founding. She is deciding this because she sees it as a necessary stepping stone (as she’ll have access to free theater, singing, dancing, and TV production classes) to her self prescribed goals. This is her choice and she will follow through with it. I am grateful for her strength but also for the supportive community of unschoolers, homeschoolers, and free schoolers that have made these paths possible for all of us..

    November 1, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for writing in, Liliana. It’s nice to hear from you.

      Both my daughters decided to go to public high for precisely the same reasons. The fact that they chose it made all the difference in terms of the quality of their experience. While it was hardly shangri-la, they found ways to extract the good stuff and avoid a lot of the nonsense.

      November 5, 2014

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