Defending Unschooling: 'It's Not Anything Goes'

Parents say radical education method is about principles and personal growth.

ByABC News via GMA logo
April 18, 2010, 11:43 PM

April 20, 2010— -- A couple who practice "radical unschooling" said their hands-off approach to education and child-rearing is about exploring the world and living on principles, and is not "anything goes."

Christine Yablonski and Phil Biegler appeared live on "Good Morning America" today to defend their controversial education method, which prompted an overwhelming response from viewers.

"There's a huge difference between having no rules and having arbitrary rules," Yablonski said. "We live in a world of principles. The principles of trust, honesty and respect. That's how we make all of our decisions. It's not anything goes. We are instilling proper values, good values in our children."

Yablonski and Biegler, from Westford, Mass., describe unschooling as living as if the school system doesn't exist. They don't homeschool their children -- they allow their teen daughter and son to decide what they want to learn, and when they want to learn it. There are no textbooks, no tests and no formal instruction.

After their story was featured on "GMA" Monday, viewers wrote in expressing everything from outrage to confusion to support, raising questions about the differences between homeschooling and unschooling, and how unschooled children could be prepared to function as adults.

Tarra from California wrote into the "GMA" Facebook page asking, "So who is going to hire these kids without a high school diploma or a GED? What are they going to do for income when they are adults?"

"There are already unschoolers who are already in college, graduated, in the working world," Yablonski responded. "This might be a new concept for a lot of people …[ but] it has been in existence for a while."

She also said that her children's "pursuit of whatever kind of higher education they want is going to be based on what their specific goals are in life."

Indeed, one viewer wrote that because of unschooling, her children were free to pursue and finish bachelor's degrees by the time they turned 20. Yablonski said that unschooled children "have absolutely been successful. They are holding jobs, raising their families ... they are productive, positive influences in their communities."

The couple disagreed with viewers who believed that unschooling limits the children's exposure to new things.

"We spend a significant amount of our time and energy making sure we're exposing the kids to all kinds of things," Biegler said. "We bring them to places, and we bring things to them. .. Their world is much, much larger and much broader."

Children as the 'Center of the Universe'

Out of an estimated 56 million schoolage children, about 1.5 million are homeschooled.

"Homeschooling is doing school at home. Purchasing a curriculum and administering it," explained Pat Farenga, the president of HOLT Associates. "Unschooling is following the interest of a child and helping them learn as they learned before they went to school."

At least 100,000 U.S. children are believed to be "unschooled" -- the term coined to describe the unorthodox approach to homeschooling that does not focus on formal classes, set curriculums or tests.

Many viewers expressed concern about the apparent lack of structure in the Biegler household. The children make their own decisions, and don't have chores or rules.

"We find that we don't need a whole lot of rules," Biegler said in the segment that aired Monday.

"They might watch television," Yablonski said. "They might play games on the computers."

"They might read," her husband added.