Unschooling is a word that typically generates interest with the media. For people who question whether parents are even able to educate their own children, unschooling seems totally unacceptable. With or without the approval of the general public, though, unschooling continues to grow.

To understand unschooling, you really have to look back at the history of education and homeschooling. The standard used to be for children to be taught in the home. However, by the mid '70s, homeschooling was nearly extinct. Over 99% of school-aged children in the United States were attending institutional classroom schools. By that point, people seemed to have forgotten that children had ever been successfully educated without going to school. Slowly, though, an increasing number of parents began to recognize that they were in a battle for their children's hearts, minds, and time. They saw the control that the government had taken not only in education but in their families' lives, and these parents began again choosing to be in charge of their children's education.

A February 7, 2006, article from Focus on the Family says that approximately 150,000 American children are currently unschooled. How did they come up with that number? The actual number of unschoolers is very hard to assess. Unschooling itself is hard to define. The general philosophy of unschooling holds that children are born with an innate curiosity and desire to learn that is best served by allowing the child to select and direct his own learning. John Holt, considered the father of unschooling by many, said it like this: "children are by nature and from birth very curious about the world around them ... much more eager to learn, and much better at learning than most of us adults." In unschooling, the parent's role is that of a facilitator who is available to provide resources and guidance.

Many people aren't sure how productive education can be when children are given that type of freedom. They picture lazy, overindulged children lacking the basic knowledge to succeed in the "real world." Perhaps the reason skeptics can't comprehend that children would actually choose to learn math, grammar, or history, however, is that their own learning was forced on them and was very dull. The fact that so many of us have that attitude shows just how our own schooling failed to teach us to love learning. 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 challenge parents and educators to "trust the children." Roland Legiardi-Laura, who established the Odysseus Group with John Taylor Gatto (author of Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling), says, "Kids are not born lazy. They are inherently curious, energetic and excited about the world around them. Unschooling uses that curiosity to develop somebody who is self-reliant, a critical thinker and independent--someone who in essence creates an education, rather than someone who is given an education." This philosophy doesn't just apply to homeschoolers.

Many innovative thinkers seek to transform education across the board by challenging people to question, "What is the purpose behind the school system?" Many of us would be able to identify three distinct purposes: to make good people, to make good citizens, and to make good lives by helping young people strive to be their personal best. However, Gatto and Legiardi-Laura are creating a documentary to reveal the fourth purpose. The Fourth Purpose: The Enigma of Public Schools charges that the hidden purpose of public schools is to produce dependable consumers and dependent citizens who will always look for a teacher to tell them what to do in later life, even if that teacher is an ad man or television anchor. Mr. Gatto was a public school teacher in New York for 30 years. He was a former New York State Teacher of the Year and a three-time New York City Teacher of the Year. He quit teaching, however, in 1991, claiming that he was no longer willing to hurt children. Mr. Gatto says, "I dropped the idea that I was an expert, whose job it was to fill the little heads with my expertise, and began to explore how I could remove those obstacles that prevented the inherent genius of children from gathering itself."