In one lesson, Ty and Jack Forseth made a meal from a predetermined list of ingredients. “Living is our curriculum,” said Jill Forseth, their mom.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

The DIY approach to education

  • Article by: ASHA ANCHAN
  • Star Tribune
  • July 8, 2012 - 6:25 AM

It's almost noon on Friday, and the Forseth house is quiet.

Jack and Ty Forseth sleep in almost any day they want, and today is no exception for the 13- and 12-year-old of Brooklyn Park.

It's not because they're on summer break. In fact, "summer break" is a term the boys laugh at because every day feels like summer break.

The Forseth brothers are "unschooled."

Instead of sitting at desks and raising their hands, the Forseths use video games and the History Channel to educate themselves.

Where traditional home schooling often relies on schedules and curriculum that mimic regular school, the lesser-known unschooling takes a more freewheeling approach.

It's unstructured and unplanned, said mother Jill Forseth, but still educational.

"[It's about] taking every opportunity throughout your day to excite your child about learning," said Forseth, a board member of the Minnesota Homeschoolers Alliance. "Everything is a learning opportunity."

How many families are turning to unschooling is anyone's guess, because they file the same paperwork as home-schoolers. But Patrick Farenga said his best guess is 12 to 15 percent of the 2 million home-schoolers in the United States are unschoolers. Farenga is president of Holt Associates, a Boston-area organization started by the late educator John Holt, who coined the term "unschooling." Farenga thinks the number is growing, based on the increasing interest he sees in support groups, events and unschooling websites.

Melissa Koenig, associate professor at the University of Minnesota, sees unschooling as a reaction to the "assembly line features" of education today, such as testing. But she's concerned about its long-term effect.

"I think that there are limits to the current education system," Koenig said. "But this might be a strong reaction to it."

'Still learn the same things'

Forseth said she came to unschooling gradually. Seven years ago, she decided to home-school her sons, who both struggle with dyslexia. She got a boxed curriculum and sat at the kitchen table.

It didn't work.

Her sons dreaded grammar and math. Sessions started and ended with fights and tears. Forseth dropped the "kitchen table" method and started experimenting.

"We still learn the same things, we might just learn them in a different order, or a different way," Forseth said. "Whatever happens, happens that day and I really enjoy my children."

On a recent day, Ty sat on the back porch watching an animated YouTube video about Leonardo da Vinci. He'd heard the artist mentioned in his video game "Assassin's Creed." Because of his severe dyslexia, Ty prefers videos to books.

Warm and sunny weather pushes the Forseths outside to go geocaching. They follow GPS coordinates through their neighborhood looking for a hidden cache box where they'll place a treasure of theirs inside for the next person to find.

"Check the coordinates!" says Forseth, as the boys try to figure out which way to go.

While searching for the cache they stumble across blackberry bushes and sample the ripe ones.

This is how school works for Jack and Ty.

Unlike their peers at Brooklyn Park Junior High, the Forseth boys won't take algebra or learn about cell structures. Instead they might mummify a chicken or make things explode. They can stay up until midnight to research a topic and sleep in the next day -- if that helps them learn best.

Forseth pulled out three photo books with hundreds of pictures from their field trips across the country.

"This is when the [other] kids are in school," she said.

In 2010 alone they traveled 10,000 miles and saw 20 states, learning and visiting family along the way.

The boys boast about the freedom they have while their friends are in school.

Ty said some days he plays seven to 10 hours of video games. But this, too, can be educational, his mom said. "I used to be much more worried about their screen time, but I've found not to be as concerned about it in our situation," she said.

State wants standards met

Like traditional home-schoolers, unschoolers file forms and take annual standardized tests, as determined by the Minnesota Department of Education. The state does not require home-schoolers to provide proof of curriculum or learning materials, which Forseth has, but rarely uses.

While education officials don't take a position on unschooling, they're adamant these students need to meet the guidelines.

"They're choosing to educate their kids at home so they're the ones that need to meet those standards," said Keith Hovis, deputy of communications director for the Minnesota Department of Education.

According to Forseth, her boys test two to three years ahead of other kids their age, making her case that "the proof is in the pudding."

"The biggest responsibility I think I have as an unschooling parent is to open doors," Forseth said. "I can't push them through the doors, I can only keep opening them."

But the U's Koenig thinks children need more direction than that.

"It's true that good learning happens when you're in the driver's seat but that's not all there is," said Koenig, who studies cognitive development in young children.

Koenig wonders about the "roads that could be unexplored." For example, she said, if a child was only interested in science, how would they ever know about Charles Dickens, American history or other vital subjects?

A school for unschoolers

Christine Tuhy is taking a more social approach to unschooling for her 8-year-old son, Sam.

Last fall, Sam started attending Second Foundation School, an "unschooling school" in Minneapolis founded in 1970.

"We don't force people to learn, we encourage learning but they learn naturally and through things that they enjoy doing," said director Starri Hedges.

Second Foundation emphasizes academic freedom for its 50 students ranging in age from 5 to 19.

The kids set their rules, manage their schedules and make their meals. Age and grade level don't matter, something Sam really likes.

The school is open from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but students can arrive whenever they want. Sam likes to be right on time.

They have schedules with activities like math, writing and reading, but it's each child's decision whether they want to participate.

"They respect kids' ability to reason through things, and I think that develops intelligence," Tuhy said.

When asked if she's nervous about gaps in Sam's learning, Tuhy said "nervous" is the wrong word.

"It takes a lot of faith," she said, but she assesses his skills and supplements his learning at home if needed.

His needs will probably change as he gets older, she said, and she's not afraid to change her methods as well.

Preparing for the next step

When it comes to the future, Jack Forseth is set on going to college. He wants to invent video games. Planning to take college prep classes, Jack isn't worried that unschooling will hamper his transition to college. Overall, he feels prepared.

Jill Forseth said going to college is up to her sons, and if they want to go she'll help them do it.

"As long as they keep making progress in their knowledge is what I care about," Forseth said.

Asha Anchan • 612-673-4154

Rules for schools Traditional homeschooling: Learning in the home setting with the use of schedules, textbooks and curriculum. Unschooling: Child-led learning driven by a child's interests rather than a curriculum. Unschooling emphasizes the belief that children learn best when they're not forced to learn. Radical unschooling: Built on the principle of respect for a child's choices, radical unschooling extends the freedom of unschooling to all areas of life. Ex: no bedtime, food restrictions or rules.

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