It has been Saturday in the Laricchia household for nearly a decade.
The family's three teenagers, Michael, Lissy and Joseph, have known nothing of alarm clocks, races for the school bus, arguments over homework or report-card angst since their parents started "unschooling" them in 2002.
The small but growing movement the Laricchias have joined is known by many other names, including deschooling, life learning and edu-punk. At base, unschooling is home-schooling returned to its postwar progressive roots, far from the Bible-thumping mould that has come to dominate the modern image of home-schoolers.
An unschooling family mostly just looks like a family living life … hanging out on the weekend. But there is lots of learning going on. Pam Laricchia, mother
Unschooling takes children out of schools, but, unlike a lot of home-school approaches, it doesn't import the classroom into the home. It does away altogether with educational clutter such as curricula and grades.
Unschoolers maintain that a child's learning should be curiosity-driven rather than dictated by teachers and textbooks, and that forcing kids to adhere to curricula quashes their natural inclination to explore and ask questions.
To an outsider, unschooling may sound like pedagogical tofu: a shapeless, idealistic substitute for an education. But there's a growing consensus that unschoolers might be on to something. Their ideals have been quietly infiltrating public education.
"An unschooling family mostly just looks like a family living life … hanging out on the weekend," says mother Pam Laricchia, a former nuclear engineer who lives in Orangeville, Ont. "But there is lots of learning going on when you take the time to look at it from the kids' point of view."
Home-schoolers - and unschoolers in particular - are by nature difficult to count. But observers say that, thanks in part to social networking and the blossoming of Internet resources, their movement is growing.
One sign is that dozens of unschooling families will converge near Ms. Laricchia's home this weekend for the fifth annual Toronto Unschooling Conference. Another is that since 2002, unschoolers have had their own publication, Life Learning Magazine. (More recently, it has metamorphosized into
Meanwhile, school boards and education ministries are embracing experiential learning.
There was a time when students were drilled and heavily tested on rote memory, such as the names and dates of British sovereigns. But research suggests that this is a temporary, limited form of learning: Kids gain more when they can ask questions and learning is tied to emotion.
The change in thinking has been slow, but it surfaces in the expansion of high-school co-op programs, or the emphasis on play in the new full-day kindergarten curriculum Ontario launched this week.
Some children thrive in the classroom and others don't and, despite the best of intentions, the system sorts them into winners and losers.
Recent initiatives by education ministries and school boards to shrink dropout rates, promote alternative schools and improve kindergarten are all fundamentally an effort to reduce the sorting. Unschooling's underlying idea is that all kids are winners.
A LIBERATION MOVEMENT FOR THE LOVE OF LEARNING
The foundational tome of the unschooler is How Children Fail, the first book by an American teacher named John Holt published in 1964. The writer suggested that smart children struggle "because they are afraid, bored, and confused.
"They are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and expectations for them hang over their heads like a cloud."
Mr. Holt supports his thesis with observations from a sort of classroom diary he kept throughout the 1950s and 60s. He concludes that "a child who is learning naturally, following his curiosity where it leads him, adding to his mental model of reality whatever he needs and can find a place for, and rejecting without fear or guilt what he does not need, is growing - in knowledge, in the love of learning, and in the ability to learn."