≡ Menu

Montessori and “Unschooling”

As discussed in my TLS post Stefan Molyneux’s “Libertarian Parenting” Series, there are some who advocate “unschooling.” Some of the ideas, as best I can understand them, make sense, but overall I think they are lacking in any systematic basis for their views and a coherent, systematic approach to education. I just read the following post by John Long, in which Maria Montessori, writing decades ago, criticized what appears to be what is now called unschooling. I agree with her.

Comic-book making instead of calculus?

Students direct their education at Manhattan Free SchoolThat is what people FEAR Montessori education to be: comic-book making instead of calculus.

It is not.

E.M. Standing collaborated with Dr. Montessori on the book Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. The chapter about elementary education includes this section:

Freedom of Choice Must Still Be Based on Knowledge…Some of the new educationists—says Montessori– in a reaction against the old system of forcing children to learn by rote a tangled skein of uninteresting facts, go to the opposite extreme, and advocate giving the child “freedom to learn what he likes but without any previous preparation of interest….This is a plan for building without a basis, akin to the political methods that today offer freedom of speech and a vote, without education—granting the right to express thought where there are no thoughts to express, and no power of thinking! What is required for the child, as for society, is help towards the building up of mental faculties, interest being of necessity the first to be enlisted, so that there may be natural growth in freedom.”

Here, as always, the child’s liberty consists in being free to choose from a basis of real knowledge, and not out of mere curiosity. He is free to take up which of the “radial lines of research” appeals to him, but not to choose “anything he likes” in vacuo. It must be based on a real center of interest, and therefore motivated by what Montessori calls “intellectual love.”

Montessori was a revolutionary thinker. And she pointed to the middle path: FREEDOM…within limits.

Posted by john long at 12:39 PM

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Marcel Doru Popescu October 16, 2010, 3:14 pm

    As a parent, I struggle with this issue. As I have told my elder daughter’s teacher, if I really cared about her education, I wouldn’t have sent her to school. The problem is, I don’t really care about her education – I haven’t manage to convince myself that it helps her in any way to be happy. It’s something I fight about with my wife – she wants my daughter to do better in school, I don’t really give a damn.

    Do you know of someone arguing successfully for the “education leads to happiness” point of view? Because I have a younger daughter who’s going to go to school next year… and I still don’t see how that will help her.

    Yes, I know about homeschooling – which is why I said I would keep her at home. But how does keeping her at home *and teaching her pretty much the same things* make any difference?

  • Paul Vahur October 17, 2010, 4:48 am

    Stephen, you might find this blog of interest: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn

    Peter Gray mostly advocates nonschooling method were kids go to school but there is no set curricula and they are free to learn what they want with teacher and fellow students assistance (my understanding of it could be mistaken). He also writes on other subjects such as bullying and cheating in science.

    Here is one about free learning: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201004/kids-learn-math-easily-when-they-control-their-own-learning

  • Paul Vahur October 17, 2010, 4:49 am

    Stephan, not Stephen
    Stephan, not Stephen
    Stephan, not Stephen
    Stephan, not Stephen
    Stephan, not Stephen
    Stephan, not Stephen

    and then the bell rings…

  • Thomas L. Knapp October 17, 2010, 5:33 am

    There are advantages to most of the approaches identified or alluded to here.

    Sure, Montessori was correct in pointing out that “the child’s liberty consists in being free to choose from a basis of real knowledge, and not out of mere curiosity.”

    However, unschooling doesn’t necessarily (or even usually) take the form of non-engagement with the kid and just hoping he or she “gets interested” in the right things.

    My 9-year-old does not have a “curriculum.” What he has is parents who answer his questions — then ask HIM questions, expect him to find the answers, and notice that he usually goes further down the rabbit hole than they expected and comes back with stuff we wouldn’t have “taught” him because it wouldn’t have occurred to us that he was “ready” for it, or interested in it, yet.

    He reads well beyond “grade level.” He spends time thinking about, and critically examining various answers to, “the big questions.”* In other words, he already has the real benefit of the traditional “liberal arts” curriculum under his belt — he’s learned how to learn.

    Onto that framework, we throw math and science as asides to whatever projects fascinate him (and he throws quite a bit of them at himself). He’d probably test below “grade level” in both those subjects at the moment, not because he isn’t learning but because he’s learning based on his interests rather than on the basis of a checklist someone worked up for a class of 25. He’s still distrustful of long division, but if you ask him what a circle is he won’t point at one, he’ll tell you that it’s a shape made up of points equally distant from its center (he had a reason to learn that the other day — something about custom scripting in a program he uses to create games).

    My expectation is that he’ll get more formal and systematic largely on his own as he approaches college age (which I predict will be before 18) — because when he decides he wants to do X, and realizes that he needs assistance in learning to do X, and realizes he has to meet some school’s expectations before they’ll consent to teach him to do X, he’ll make a list of those expectations, figure out where (if anywhere) he is deficient in meeting them, and then go at it. That’s how he usually approaches encounters with “authorities” who have something he wants.

    Tom Knapp

    *Speaking of the big questions, I may just have him email you. He’s somewhat under the Bodhi Tree on “intellectual property” at the moment, and not because of any bug I put in his ear. It all started with DMCA takedown notices on some videos he liked at YouTube. “Warner Brothers” is a four-letter word to him now.

  • Stephan Kinsella October 17, 2010, 9:00 am


    I have no doubt that homeschoooling (whether you call it “unschooling” or not) can be superior to conventional schooling. It worked for David Friedman, apparently, and for you. I’ve followed elements of it myself–for example my boy, now 7, is SO into dinosaurs–I mean systematically, voraciously into it. Has been since maybe 1. So that played a role in my teaching him how to read–he was starting to read by 18 mos and reading very well by 2.5. Part of the reason was he was determined to read long dinosaur words in his dino books, like deinonychous, struthiomimus, pachycepholosaurus, and so on. If you can figure those out, “cat” and “hat” seem easy.

    But note that you say, “unschooling doesn’t necessarily (or even usually) take the form of non-engagement with the kid and just hoping he or she “gets interested” in the right things.”

    My criticisism is not that unschooling itself, when practiced, is unsystematic. It’s that the theory is unsystematic. Its criticism of “schooling” is tepid and riddled with unjustified assumptions. In my view, all unschooling really is, is part of the way of thinking of a homeschooling parent. And given that conventional schooling is so bad and/or takes so little advantage of human potential, it’s not too hard for a homeschooling parent to surpass this without even having a coherent, systematic theory to guide what he’s doing. But it’s my view that although homeschooling can be great, there is still a role for (a) a more systematic based educational approach [and I think Montessori is closest to making it a sound educatioanl science], and (b) the division and specialization of labor–that is, a school [in particular an AMI Montessori school].

    My suspicions about unschooling parallel some of my unease with (a) left-libertarian hostility to “hierarchy” and “authority” and (b) thickism. All these fuzzy ways of thinking seem to go together. I prefer clarity.

    Feel free to have him email me about IP.

Leave a Reply

© 2012-2024 StephanKinsella.com CC0 To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to material on this Site, unless indicated otherwise. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.

-- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright