3.19.2012

Radical unschooling misinterpreted by GMA

Part 1: Radical unschooling portrayed negatively on Good Morning America

On Monday, Good Morning America aired a segment on radical unschooling. The host, George Stephanopoulos, began by saying, "I think it sounds crazy."

The reporter, Juju Chang, focused on a number of common misconceptions. Although she admitted that it looks like well-meaning parents, she said that "most educators say there is often a huge gap between the Utopian ideal and reality."

A follow-up article, "Defending Unschooling: It's Not Anything Goes," includes a video with Christine Yablonski and Phil Biegler whose family appeared in the GMA show, as well as Pat Farenga of Holt Associates (see video below.) The parents informed the GMA hosts about the reality of unschooling, which includes structure and guidance.

Unschooling advocate, Pat Farenga, posted on his blog, Learning Without Schooling, that ABC TV contacted him for background information on radical unschooling in preparation for the GMA segment.

Dayna Martin, author of Radical Unschooling: A Revolution Has Begun, also worked with Good Morning America in preparation for the show.

The assumptions and misconceptions made during the GMA segment elicited strong reactions throughout the unschooling community.

Part 2: Good Morning America host declares unschooling "Crazy!"

Good Morning America's host, George Stephanopoulos, opened the segment on unschooling with the statement, "I think it sounds crazy." The reporter, Juju Chang, followed up shortly with "most educators say there is often a huge gap between the Utopian ideal and reality."

What does the host think sounds crazy? The video showed older children playing and laughing. Does the host doubt that children learn through play or that learning can be fun? Many studies suggest that children learn most effectively through play.

What "huge gap" do most educators refer to? Academic performance? Statistics suggest that homeschoolers of all types consistently outperform schooled peers. The huge gap that does exist between unschoolers and the school children educators refer to is one of freedom. Unschooling parents don't force their children to do learning activities.

What Utopian ideal? What reality? Perhaps the most basic "radical" idea proposed by unschooling philosophy is that children will learn what they need without coercion and compulsion from adults, and that children don't all need to learn the same things.

The GMA video segment didn't show children poring over books, as my unschooling children spend a significant time doing. It didn't show children engaged in self-assigned learning activities, in pursuit of larger goals. It didn't show unschooling parents helping their children to find information, develop skills, and achieve goals. In my family's unschooling reality, the children pursue knowledge and useful skills, and my husband and I (and other family and community members) help them and provide guidance.

The GMA segment didn't represent the reality of unschooling as it exists in my family or in any  unschooling family I know. Unschooling as a Utopian ideal doesn't fit. A Utopia, by definition, is impractical, whereas unschooling is a practical, hands-on way of learning. Contrast an active unschooling life immersed in the reality of life outside a school building with the idealistic notion of  school, where children sit quietly in rows while professional teachers verbally distribute useful knowledge and skills.

Part 3: What GMA edited out, the real story

Erika Krull , MS, LMHP, of Psych Central admitted that she felt skeptical of unschooling after her first impression based on the recent Good Morning America segments, so she issued a call for input from readers who have experience with unschooling.

Suze, a respondent, had this to say about the Good Morning America segments on "Extreme Parenting: Radical Unschooling":
"Here’s the real story: Good Morning America deliberately and shamelessly edited out every single interesting, 'educational' thing these active, involved, well traveled, literate kids have done, in order to ensure that Joe Average America would freak out. . . If viewer manipulation and ratings were GMA/ABC’s goal (duh), then I’d say they succeeded magnificently on this one, judging from the many hysterical viewer comments on their website."
Read more responses to Unschooling - What's the real story? on Psych Central.

Peter Orvetti, in his The Moderate Voice article, "Unschooling and Unjournalism" said:  
"My primary job is that of a homeschooling father. But my other job -– the one that I actually get paid for –- is in media analysis. Both of these sides of myself were deeply troubled by a feature on ABC’s 'Good Morning America' earlier this week that set itself up to be a news report on radical unschooling. It featured the close-knit, intelligent family of Phil Biegler and Christine Yablonski and their teenage children. But rather than offer a fair and detailed portrait of these individuals, the ABC story was a hatchet job from the start."
In addition to the video in response to the original GMA segment, Christine Yablonski of the Yablonki-Biegler family who appeared in the GMA unschooling segments posted to their blog, Living the Unschooling Life: "What we wish the media shared about us..." Christine describes a lifestyle rich with learning experiences and a family relationship built on respect, honesty, and trust, in contrast to the GMA portrayal of no structure and no rules.

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