Rachel Miller and son Heath. Photo: Nic Walker
While the Millers were holidaying recently on the coast, a family of ducks with 11 little ducklings became their daily visitors. Five-year-old Heath was fascinated, so mum Rachel did some quick swotting up on ducks. Heath learnt how to care for them, why they pecked if he ran after their babies, and the mechanics behind the way they glide through water.
Heath's newly acquired knowledge gave his visits to the local duck pond greater resonance. It was a typical instance of "unschooling" at work.
A "child-led" way of learning gaining popularity in Australia, unschooling is not to be confused with no-schooling or traditional structured home-schooling, where parents teach their children the same curriculum taught in school.
Rachael Clark with, from left, Jemima, William, Alexander and Milli. Photo: Robert Shakespeare
Children who are unschooled also stay at home, but they decide what they want to learn, when they want to learn it, and how. Instead of teaching a set program of lessons, parents simply follow whatever their child shows an interest in that particular day, be it Vikings, roller derby or ... ducks.
Miller, from Helensburgh in Sydney's south, likens unschooling to a ball of string. "All the string is there, it's just not in one straight line ... You're more likely to remember stuff if you've connected personally with it because you wanted to know it, and it's likely to stick with you longer."
Heath has never been to school. Miller wasn't ready to relinquish her desperately longed-for baby, who took five years of IVF to arrive, and she didn't think his temperament would suit school.
Her husband had doubts about unschooling, so they agreed to trial it for a year. "He's seeing how it works, so he's quite happy for it to continue," says Miller, who is early childhood-trained. "We might not continue it forever, we're not anti 'the system', but at the moment life is just cruising along nicely this way, so we'll keep going."
Days spent pottering at home probably sounds like heaven to most kids facing the grind of another school year. But critics worry that unschooled children receive a patchy education, miss out on learning vital self-discipline, and grow up ill-equipped to operate in a society made up of structures and institutions.
Children aged between six and 17 are legally required to attend school, or be registered for home-schooling when they have a reasonable excuse. Many unschoolers get around this by registering as home-schoolers, documenting their child's learning as it happens (taking photos and posting on Facebook), then retrospectively linking it back to the curriculum to show to authorities when they come knocking.
A recent NSW parliamentary inquiry concluded that unschooling "may constitute educational neglect", and warned that children who are unschooled may not achieve basic levels of literacy and numeracy.
Rachael Clark would beg to differ. Her eldest two children started off in the mainstream education system, before their difficulties there prompted her to pull them out. Jemima, now 14, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, oppositional defiance disorder and ADHD, and the school advised Clark to medicate her daughter. When the school banned Jemima from the library - the only part of school she enjoyed - Clark decided to try home-schooling. "I could see how she was struggling; she was full of stress, anger, frustration, anxiety. It was horrific."
When Milli, now 11, began having problems in the playground, Clark brought her home too. What had started out as curriculum-driven home-schooling five years ago slowly evolved into unschooling as Clark gained confidence and could see the non-structured approach working for her girls. Her son William, 8, has never set foot in a classroom, and it's unlikely that Alexander, 3, will when he reaches school age.
Defined as "allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear", the unschooling philosophy was developed by American educator John Holt in the 1970s.
It is impossible to say how many children are unschooled in Australia.
It is estimated there are about 50,000 kids who don't attend school. One-fifth of these are registered with home education authorities.
It requires a real leap of faith from parents to throw out the school handbook, not to mention tremendous commitment to devote themselves to helping their children explore their own interests. It's a steep learning curve in parenting and knowledge - and, because one parent usually has to stay at home, there's often a financial sacrifice.
Hippies and religious conservatives alike are drawn to the anti-establishment ethos of unschooling. Anecdotally, there appears to be a substantial proportion of unschooled kids who have autism spectrum disorders, suffer from anxiety and depression, or were bullied at school.
"There are always those children whose needs are too great for that teacher, or can't be managed by that school," says Beverley Paine, who runs The Educating Parent website for home educators, including unschoolers. "Unschooling meets the requirements of the different needs of children who won't fit into the traditional school system."
Paine argues that school quells children's natural desire to learn. "When they start school, they're eager to learn; by eight they have that glazed-over look; by 10 they're reluctant learners; and by 13 they're really disengaged." Unschooling is meant to sustain and indulge that thirst for knowledge.
Any child would find something to interest them in the Clark household.
It might be the crystal geodes on the kitchen bench, the enclosed verandah lined with books and musical instruments, or the living room shelves full of activities like candle-making.
They might be distracted by the massive Lego table, or the menagerie of pets, which includes two dogs, three cats, 10 chickens, a snake, a turtle and a pygmy lizard. Or they might stop at the "strewing" table, where Clark leaves items of possible interest for her children to discover. "We've got activities going all the time," Clark says. "This is what is normal for us. We don't think it's school, we think it's home."
Unschooling parents are constantly learning on the fly to keep up with their children's changing obsessions. The internet is a vital resource - Clark is studying computer programming at night - but she's also learning about marine biology and the Antarctic from the online courses Jemima is taking.
The whole family went on a holiday last year to western Queensland to indulge Milli's love of all things geological: they followed the dinosaur trail, dug for fossils and visited the Sapphire Gemfields.
"Our kids had those passions, so we followed those passions and it was amazing," Clark says. "The unschooling life leads us to be more involved in the world than we would ever be."
But Greens MP John Kaye, deputy chair of the inquiry which looked into unschooling, warns that this approach could be catastrophic for many kids.
"[Allowing] kids to follow their whim might work well for a minority of children, but there is a real risk that many young people miss out on critical learning opportunities and won't develop the study skills and self-discipline required by the curriculum that is essential training for almost every attribute of life," he says.
Kaye fears unschoolers could struggle in the wider world as adults. "We have reason to suspect this cohort will continue to struggle with ongoing education throughout their lives ... They may leave school age substantially derelict in their knowledge base and skills base."
Beverley Paine counters that unschooling empowers children to be independent. "Just taking them out of the system from the get-go tells them, 'You can do something different in life, you can challenge the status quo.' "
Rachel Miller is happy her son Heath is growing up as an independent thinker. "When you go to school you get into what everyone else is into. He's forming his own opinions rather than being influenced by other people. He feels quite comfortable telling people what he is and isn't comfortable with."
In a survey of 75 adults who'd been "unschooled" as children, US research professor Peter Gray found that four out of five went on to higher education. Nearly half were employed in the creative arts, and a similar proportion had become entrepreneurs.
Paine says that unschooled kids grow up with a very strong sense of identity. "These are not insecure kids who need to go out and buy the latest gadget to feel good about themselves."
Adapting to the world of work can be a challenge for the free-thinking unschoolers. "They tend to be entrepreneurial and they don't like working nine-to-five," Paine explains. "The inefficiencies of the office really frustrate them, and [others'] inability to think outside the square."
While there can be an initial period of skiving off when kids are let loose from traditional schooling, parents say they soon settle down into wanting to learn.
But letting kids dictate just what they learn means progress happens in fits and starts. Heath Miller is going well with his times-tables and is now into long division and basic algebra, but his writing skills are below average. "He's just not motivated to learn that himself yet," his mum says. "I don't think it's a problem. He'll catch up eventually."
Unschooling parents say being with their children 24/7 is less intense than it sounds, because they live life at a slower pace, free of the demands of routine.
"There is no stress trying to get your kids to do what everyone else wants them to do," Rachael Clark says. "Because we can balance our life, I feel a lot less of that 'My god, I need some me time.' I can breathe and take a break because I'm setting the pace and the kids are setting the pace."
She keeps an eye on the curriculum so she's aware of where her children should be at in their knowledge and abilities. If she feels there have been too many days spent on one activity, she will try to balance it out by "suggesting" something else.
"You still worry you don't give them that box of information that school does," Clark admits. "But with school, there is no test at the end [to see] if they are prepared for their entire life."