Reprinted from The Jerusalem Report, March 2005

UnSchool of Thought

Yoni Goldstein

More and more families are keeping their children at home and encouraging them to learn whatever suits them

"I like drumming and tae kwondo," whispers 11-year-old Joshie as we watch Naama, 9, perform the self-penned "Be Cheerful," which sounds something like Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," on an electronic keyboard. As Naama finishes up, Joshie wanders off, but returns two minutes later. "What I really want to be is an actor," he confides, "or maybe an author." Later in the talent show at Moshav Ramat Raziel, in the Jerusalem hills, Joshie plays his interpretation of "Hatikvah" on the recorder, and there are an assortment of other musical interludes.

The performances aren't an after-school activity. Joshie and Naama, and the other 20 kids at today's talent show, don't even go to school. Nor are they taught a regular curriculum at home. Their parents are adherents of "unschooling," which does away with the boundaries imposed by traditional learning, preaching that children learn best when they direct their own education.

Unschooling shouldn't be confused with homeschooling. In fact, they are worlds apart. Where classic homeschooling involves a curriculum - reading, writing, math and science, taught by parents or private tutors at home - unschooling has no set curriculum, no rules.

The number of Israeli youths educated at home is growing rapidly. "We've noticed a big boom in the last three years," says New York native Ephraim Tabackman, 40, a web designer from Efrat, the suburban settlement south of Jerusalem. Tabackman, one of the founders of the Israel Home Education Association, who together with his wife, Sigal, unschools his three children, asserts that homeschooling "is moving to the mainstream."

In 1999, proponents estimated that only 40-50 families were practicing either homeschooling or unschooling in Israel (see "In a Class of Their Own," December 6, 1999); over the past few years, says Alexander Zinigrad, the CEO of a technology company based in Ariel, in the West Bank, "a few hundred" families have begun doing it. Zinigrad and his wife Yana have been unschooling their three children for the last five years. He estimates that there are nearly a thousand Israeli children learning outside the school framework - and that 90 percent of them are unschooled.

Zinigrad says his decision to keep his children out of school was based on two factors: "Kids can't learn unless they want to. They might write things down and memorize for tests, but they aren't really learning," he says, "and besides, I don't think the social atmosphere at school is the right place for my kids to make friends."

Zinigrad does not believe his children will be unprepared for life when they pass school age. "I want to encourage them to do whatever they want," he explains. He's confident he can help them study adequately for the matriculation exams if they decide - on their own - that they are interested in going to college.

As part of its support network, the Israel Home Education Association organizes optional meetings for unschooling families. The talent show group, for example, gathers twice a month at the Jerusalem Zoo, where the adults discuss their children's progress and the children socialize with their peers. The network also includes Be'ofen Tivi (The Natural Way), a group based in the North, which in 2003 published a comprehensive guide to homeschooling/ unschooling in Hebrew. It also maintains an Internet page with a section for unschoolers, including reading lessons, book lists, advice on how to teach subjects like math and science and a Q&A advice section (beofen-tv.co.il/cgi-bin/chiq.pl).

The mother of a 10-year-old unschooled boy, who asked not to be named, describes her son's "schedule": "There is no regular day," she explains. "He spends a lot of time learning about the things that interest him on the Internet, we take trips and he interacts with his siblings." Joshie says much the same: "There's no schedule. I do what I want." He doesn't mention math or science among the things he "likes to do," just drums and tae kwondo. And the long hours the children spend in their parents'company don't seem to frazzle the adults. Family time is a subject unto itself in unschooling.

Under Israel's compulsory education law, parents who want to unschool or homeschool need approval from the Ministry of Education, which takes a dim view of the trend. "The experience of attending school provides children with scholastic and social motivations," say the 2002 guidelines on homeschooling. But in recognition of the phenomenon, the guidelines include two pages of rules. Parents must make a formal application, provide a detailed curriculum, and submit to psychological testing before they can get permission to homeschool. Approval must be renewed each year, and ministry officials are supposed to monitor the results of each homeschooling case. The regulations also require that each unschooled or homeschooled child be tested periodically, "in the school where the child should have studied."

Despite the penalties for not complying - which can include legal action against parents and truant officers forcing children to attend school - most parents simply ignore the ministry's regulations. With so few following the rules, Ministry spokesperson Shauli Pe'er puts the number of homeschooled kids at "only 55." Defending his own claim of 1,000 homeschooled and unschooled children, Alexander Zinigrad notes: "How can the ministry know how many homeschoolers there are? Most families don't even tell them about it anymore."

Zinigrad uses himself as an example. Five years ago, he says, he applied for permission to educate his oldest son at home. He and his wife underwent the requisite psychological testing, then waited for a year before hearing from the ministry - which turned down his request. "They said there's no such thing as homeschooling," he recalls. The Zinigrads decided not to enroll their child in school anyway. The ministry initially protested, and brought the case to court under the Compulsory Education Law but, according to Zinigrad, dropped it a week before the court hearing. The ministry says it passed the case on to the Ariel education authority, which seems not to have gotten around to pursuing it yet - five years later. "When families heard about our victory, they just stopped applying" for permission to homeschool, Ziningrad says.

Another ministry spokesperson, Orit Kahana, insists the government sends truancy officers to investigate all families who have not been granted permission to homeschool. But homeschoolers paint a different picture: "We don't bother them and they don't bother us," says one mother.

Haya Heller-Degani, a lecture at Hebrew University's School of Education, whose 2003 doctoral dissertation is one of the first academic studies of homeschooling in Israel, suggests that in most homeschooling cases, parents force their children to follow an anti- establishment ideology with disturbing consequences. "The children are often forced to live in what effectively becomes a closed community, and sometimes these children end up being very strange," she says. "A lot of them go through a serious crisis when they get older," she says, "because they haven't been living in the real world."

Heller-Degani doesn't oppose the idea of homeschooling altogether, but thinks children should be part of the decision. "If parents give their kids the choice whether to go to school or not, that's one thing," she says. "But when parents make the decision - while claiming their children have free choice - it is dangerously wrong."

Not surprisingly, unschooling parents disagree. Still, if Alexander Zinigrad's child were asked to go to try out school, would he agree? "We don't think school is the right place for our children," he says.

If parents and school authorities both say they know exactly what children want, how do the unschooled pupils feel? As the talent show winds down, I ask Joshie, "Where would you rather be, at school or at home?"

He shrugs. "I don't know. I'd probably be happy in either place."

Copyright © 2005. The Jerusalem Report