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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Obama quoted 'Unschooling Rules' saying standardized tests "too punitive." Here's what he and I meant.

President Obama has embraced many of the Unschooling Rules in his recent policy shifts on education. (A mutual connection sent the President a copy.)

A common headline from the speech quoted Obama's statement, "standardized tests are too punitive." Most people did not understand this connection. As the author of the original text, let me explain.

Obama connected two of the 55 Unschooling Rules with that statement.

The first was, Rule #45: Tests don't work. Get over it. Move on. This rule states that our desire to have universal, comparable, and fair metrics from which to evaluate students and teachers, and even hold both parties accountable, overwhelms the reality that the tests don't measure much of value. We might as well be measuring juggling. Further, these standardized tests have subverted the learning process.

But the phrase "punitive" is what confused a lot of journalists and pundits. I agree with the comment, but he didn't explain the path, so let me go back to my source material. Here is the quote from my book (I added italics and an underline in the relevant section).

Rule #26: Biologically, the necessary order of learning is: explore, then play, then add rigor.

Look at the process by which children learn to swim:

First, children are introduced to the body of water. Once children get comfortable in the water itself, they naturally start to play. Finally, the children begin to test themselves through increasingly rigorous rules and specific challenges. These exercises force them to hone skills they can transfer to other bodies of water.

Children move effortlessly from exploration and free roam to structured but simple games to taking on rigorous challenges.

First, imagine how stunted and crippled and punitive the learning process would be without the exploration and play phases.

Second, imagine how the first two phases would be implemented in a traditional state-run industrial school—with tests and metrics and “teacher and student accountability.”

I believe seeing the thought in its original context makes more sense, and hopefully is more relevant. Here is an example of non-punitive learning that is also much more effective.

Other rules Obama cited included:
  • Rule 1: Learn to be; learn to do; learn to know.
  • Rule 3: Learn something because you need it or because you love it.
  • Rule 8: What a person learns in a classroom is how to be a person in a classroom.
  • Rule 12: Internships, apprenticeships, and interesting jobs beat term papers, textbooks, and tests.
  • Rule 33: In education, customization is important like air is important.
  • Rule 36: Fifteen models that are better for childhood learning than schools are.
  • Rule 43: [Parents...] Avoid "the drop off."
Again, I am thrilled and honored that my book Unschooling Rules is providing a counter-balance to the broken ideas of longer class days, more standardization, and more testing. I hope this original context for the term "punitive" makes Obama's statement more clear and more powerful.


  1. So, does this mean that Obama will push to do away with standardized testing and to make homeschooling easier for those who choose to undertake it?

  2. Obama has already backed away from standardized tests as the goal of education to using them more periodically. I believe the book 'Unschooling Rules' in general will help codify homeschooling as a necessary antithesis to the thesis of industrial schools that is necessary for healthy long term evolution/synthesis.

  3. I believe tests have their place in the academic world. The error lies in believing everyone, or even a majority of people, need to prosper academically or have a liberal education. A liberal education is a great thing, but so is a grand piano.

    Why it should take 12 or 13+ years of academic instruction to acquire the bare minimum of required education to get along in our society is beyond my ability to fathom. Why that instruction includes so little practical knowledge for daily living also escapes me.

    On an unrelated topic, I cannot think of a more awkward, useless social situation than a school where you are surrounded by peers, many who are just like you. Home schooled kids, I find, are always better socially. One can actually carry on a conversation with them.

  4. I don't believe for a second that Obama, or anyone in Washington for the matter, (but especially the Left which just loves to classify and categorize and label) will ever truly embrace the ideas set forth by Unschooling Rules or unschoolers in general. How long did John Holt bang that drum until finally he founded Growing Without Schooling and said (basically) 'to Hell with institutional schooling'? Please, don't anyone kid themselves that Obama, of all people, would ever embrace the idea of Unschooling. TO quote many a skater/surfer, "As if, dude."