(From January, 2009)
It all started with this question: “Unschooling is no text books, but learning from life, right?” I should say that it was late at night – not late late, but late enough that I didn’t want to get into the conversation that could surely take us clear through till morning. But the question was there – and it was sincere – so I wanted to answer it. Um, yes? In all honestly, I would have defined unschooling exactly the same way a few years ago. And I guess for a simple definition it’s as good as any other. But no, that’s not how I would describe it anymore.
We have LOTS of books, and an all-important library card. When we want or need to reference something in a book, of course we’d first look to something more interesting than a plain old text book. Given the choice, wouldn’t most people? But if one of the boys specifically wanted a text book for something they were exploring, I’d make sure they had access to it. The same holds true for curriculum, although again I’d have to wonder why – with so many endless options of different sources to read, watch, listen to, touch, taste, try – why they’d choose something as limited as a simple book or curriculum. Real life isn’t compartmentalized into subjects and lesson plans, test scores or letter grades. Learning is EVERYWHERE, it’s all interwined, and it’s all there for the taking. Unschooling is much less about the absence of textbooks or tests or curriculum, and much more about the presence of everything else.
If I had to pick just two words that came to mind when I thought about unschooling, they would be “trust” and “respect.” Trust that given a rich, interesting environment and an involved, attentive parent that real learning will naturally happen… learning that is far more relevant and applicable than any learning that is done for a test or a grade. Trust that children are far more capable than most adults give them credit for, and that they’ll learn what they need to know, when they need to know it. And respect… respect for children as unique and valued individuals with their own way of viewing the world, and their own personal paths in life. Respect for their opinions and their interests. Respect for their individual learning styles, in large ways and small. If an adult asked me how to spell a word, I would never humiliate them by refusing to answer and instead instructing them to “sound it out.” I extend my children the same courtesy.
John Holt said “True learning-learning that is permanent and useful,that leads to intelligent action and further learning, can arise only out of the experience, interest, and concerns of the learner.” Retaining information long enough to spit it back out for a test is not learning. I did well enough in school, by most people’s standards. I got good grades, aced my tests after cramming the night before, wrote convincing research papers. But learning? Real learning that carried with me into adulthood? That came from my own efforts, and had little to do with school. Children who are unschooled do all of their learning of their own volition. They aren’t pushed and pressured and ridiculed. They’re not performing for gold stars or straight A’s. They’re learning because that’s what children do. That’s what all humans do, unless they’ve been like so many of us, and had their natural love of learning squashed out when they were young by being told how and when and what to learn.
True unschooling is not method of homeschooling. It’s a philosophy that extends to all areas of our life. People who say for example “We unschool except for math” (something I’ve heard a lot) are entirely missing the point. It goes back to the issue of trust, and is like saying “Unschooling’s fine in theory, but math is too special, too important to take a chance with” And what’s one of the biggest learning phobias that people seem to have in school, myself included? MATH! It’s ironic too, because of all the things I’ve watched the boys learn, math has been one of the most effortless. Math is everywhere; we use it daily. Unless you make a conscious effort to keep your kids from math, they’ll be exposed to it, and they’ll learn it.
If I’m talking unschooling, I’d be remiss not to dispell just a couple of misconceptions. Unschooling is NOT leaving your kids alone, probably the one I hear most often. In many ways, it’s the opposite. Yes, as any parent that pays attention knows, there are plenty of times when the best thing you can do for your child is get out of their way and let them figure something out on their own. But that does not mean we are ALWAYS out of the way! Unschoolers are very involved in their kids’ lives. They are on the floor playing, they’re reading, they’re researching, they’re experimenting, they’re looking, they’re discovering, they’re talking, they’re listening, they’re singing, they’re showing, they’re laughing, they’re googling (lots and lots of googling). They’re looking for cool new books and DVDs and video games. They’re buying art supplies and science kits and zoo memberships. They’re driving to the library and the museum and the post office. They’re living and breathing and being with their kids.
Unschooling also is NOT letting your kids make all the decisions. I have heard this one more than once as well. It is giving your child a voice, and letting your child know that he or she matters as much as anyone else in the house. It’s showing them that they are valued, that they are important, and that they are members of the family. We have a family of six, which means that at any given time, we may have six different wants or needs that have to be met. There are times when one or more of the kids has to wait for what they want, so we try to minimize that as much as possible. We try to be sensitive to all their needs. I hear a tape recording in my head of a mother telling a child “no” just for the sake of saying no. The child complains – rightly so – that it isn’t fair, and the parent snaps “Yeah well, life isn’t fair.” And it’s not. Life’s not always fair. And children too often get the short end of the stick, just because they’re children! They’re not old enough, they’re not tall enough, they’re not mature enough. The world can be a frustrating place for a child. I see absolutely no reason as a parent to make their life more miserable simply because I can?! In our house, if it is at all possible (and it usually is), children get a say too.
I couldn’t do what I do, and live the life I live if I let the negative opinions bother me. Homeschoolers make up a small fraction of people in this country, and unschoolers an even smaller fraction. Most people disagree, and I get that. It was a journey of self-discovery to get here, to be sure, but I can honestly say that I don’t care what other people think, nor do I feel any need to defend what I do. My children are what matter to me. And at the end of the day, if they go to sleep happy, confident, and knowing with every fiber of their being that they are loved, valued, and respected, then I’ve done my job.
Check out my FAQ page for more about unschooling.