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We Choose D: Alternative Educational Theory, This Week: Unschooling Method

The Unschooling method... is fascinating to learn about. I first heard of it through one of my daily reads, Soulemama, of The Creative Family & Handmade Home fame; two books I own and love. It sometimes seems silly to say you "get" someone you've never met, but the way she writes on her blog and in her book really inspires me. She has four children that she "unschools". I had to use google to find out what that even meant. Like always, I'll explain first a short summary of the theory as I understand it. Instead of a "Pro & Con" list, there will be a "What it IS" & "What it is NOT" list, to help define unschooling. Following that will be the Resources list.
The last installment of four-part series will be on Homeschooling (curriculum based) Co-Ops & and "Others" that will be posted sometime next week!

Where to start? I feel that is an appropriate question when answering 'what is unschooling'? It is also an outlook an unschooler would take when thinking about his or her next project! Unschooling is the theory that children are capable, natural learners, and have the will and desire to be self-starters in an area of their liking, going at their own pace. Unschooling IS essentially homeschooling...without the books, tests, and grades of a followed curriculum.
Unschoolers have the most freedom in a schooling environment because they do not have to follow standardized requirements (except, check your local state, some states do require strict following as in a daily chart, or loose following like an "end of the year" test, or even nothing at all)
Unschooling is actually very hard to define. It is flexible, more unstructured than a curriculum-based pedagogy, and so open for experimentation and completely child-led.
The term "unschooling" first became popular in the newsletter "Growing Without Schooling" written by the father of 'unschooling', John Holt. I have read many books by John Holt and what he has found (by being an educator & a big advocate for homeschooling when it was illegal in many states) through his observation of how children learn. His name and another, John Taylor Gatto, are very well-known in the unschooling circles.
I will try to define my understanding of unschooling in examples of what it is and what it is not instead of a Pro's & Con's list.
What it IS:
  • What it IS, is child-led, and this means, whatever subject the child wants to learn-- whether it be finding leaves & then making a book & researching the different trees they come from-- or electronics, and taking apart old, broken appliances to understand how they fit together; the child is interested, the parent or adult just facilitates more learning to keep the learning process fluid for the child. This may be answering a question by researching it themselves on the Internet, finding books about said subject at the library, or calling an adult who works specifically in that area and getting a tour/lecture/lesson from that person!
  • It IS flexible, some days being declared reading days, some days being for exploration (out in nature or a field trip to a museum).
  • It IS finding something to learn in anything and everything we humans experience on a regular basis, and the things we'd like to learn. Ever want to learn about horses? Call a local farm or boarding stable and ask if you can volunteer your time brushing and cleaning up for a few lessons or just for the experience!

What it is NOT:

  • It is NOT (generally) curriculum-based homeschooling. For example, the parent is not just handing out a worksheet or reading a chapter from a science book everyday. A more 'normal' unschooling scene would play out with the child finding a science book at the library, and sitting for an hour devouring the entire thing...then moving on.
  • It is NOT for all people! Let's be honest, some parents just can't imagine being with their children the 5 days a week for the 7 hour increments that they are in school. In that case, you would not like to unschool, or home school for that matter!
  • It is NOT for the faint of heart! In all the books I've read on this topic, the #1 fear (and usually, the only one!) is "Are they actually learning by themselves?" It is a trust issue, one that I am to ask myself many many times until my children go off into the world themselves. Just because a child doesn't want to spend 45 minutes, 5 days a week (+ homework!) in English or Math does not mean they are bad at it or don't understand the concepts! Usually, it means they completely understand the concepts and have moved on to the next interesting subject, OR they aren't ready to learn it yet. (See resource for "what if that happens" questions. John Holt books are great at answering those!)
  • It is NOT something you have to choose for their entire schooling period! If you feel it isn't going all means, do something else! Homeschooling is great in that respect, you can always always change course if it just isn't working out.

I hope I didn't leave you with more is almost hard to describe unschooling unless you've had some homeschooling experience or read up on it yourselves. Some great resources I've found are:

If you haven't guessed thus far, THIS is the option we are planning on choosing for our family! Ever since I've started researching schooling options about two years ago from my own interest, I have kept coming back to this, which is the best of all worlds, in my opinion. We can take a week's vacation in the middle of the school year and learn about anything from marine biology to geology; see it up close and personal without having to worry about being absent from school, and missing all that dreaded homework. We can use the Montessori "small tools" and celebrate seasons the Waldorf way without the expense. We can spend more time together and learn as adults, too! I am very excited about this in the next few years, and in fact, I think we do a pretty good job of it at an entry level already, teaching our children (mostly, Lukka, right now) about everything from chores, to responsibility, cooking, manners, and by going to the library, museums, and zoo! If this sounds like you, take the plunge and look into it more, you might just find something new you're passionate about!

Disclaimer:As always, I am a firm believer in "Mamma knows best", just to say whatever works for your family is the best option for you and your children. This post is only to show what I've come across, am interested & passionate about, and what we thinking of maybe, 'planning' to do.... doing what we feel is right for each individual child in the child's season of life.


julie k said…
I feel like I have been doing this consistently since Bella was about 18 mos. even though I didn't realize it. I'm sure it will continue at home even as she transitions to traditional school.

I believe everything in our daily life is an opportunity for learning!

Nice set of posts, Sarah. Thanks!
RT said…
The big question that always arises for me is: what if your kid doesn't choose to learn how to read? Or to write? Or to add and subtract? Surely there are some teacher-initiated subjects. I can't imagine not learning some of the basics as a little student.

I agree with Julie K in that our lifestyle is an "unschooling" one, as I imagine most families are. You teach as you go, answering the questions and touching on the topics that most interest your child. I love how some kids know the names of almost every dinosaur while other kids immerse themselves in fairytale role play for hours on end!
*In response to your question--I suggest you take a look at John Holt's books, esp. the one "How Children Learn". It is fascinating, and the #1 way to ensure you will have a future reader on your hands? Read to them. That's it. The reason children have so much trouble learning in school (well, some excell, but some have a HUGE challenge--dyslexia aside-- is because of over-correction. Instead of just letting a child read a book how they want to, parents/teachers will say "almost got that right; nope, not quite; that's not the correct way to say it;etc;etc;etc. As for math? Just playing games with them that involve money, addition, subtraction, and even doing things like doubling a recipe and the child having to figure out how much ingredients goes into what works. Children may take longer (i.e. their age might be 7 before they learn it) but they will learn it. The school system is a relatively new thing, let's say about 100 years old. Before that, kids learned everything from their parents, and most people learned to read just by being given books and having the desire to do so. Read up in John Holt--you will be glad you did, they are short books and the library carries them.

Sarah M
Bethany said…
More than 100 years ago, most people were also generally not planning on entering a job market that requires lots of formal education - they were most likely remaining on family farms or family business, so it didn't particularly matter if the vagaries of science outside its most practical applications never interested them, and that they never learned it. What about now when most of our kids aren't going to be unschooled all the way through their lives - they will probably want to attend a university which will require knowledge of topics that may never have interested them enough to learn on their own. I understand the appeal for very young children, but it doesn't seem like a sustainable model all the way through high school age, at least not working within the confines of our current higher education/job market society.
More than ever it is entirely useful. A LOT--most-- of homeschooled kids (unschooled, or whatever) go to further education: college, trade school, etc. Statistically, more so than kids going to public/privatized schools (and yes, obviously there are less homeschoolers than other, but thinking of it in a 'per capita' way).
These kids know all the "necessary fields" like math, reading, writing, etc. and have honed in on one or two passions they have...whether that be like the examples in my summary, horse training or electronics. They are far more advanced than other students at this young age because they have been given the freedom and the TIME to excell and pursue their passions, a lot of whom even take college courses well before their college "years" (18-22).

There should be no fear that these kids will not understand computers. Every generation born in the 80s and after knows how computers work--even more so than the adults working with them now! They are growing up with them in the home.

I also never took a single college course that I had never heard of before entering college...and my "elective" classes were all across the board as far as interests go, from nutrition to ethnography to art history to a pre-law course.

Also, homeschooled kids (not just unschooled, but homeschooled in general)have 'learned on their own' their entire lives and statistically have better study skills and exam grades because they have had to learn what is important when reading or studying a concept. When a child is learning something they are interested in, and completely devour, their retention is amazing as well. Learning becomes fun instead of just regurgitating bold lettered words.

Sarah M
RT said…
Thanks for the book recs, Sarah. I will definitely pick up something by John Holt. I've always been fascinated by how children learn--it's an amazing subject.

I've been thinking a lot about schools and teachers (potential upcoming blog post?) and believe that teachers play a great part in encouraging a child's natural bend. The word teacher can apply to anyone... a 2nd grade public school employee, a mother, an older brother, a director at a local theater, etc. I'm continually encouraged by Livia's preschool teacher who understands my child's makeup and will alter her teaching methods to accommodate different interests. I think the students being educated in teaching methods today are understanding more and more of different learning styles. For me, that's quite encouraging.

One thing I love about LPS is the wide variety of electives available to Lincoln kids. You'll find homeschooling high schoolers stopping by local schools for advanced chemistry, marching band, choirs, etc. I look at the Zoo School and wonder if Livia will end up in that environment during HS, and I know I would've have LOVED the Arts & Humanities program if it had been available to me.

Thanks for this series, Sarah. I'm glad you're reading and reporting the news back to us!
Rebecca, I completely agree with the "teacher" aspect. That is what it's all about--learning from everyone (no matter age or background or academic degree) can be a 'teacher'!
Since I was raised Catholic and went to school in a Catholic elementary & high school, I also did not have the opportunity to go to the Arts & Humanities school...but oh how I always wanted to! :)

Without getting to much into this online --this is a much better conversation face to face :) -- I feel the background and reason for schools systems like the current model is because of a lot of different avenues society and culture have taken at large. Like I said...another time.

I also have some experience in the LPS system from working 2 years in college as an instructor in the community learning centers program, funded by the government, and also a stint as a day-care provider for 5-6 year olds; which have also helped sift my opinions on everything from childcare to understanding how children learn.

Sarah M
Bethany said…
I agree with you that homeschooling isn't necessarily in any way less preparatory for the rigors of college or a job than public/private school. But perhaps I'm just not understanding the distinction between "homeschooling" and "unschooling" that is being drawn. I was under the impression that unschooling is different from a traditional homeschooling model in that it's entirely directed by the child's interests. So, if my daughter decides that she really just isn't interested in science at all (as I most likely, honestly, would have done if I'd been given the freedom :) ), she doesn't have to learn anything about it. That's what confuses me. Presumably in a more traditional homeschooling setting, there'd be at least some kind of curriculum ensuring that she studied science sometimes, even if she never ever wanted to. Does that make sense? I'm just wondering how that works if your child just honestly never develops an independent interest in a topic.

(I don't mean to come across as confrontational; I'm genuinely curious. We won't have to be making this decisions for several more years, but I do think about them occasionally, though I've yet to do much serious research into it.)
In response to Bethany:

It is unlike traditional homeschooling only in the fact that those who "unschool" do not use a curriculum-based program/routine/schedule. For example, for homeschooling families there are curriculum 'fairs' (events) you can go to to check out curriculum packages (ranging from 'teacher companions, readers, chapter books that follow it, religious or non-religious, etc.) and those all follow a tradition public/private school model. Most schools use curriculum packages that can be purchased for one or two children for homeschoolers. Does that make sense?
An unschooler is different in that sense, and in the sense that they perceive more "everything is learning" (and can therefore fit into a categorical "subject" as we know them) and don't feel pressure just to study for a test (that they'll forget about the next day) or do HOURS of homework every night.
In that sense I don't like the traditional model because it is just a job for a child, and then they can't seperate their job from fun--because they have homework when they get home, too! (Although, too much discussion there, maybe another time! :) I had up to* 3 hours of homework as a child per night once I got to 4th grade, and I think that is completely ridiculous.

You mentioned you don't like science, but do you like going fishing? Have you ever had a pet? Have you ever seen a falling star and wondered how it does that? :) Do you love to go out on nature hikes or spend a day at the ocean or in the mountains soaking up the beauty? These all fall into the "science" category!
These are things that are so valuable to children--to be out *experiencing* instead of just reading about it in a classroom for 35 hours a week.

As a stay at home mom for the last 2 1/2 years (and knowing that Julie K and RT are also stay-at-home-moms) it is easy for us to say we do these things on a regular basis, which I would agree with, because our children are small and not in full-day school yet, and are learning by imitation/trial & error at this point in their life.

I don't want to get too much into how society has formed our traditional model of school, because that is SUCH a long topic that I haven't fully reached a conclusion one way or another and it can be very hard to articulate things online!

The best direction I can give anyone regarding all this info is just to delve more into it if curious. The resource part of the post is just the tip of the iceberg. John Holt or John Taylor Gatto's (and many more if you google "unschool") answer these questions and many, many, many more! They are only about 100-160 pages each, and they are quick reads.

Sarah M
As an aside, an unschooler might say "I get to* study the ocean and everything in it" while the traditional student might say, "we have to* study the ocean and everything in it". See the difference? Once you wrap your head around the fact that it is a complete mind shift on looking at learning/education, it is much easier to understand! :)
Bethany said…
Thanks for the response. That does make a bit more sense to me. It still seems to me like a model that works best in elementary school-age kids, rather than high school, though, unless you have kids who are particularly driven and self-disciplined to make themselves learn the subjects they're not as naturally inclined toward. Focusing on the aspects of a topic that interest you is well and good, but if the kid who isn't all that into science gets toward the end of high school and decides they want to go to college, when the admissions officer asks why there are no science classes on on their transcript, I doubt "Well, I like to hike and I had a pet gerbil once" is going to cut it. ;)

I definitely see the appeal, I'm just a tiny bit skeptical that it's a viable model all the way through high school age, unless like I said, the kid is really really self-disciplined and motivated. I guess if they are then it would be a good choice for them. :)
I think it actually works best for kids in high school and junior high, since being really involved in and passionate about boosts confidence.

Please check more of it out through reading a book about it. I don't feel I am communicating the year by year process that kids grow and learn through the internet to you with the 'experience science' example.

Here is a great story of an unschooled kid who is having a movie made about him. His name is Zac Sunderland, maybe you have heard of him? He is the youngest person to sail around the world at age 16...all because of a passion.
What college *wouldn't* take him?

Sarah M
RT said…
Wow--what a discussion! I'm enjoying it.

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