Unschooling Basics

A visit to the Oakland Zoo.
A visit to the Oakland Zoo.

I’ve already mentioned unschooling, but I haven’t yet defined it. Some are familiar with unschooling, but of course many have never heard of it. So this post is my stab at explaining what it is. Here are some basic tenets:

1. Learning is intrinsically interesting and people (including children) naturally want to do it. The caveat here is of course, that we want to learn about things that we are curious about. To my husband’s dismay, I am not curious about learning how to program. Although I appreciate the skills of web development, I myself have little interest in learning those skills for myself. Programming to me seems a little bit like watching paint dry. Now to my husband, who is a web developer, programming is something he is very passionate about. He works all day long programming, and then after work or on the weekends, he relaxes and has fun doing what? More programming.

The point though, is that although people have different interests, the world is a very fascinating place, and learning about the world and how it works, and about the myriad interesting things in it, is fun. So in recognition of this fact, unschoolers try not to take the fun out of learning. It comes very natural to children so we simply try to encourage them and help them in their explorations.

2. Learning becomes uninteresting if one does not have the freedom to explore what one wishes to learn and how one wishes to learn it. When adults try to control what children learn, when they will learn it, and by what methods they will learn, learning can become a chore – something kids have to do, but something they wouldn’t choose to do if left free to decide for themselves. We feel that if learning is free from coercion, however, children will learn all the time and in unexpected ways. We feel that they will learn, not because “it will be on a test” or so that “they can get a good grade” but because learning itself is satisfying.

Here is a rather lengthy quote from John Holt, taken from his book, Escape from Childhood:

The words “expect” and “expectation” are on the whole badly misunderstood and misused by most people who write about children. Most people use them as synonyms for “demand” or “insist” or “compel.” When they say we should have higher expectations of children, they mean that we should demand that they do certain things and threaten to punish them if they do not. When I speak of expecting a lot of children, I only mean that we should not in our minds put an upper limit on what they may be able to do. I don’t mean we should assume that they can, and therefore should, do certain things or be disappointed and worried if they do not – everyone has his own path and timetable into life. I do mean that we should not assume that there are things that they cannot do or be astonished and even threatened when they do them. We should be open to their way of growing, whatever it may be. With this understanding of the world, I believe that if we expected more from children, and they from themselves, they would be able to learn much more about the world around them, much more quickly, then they do now. Or, to put it differently, they would go on exploring and learning after the age of three as eagerly and capably as they did in their first three years.

Young people should have the right to control and direct their own learning, that is, to decide what they want to learn, and when, where, how, how much, how fast, and with what help they want to learn it. To be still more specific, I want them to have the right to decide if, when, how much, and by whom they want to be taught and the right to decide whether they want to learn in a school and if so which one and for how much of the time.

No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.

3. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. It’s not just that unschoolers think that a better way of learning is that which is freely chosen, it’s that we doubt whether it is even possible to make someone learn something against her will. When I think back to all my years of schooling and what I actually remember from all those years, I remember what I was interested in learning to begin with. All the things that I “learned” because I needed to know them for a test or an assignment but that I wasn’t interested in are things that I stored long enough to get the grade I wanted to get but then I promptly forgot. I don’t think this fact even comes as any surprise to anyone. This fact is so well known and accepted that there is even a name for it: Summer Learning Loss. Teachers lament that so much of the first part of the school year is spent going over previously learned material. Whole summer programs are dedicated to helping curb its effects and parents often receive lots of encouragement and ideas on things they can do during the summer months to mitigate this phenomenon.

So I question, is spending seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year making children learn all the things that we feel it is necessary for them to learn, much of which they will forget anyway, really the best use of anyone’s time? Is it the best use of childhood? Is it the best use of the teacher’s time? Is the whole huge machine that is schooling in this country, from the bottom all the way to the top, and all the effort spent in trying to figure out new and resourceful ways to make children do what they don’t want to do, the best use of anyone’s time?

I don’t think so. Unschoolers choose not to spend our days feeling like Sisyphus from Greek mythology, perpetually doomed to roll the stone up the hill only to reach the top and have it roll down to the bottom again. Rather than spend my days in frustration of trying to make my kids learn things against their will,  I’ll instead just follow their lead. They will learn so much more if they are interested in it, and the time we spend exploring whatever subject will be much more peaceful and joyful. I feel if schools became places dedicated to helping children learn what the children were interested in learning,  and the schooling behemoth was dedicated to respecting children and coming up with creative ways to help children explore this fascinating world in freedom, rather than in compelling them to learn what others say they should learn, their time  would be much better spent. I also think teachers and students alike would be much happier and feel more fulfilled at the end of the day.

4. Education is important, but it’s not the most important. I see our unschooling as a way of putting first things first. Education is important, but it is not more important than the strong connections that we build as a family. I’m not saying that children who go to school cannot maintain strong connections with their family members, as I know many school families who do. However, I think it is more challenging to maintain that connection when the child is gone at school for seven hours a day and during the time when they are likely the most alert and energetic. These days, it seems that children have a lot more homework as well than when I was in school. So it is often not just the seven hours a day, but also now much of the evenings that are spent doing homework and other after-school activities, which leaves little time for the family to just be together and to enjoy each other’s company.

I like that education fits in around the needs of our family, rather than arranging our family’s needs around the school schedule. When my youngest was born one October, we had time to relax, rest, and to be a family together. A new person in the family always puts everything in flux as we learn how to be a family again. I’m glad that when big events like that happen, we don’t have to worry about keeping up with the school schedule or even focus explicitly on education itself. We focus on what’s more important, the new addition to our family and helping all members adjust.  We feel that is an integral part of a wholesome education in itself.

If ten unschooling families are asked to give their definitions of unschooling, or asked to describe what unschooling looks like for their family, they’ll likely give ten different responses. The list above, however, gives some basic tenets of unschooling that drive the various practices and lifestyles of unschooling families.

Are you an unschooler? Is there anything you’d like to add to this short list? Please comment! Any questions? I love to answer them if I am able.

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