When my oldest was about a year old, I picked up a book on unschooling. It was one mom’s story about unschooling her daughter through their whole life. I found it intriguing (if a little impractical at some points — she raised an only child and didn’t feel her daughter should have to pitch in with chores at all; she should be focused on just ‘being a child.’ Totally impossible for those of us with many children!).
My husband and I are very entrepreneurial in nature, and very much enjoy doing things independently. My husband was homeschooled from grades 3 – 12 with a fair amount of freedom, especially in the later years. (He had assigned curriculum but could do it whenever he wanted, and once his lessons were complete he could do anything. They didn’t have sit-down formal lesson times.)
I went to public school but largely found myself ignoring the teachers and working on my own projects instead. I spent most of my fourth-grade year on the class’s computer, reading the encyclopedia or writing novels. Thankfully my teacher allowed me to do so!
At any rate, unschooling seemed like it would really fit well into our family. If our children were half as motivated as we were, it would be amazing for them.
And, it has been. We have five children now, and our oldest is 8. Unschooling is absolutely right for us. Every time I’ve worried a bit of tried to ‘push’ them a little or try out assigning lessons, it has bombed, big time.
I’ve continued to read about educational theories and refine what we do and how we do it (I know, at times, I need to be a little more responsive when they ask me questions — even totally odd questions that I have no idea how to answer — to help them further their learning!). I’ve affirmed, through my research, that this is definitely a viable method of getting educated, that there are many successful unschooled adults, and that this is working for us.
Yet, a whole lot of misconceptions about unschooling exist. A lot of people think that unschooling is just a giant free-for-all, where kids walk all over adults, get their way constantly, and don’t learn a single thing. They have visions of kids going out into the world at 18, completely uneducated and totally shocked. They think that kids will grow up not knowing how to read or do basic math, that they will expect to always get their way, that they will be unable to handle college or a job or just living everyday life.
Of course, this is ridiculous.
But, to people unfamiliar, it seems like a distinct possibility. Hence, this post.
Here are eight responses to people who question unschooling:
#1: “It’s more than just ‘what all good families do.'”
I hear a lot of people express this sentiment when I first describe unschooling. “Well, I do all those things, too! In the evenings, on the weekends, in the summertime. How is what you’re doing any different? I do what you do plus school, so you must not be doing enough.”
If you take your child to, say, a local park for a class about butterflies, do you think s/he learns from it? Most likely, or you wouldn’t attend. Do you think that knowledge is above and beyond what your child is learning in school? Again, most likely. Now think about what it would be like if your child had those kinds of “above and beyond” experiences all day, every day. How much more would they learn?
Remember, almost everything out in the world requires basic skills like reading, writing, and math. They don’t have to sit down with textbooks to learn those things. They’ll learn when they’re reading about butterflies, writing a story about a butterfly named Belle, and counting how many days it takes for a butterfly to hatch from its chrysalis. And don’t forget the science involved in watching caterpillars grow into butterflies!
Basically, I see it the opposite way you do. You think my kids don’t get enough of the “basics” and waste all their time playing and learning random stuff. I think your kids waste far too much time focusing on the “basics” instead of learning them naturally while they are studying all the cool things in this world.
#2: “No, it is not ‘unparenting.'”
Unschooling is an educational philosophy that says that children should direct their education and decide what to learn and when. It doesn’t mean they’re removed from this world and can just do whatever they please with no consequences.
My kids are expected to treat me, and others, with respect. You better believe if they’re treating others poorly at a playdate (gasp, we do leave the house!) that we will end it and leave. They do have chores around the house, and are expected to pitch in — they’re members of the family, they help make the mess, so they help clean it up. If they drag their feet on picking up their messes, then we don’t have time for fun stuff.
I have expectations for them, and firm boundaries, and I enforce those boundaries. They are perfectly welcome to say to me, “I’m really interested in _____ can you help me learn about it?” but they are not welcome to say to me “You’re a stupid butthead and I’m not going to clean my room, clean it yourself!” See the difference?
#3: “No, life does not descend into utter chaos.”
A lot of people, even friends who say they are interested in, or even practice, unschooling, think that without parental encouragement and motivation, life will descend into utter chaos, especially if children are with their friends. They imagine (I assume) bands of wild heathens, racing around, fighting, screaming, climbing the walls, and doing absolutely nothing productive. They believe that adults are needed to direct kids to appropriate activities, supervise their progress, and gently encourage them to keep at it.
See, I trust my kids more than that. I have observed them enough times to know that they don’t (often) spend their time just racing around screaming. There are moments, but hey — that’s true of all kids. Most of the time, they want to work on something. They’ll find recycled boxes, paper, crayons, scissors, glue — and they’ll start cutting and coloring and building. They’ll find their bathrobe ties, make them into leashes, and pretend they are dogs. (Pretend play is how kids learn to understand the world around them.) They will go outside and create an elaborate game with a hierarchy of command and different roles. They will come and bug me with incessant questions and will not be satisfied until I have given them all the answers, and probably have found them books and shown them videos. And of course, the intense board game sessions….
They, like us, don’t want to “waste” their time, they want to do stuff! And they do. If you look closely, they’re working on projects, and it’s not chaotic at all.
#4: “I didn’t have to motivate my kids to learn to walk, and I don’t have to motivate them to learn to read, either.”
There’s this idea, this real fear, that if you don’t specifically teach or motivate your kids to learn “educational” things, that they simply won’t. But that is ridiculous.
Does your — neurotypical — child still spend all day lying on her back, crying for food and a clean diaper? No? Well, why not? After all, you did not ‘teach’ her to smile at you, to roll over, to sit up, to crawl, to walk, to feed herself, etc. But she did those things anyway. She wanted to do them. In a healthy, functional home, where you met her basic needs and loved on her, there was no way to stop her from doing those things!
You may have tried to teach her to use the toilet, but most parents find out that when they try to force it, it doesn’t go so well. It’s messy, there are lots of accidents and tears, and it seems to take forever. Most parents figure out if you wait until they are ready, that they will simply do it and it often takes only a few days. Some even seem to learn overnight — they wake up one day and say “No more diapers” and that’s really it.
…so why is it magically different when it comes to reading, writing, and basic math? Basic stuff. (Obviously, you don’t just randomly learn calculus.)
Children are motivated at birth to develop and grow. That does not change when they turn 5! And, children don’t differentiate between “academic” and “non-academic” development; we adults are the only ones who do that.
In the real world, a world that is filled with books, signs, computer screens with words, money, etc. it is impossible not to pick up the skills of reading, writing, and basic math along the way. Children learn these things because they realize that by knowing them, they can do a lot more for themselves. And they want to do things for themselves. Toddlers scream “Me do it!” and 5 and 6-year-olds haven’t lost that sense, they’ve just learned how to figure things out, rather than scream.
Honestly. Kids will keep learning. You can’t stop them from learning. (Remember how many questions your 4-year-old asked every day? That’s learning, mama!)
#5: “If you ‘unschool, but…’ you don’t really unschool and don’t really trust the process.”
This might be a little harsh, but…if you proclaim you like the idea of unschooling, or say that you do unschool, but follow that up with a caveat like “…except reading and math” or “except when I see they need a little more motivation and encouragement,” then you don’t really unschool and you don’t really trust the process.
Unschooling is not a way for kids to choose “some” of what they want to learn, while you choose and specifically teach the rest. That is what most parents do. Their kids go to school to learn the core subjects, and they sign their kids up for classes or teams, or answer questions that they have. That’s just normal education. It isn’t unschooling. (Which is all well and good if you prefer that style of education, but it isn’t unschooling.)
Likewise, if you are willing to let your kids direct learning sometimes, but other times you specifically present them with lessons or ideas and strongly encourage and motivate them to work on those things, you are not trusting the process. Unschooling is without coercion. You can’t “make” a kid learn anything they don’t really want to, anyway. You can frustrate them, make them believe they are slow or stupid, and give them a negative view of themselves and education in general. But you can’t make them learn.
#6: “Unschooling isn’t for lazy parents — there’s a lot of involvement.”
A lot of people have this vision that unschooling parents just sit around all day and let their kids do whatever they want. (See #2.) But that’s not true at all.
Kids have a thousand questions. Everyone knows that. What do you think happens when my kids have questions…and they’re with me, not at school, all day? I have to answer them. I help them find books, videos, crafts, games, or whatever it is they request so that they can understand these things better.
My daughter wanted to learn to bake real sourdough bread. I showed her a video that explained how a sourdough culture is created. We got out jars, flour, and water and made our own sourdough starters. We feed them daily. Every few days, we bake with them. We study them in between feedings to see if they are rising properly. We test different thicknesses of starter to see what works best, and then we learn about why. Heck, she knows more about sourdough starters and baking than most adults do, even adults interested in traditional cooking!
My older kids also really love board games. And I don’t mean Monopoly or Apples to Apples. I mean Euro games, like Dominion, 7 Wonders, etc. (Google them.) My husband plays with them almost daily, teaching them complex rules of the game. My daughter is highly competitive and often wins — she picks good strategies. She beats my husband more than I do.
My boys love to build Legos, and spend quite a bit of time designing ships of various types. My oldest son, who’s 6, wants to be an architect when he grows up. So we study how to design things in a sturdy, symmetrical way.
All the kids are fascinated by gardening. We’ve been planning what to grow for months. We created a spreadsheet of what to grow, when, how much sun it needs, how much to feed it, whether or not it needs staking, and more. We measured out where our garden will go and marked it with wooden stakes. Very soon, we will start our plants growing indoors, and everyday we will water them, check their growth, and make sure they’re getting sun. Then all summer long, we’ll be weeding, feeding, and harvesting from our gardens. We’ll write down how much we get of each food so we know how many plants to do next year. We’ll make graphs of various things in our garden, so that we can learn and do a better job next year.
At any rate, unschooling requires a lot of involvement from parents. Because it’s not just a giant free-for-all. (Gosh would that be nice sometimes.)
#7: “Formal education and testing is not the best way of learning — or even a good way.”
A whole lot of people are stuck in the mindset that the only way to have “real” learning is to spoon feed information to students, and then test them to see what they know. But it’s really not.
As I said above, you can’t make a child learn anything. Either they understand, or they don’t. Some kids get very good at remembering information long enough to write it down on a test — then they forget it all. They didn’t really understand it, they didn’t connect it to anything, they didn’t understand why they needed to know it, so they simply did not really “learn” it. (No. If your child gets an A on the test today, but can’t remember half the information next week, that is not learning.)
So many kids today have test anxiety. We’re pushing more and more testing at younger ages. Students are doing worse and worse on them, too. They are not learning creative thinking, critical thinking, problem solving, or anything else. They’re being taught how to read fast, but not to comprehend what they are reading.
This is so, so backwards. Just really, crazy backwards. I look at that model of education and think it is insane. Most people support it, or at least reluctantly put up with it, and think I am insane. But I can guarantee you, if my kid studies something that he wants to, that he chooses on his own, and then comes to explain it to me because he’s so excited, he really learned that. He understands it, he can use the information, he will remember the information. That’s real learning.
#8: “Teacher-led instruction is not more beneficial than child-led.”
I just don’t understand why people think this.
I have had conversations with many people lately, who truly believe that sitting down and leading a child through a prepared lesson is more valuable than allowing them to work with information or materials on their own.
But, they’ve actually tested this theory with an experiment. Two groups of preschool-aged children were put into different classrooms. A novel toy was set in each classroom. In one classroom, the toy was simply left for students to explore, with no adult-led instruction at all. In the other classroom, an adult sat down with the children and showed them how the toy worked.
The kids in the adult-led group used the toy correctly, exactly as they were shown. And only as they were shown. But the kids in the discovery group figured out how the toy worked (its basic function, the same one the adult taught the other group), and they learned several other ways to play with it!
Both groups learned how the toy worked. Both had the same general knowledge. But the group that was not instructed by adults learned much more about how the toy worked. They were not limited by the adult’s perspective. They were more creative.
Adult instruction just is not more beneficial than child-led, especially in the early years!
Of course, when students are older and recognize that they want to learn about ____ and that learning that on their own would be very difficult (say, if they want to learn ballet or a musical instrument), then they seek out a teacher who will instruct them. There is a place for that.
Unschoolers take advantage of classes, teams, textbooks, etc. in their own time, because they want to learn about those things. It’s still considered ‘unschooling’ because the child chose to join the class or team, it wasn’t something an adult decided for them.
Quite a few older unschoolers will sit down with their parents, map out a plan for college, an apprenticeship, trade school, etc. and will set out to study subjects or join online classes or even go to school so that they can learn what they need to know. Again, it’s unschooling because they choose to do it. (Unschooling does not, in any way, mean that you never use books or classes!)
I’m only talking about people who think that very young children somehow “require” special adult-led arts and crafts projects, or adult-chosen books, or adult-led reading instruction to learn about these basic things. Many still believe that.
Bottom line — we don’t unschool in a vacuum. Kids go out in public, have friends, go to church, participate in homeschool coop, watch TV, use the computer, go to the grocery store. They are living “in the real world” all the time! They meet people who are very different from them. They learn about how people make different choices than we do. We talk about that. We don’t keep them at home 24/7 with no contact with the outside world. They’re well aware, probably more aware than most of their peers, that there are many, many paths to success in this world. They are self-assured, they know they can choose whatever they want, and they work hard on what they choose.
That’s what unschooling is really like.
How do you handle people who question unschooling? Or, do you have other questions about unschooling?