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8 Responses to People Who Question Unschooling

admin March 7, 2016

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.

I don’t.

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.)

It isn’t.

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.

What happened?

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?

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9 Comments

  1. Wow! That was very informative and almost:) makes me want to give it a try once our son is old enough!

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  2. Thank You!!! Very informative and open.

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  3. It sounds amazing and I would LOVE TO DO THAT because school sucks the life out of my child but he LOVES learning when he hasn’t been at school for a few days because I’m constantly teaching about everyday life not forced but stuff that is applied to everything. I work on his brain all the time and he loves it, but its not anything that has to do with school work or homework its free flowing conversation. I ALWAYS answer his why questions and he knows “Google” very well. And (my son) is even being bullied by his teacher this year in 1st grade so I’m considering home schooling but I thought school was required, like its against the law to not follow the state required materials? How could you do unschooling without getting thrown into jail as a parent? I really want to know, My son wants to be home schooled next year, hes not bullied by the students, but the teacher! and hes 7! hes scared to go to school because she is constantly screaming- hes afraid to go to the bathroom! he gets into trouble! and the teachers assistant said that she agreed with me that my son and I are being discriminated against. So I have no clue whats happening at school, I’m scared to think. I really want to reignite his creative side for learning. This school has just crushed it! he used to love to read. not anymore. It sounds like there is hope with unschooling but I don’t want it to be illegal if I can’t fill the requirements for homeschooling… how does all that work legally?

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    • In most states, you just tell them you are homeschooling and list materials you *may* use throughout the year, and that’s it. You don’t submit a formal plan and are not asking for approval. Some states don’t even have you notify! You will definitely not get thrown in jail for making your own educational decisions. 🙂

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  4. I know you may decline to post this comment because it is lengthy, but I hope you would. If you choose not to, I understand…but please consider what I’ve said and take it to heart. I hope you don’t mind if I link to this post on my blog and post my comment in entirety. Please let me know if this is an issue.

    This is interesting and informative; however, I have some questions and a few points on which we disagree. My understanding of unschooling is that it is almost wholly constructivist, but what you have described is not. Also, Why should unschooling be preferable to a home-based Montessori style? Montessori was a brilliant philosopher who believed that all education should be real, broad, and child-led…and she created a framework to help introduce children to certain types of learning when they are showing signs of being psychologically ready. She also created a system for helping children attain deeper and more thorough understandings of language, math, geography, and the sciences than virtually any one else.

    I also want to point out that children don’t always know they have an interest before being exposed to a topic…so why not encourage them or plan specifically to introduce them to certain topics? Why not encourage a summer of swim lessons or year of piano lessons to see if a child has an interest or a talent? In addition, should we really allow kids to skip over learning important events in history, such as the crucifixion of Christ or the actions of Adolf Hitler, simply because these are uncomfortable topics and the kids aren’t interested?

    And, I do have to point out that while a child choosing to attend certain classes is certainly child-led and child-friendly, it is not considered un-schooling by any other source I’ve come across.

    As a mathematician and a gifted education specialist, and from my experience of both teaching in public school and in homeschooling my eldest child, I can also say that math instruction should go well beyond what you have pointed out in your post in order for this area of the brain to develop the neural connections that may be necessary for a child to fully develop. Strategy games, especially complex ones, are very helpful in this area, but numeracy is critically important. I do believe that children should absolutely be encouraged to explore number concepts beyond what has been stated here, and that specific opportunities should be provided to children. Not providing them high-interest activities to develop their skills in numeracy is a serious disservice. To me, this is analogous to allowing a child to make all food decisions for mealtimes…children really don’t always know what is best for them…that’s why they have adult parents to guide them.

    I’ll admit, too, that I was horrified that you said kids “don’t need to be encouraged to learn to walk, etc.” This simply isn’t true. I’ve been a foster parent for quite some time and I see kids who have experienced profound abuse and neglect….and I’ve seen many kids who weren’t abused, but simply weren’t taught. They DON’T learn to walk, talk, crawl, or sit without loving encouragement and help from parents, and it’s irresponsible to say otherwise to people who trust you as an expert.

    I also think that public school has gotten a “bad rap” in this particular post. While I am definitely “pro homeschool”, our public schools and teachers do more for students than most people can begin to appreciate. “We” are not testing students more often than before….the politicians in each individual state do that.

    Finally, I want to point out that it seems to me that this definition of unschooling encourages direct interference and instruction for some areas rather than others. If a child is really trusted to learn all important things on their own, why not let them find out about social rules, politeness, etc, on their own? Why aren’t math and reading as important as the things you teach directly, such as how to clean a room?

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  5. I would’ve loved to been unschooled. I would’ve learned so much more than I did in traditional school. We’re definitely unschooling our kids.

    To Tammy,

    Girl, take a chill pill. It’s pretty clear you were already against what the article was about before you even read it. You do what you want and we’ll do what we want.

    Since there is even conflicting evidence from different studies that show Montessori schools may or may not be better for kids than traditional schooling, it’s safe to say that unschooling is just as effective (if not better) than the Montessori method. **Forgive me, I have committed the unpardonable sin of questioning the Montessori method.**

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  6. I’m glad you posted Tammy’s comment expressing some reservations about totally interest-led learning.

    Some important aspects of life can be learned by experiment or observation. Others can’t be learned that way. There is neurodiversity in the way people’s minds process speech sounds. Why use the same approach for every topic and every child? Even an unschooling ideology can fall into rigidity, treating all topics and all children the same way.

    The experiment cited was about how children learned to use a toy:

    “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!”

    The unguided discovery process is a good way to learn to use a toy or perhaps many other mechanical objects. But exceptions to this are very easy to think of. Like, learning to drive. Would you give kids a car with a key and see what happened? No, because a car’s workings are not all visible, and the experimentation process could lead to injury and death.

    So, about learning to read:

    “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.”

    If this is true, why are so many adults illiterate? The main reason is that the process of decoding text is invisible. It happens inside people’s brains. A child can observe someone reading and not have any idea how they are doing it. Reading doesn’t lend itself to completely independent learning. If they are read aloud to a lot, many children will figure out how the 26 letters combine into hundreds of spellings of the 44 sounds of English. But many children won’t learn to read well, or at all, without explicit instruction. Children are not all the same in this regard. Some people need more explicit instruction and more repetition. If a child is lucky enough to have an aptitude for reading and also have a parent who reads out loud to them a lot, they might just pick it up. But even with this kind of support, about 20% of children will not learn to read well.

    To find out more about reading difficulties and other learning differences, go to these nonprofit organizations’ websites: International Dyslexia Association, Parents Education Network, Decoding Dyslexia, Learning Ally, and Wrightslaw.

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  7. […] See 8 Responses to People Who Question Unschooling. […]

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  8. Tammy,
    In regard to the Montessori method, if I remember correctly, Maria Montessori felt like home learning was optimal, and tried to replicate a home environment and home activities in her schools. So seems that unschooling would actually fit right in with the Montessori belief. By the way, I do love the Montessori method, and when we were homeschooling, I had as much Montessori style learning tools, that my kids were free to use any time. The one difficulty I had with the Montessori method is that in a true Montesssori school, children were not allowed to use a piece of “work” until they had been shown how to use it. From the example above, this would seem to stifle their creativity with an item.

    Reply

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I’m Kate, mama to 5 and wife to Ben.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  I’m also a big fan of “fancy” drinks (anything but plain water counts as ‘fancy’ in my world!) and I can’t stop myself from DIY-ing everything.  I sure hope you’ll stick around so I can get to know you better!

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