One of the most common questions I get about unschooling (besides “can unschoolers go to college“) is, “How does it work if they just aren’t interested in a particular subject? Do they just avoid it, and never learn it? Doesn’t that lead to them having holes in their education?”
Sometimes, I kind of want to laugh when I hear this…but I know it’s a serious question. I know that people really, honestly worry about this when we’re talking about unusual schooling methods. So let’s chat about it!
All Education Comes with Gaps
Here’s the plain truth: all education, regardless of method, has gaps.
No school curriculum is perfect. Some schools do not teach advanced math (beyond geometry; no calculus, etc.). Some do not offer foreign language (and some offer it from kindergarten). Some do not teach English classics or certain types of literature. Some are missing certain history courses. Beyond the “basic skills,” every school teaches things a bit differently.
No child gets equal value from every class. Certainly, we all remember going through the motions in certain public school classes, doing the bare minimum to get a passing grade? All of us have certain topics and even subjects that we aren’t as strong in or don’t prefer. Some of us took the bare minimum required in high school (only three science courses were required when I was in high school, and just a couple years earlier, only two had been required, so plenty of kids didn’t take more than that). Plus, students slog through certain classes to get a passing grade, and really don’t “learn” anything from the course.
The point is, going through a specific curriculum, or a formal public/private school does not guarantee an education without gaps. Such a concept is impossible. So, we must remember that when evaluating any “alternative” schooling method, and not hold it to a higher standard.
Unschooling usually offers more time to dig into areas of interest, to explore subjects beyond what is taught in school, and to dig into topics with greater depth — because it’s very individual and not a group thing (so there are no assignments, no one to wait for, no busy work). Plus, since unschoolers go for topics about which they feel passionately or want to learn more, they are likely to actually remember what they learn and get real value from their studies. They don’t just go through the motions because they’re not doing it for a grade or some external “reward.”
Do Unschoolers Skip Entire Subjects?
But of course, most people will understand and accept that no education is ever truly “complete.” That’s not their concern. Their concern is that, from a young age, children will simply gravitate towards the subjects they like, and completely ignore — and not learn — the subjects that they don’t. At all. (And by this, they mean, core subjects, like math or reading.)
The thing is…that’s really not possible.
Unschoolers don’t separate life into “subjects.” That is how most curriculum and formal schooling works, but not how unschooling works. We don’t learn “math” and “science” and “reading” and “writing” one at a time.
Instead, unschoolers learn in a hands-on, real-life setting. That means they need all of those skills! They are unavoidable.
Think about a trip to the grocery store. First, we have to make a grocery list. This involves reading sales ads, and figuring out what we need. Then, write down the items that we want to buy. It also involves making sure what we want to buy fits our budget (math). At the store, we have to figure out if we really have enough money to buy what we’re buying, and figure out the tax on non-food items. We have to be able to read signs to get to the store and get around the store. To get the best deals, we have to be able to compare product sizes and prices. To get quality foods, we have to be able to read labels.
Just grocery shopping, we cover all the basics! In many ways!
Let’s take video games as another example since a common question is “What if they just want to play video games all day?” What if they do? A lot of video games involve reading — messages pop up on the screen from the game itself or other players. Writing is needed to be able to type messages back to other players or to search for specific areas or items in the game (my boys ask me how to spell various words to find items in Minecraft). Many games come with an “inventory” to manage and this involves math — figuring out how many you have, how many you need to create something, and so on. Some games even involve knowing secret codes or programming languages in order to make certain functions work.
There’s a lot to be learned there, too!
It’s really just not possible to live a normal life and completely avoid entire subjects or skills.
Plus, because unschoolers have not (usually) been to school, they don’t have a concept of “hating” certain subjects. They have the freedom to explore these subjects in whatever way makes the most sense to them, in ways that are hands-on and authentic. They don’t say “I don’t like math” because they have not been forced to sit down and use workbooks and “learn math,” get tested (and do poorly), etc. There’s no stigma attached.
That said, of course, kids will gravitate more towards some areas than others. But as I mentioned, many areas are really inter-disciplinary anyway. Studying history involves reading and writing at a minimum, and may involve with math (if they’re figuring dates, ages, etc.).
Now — will all unschoolers study, say, calculus? Ancient English literature? and so on. No, they won’t. But…do all public or private schooled kids study these subjects? No, they don’t.
But We All Have to Do Things We Don’t Want To
What some people mean when they ask about gaps is, “How will they learn that we have to do things in life that we don’t want to do? It’s just part of life and by avoiding that through unschooling, you are not preparing them adequately.”
Well. First, it’s not exactly my goal to put my kids through less-than-ideal situations just to teach them sometimes, life isn’t fun. If a situation were necessary, and not fun, then we would (do) do that. But I’m not going to sacrifice their educational needs just to teach them that lesson!
Second, that lesson comes in many ways. You made a mess with your toys and don’t want to pick them up? Too bad, you are responsible for them. The family is taking a trip to the park and you don’t want to go? Too bad, majority rules and everyone is going.
There are plenty of situations outside of formal education where kids (and adults!) have to do things they’d prefer not to!
I think that this argument is honestly just a way for some people to justify the “necessity” of formal education. But really it’s a pretty silly argument.
But You’re Not Qualified
Some people aren’t so worried about the early years of education — those years when it’s really just about basic reading, writing, and math. They’re more worried about the later years, where kids would be studying more advanced subjects. They’re concerned that kids will not be exposed to advanced levels because their parents aren’t familiar with the information and don’t know how to “properly” teach it.
First, this completely misunderstands homeschooling and unschooling in general. Parents don’t lock their kids up at home and rely only on their own experiences and knowledge! Older children take classes, participate in coops, have tutors, and so on. They aren’t relying only on their parents’ knowledge.
Plus, most unschooled kids choose what they want to study when they are older, and often choose curriculum themselves. “No curriculum” really only means “no parent-directed curriculum.” Kids can and do choose whatever methods they prefer to learn with, and pre-teens and teens will choose their own curriculum and engage in self-study with it.
As for parents not being “qualified,” I’m not one who’s really sold on the whole “you need a professional” in most cases anyway. There’s a time and a place for professionals, but I don’t think that professional educators guarantee a good outcome, or that “untrained” adults guarantee a poor outcome. Most educational professionals spend a lot of time on classroom management, some time on pedagogy, and quite a bit of time on “how to teach in a classroom setting.” This does not make them overall experts in education or learning. (Spoken as someone who has an education degree, by the way.)
The truth is, one does not need to be “qualified” to help someone else learn. And many studies show that being “taught” is not nearly as effective a way to learn as self-study anyway. I prefer to allow my children to discover what works for them than to sit down and try to teach them things they don’t really want to learn — I’ve tried that and it’s frustrating for everyone and doesn’t really help anything.
A Total Mind Shift
Honestly, it’s hard to explain unschooling to someone for whom it is entirely foreign. It is a completely different mindset.
If someone believes the only “real” way to learn is to sit down in a formal setting and teach using a curriculum, worksheets, projects, and tests, then they will never understand just how rich an education someone can get outside of this system. That is too bad, honestly. (And — this might be a little mean — but I tend to think people who believe this is the only way to learn are products of such a system and are unable to think about education critically. They’re actually a good argument as to why such a system is not the best way to learn.)
That’s not to say that unschooling is the only way to learn, either, nor necessarily the best for everyone. Some people prefer more structure, even in childhood. Families naturally gravitate towards what works for them, if given the chance. The point is that formal education isn’t “required” for learning, and unschooling is absolutely a viable method for receiving an excellent education.
By the way, if you have an unschooled child who is in high school or completely grown, we’d love to hear your story! Or if you are an adult who was unschooled, tell us yours!
If you still have questions about unschooling, let me know what they are — I’d love to answer!
Do you think that unschooling is more likely to have gaps than other forms of education? Why or why not?