Originally published in the April 1998 California HomeSchooler.
A few years ago, when I had finished the manuscript for The Homeschooling Handbook, I started pondering the idea of a book on unschooling. Like most unschoolers I’m regularly frustrated at the difficulty many people seem to have understanding the concept. We explain the idea carefully and clearly—we think—and then find ourselves spluttering in disbelief when our listener asks, “But when do you do your lessons?”
With the help of my two or three dozen questionnaire respondents, I figured I could come up with the definitive answer-the-question-for-all-time explanation of what exactly unschooling is. Everybody had good answers to the questions, “How do you define unschooling?” The problem was that all the answers were different—and almost all of them were several paragraphs long.
My friend Carol Edson (a long-time HSC Alameda County Contact) offered the most pointed and concise definition:
“Unschooling to me means learning what one wants, when one wants, in the way one wants, where one wants, for one’s own reasons. The learning is learner-directed; advisors or facilitators are sought out as desired by the learner. There are no curricula, lesson plans, schedules, or agendas. Most of the learning is quiet, even invisible, as there is not a focus on creating a lot of ‘products.'”
The problem with a nice short answer like Carol’s is that it leaves the novice mystified, wondering, “But what is it exactly that unschoolers actually do?”
What I realized as I got seriously working on the book was that unschooling is so hard to define because it truly is different for every unschooling family and for every child within a given family. Because it is so centered on the learner’s own needs and interests, generic definitions are perforce incomplete and unsatisfactory.
I found, though, as I looked at the more concrete responses to questions about what my respondents’ families spent their time doing, that all of them had certain characteristics in common. Three factors appear consistently in families for whom unschooling works:
1. An Environment Conducive to Exploration and Experimentation.
Unschooling children are able to spend most of their time in places where learning and exploration are possible and welcome. The exact materials or surroundings don’t matter a great deal; what’s important is that kids have access to what interests them and feel comfortable exploring and using what they find around them.
2. Adults as Models and Facilitators
As important as “stuff” to learn with are people to learn from. Formal qualifications are not important, but it’s crucial that kids have people around them who provide models of learning in the way they live and the activities they pursue. “Do as I say, not as I do” does not work; kids need people who have active interests of their own, who exhibit their own curiosity and joy in exploring the world.
3. Trust That the Child Will Learn.
For most parents, this is the most difficult aspect of unschooling. We worry that our kids will miss something important, that they won’t “cover everything,” that something will go wrong and it will be all our fault.
Developing that trust in our children does not come easily to many of us. We have to forget what things we learned in which grade at school and really look at what our children do. Most of us are frequently surprised at the things our kids know and do. Even after nearly a decade as an enthusiastic unschooling parent, I’m still startled at how often I’m pleasantly surprised by mine.
Eventually we learn to see how much our kids learn from even the most mundane activities. Eventually we learn to relax (most of the time) and quit worrying (most of the time). And inevitably, our children learn to recognize our anxiety creeping out and let us know—frequently—how ridiculous our fears are.