On Unschooling

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.

3 comments on “On Unschooling

  1. Pingback: Over dat plan B dat plan A werd | all about the froeliesjes

  2. Any thoughts or ideas on how to make the switch from online school to unschooling when the child is 12, and not exactly on board? I find myself in a bit of a predicament as I have only recently came across unschooling. I have hated public schools, and the entire setup surrounding America’s education system for, well forever, but admittedly was not on the right path for a long time but now that I have screwed my head on straight this lingering hatred of the whole education system was nagging at me so I started to do some research and stumbled across this unschooling thing. . . Well I loved the idea from the very first second I heard the name but not exactly having been the best decision maker in my daughter’s eyes (and I admitted I was not), it has even hard getting her on board but I just know if I can bridge the gap, if I can just get her into it that it would turn things around for all of us. My daughter would no longer be in training to become an American factory worker sheep, and I would be able to do a lot of the “making-up” that I need to do for my own well being. And before anything can be said, I want you to know that the me part is only a bonus, I have her best interests at heart. So any thoughts, ideas, reading material you could suggest would be amazing. Thank you so much.

    • Wow, am I out of practice answering this type of question!

      Once my daughters hit their late teens, I did not stay much involved with the homeschooling/unschooling community and chose instead to pursue my own interests. So I’m not up on current organizations and resources.

      Where you live and what your state’s rules require will affect what you can do somewhat, but as much as you can, let your daughter take the lead. Let her figure out what she’s interested in and help her find ways to satisfy that curiosity. One of the reasons I always liked Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education was that it was one of the only books addressed specifically to teens and not their parents. (Her later book, Real Lives, might be helpful, too, as a collection of varying individual examples of what kids chose to do for their own learning.)

      If she’s got a hobby, sport, or other activity that she’s really interested in, let her run with that as far as she wants (and you can afford—sadly, usually a factor). Partly, so she’ll have a social outlet of her own choice and partly because following that interest can lead her on to others as well. One of the difficulties that new homeschoolers often have is adjusting to changes in social life—“friends” may turn out to have been mere acquaintances or people to hang out with because they were in the same places at the same times, which can be a shock.

      It won’t be magic. Lots of trial and error, lots of dead ends, lots of “that was interesting, but let’s try something else now.” But there’s no right or wrong way to go—try stuff, see if it works for her and for you, and move on to something else if it doesn’t.

      It’s all learning.

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