This article was originally published in Natural Mother Magazine, a free bi-monthly publication for parents. Check it out here.
The conversation began in a benign enough way,
“Will she start kindergarten in the fall?” My new neighbor inquired.
“Yes, she is five and would start kindergarten this fall, but we homeschool.” This question is often asked to gauge age since our culture uses school grade as a shorthand for age. I cross my fingers for an “oh, that’s nice,” and moving on to another topic.
No such luck.
“Oh, my mother’s cousin's neighbor’s dog’s breeder’s daughter homeschools. What curriculum do you use?”
Oh, boy. I gird my loins hoping this doesn’t end badly. “We don’t use a curriculum. We are unschoolers.”
Her face drops and her eyes dart between my chin (she’s no longer looking me in the eye) and my kids with a look of sympathy bordering on pity in her eyes. She quickly finds she has other things to do and scurries away. I wonder how quickly this news will spread around our new neighborhood.
You see, more often than not, when I say “unschool” people hear something else. Neglect. Abuse. Lazy. Stupid. They look at my kids with sympathy because they believe they will never amount to anything as a result of my “weird” choices.
The worst part is that the reactions are from people who understand and at least accept homeschooling as a valid option. If you haven’t heard the word unschool then I have a chance to tell you about it without preconceptions. But, it seems, if you have heard of the word then it is already so laden with misconceptions that I never stand a chance to explain otherwise.
I’ve had homeschooling groups tell me, “we don’t allow unschoolers.” Most are more subtle, requiring on their application that you provide the name of the curriculum you use. Membership in the Home School Legal Defense Fund (a large lobbying group in the US) requires you to sign that you use, “a clearly organized program of education to instruct [your] children.”
Why all the fear?
The right to educate your children at home has been hard won in many states. Being a “responsible” homeschooler is very important and homeschool groups want to protect their status as a socially acceptable alternative to traditional schooling. Proving educational excellence is a big part of the homeschool movement’s success at changing public opinion. Seeing homeschooled kids get into Harvard and go on to successful careers has been a positive influence on the public perception of homeschooling.
Unschooling, that amorphous philosophy without a curriculum, seems way too counter culture to the suddenly kinda-mainstream idea of homeschooling. I had a homeschool group leader tell me that homeschoolers have way more in common with traditional school than they do with unschoolers.
I disagree! Unschooling is a type of homeschooling and we share the same goals and difficulties that other homeschoolers face (Socialization? check. Prom? check. Sports? check.). We too made the decision to forgo traditional school because we want the best education possible for our kids.
Homeschoolers don’t need to be afraid that we are setting the movement back or will reflect poorly on other homeschoolers. Unschooling is perfectly legal in the US and has a rich history. The term “unschooling” may be new (coined by John Holt’s publication, Growing Without Schooling, in the 1970s) but the concept of self-directed learning (called autodidacticism) was famously practiced by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglas (to name a few).
Here are 5 facts about unschooling specifically designed for the homeschool savvy. I hope it shows what we all have in common and demystifies some of the seeming amorphousness of unschooling.
1. Everyone Unschools.
When I post on FB something I’m doing with my kids and tag it #unschool, I invariable get a slew of, “well, I do that too!” These pleas sound almost defensive but really, that is my whole point. Unschooling is as natural as breathing and all parents do it - homeschooled and public schooled.
If you homeschool with a curriculum and your daughter skins her knee and starts asking about what a scab is, do you say “no! we are talking about the digestive system this week!” No. One of the best things about the one-on-one (or one-on-five) nature of homeschooling is taking the time to share your child’s natural wonder with learning new things. Most of us (and traditionally schooling parents too) would jump on Youtube and see if you can find a fascinating video about scabs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrmFIXBXikk).
As an unschooler, the major difference is I wouldn’t stop there. I’d toss out the curriculum about the digestive system and really, really get into this curiosity my kid expressed. A trip to the library for books about the immune system. A look at my kid’s own gross scab under a microscope. Maybe a subscription to Brain Pop to view their cute videos about blood (http://www.brainpop.com/health/bodysystems/blood/preview.weml). Does her interest move towards healthcare or towards cell biology? Do her eyes light up about the immune system, circulatory system, or skin system? Is she a natural documentarian that can photograph and collect data on her scab over time (changes in color/size)?
2. Unschoolers use the same resources you do.
I once bought my daughter a pre-math skills workbook. When I told people this I got lambasted for “not unschooling” because I bought a - gasp!- school book.
Unschooling isn’t about avoiding traditional learning methods at all costs. Unschooling suffers from a confusing name. I’ve never liked that it uses “un” which denotes being anti-something. Unschooling is definitely NOT about being anti-school. Unschooling is all about being PRO natural learning. We think that “school” is not a very good way to learn because learning is best when it is sparked by natural curiosity. We believe that mandatory, teacher-dictated learning is the killer of natural curiosity.
None of that means we are against “teaching” or traditional teaching methods. I use a lot of Montessori manipulatives with my kids because they are fun! My daughter absolutely loved her math workbook because she found it fun. If she wanted to take a class to learn more about something I would happily encourage her.
3. Unschooling parents are not “hands-off”
Sometimes people confuse “child-led” with “parent-absent.” Nothing could be further from the truth! Unschooling isn’t the easy way simply because there is no curriculum. A curriculum tells you what to teach and how to teach it. It also gives you assurance that your child is learning approximately the same things as a public schooler.
As an unschooler, I will set the tone for how learning looks in my home and being a voracious learner is one of the best ways. I model using my curiosity as a springboard for learning. The way I approach my own hobbies will show my kids the plethora of resources that exist and the drive to seek out answers to my questions.
I have to be hyper-vigilant to notice my child’s interests and find suitable ways to feed their curiosity. Instead of directing my child’s learning I act as a provocateur, asking questions that both encourage and stretch my child’s perceptions of the world. In order to do this I often have to share in my child’s interests. I know many unschooling parents who have taught themselves minecraft or pokemon in order to be better able to engage with their child’s learning.
4. Unschooling parents are not rocket scientists.
The corollary to #3, that unschool parents are hands off, is that unschool parents are geniuses and thus it works “for them.”
Unschooling, in my opinion, can actually be hindered by the super-smart parent who knows all the answers. Unschooling is all about following your own curiosity and how to find answers to your questions. If a child asks about a scab and you happen to be a dermatologist and tell them all the answers, you really haven’t helped them become expert learners.
As an unschool mom my best phrase is “I don’t know. Let’s find out!” I happen to have way too many college degrees to my name so people often say, “oh, I can see how unschooling would work for you but most people couldn’t do it.” Our society has come to believe that learning is a transaction where an expert (teacher) gives knowledge to a novice (learner). Unschooling believes that giving knowledge is not learning. Discovering knowledge for yourself is true learning. Being an excellent unschool parent isn’t about being a teacher as much as it is about being a detective - you can be a high school graduate (or not) and help your child learn theoretical physics through encouragement and resource-sleuthing.
5. Unschoolers have a different path to the same point.
Homeschoolers sometimes point to studies that show unschoolers are not on par with their traditionally homeschooled peers as proof of unschooling’s failure.
It is true. Homeschoolers who use a curriculum will be more easily compared to their public schooled peers. They learn much of the same things on the same timetable as traditional school. Unschooling is different enough that it makes comparison impossible.
One of the tenants of unschooling is that children learn best when they are ready. This means my 8 year old might not know how to read yet. In public school this would be considered a big failure and reason for remediation. As an unschooler it means to me that he or she has been busily working on other skills and will get to reading when they’re ready.
This is how we talk about toddlers learning to talk and walk. If a child is “behind” in walking we point to how advanced their verbal skills are and vice versa. We rarely worry that they’ll never learn to walk. The same applies to reading, writing, and arithmetic. We don’t worry they’ll never learn because we know that eventually their curiosity will come to a point where learning those things becomes necessary to satisfy them.
In the meantime, my child won’t compare well to yours. That doesn’t mean he is stupid or that unschooling is disadvantageous to him. Children who read “late,” but when they are ready, often pick it up quite quickly and end up right on par with their age-peers within a year.
Let me tell you, as an unschooler this is the hardest part. We see our children learning everyday and feel confident in our path. Then we see an age-peer doing things our child doesn’t do yet and it is hard. I’m not immune to worry about my child’s progress and it can be scary and fill me with self doubt. I have to remind myself that the goal of my education for my children is not to have competitive 10 year olds. My goal is to have well rounded adults. The path of the tortoise and the hare might be different but they all end up at the finish line!
Unschoolers are not neglectful, lazy, or a bad influence on the homeschool movement. We are conscientious parents who, like you, are trying to provide the best education for our kids.