My Unschooling Book Series (6)
What Unschooling Is
Of course, a book about unschooling needs to include a definition of unschooling. This is obvious, I know! However, I’m having trouble writing a good description.
Maybe I could say: Unschooling can be defined as allowing children the freedom to learn, in their own way and time, what interests them or what they think they need to know. (Not what we think they need to know.)
Most people think about unschooling very simply: It’s a method of homeschooling where a child doesn’t use a curriculum or a plan put together by a parent. Instead, she learns what interests her.
But unschooling is not really a method of homeschooling. It’s a way of life that both children and adults live.
Unschooling doesn’t just start when a child reaches school age, so I’d also like to include something about how unschooling is a natural way of learning. It’s the way babies and toddlers learn. And the way adults learn too.
And I also think unschooling is about helping our kids (and us) become the people they (and we) are meant to be.
How do I get all that into a good description? Could I write the definition similar to what I’ve written here, elaborating on each point, and then add stories in between the paragraphs to illustrate them? Or do all the points need to be combined into something concise? I’m still thinking and working on it!
In the meantime, I’ve been writing about what unschooling isn’t.
What Unschooling Is Not
I used to think unschooling was stepping back and letting our children learn completely on their own.
I’d soaked up many editions of the John Holt magazine Growing Without Schooling. They were full of impressive unschooling stories. I read about a young boy who rewired the family home after figuring out how electrical circuits work. Another child drew hundreds of pictures of butterflies, each one different and detailed, after attending a lecture at the museum presented by an expert in the butterfly field.
After reading these stories, my eyes lit up. Excitement bubbled within me. If I allowed my children to follow their interests, they’d do similar amazing things. They’d learn so much without any help from me. They’d learn all they needed to know and much more. All I had to do was stay out of the way so I wouldn’t interfere with the natural learning process.
So we began unschooling our first child when she reached school age. And I couldn’t wait to see what she was going to do. It was going to be something fantastic, I was sure. But, despite having the freedom to do whatever she liked, nothing much happened. I was very disappointed. How was she ever going to learn all the things essential for a good education? Children will learn all they need to know at a time when they need to know it. Is this really true? I began to have doubts.
After a while, my doubts led to ‘cheating’. Instead of letting my child discover the world entirely on her own, I began making suggestions about possible things she might like to learn about. I introduced her to such things as poetry and Shakespeare, and I offered to read her my favourite books. And because she responded well, and was obviously learning from this new way of doing things, I decided it was time to stop calling ourselves unschoolers. We had to homeschool in a way that resulted in learning. And that wasn’t unschooling. As far as I could see, there was no way unschooling was ever going to work.
But of course, unschooling does work. So what was the problem? It wasn’t unschooling. It was me. Despite all my reading, I didn’t have a very good idea of what unschooling is.
I think a lot of people have the same problem. Maybe that’s why there are so many critics. They try to persuade us to stay away from unschooling: “Unschooling is lazy and negligent. You can’t just leave your kids on their own and hope they’ll learn all they need to know.” And the critics are right. But what they’re talking about isn’t unschooling. And what our family was doing right at the start wasn’t really unschooling either.
Unschooling parents can’t just stand back and hope their children will, by themselves, learn all they need to know. We have to play an active role, not a passive one. We need to be involved.
We need to be involved? What do parents need to do? I’ve got some ideas jotted down. I just need to work on them a bit more!
A New Podcast Series
Do you listen to my podcasts? I’ll still be making new episodes while I’m working on my book. These episodes will be shorter than my usual ones. Each one will be based on a blog post from my archive.
Today, I published the first episode in this new series: Critics, Unschooling, and Independent Learners. If you’d like to listen to it, you can find episode 111 here on my blog, on iTunes (or should that be Apple podcasts?) and on Podbean. Please take a look.
I don’t think I’ll be publishing these short podcast episodes as blog posts, but if you subscribe to my podcast, you’ll see them in your feed. (Episodes 112 and 113 have already been recorded!)
One last thing: If you have a favourite definition of unschooling, I hope you’ll share it with me!