What Is Unschooling?
EDIT FOR CLARITY: Something that repeatedly comes up when ‘unschooling’ is mentioned is the idea of a complete lack of limits. Every family, unschooling or not, has their own limits and we do not advocate letting children do things repeatedly that are inevitably going to lead to poor health or dangerous situations.
In our family our kids have great freedom over what they eat and how they learn, but, for example, we would not let them only watch TV all day every day, or eat only sugar, or stupid things like that. (However, they have never expressed a desire to do these things to a ridiculous excess, certainly at least in part because they don’t see them as ‘forbidden fruit’).
Personally we believe that our experience is something that we need to use to help our kids and occasionally that means saying ‘no’ and gently and kindly dealing with the reaction if there is one. We do find that because we don’t say ‘no’ arbitrarily our kids are quite accepting when we do say no.
Good morrow friends! I’ve written a few posts about our way of parenting now and it’s been lovely seeing so many people interested and asking questions about the way we do things in our family. I thought I would do a thorough post about where our parenting philosophy comes from, and why our choice to home educate and the way we parent are two inextricably linked processes. In today’s post I’ll be answering the question, “what is unschooling?”
I don’t often use the terminology that I’ll use in this post because it is rarely used in mainstream society and is therefore misunderstood. The connotations are often confusing or twisted and it doesn’t make for easy conversation, so I’ll explain them here and then revert to ‘respectful parenting’ or ‘gentle parenting’ as my go-to descriptors for how we interact with our children.
NB: The first few paragraphs are SUPER BORING, but please plough through and you’ll get to the bit about how our kids don’t have a strict bedtime, and we pretty much let them eat what they want, and don’t tell them what or how to learn, and you’ll have some juicy horror story to tell your friends about this mad-hat family that you’ve been reading about whose kids are going to end up unemployed with wild hair, communicating in grunts and living in a cave in the woods. Or, maybe, I’ll succeed in explaining why we do what we do.
What Is Unschooling? A Brief History Of Unschooling
In the 1970s, an author and educator named John Holt became fascinated with the educational system and its limitations with regards to how children naturally learn. He found that the school system in the US was not meeting the individual needs of many of the children within it and he began to investigate what would happen if children were not sent to school, but instead were supported in the home and other social environments to learn at their own pace, and without an imposed curriculum.
Furthermore, Holt saw the problem with coercing children into learning as he found that it prevented them from fully exploring concepts when they were exposed to them with force. He also saw that coercion was unnecessary as children are born hard-wired to learn (you’d struggle in a normal home environment to stop a child from learning to speak, or crawl, or walk, for example). He also found that coercion not only damaged their relationship with adults but their relationship with learning itself.
To illustrate this, how many of us wrote off History or Geography in school as ‘boring’, but found beauty and fascination in a castle or volcano or historical character as adults, when we discovered it ourselves?
Holt founded America’s first home education newsletter, “Growing Without Schooling” in 1977 and wrote several more books, including “How Children Learn”. He also took steps to decrease the grading and ranking system of children and instead encourage children to learn through intrinsic motivation, which has been found to be vital in retaining information. Eventually he was met with much resistance from within the school system (understandably) and looked further afield to more progressive notions of education.
The Free School movement came into fruition while Holt was researching and although he affirmed some of the principles of allowing children more freedom in school, he felt that it was not enough and that children should have increased rights and responsibilities; particularly that they should be treated with the same respect that we treat adults. He challenged the perception of children as ‘less than’ adults, incapable of making their own decisions about other aspects of their lives such as sleep and food.
What Is Unschooling?
And that, friends, is where unschooling comes in. Unschooling is not just about a ‘method of education’, nor a homeschooling curriculum, nor even an academic philosophy. It is a way of being in relationship with our children that means we extend to them the same respect that we extend to our adult friends and family, and a way of learning through every aspect of life instead of primarily a classroom.
Confusion About Unschooling
Unschooling has been used as a term since the 1970s to describe what I outlined above: child-centric relationship that does not impose curriculum, institutional schooling or arbitrary rules, in the same way that spouses do not impose arbitrary rules on each other (more about that in a bit). However, in 2011 a prominent home-educator started to use the term ‘unschooing’ to describe home-educators who do not use a curriculum, but who did utilise conventional parenting methods such as punishments. This person then used the term ‘radical unschooling’ to describe the original ‘unschooling’, meaning a whole-life philosophy.
Something of a split appeared- because of the confusion, non-curriculum-based homeschoolers were now identifying as unschoolers, and unschoolers as radical unschoolers. (Are you still with me? Nearly there).
What Is Unschooling? What Does It Mean?
We, according to principles, are probably ‘radical unschoolers’, but we do not generally use this term for a few reasons. One is because of the divisive nature of it, especially in mainstream society. The other is that we aren’t part of a ‘club’, we are just living our lives as we think is right for our family and if we want to make changes that doesn’t technically fit in with a part of any one philosophy, we will. The last is because, increasingly recently, we’ve heard ‘radical unschooling’ used as a reason to let children continue with behaviours that are obviously not good for them and we do believe that autonomy is not better than *everything else*; sometimes we make a decision for our kids even if they don’t like it, explaining and comforting them as to why we made the decision.
This is what happens when people hear the phrase ‘radical unschooling’:
“Radical = anarchy’
(‘School = education, so) un-schooling = Lack of Education’
‘Therefore, ‘Radical Unschooling = Anarchic Lack of Education’
No, no, no. No. (Did you hear me? No.) The dictionary definition of ‘radical’ is “(especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.”
Thorough. It means “thorough, in relation to change”.
The dictionary definition of ‘school’ is “an institution for educating children.” An institution.
“Radical unschooling”, therefore, is a thorough re-thinking of institutional education (both academic and otherwise).
What Does Unschooling Mean For Academic Education?
We believe (and there is plenty of science to support) that school is essentially not necessary for a children’s education. In today’s society, with increased testing and narrower curriculums and reductions in sports and the arts and hugely increased mental health issues among schoolchildren, we believe that school can in many cases be a hindrance to healthy development.
We believe that children are natural learners and that given adequate support, guidance and resources, they will learn everything that they need to learn without coercion or force. As ‘unschooling’ parents we spend a lot- a lot– of time with our children, watching what they are interested in, seeking out resources for them to pursue their interests; challenging them and opening up new and exciting ways to explore and learn from the world.
We do not outright reject school-like resources such as workbooks, classes, clubs and the suchlike; this is an unfortunate prevailing ‘myth’ about unschoolers. Rather, we see every resource as just that- an optional resource, to be used in the same way as a puzzle, book, magazine, trip to the farm, computer, forest school session, mud kitchen, and any other experience. Learning is everywhere in the world, if only we look for it and become used to seeing it, and as ‘radical unschooling’ parents that is what we do.
When children want to pursue careers, we help them in the same way that the parents of school children help their children. We look at different paths to study or employment; we help them enroll in colleges or subject classes or online courses; we pull in tutors if extra assistance is needed; we support the kids as they create portfolios and prepare for interviews or set up their businesses. The statistics of unschooled children who are unemployed or not studying are lower, nationally, than children who go to school. They are also statistically more likely to end up in employment in their areas of interest. It’s food for thought (it certainly sounds bananas- bah dum dum tsh).
What Is Unschooling In ‘Other Areas Of Life’?
As I said before, unschooling means to thoroughly re-think how we learn about things. In radical unschooling, learning is noted as transcending ‘academic/non-academic’. Children learn all the time about eating, sleeping, social behaviour and other life skills.
As radical unschoolers we aim to partner with our children to help them make decisions, rather than imposing our decisions on them. We aim to find creative solutions that work for everyone and don’t involve a top-down controlling hierarchy. Authority is not the same as a dictatorship; leadership is not the same as control. These are what we bear in mind as we help our kids navigate what they eat and when; when they sleep and what resources they use.
We try not to impose arbitrary limits or rules based on what we think, just because we are the adults (read about how we live without rules, and what we do instead, here). Allowing children to explore their own limits and experiencing the natural consequences is a vital part of unschooling. If a child eats too many sweets, they may feel sick. If a child watches too much TV, they may feel lethargic. If they stay up too late when they have activities planned, they will be tired the next day and less likely to enjoy them. As parents we step in if anything is dangerous or unhealthy habits are developing, and we use our experience to help our kids move towards better habits.
Autonomy, Support and Guidance Are Essential In Unschooling
‘Unschoolers’ don’t use rewards or punishments, and we try not to force our children to do what we want them to do, ‘just because’. When behaviour needs to be addressed (either ours or the kids’!), we try to talk about the consequences of our actions and come up with solutions together. We try to live by principles such as ‘be kind’ and ‘respect other people and their property’ instead of rules. It makes life more natural to navigate (yes, throw sand, if you are standing by yourself, on the edge of the shore, facing away from the wind! No, don’t throw it when there are other people around!) and helps children develop critical thinking. They are experiencing real-life situations and making real-life choices; they are practising for adulthood and the responsibilities of it in a supported environment.
We believe that allowing children to make choices that they are able to make, is important in their development, and we have seen the fruit of this in our happy, healthy, curious, confident kids. (The other name for unschooling is ‘autonomous education’, because of the importance of autonomy within the outworkings of the lifestyle).
I hope that this has answered the question of “what is unschooling?” We love to answer questions so please feel free to drop us a line, and please share this article on your social media channels using our lil’ buttons!