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Why I’m Not Unschooling

This is the first in a three-part homeschooling series. It was first published in 1996 in Super Learning Tools. Although my theories have morphed somewhat over the years, this series represents the beginning process of forming and implementing our homeschool and educational philosophies.

Why I'm Not UnschoolingWhen I joined the growing home education movement I was astounded to discover there was a large and growing subset who called themselves unschoolers. “Unschoolers???!!!” I exclaimed in disbelief, “What kind of awful, neglectful parent would be an unschooler?”

After a few months of research into the subject, however, I came to the unbelievable realization that we actually are unschoolers.

With an additional couple of months of reading and discussion under my belt, I came to the firm conclusion that we are nothing at all like most unschoolers.

Further study, however, revealed that we are pretty close to being unschoolers on Tuesdays and Thursdays, that any parent who doesn’t “whoop” their kids is an unschooler, that everyone who doesn’t use school-in-a-box is an unschooler, that only three people on earth are pure unschoolers, and that only people who eat granola and sleep in a family bed and don’t believe in razors are unschoolers.

Unschooling Undefined

I wasn’t flip-flopping in my philosophy, I was hearing a new “definition” for unschooling every week. On its face, the term only defines in the negative, telling you what it is not, rather than what it is. Most people in the educational mainstream—outside of the home education movement—have never heard of it. And those inside the home education movement use the term in so many different ways as to make the term nearly noncommunicative.

Even a great deal of research did not clarify the issue. Nowhere could I find even a broad definition that was generally accepted. I was sure that all I needed to do was to get some information “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak. So I finally approached dozens of self-proclaimed unschoolers in various different forums and asked them to define unschooling.

The responses actually quite surprised me. By far the most common initial response I received was, “Unschooling does not have a definition and I see no need to define it for anyone else!”

My follow-up question was, “If unschooling has no meaningful definition, why do you label yourself as such?”

While this did not illicit a rush of warm embraces, most people realized that I was not attacking their ideology, but simply asking for some philosophical analysis. At that point, a very informative discussion ensued.

Two semi-definitions of unschooling resulted from these discussions (although every person I spoke with insisted that it could not be succinctly defined). These were the most common answers that could garner any kind of support. An unschooler is someone who:

Leans toward unstructured learning
and/or
Leans toward child-led learning

 Unstructured

“Children should not sit still after hour after, being spoonfed everything they need to know from some rigid, generic curriculum.”

Many homeschoolers have realized that too much “schooly” structure is not beneficial and is actually deleterious to learning. This freeing realization, however, has led some to discard all structure, whether beneficial or not.

This conflates two separate issues. One being the rigid structure of the environment (such as the restrictive discipline that is typically needed to maintain order in a classroom with one teacher and 30 students), and the other being the structure of the material being learned.

Depending on the subject at hand and the stage of learning the child has progressed to, structured learning may well be the most effective way to master a given material.

“We prefer natural learning, just letting life happens as it happens.”

This standard may well ignore the fact that some learning requires organization. Some subjects do not offer enough information/feedback to be learned effectively if only studied as infrequently and haphazardly as they may be encountered in day to day activity.

Learning any topic thoroughly and effectively, requires a healthy combination of both structure and free exploration. To disavow structure as being bad in and of itself may result, under the best circumstances, in the child wasting time and energy and, in the worst, in the child becoming sufficiently frustrated and discouraged in the learning process that he loses interest.

Undirected

“Children won’t learn anything they are forced to do, they only truly learn if they want to learn.”

This provocative assumption argues that learning only occurs if children are completely in charge of subject matter and timetable. But the logic is fundamentally flawed. In fact, all the unschoolers I know except three unwittingly disprove this theory by their practice.

Many will ascribe dire consequences to any subject being coerced, forced, or required of children. These same parents, however, still have skills or behaviors that they consider “non-optional.” These generally have to do with health and safety and family lifestyle. For example, these parents require their children to: brush their teeth, stay out of the road, help with chores, etc.

These parents don’t take the position that requiring a child to brush his teeth will make him hate tooth brushing so much that he will never brush again once the parent’s influence is diminished. But they do claim that requiring math study will create math-haters and math-phobics who will avoid computation for the rest of their lives.

These parents don’t seem to recognize this inconsistency in their position. Nor do they recognize the inconsistency with the rest of the real world. They assume, apparently, that all world-class scientists spent their childhoods watching Gilligan’s Island and just happened to decide the Professor was cool.

If entirely child-led learning is truly a sound educational foundation, it would not be limited so arbitrarily to subjects somehow labeled “academic” as opposed to “real-life.”

“Children won’t learn from the mistakes of others, they have to learn for themselves.”

This speaks more of a lack of trust in the family relationships than it does of educational philosophy. It also flies in the face of historical reality; learning from others is the way man has progressed from tribalism and barbarism to various levels of civilized endeavor. If every person truly had to learn everything on their own, no one would have been able to build on and surpass the accomplishments of prior generations.

To my husband, a scientist, this is a most basic concept. He could not make the progress he has made in fuzzy logic research if he were not able, and willing, to stand on the shoulders of those who laid the foundation—to learn from their success and failure paths. If he did not examine their work and mistakes and experience, trust in their validity, and learn from them, he would have to reinvent the wheel. He would be forced to learn everything on his own, and simply wouldn’t have enough hours in the day to make a useful contribution.

“I can’t possibly know what my child will want to be or to do when they grow up, so I would never presume to tell them what they need to know.”

This statement implies that since a parent cannot make perfect, specific predictions, that he also cannot make very good, general predictions. This is completely inaccurate.

While I may not always be able to guess exactly how many ounces of water any of my daughters will drink on a given day, I can tell you that each of them will drink at least some water on that day with nearly 100% accuracy.

The same principle holds true for most academic work. While I can’t predict exactly how many math problems in a particular text would be of optimum benefit to my children, I can say that for almost all people in our society an understanding of math through the second year of algebra would be extremely beneficial given the cost (time, energy, expense) of learning. I can also say that if our society continues to progress technologically, math through calculus will be likely to be helpful to many people in the future.

To make these generalizations a parent does not need to second-guess a child’s vocation nor require her to specialize. They just need to be aware of the world and employ common sense.

There is another underlying implication in this statement: that because parents do not have the ability to make perfect decisions, they should make none at all. It says that since we can’t know exactly how much history will fit in perfectly with their future career and/or life choices, we have no right to say that they need to know any history at all.

Not only does this ignore the fact that parents have more experience and (hopefully) more wisdom to draw upon than their children, but it also ignores the fact that every decision we make is subject to our imperfections. In spite of this, most of us do not feel immobilized.

Often, as before, the parents making these claims, themselves show the lack consistency in this argument. They cannot perfectly determine precisely how much and what manner of toothbrushing will be most beneficial to each child. Still they feel justified in compelling their children to brush. Why? Because they feel that the cost (time, energy, expense) of brushing is outweighed by the benefit, and they feel qualified to make a good general estimate of how much brushing is required to reach an acceptable benefit.

Once again the most effective type of learning is a combination of well-thought out guidance in conjunction with personal initiative.

The Good Stuff

We are not unschoolers. The label has so many varied definitions and they are often inconsistent with our ideology.

Still I have learned a great deal from the unschoolers I know. I’ve learned: to find education most anywhere; to ignore practices and methods that don’t serve us; to watch and listen to my children with my heart.

Next issue I’ll discuss why we don’t do school at home.

{ 29 comments… add one }
  • Stephen M (Ethesis) November 8, 2011, 5:51 pm

    Thank you for sharing that. I have to say that I really think that calculus is just a basic requirement for understanding the world. I litigate. Real simple math in my world, but I look at math the same way I look at a trip to Paris.

  • carnielongbottom November 8, 2011, 6:10 pm

    You don’t even know what you’re talking about. Get the facts before you tell other people what to do.

  • Marg November 8, 2011, 7:38 pm

    Where I live, unschooling is BIG. It doesn’t sit well with me, but I’ve never been able to explain WHY it doesn’t, at least not in a way that satisfies the unschooling crowd.

    Thank you for posting this. It finally puts into words what I was thinking. I will be passing this on! 🙂

  • Alison Moore Smith November 8, 2011, 11:06 pm

    Stephen M, I so agree! (And it’s not just because my dad is an old math professor.) I have this not-completely-formed idea that God and math are — in many ways — interchangeable.

    I’ve only been in the Paris airport. I take it that isn’t enough to meet my basic life requirements? I better start saving my pennies. 🙂

  • WWinning November 9, 2011, 7:59 am

    If the unschooling crowd gets wind of this post, you’re in for a barrage of comments. They comments won’t make much sense, but they will be really loud!

    :::getting popcorn:::

  • Parsleysage November 9, 2011, 9:47 am

    Ouch. I started out doing homeschool like I did school with my two kids. Over the past year and a half I’ve been persuaded to go more and more into unschooling. Honestly, it never did seem like it was a good idea, but with THREE close friends who swear by it, I just felt like I was too stupid to get it. They just kept saying how great it was and how EASY it was, because you never have to push your kids or insist on things.

    Your article was actually sent to me by my sister who homeschools but has been worried about how we’ve “gone off the deep end”. She has been worried about my kids and what I think I’m doing for them.

    Honestly, I’m very confused right now. There isn’t much in your post I can argue with, at least not yet. But to give up the EASINESS of unschooling and going back to something harder is just…so…hard. It’s like having summer vacation for almost two years and then having to get back to the school system. (I know most public school parents can’t WAIT for school to start, but that’s because the school year is the EASY part for them and in the summer they actually have to deal with their kids.)

    I’m sure my friends can come up with some arguments against your post. But when I have the guts to pass it on, I’ll see what they say.

    I guess I have to rethink everything. I have to make sense of this. Thanks for this post. I think!

  • Alison Moore Smith November 9, 2011, 10:19 am

    carnielongbottom, why don’t you enlighten me? Or at least try to be specific. That tends to be more useful in conversation than just open-ended accusations. YMMV

  • Alison Moore Smith November 9, 2011, 10:23 am

    Marg, I’m so glad the post was helpful. It was hard to just post it as is, without revision. I’ve learned a few things over the past 15 years! But since I haven’t made time for the rewrite in the past umpteen years of blogging, I thought it might be helpful to just get it out there.

    The posting was prompted, btw, because of Stephen M’s great post: Public education, home schooling, unschooling. Worth a read!

  • Alison Moore Smith November 9, 2011, 10:25 am

    Back when I wrote this, I was working for the Homeschooling Forum on AOL. It was, actually, the years of debating the topics there that helped me solidify my thinking on the subject. Having your positions challenged is good for the soul (and mind). So, bring it on!

    Glad to be a source of entertainment, WWinning. 🙂

  • Alison Moore Smith November 9, 2011, 11:10 am

    Parsleysage, thank you for sharing your story. I’ve seen the transition in people over and over for years. That’s not to say that everyone “sees the light” and stops unschooling, but without hesitation I’d say most people who try it either:

    1. Have young kids, so only short term results
    2. Have older kids
      • that have become self-motivated (and so excel as their own educational guides) or
      • that they have given up trying to influence (and so labeling “I can’t do it any more” as “unschooling” helps assuage the guilt/discomfort in the situation)
    3. Don’t have the same educational expectations that most of you probably do

    As for that last item, I have found it to be a very small percentage. They tend to be very freeform people whose expectations (not just professions) are along the lines of, “I just want my kids to be happy” or “Whatever my child does is fine with me.” And they mean it, it’s not just lip service.

  • chillin November 9, 2011, 2:12 pm

    This was really well-written. Don’t know about those unschoolers. Doesn’t even make sense to me.

  • paxye November 9, 2011, 3:23 pm

    We are unschoolers and the problem that I see with this post and the comments is the lack of understanding what unschooling really is. Honestly I believe that is in most part because the term is so misused. Unschooling is so much more then unstructured learning, it is a completely different life philosophy.

    I hoep you don’t mind if I share this here but I explain this more in a post I wrote back in September… http://paxye.com/blog/what-unschooling-is-not
    paxye recently posted…Chicken and Dumpling soupMy Profile

  • Alison Moore Smith November 9, 2011, 4:27 pm

    paxye, thanks for commenting. I’m happy to share your link. 🙂

    I wonder if you read my whole post. I ask, because it seems that I have addressed at least a number of things you say in the post. (I know it’s long, but the topic deserved the space.) You’ll note, for example, that half the post addresses your own definition (per your link: “It is trusting that children will learn what they need to learn when they are ready to learn it.”) and the other half the issue of non-structure.

    What points do you think I missed? Or do you think “child-led learning” is markedly different from “trusting that children will learn what they need to learn when they are ready to learn it.”

    I suppose fundamentally, I have a problem with your definition because it implies there is something specific that, in fact, “children need to learn.” While I actually agree that there are lots of things kids need to learn, I don’t think that fits the unschooling model. Rather, I think it undermines the so-called “trust” issues itself to pre-define what a child “needs to know.”

    To be clear, I don’t think YOU mean that (as specified in your post), but I know many unschoolers who do. For example, they use the fact that THEIR unschooled child learned to read as proof that unschooled children will all learn to read, not realizing that by pre-determing that kids need to read, they aren’t “trusting” their kids to learn “what they need to know.”

    In fact, right now I know three unschooled kids (9, 12, 13) who can’t read. Will they later? I don’t know. I know it’s hard to get along without reading, so there is certainly societal pressure. But that brings up a couple of thoughts:

    (1) Why is societal pressure a good (or acceptable) reason to read, and not parental encouragement (or even requirement)?
    (2) Most of the people I have known who were illiterate adults came from cultures/situations where their parents didn’t “force” them to learn to read. Actually all of them. I don’t personally know anyone (of average intelligence) who was in a school-like situation who did not learn to read eventually. So, no, not everyone learns to read on their own.

    I think “real unschoolers” — or at least consistent ones — have to be wiling to ACCEPT the fact that their kids might not do all sorts of things they probably want them to, like read. Or maybe they have to come from a place where they really don’t have much of a “what I want you to do” list.

    For the record, paxye’s post (no offense intended, but sincerely) is one of the few unschooling essays I’ve read in 18+ years that shows an understanding of the philosophical points I tried to make in 1996. It’s worth a long, hard read. She understands the fundamental flaw in “part-time unschooling.”

    On the other hand, who gets to define “unschooling”? The quotes above are real quotes from people who were unschooling — or claimed to be — 15 years ago. That, I suppose, is one of the inherent problems of coining a phrase en masse. 🙂 Kind of the same problem the Occupy movement is having right now.

  • paxye November 9, 2011, 6:12 pm

    I think I was reacting more to the comments then to the post itself. The exact reactions that are brought by the term being used in ways that go against the philosophical ideal, and it is true that you do touch the same problems that I have about the mixed messages given with those that often use the term unschooling.

    But yes to answer your question, I do see a difference between “child-led learning” and“trusting that children will learn what they need to learn when they are ready to learn it.” even though I can see how they can be the same also. It is a dilemma, I agree.

    I’ll try to explain. I do fundamentally believe that reading is important. In unschooling, where the child is the one that is on the path of learning, reading is the gateway to all that knowledge. Do I teach my children to read if they do not show an interest? no, I don’t. But I do believe that one day they will either learn it on their own or ask for help. I believe it because it is such an integral part of our every day lives. I read a lot, my husband reads a lot, we read to them, I show them how to search the internet and books etc… but, I do see that as being child-led learning.

    Do I accept that one of my children won’t learn how to read? Fundamentally yes, but it would surprise me if that happened.

    However, that being said, if one of my children never showed the interest and had an interest or goal that did not have to involve reading and reading was just not important to them, then yes, I would accept that. I think that is where the “trusting that children will learn what they need to learn when they are ready to learn it.” comes into play.

    What I want is for my children to follow their dreams and do what they want to do. I truly believe that happiness is the ultimate goal. I trust that they will learn on the way what is needed to accomplish the goal that they want to achieve. So if that goal is being a hermit living off the grid in the wild, being an artist, a game developer or being a surgeon. I trust that they will figure out how to attain that dream, and as an unschooling parent, I see my role as being someone to help them on the way. A guide that will help them along the path that they choose.

    What I talk about in my post is the idea that unschooling is often referred to as being simply unstructured learning time. It is often stripped of the philosophical backbone and simply seen as “not doing school” It is that view that causes people to often stop in their tracks and see unschoolers as irresponsible lack parents that let their kids walk all over them and have no structure.

    When you take away what I believe to be misrepresentations of the term, then unschooling can then be built up from a different foundation all together and can and will often include “teaching” that is fuelled by the child’s interests. It is not the child-led learning however that we see in what I call “eclectic homeschooling”. (taking he child’s interests and building a curriculum around it.) In that type of child-led learning the goal is often still the parent’s goal.

    Instead, It is about helping children on their path by providing them with the tools needed to attain their goal. That means that as an unschooler, if my child wants to read then I will help them. But it is not about me, it is not about my goals, it is about theirs.

    But, yes… this is the way that I define unschooling. This is the way that we are living unschooling… and we seem to share the same concerns about coining the term en masse.
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  • Alison Moore Smith November 9, 2011, 9:01 pm

    I do fundamentally believe that reading is important…But I do believe that one day they will either learn it on their own or ask for help. I believe it because it is such an integral part of our every day lives. I read a lot, my husband reads a lot, we read to them, I show them how to search the internet and books etc… but, I do see that as being child-led learning.

    We’ll probably disagree on that point. Personally, I don’t me reading a lot, my husband reading a lot, reading to the kids a lot, having lots of books, going to the library all the time, etc., as being “child-led learning” to a huge extent. I see it as enormous parental influence.

    Frankly, I don’t see exerting that influence as being markedly different from sitting down and saying, “Hey, let me show you the sounds letters make and how to put them together.”

    Yes, I realize you say you don’t make the kid read if s/he doesn’t want to but most “regular homeschoolers” I know work the same way. And with very few exceptions (probably a dozen in 18 years?) all “unschoolers” I know actually DO set the timetable if the child’s timetable gets too far out of the norm. Which puts us back to the trust issue.

    My method is generally, when the child seems ready, introduce some things, if they don’t like it either wait a while and/or try an approach that better fits the child. To be honest, I know few homeschoolers/unschoolers whose method is markedly different.

    Do I accept that one of my children won’t learn how to read? Fundamentally yes, but it would surprise me if that happened.

    In my mind (not that it matters 🙂 ) that makes you a “true unschooler.” The idea that a child of mine wouldn’t learn to read is simply not acceptable. To me there are too many ways to teach reading and too much to be gained for me to accept that outcome. But I respect that you are consistent in what you say and what you actually do.

    What I want is for my children to follow their dreams and do what they want to do. I truly believe that happiness is the ultimate goal.

    That might be another place we differ. I don’t object to any of the career/goals you stated, but there are goals/careers/dreams that I wouldn’t support. Ever. Even if it makes them “happy.” I try to have what I call “general, flexible goals” for my children, but I do have goals.

    If they wanted to be strippers, hookers, pimps, drug dealers, etc. I would not support their choices. It’s not (only) about legality. I wouldn’t support a child being a hooker or a casino owner in Nevada, either.

    What I talk about in my post is the idea that unschooling is often referred to as being simply unstructured learning time.

    I agree that, as I said in the OP, that isn’t a sound philosophical footing. But it IS what some people claim. But, of course, I don’t see the “trusting the child” part as being sound either. I don’t trust my toddlers to stay out of the road. I guess I do trust that getting squashed by a car would “teach them all they need to know” about staying out of the road, but the cost is too high for me. Similarly, the cost of the “trust” — when it is not yet earned — is too high to me.

    As I said, even though our opinions differ, it’s actually really nice to talk to someone who has worked though those issues. It’s pretty rare, so keep preaching, sister. 🙂

  • paxye November 10, 2011, 5:25 am

    We’ll probably disagree on that point. Personally, I don’t me reading a lot, my husband reading a lot, reading to the kids a lot, having lots of books, going to the library all the time, etc., as being “child-led learning” to a huge extent. I see it as enormous parental influence.

    No, I do not disagree at all! In my view, and experience, parental influence is the key to unschooling. Kids learn to be passionate about learning through experiencing a parent being passionate about learning.

    Frankly, I don’t see exerting that influence as being markedly different from sitting down and saying, “Hey, let me show you the sounds letters make and how to put them together.”

    The difference is who decides when and if it is the time. Is it coming from the parent or the child? Is it the teacher or the learner? Through parental influence we hope to spark an interest, but with unschooling you step back and accept that it may not be lit. My goal is to show and teach my children self-motivation and to learn to both independently learn and ask for help.

    I do know that there are unschoolers out there that say you can never “teach” a child/have workbooks in the house etc… I don’t agree. If a child who ses a parent reading and wants to learn how to read and is asking for help then why wouldn’t I say “Hey, let me show you the sounds letters make and how to put them together.”?? It is coming from them, it is their choice, even though in essence, I had influence, but long term (and short term) that is what parenting is about… isn’t it?

    That might be another place we differ. I don’t object to any of the career/goals you stated, but there are goals/careers/dreams that I wouldn’t support. Ever. Even if it makes them “happy.” I try to have what I call “general, flexible goals” for my children, but I do have goals.

    If they wanted to be strippers, hookers, pimps, drug dealers, etc. I would not support their choices. It’s not (only) about legality. I wouldn’t support a child being a hooker or a casino owner in Nevada, either.

    For me, that is about intrinsic family values… something that is so basic that it is not even thought about. Again, going back to a basic parental influence.

    Unschooling is not about unparenting. It is not about not teaching values and not keeping children out of trouble and safe. We are unschoolers but we are not a child-led family I talk a bit about the difference in this post: http://paxye.com/blog/child-led-living/)

    I think we don’t our opinions differ as much as you think… (except for trust issue which has nothing to do about basic safety)
    But yes, it is nice to “debate” this in this manner, not trying to convince as much as explain and work though a thought process… 🙂
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  • Alison Moore Smith November 10, 2011, 11:48 am

    chillin, I understand your sentiments. But honestly, most people — no matter where educated or how they educate their kids — “don’t even make sense” when it comes to educational philosophy. They have simply turned the matter over to “professional educators” and gone on about other things.

    Frankly, most so-called professional educators (at least at the primary and secondary levels) aren’t conversant on the topics either.

    I think it’s time parents get back in the game.

  • Alison Moore Smith November 10, 2011, 1:47 pm

    The difference is who decides when and if it is the time. Is it coming from the parent or the child? Is it the teacher or the learner?

    Like I said, I don’t see the difference as being significant. Unless you’re saying that you don’t let your child see that you are avid readers — thereby avoiding the parental influence — until she’s already decided she wants to read. Of course, then you’re still the one deciding that she’s decided and ready to be influenced.

    The distinction I’ve always heard from unschoolers between indirect influence and direct influence isn’t philosophically valid, to me.

    For example, I’ve heard dozens of unschoolers say that when they find a book they think their child would like, they “casually put in on the edge of a table where they will be sure to see it” or “they start reading it and ooo and ahhh and talk about how great it is at dinner.”

    Where I would say (and do every week), “Hey, I found this great book. I think you’d really like it.”

    To me this isn’t a matter of lack of influence, but influencing in a manipulative way. Instead of being direct and up front about what I’m thinking, I’m going to I’m going to “hope to spark an interest” and/or try to make the kid think it was his idea.

    If you are reading a lot and have lots of books and talk about how much you like reading, it’s YOUR influence. Not the child deciding on his own. No kid decides to read on their own. They see books, they see others reading, etc. They ARE influenced. Since they are influenced, I see it not only as a good idea, but a parental responsibility, to direct that influence to things I know will be beneficial.

    While I understand that some homeschoolers (and most schools) have very strict timetables, I’d say most homeschoolers don’t. But if you have ANY timetable, it doesn’t put you outside the world of education. It simply puts you in a more flexible educational mode.

    My goal is to show and teach my children self-motivation and to learn to both independently learn and ask for help.

    I respect that. But understand, having a goal to teach your children to be self-motivated and independent learners is still a parental goal, not a child’s goal. If it’s philosophically sound for you to want (and teach) your children to be self-motivated, independent learnings — it’s a hard case to make that it’s problematic or damaging to want (and teach) a child to read or do math or whatever. They are somewhat different goals, but still parent-led goals.

    Which is why I think the idea that:

    It is coming from them, it is their choice

    can’t be the end game. And really isn’t for unschoolers, either.

    For me, that is about intrinsic family values… something that is so basic that it is not even thought about.

    Not sure I follow you on “not even thought about.” Of course it comes back to family values, but so does everything we’re talking about. I value math up to calculus. You value “independent learning.” Both are values, both are parent-imposed.

    Unschooling is not about unparenting. It is not about not teaching values and not keeping children out of trouble and safe.

    Yes, I’ve heard this discussed before and I address it above (about brushing teeth). It is one of biggest inconsistencies in unschooling that I have never seen explained. If safety, health, and other “family values” can be taught (and, apparently, enforced), why not the family value of education or even particular kinds of education?

    Ultimately, I don’t think “trusting the child” can be called the foundational principle of unschooling, because it’s inconsistent in it’s application. Or maybe it’s that I don’t think there is a sound reason to claim “trusting the child” is important, because it’s not practiced consistently.

  • paxye November 10, 2011, 3:13 pm

    OK… so I think I see the problem or rift on both of our sides and it goes back to that definition of unschooling one again.

    What I am reading in your comments, and correct me if I am wrong, is that you are saying that the philosophical definition of unschooling means that everything a child learns must and can only come from them and that by definition there can’t be any outside influence, which of course is impossible.

    And yes, If this is what you are saying, then I completely agree with you. It is impossible.

    However, that is not what unschooling is to me.

    Here is a quote from one of my old posts:

    So what does the parent do in an unschooling family?

    We are the facilitators. We provide experiences. We fill the house with books to discover, we show them how to use the internet. We introduce new games and activities. We buy art supplies and make play dough and buy Lego and video games. We make bread and bake cookies. We clean the house and do our daily tasks. We drive places and find things to do. We answer questions and admit that we don’t know things and show them how to look for the answers while doing it together. We follow our own interests and show them our own love of learning.
    http://paxye.com/blog/what-is-unschooling/

    This is unschooling to me. Parental influence and child-led learning do not, and cannot be mutually exclusive. They both work together.

    Thanks for this exchange.
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  • Alison Moore Smith November 11, 2011, 5:28 pm

    What I am reading in your comments, and correct me if I am wrong, is that you are saying that the philosophical definition of unschooling means that everything a child learns must and can only come from them and that by definition there can’t be any outside influence

    What I’m saying is that if “trusting the child to learn what they need to learn” is THE DEFINITION of unschooling, if it’s THE FOUNDATION of unschooling, then parental influence that sways overrides, confuses, undermines, diminishes, impairs, threatens, weakens, negates, controls the trust, decisions, direction of the child is contrary to the claimed definition. (And pretty much all parental influence will do that.)

    Fundamentally, I haven’t heard a definition of unschooling that really defines what almost all of the unschoolers I know actually do. (In nearly two decades, there are three people I’ve talked to — among hundreds — who actually seem to follow the stated philosophy consistently. Two were part of the TCS (Taking Children Seriously) philosophy — which may or may not have morphed into something else since I last looked at it at any length.)

    Rather, what most “unschoolers” really seem to do, is to be more flexible about timetables, subjects, etc. They seem to be more interested in tailoring an education to the preferences and interests of the child. They seem less willing to dictate outcomes, activities, etc. From what I’ve seen, it’s almost always a difference of degree, not of kind.

    Your list of things unschooling parents do (beginning with “We are the facilitators…”), for example, sounds like about 95% of the responsible parents I know. (The Duggars, for example, sure aren’t unschoolers, but I can’t see anything on that list they don’t do, too.)

    So, at the core, I think the definition is wrong, because it doesn’t acknowledge that uschooling isn’t just about “trusting the child to learn what the child needs to learn” — it’s about parents leading and guiding in a way that acknowledges the preferences and interests of children to whatever extent the parents deem reasonable, good, safe, etc. In other words, what the child wants and thinks s/he needs to learn, isn’t the ultimate arbiter of what happens. The parents still are.

    Having a definition that completely leaves out the actual, final authority — and implies another authority — is, at least, incomplete.

    Why do I care? Because for nearly two decades, I’ve seen the problems that come from bad definitions/desriptions. (The same problems come up with TJEd homeschoolers.) Many unschoolers intuit the missing parts. But for those who don’t, it becomes a frustrating ordeal trying to follow a philosophy that, by definition, doesn’t make sense.

    P.S. I just looked up TCS and the first link is to a site written primarily by a woman named Sarah Fitz-Claridge. One of the women that I discussed TCS with at length in the early 90s (in the AOL homeschooling forums) was named Sarah. I don’t recall her last name, but I suspect it’s the same person. If so, she is one of the women I mention above who seemed to live consistent with her philosophy. The other was a woman of a similar mindset. I don’t recall her name now, but the thing that stands out most in my mind is how she described following her toddler around the house cleaning up her poop, because she didn’t like diapers. (Yea, I did notice you mentioned diaper-free on your site, paxey. 🙂 )

  • safee akmal November 13, 2011, 12:05 pm

    i am seriously thinking to start with home schooling for my kids. But i am afraid of taking the responsibility. does it require strict scheduling and is it too demanding?? how would i make my kids to interact socially as they would be cut from the peers?? kindly guide me a bit in this regard

  • paxye November 14, 2011, 5:22 am

    Rather, what most “unschoolers” really seem to do, is to be more flexible about timetables, subjects, etc. They seem to be more interested in tailoring an education to the preferences and interests of the child. They seem less willing to dictate outcomes, activities, etc. From what I’ve seen, it’s almost always a difference of degree, not of kind.

    So in your opinion, NOT having a timetable, subject, expectations on what kids learn is part of that flexibility? That is where I see the difference. We are not doing things to “mask learning”. We are doing things because we enjoy them without expectations that “they might learn something”. Yes, I see us as facilitators but being a facilitator for me is not about facilitating an education with my children’s interests in mind (that is parent-led imo) it is helping them find the tools to learn more about the things that interest them without having any expectations (child-led).

    So, at the core, I think the definition is wrong, because it doesn’t acknowledge that uschooling isn’t just about “trusting the child to learn what the child needs to learn” — it’s about parents leading and guiding in a way that acknowledges the preferences and interests of children to whatever extent the parents deem reasonable, good, safe, etc. In other words, what the child wants and thinks s/he needs to learn, isn’t the ultimate arbiter of what happens. The parents still are.

    I agree that what you are describing is not unschooling… I see that as being a definition of what I call eclectic/flexible homeschooling… and that is not what we do, nor is that what is described in my definition. You seem to be assuming that in my definition, I have a set (flexible or not) educational goal for my children. I do not. I trust that they will learn what they want and need to learn, whatever that is.

    If you buy a book for a friend that you think they might like what are you expecting of them? Do you expect that they are going to read it? Do you expect that it sparks an interest? Do you expect that they might learn something? or can buying a book for someone be a gesture to say that you thought about them and that you thought that it might make them happy.

    When I make cookies or bread with my kids… in your description, the parent might use it for the opportunity to do math, to learn fractions etc… How about just doing it for fun and having something yummy at the end and not masking a lesson or caring about if they picked something up?

    When my kids ask a question. I help them find the answer. I don’t see it as an opportunity to build on that interest to learn something more, but if they are wanting to learn more about something then I am there to help them.

    I don’t recall her name now, but the thing that stands out most in my mind is how she described following her toddler around the house cleaning up her poop, because she didn’t like diapers. (Yea, I did notice you mentioned diaper-free on your site, paxey. )

    Umm.. no we don’t do diapers, we practice EC… but poop goes in the toilet, not around the house. Are you assuming that going diaper-free means that you are picking up a mess everywhere? EC is about communication. Even newborn babies know when they are about to go, they communicate that need through signals and instead of making them soil themselves and learn to use the diaper as a toilet, you bring them over the sick/potty/toilet and let them eliminate there. In turn, parent use a signal when they baby goes and can help a child eliminate as part of a routine. Later on there is no need for toilet-training because you are not diaper-training to begin with. I have had one diapered baby and three ECed and I can tell you that diapers are way more mess.
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  • paxye November 14, 2011, 5:49 am

    Btw.. do you know this blog? She is part of our local unschooling community.

    http://yes-i-can-write.blogspot.com/p/new-to-this-blog-new-to-unschooling.html
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  • Alison Moore Smith November 14, 2011, 1:16 pm

    So in your opinion, NOT having a timetable, subject, expectations on what kids learn is part of that flexibility?

    I’m not sure I understand the question, but I’ll try, given what I think you mean. Absolutely not having a timetable or expectation would be flexible on timetables and expectations — and it would be consistent with your stated definition. But I haven’t seen parents (except those three) who really don’t have any expectations — or even requirements. I haven’t seen parents who, for example, don’t expect kids to brush their teeth, stay out of the street, refrain from punching siblings, eat something besides Captain Crunch, do something besides park their backsides in front of World of Warcraft all day long. Almost all also require things like respect and chores or other means of contributing to the family.

    Sometimes those expectations/requirements take the form of a structured environment. For example, lots of people call the Colfax family “unschoolers” and then expect having a child do what they feel like will result in kids going to ivy leagues schools. Two big problems: (1) the hope of an ivy league school result, (2) the almost universal lack of acknowledging the extreme structure of the environment those kids lived in.

    If the only foods in my home are organic fruits and vegetables and free range chickens, then saying that my kids can “eat anything they want” will be misleading. More to the point, those trying to duplicate my results by letting their kids eat whatever they want will probably have a problem. If my home only has an Atari 800 and a TV with rabbit ears, then saying that I don’t every manage what my kids play and watch will be misleading. And those trying to duplicate my results will probably have a problem.

    For nearly two decades, I’ve talked to dozens and dozens and dozens of people who thought “unschooling” sounded fabulous — for a variety of reasons, but probably the most common was along the lines of avoiding power struggles with kids over schoolwork — but ended up desperate and incredibly discouraged. (Same with TJEd families, although it’s a newer “movement.”) IMO, the biggest reason is that they take the definitions and unqualified statements of unschoolers at face value. They don’t intuit the things some parents do. That is why I feel it’s so important to carefully define and qualify what really happens.

    Yes, I see us as facilitators but being a facilitator for me is not about facilitating an education with my children’s interests in mind (that is parent-led imo) it is helping them find the tools to learn more about the things that interest them without having any expectations (child-led).

    If that is your actual position — and it isn’t just confined to arbitrarily defined “school” subjects — then I think it’s consistent. But I suggest that if real unschooling requires no academic expectations at all (and I think it does, by your definition) — then IMO that should be much more explicitly stated. I know almost no parents who would accept that standard. Given that, it’s probably at least a waste of time and likely harmful for them to spend months (years) trying to unschool, when they don’t think it’s philosophically sound.

    As I brought up in the OP, I think logically the “trust” idea must extend beyond academics to make sense. If it’s harmful to “coerce” (in the TCS vernacular) kids to do schoolwork, it’s probably harmful to coerce them to do anything. I haven’t yet seen an argument to show otherwise. (Although, honestly, I haven’t seen an argument to prove that requiring schoolwork hurts people either, in a general sort of way.) So if you “make” your kids stay out of the road, you are still “coercing” your kids. And if you move to the country and plunk your house down five miles from the nearest road, you’re still “forcing” your kids to stay out of the street.

    More to the point, if you “trust” your child to “learn what they need to learn” but don’t “trust” them to learn to stay out of the street or to eat healthy food or to keep their teeth from rotting, then isn’t the “trust” irreparably undermined?

    You seem to be assuming that in my definition, I have a set (flexible or not) educational goal for my children. I do not. I trust that they will learn what they want and need to learn, whatever that is.

    In one of the posts you link to, you said this:

    I believe that in a family the parents are the leaders, we are the ones with life experience, we are our children’s guides through the beginning of their lives. We are showing them the way and teaching them the skills to love and thrive. However, it remains important to remember that as parents and guides, we are not dictators, children deserve respect, they have a voice, they have a right be listened to and though they may not have all of the control it is not taken away from them completely either…

    This is almost exactly what I meant when I wrote what I think almost everyone who “unschools” really does — educationally as well as in “living” (as I said, I can’t see how the two can be separated so readily). My husband has a PhD. I have a BA. We not only have more life experience, we have far more educational experience. If I’m going to use my experience to help them “love and thrive,” why the heck would I ignore the experience I have in how much math or reading they need to not be limited as adults?

    I see “living” and “learning” as far too intertwined to have different sets of rules about how they should work. And that always strikes me as odd, when it’s the unschoolers who make the most sweeping claims about “learning through living.” 🙂

    When I make cookies or bread with my kids… in your description, the parent might use it for the opportunity to do math, to learn fractions etc… How about just doing it for fun and having something yummy at the end and not masking a lesson or caring about if they picked something up?

    I’m not sure what description you’re referring to. I don’t mask learning. IMO it’s simply not efficient. If kids like learning and have a good relationship with the parents, you don’t need to mask it. If they don’t like learning and/or don’t trust you, then you work on those issues first.

    When my kids ask a question. I help them find the answer. I don’t see it as an opportunity to build on that interest to learn something more, but if they are wanting to learn more about something then I am there to help them.

    I do. All the time. Why? Because very often kids don’t have the life experience to know “the more” even exists.

    So often I hear kids (not my kids, btw 🙂 ) say, “I hate science.”

    My answer is, “You hate all science? You hate biology and botany and astronomy and physics and chemistry and zoology and archaeology and geology and meteorology and ornithology and…”

    The typical response I get is, “Huh?”

    The kids have been exposed to a tiny (usually boring) snippet of science, but they already “hate” it. They don’t know enough to ask. So if I have a kid who didn’t like science, I would hone down the elements I thought were crucial for them to know in general science, find the most interesting way to present it to them, and then find an AREA of science they had an interest in to pursue.

    When my oldest daughter loved playing games on the computer (at nine) that required lots of user input, I thought she might like to learn to make web pages. (I started coding pages in 1994, this was 1996.) So I showed her a bunch of stuff, got her some books, and showed her how to try it out. In this case, I didn’t require her to do it, but I did encourage her to get past the initial difficulty and learning curve.

    By the time she was 11 she had an award winning horse simulation game site with over a MILLION hits. That’s in the internet OLDEN days. She’s now in graduate school, studying information systems. One of her undergrad minors was computer science. Her current job is creating the web site and lots of the graphics for the BYU athletics department.

    My husband has a PhD in electrical engineering. (He was a university professor for a decade before we left to work on our business full time.) When he was in high school, he thought engineers drove trains. Fortunately, someone saw his aptitude and interests and encouraged him to look seriously at engineering. 🙂 Thank heavens someone saw his questions as an opportunity to build on his interest to learn something more!

    P.S. I cannot see the downside of doing so.

    Are you assuming that going diaper-free means that you are picking up a mess everywhere?

    No. I’m “assuming” the woman cleaned up after her daughter because she described it in detail. She thought she was a pretty awesome mom for not forcing diapers on her child.

    To be clear, I don’t have a problem with EC (elimination communication for the uninitiated 🙂 ). I didn’t see any further references on your site than the one line (I think in your bio). I don’t have a problem with diapers, either. (My husband lived five years in Samoa. They don’t generally use diapers there, either, from what he saw.)

  • chillin November 14, 2011, 2:05 pm

    **_When my kids ask a question. I help them find the answer. I don’t see it as an opportunity to build on that interest to learn something more_**

    paxye, with all due respect, that makes no sense to me. It seems that not using that opportunity is a negative influence. And it I’m following this conversation at all, it seems you don’t notice how those choices influence the kids as much as other choices. Or why don’t you ASK your child if they want to learn more rather than decide for them not to learn more?

  • chillin November 14, 2011, 2:11 pm

    So I just went to the link about EC. That just seems downright weird. You said Colin was “potty independent” by 2 when you started using EC at 2 months. My son started potty training at age 20 months and was done at 24. That’s 4 months compared to 22 months.

    And it seems strange to think it’s better not to have diapers but to have “accidents” in bed? If it were me I’d rather have a wet diaper that doesn’t feel wet than a wet sheet.

    Allison sorry for the threadjack. It seemed paxey linked to that post because it was going along with the conversation but I think I got too far off the topic.

  • paxye November 14, 2011, 2:35 pm

    paxye, with all due respect, that makes no sense to me. It seems that not using that opportunity is a negative influence. And it I’m following this conversation at all, it seems you don’t notice how those choices influence the kids as much as other choices. Or why don’t you ASK your child if they want to learn more rather than decide for them not to learn more?

    You cut my quote and took half a sentence as a full statement… if a question answered leads to more questions then we continue and build on that… Why or more,HOW, would I decide for them to not learn more? . I just don’t take it over with a whole “learning experience” agenda in mind.

    Child asks a question: Parent helps them find the answer which may or may not lead to more questions, more interest etc…
    vs
    Child asks a question: parent works frantically to design a whole curriculum around an interest that the child expressed.

    And, yes… I know so many homeschoolers that do just that, and sometimes it works, and good for them, but many times they get all angry because the child choose the topic and and they worked so hard to build around it and now the child lost interest so now they have to force the kid to do it.

  • paxye November 14, 2011, 2:39 pm

    He was potty independent (meaning that he could pull up his pants, wipe etc) at that age. He had not wet/soiled diapers since he was about 2 months old.

    Khena was also potty independent at that age. but he wears Pull-ups at night because he wets at night.
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