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.
When 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.
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
Leans toward child-led learning
“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.
“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.