Unschooling (Un)defined


I figured I’d put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and try to explain a little bit about our life outside of school.

It’s easy to define “schooling”, because we all went to school when we were growing up. And yet most people are unaware of the history of compulsory schooling, and might be surprised at its roots!

It’s easy to define homeschooling (although people still often misunderstand it) because in essence it is replicating in the home what is done/taught in schools, often with the mindset that the curriculum can be taught more effectively at home, because of the higher ratio of adult to student.

But what about when kids don’t go to school, or even do “schoolwork” at home? Now THAT is mindbloggling to most people! It is hard to imagine or understand, so therefore it is feared, judged, misunderstood. Funnily, in spite of the fact that the majority of people didn’t really enjoy their school experience growing up, and that most people recognise the shortcomings of the education system, the idea of doing away with it can be terrifying! The idea that children might be able to grow up freely, outside of the structure of the educational system seems preposterous to most people. This, in and of itself, is evidence that schooling worked on most people! Most people have learned that they themselves can’t be trusted to learn what they need to know unless a teacher “teaches” them. In spite of the fact that most people don’t doubt the ability of children to learn at home up to the age of 5, and recognise that people continue learning after the age of 17, we somehow think that between the ages of 5 and 17 human beings are suddenly unable to learn without a school teacher, or school materials!

Call it what you will – unschooling, life learning, autodidactism, self-learning, natural learning, organic learning…. it can seem hard to describe, and hard to understand, but basically it’s living as though school doesn’t exist, similar to what you did before you ever went to school, and after you finished. It’s a form of homeschooling, but it’s not homeschooling because it’s not SCHOOLING at all. It’s living and learning from real life, rather than in a classroom with prescribed lessons and required outcomes. It’s not learning to a schedule or by coercion, because someone else “out there” has decided that all children of a certain age should know a certain thing. It’s learning naturally from the experiences that come your way, or that you realise it would be helpful to know. It’s more about finding out the answers to the questions you’re asking, than trying to answer the questions someone else is asking. Oh, that our children will never stop asking, “Why?”

For me, it has been an interesting and at times challenging process to try to get “school think” out of my own head, in order to create a free unschooling environment in our home. This process, often called “deschooling“, can be much easier said than done, being as most of us were schooled for at least 12 years, and continue to see schools and school-children all around us. It’s so easy to consider the “norm” to be the only, or best, way. For me, my deschooling has been compounded by my childhood desire to be a primary school teacher. In fact, when my older two children first came home from school I was very excited that I could finally be a teacher AND a mum. It wasn’t long before I realised that life was going to teach us all!! I wasn’t going to get to “play schools” with my kids! And I no longer want to! We’re having too much fun living life to limit ourselves to playing schools.

Of course one of the difficult parts of unschooling for most people is that, well…… it just doesn’t look like… school!! And we’ve been raised to doubt our own ability to learn, if it’s not taught to us by a teacher in an “educational” setting. So it can be hard to trust that when they’re living their life (which usually means playing in its various forms!), they’re also learning just what they need right now. And it can be hard to trust that when they find a need to know something they will do what they need to do to learn it! They won’t fear it, or be afraid of “getting the answer wrong if the teacher asks”, or looking stupid by asking questions. They won’t be bored by learning (“But the bell’s gone, Miss! Can’t we go?”) or separate learning into something they only do at school or when they’re doing homework. But trust can be so hard.

And unschooling requires trust. Trust that children have a natural drive to learn, that they are naturally curious (at least until school deadens their senses or dampens their curiosity, as it does for many). It’s not teaching to the test, or even thinking about what would be on a test! It’s delighting in the joy of living, and trusting that a child (or adult) who’s fully engaged in an activity, will be learning. Try going a day without learning anything! John Holt wrote, “To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves … and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

In response to the question “What happens when you grow up and find you haven’t learned something you needed to learn?” one very smart 10-year-old simply said: “I’ll learn it then!” We ALL have gaps in our knowledge. We don’t need to fear them. We can learn what we need to know, when we need to know it. As can children of school age. Why do we fear the future so much? Let’s live this moment with joy, and the next… and the next…. And before we know it, our children will be looking back at lives lived joyfully, and continuing to do so as they move into the next chapter. As will we.

It can be helpful, as adults, to look back on our life and consider what we’ve learned and how we’ve learned it; to compare the way we were taught in school, with the way we learn now. I know that for me, if I want to learn about something or need to know something, I’ll draw on all sorts of resources to find the answers I need to know: people who know more than me, books from the library, magazines, instruction manuals, experience, maybe a course or two if I think it will be interesting and relevant. And …. wait for it, even TV (yes, TV – it is as valid a resource as any other)! Of course, there’s also the internet.

Ah, the internet….. an unschooler’s best friend. It really has opened up the world of knowledge to the masses. It was amusing, and yet hardly surprising, when my daughter, at the age of about 4, said, “Let’s just ‘Google it’, Mum!”  So many universities have lectures by their top professors available for free online. If you want to learn about something, you’re sure to get a pretty good head start on the internet. Even the school curriculum is available for free on there if you’re really interested in finding out what school kids are apparently supposed to be learning during their 12 years of confinement. It’s all nicely set out year by year, so you can make sure your child is “keeping up”, not “getting behind”. As if that really matters in the grand scheme of life.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”  One night we happened to be watching it on TV and I said to the kids, “Do you realise that the kinds of things they ask on this show are pretty much basic facts that you can just look up the answers to if you really want to know?” So I did a little experiment. I opened up my trusty Google page and raced the contestants each time a question was asked. Every single time I had the answer before they did. There wasn’t one thing I wasn’t able to find out really easily and quickly. Sometimes the answer even popped up as I was typing the key words into the search engine! I didn’t even have to open the site.

I don’t think heads need to be stuffed full of knowledge just in case it’s needed one day. It’s far more joyful and exciting and normal to learn what you need to know when you need to know it, because you want to know it or appreciate the side benefits of knowing it. Have you ever tried to learn about something you’re just not interested in? A friend said to me recently that her son is really into a particular type of computer game. He likes to tell her about it, and she really really tries to listen to what he says with interest, but lo and behold the next time he talks to her about it, it becomes painfully obvious that she just hasn’t retained much of the information he told her last time, so he has to repeat it again. She just isn’t all that interested in the game. Even though she adores her son and tries to be interested in the game because it matters to him, it’s really hard for her to absorb and retain information about subject matter that doesn’t relate to her life and that she sees no need for or has no interest in, outside of her love for her son.

Some people think unschooling is “doing nothing”, just because you’re not “doing school”. But far from that! Unschooling isn’t doing nothing – it’s doing anything! And everything! Whatever your heart desires (both parent and child)! Finding ways to follow your passions, finding out what you need to know along the way; learning by doing, rather than before doing.

As a parent, my responsibility is to provide a rich, exciting, wonderland for my children to explore, both within our home, and in the world outside. It’s up to me to find resources to support them in their interests, to suggest opportunities to them that they might not stumble upon by themselves. To engage with them, observe them, delight in them, listen to them, REALLY listen, talk with them, watch the 700th rerun of their favourite TV show or movie with them, validate their passions rather than undermine them or worry about “broadening their interests”, share the things I love with them and share in the things THEY love with them too. To give them time and space to just “be”. To appreciate and delight in who my child is, rather than put all my effort into preparing for a future that may never come. To bring wonderful things and people into their lives. And to be fascinated by life myself! It’s not about just focussing on what they’re doing, but living it myself, alongside them. It’s being their partner as they journey through life, pursuing my passions too, not just watching passively and disconnectedly while they pursue theirs. That can make it all sound very glamorous. It certainly is a priveleged life; one which I feel blessed to be able to live. But it isn’t perfect! It’s just life, warts and all. It just doesn’t have school in it.

It’s been said, “Homeschooling: the whole world is our classroom”.
I prefer to say, “Unschooling: the whole world is our PLAYGROUND!”

When I first started blogging I was going to have one blog for social justice issues, one for ethical/environmental issues, one for unschooling, etc. But then I realised that I just couldn’t separate our unschooling from everything else that we do, because it’s all part of one big connected whole. We don’t separate living from learning. We don’t separate life into subjects.

You probably noticed from my heading for this post that it’s really hard to think of the best word to use to describe this philosophy of learning. In reality, it existed long before schools were ever thought of, and the human race did pretty well up to that point. Some people feel that unschooling sounds negative, and in some ways it does, but on the other hand some things are so undefinable that the easiest way to say what it is, is simply by defining what it isn’t. So unschooling is like everything outside of the school system, outside of “school think”. School, by its very nature, has a fence around it. So unschooling is everything outside the fence. The trick is seeing the fence that is in our thinking too – the invisible fence. And finding the courage to climb over it and be free!

I thought it’d be good to finish off with some validation by a few famous people from times gone by, whose wonderful words give credibility and validation to this grand adventure called unschooling… natural learning…  life learning….

“If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” William Hull
“Do not train children to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” Plato! (428-348BC)
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Elbert Einstein

20 thoughts on “Unschooling (Un)defined”

  1. Well said, Karen. You've summarised the philosophy of unschooling very well! I really like your point that our society recognises that people learn freely before 5yo and after 17yo, so why is it so hard to wrap our heads around the unschooling concept that kids will ALSO learn if left to their own devices — between the ages of 5 and 17?!

  2. 'Spectacular' is the word on the street today (Sesame Street that is) … perfect for your post! Love your blog summary and photo very much. Thanks for (Un)defined, it's my new favourite word 🙂

  3. Fantastic post! I love "the world is our playground"!!!!! So true! I also love the spiral at the top and the description of your blog. (I have the same template for my blog – great minds!!) I'm going to add your blog to the list on my blog.In Joy!!

  4. I have finally found you. I was just telling someone the other day that I wanted to get a book about unschooling (educating myself!)so I was glad to see you've got heaps of info here. I have loved Albert Einstein's quote since when we brought Carter home. Take care, Renelle

  5. I really do like your explanation Karen. You have done a wonderful job of not only explaining it but convincing me! I'm just in that place of finding our little family's conviction & balance.

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