When I first heard about the notion of unschooling, I agreed with much of it in principle. I knew that my kids learned an awful lot of stuff without any help from me. Babies learn to crawl, toddlers learn to walk and potty train and talk. These are things you can’t really teach a child how to do. I also knew how much kids loved to learn, especially if they aren’t hamstrung from fear of performing. They learn for the joy of it and to satisfy their own curiosity and craving to understand the world.
At the same time, I worried that by unschooling, I was being a lazy parent. Is that true? First, I’ll define what unschooling is.
Hmm. That’s challenging, in part because unschooling looks so different for every family! There are “radical” unschoolers who reject workbooks and curriculum and “doing school,” there are unschoolers who do some curriculum in a flexible manner, and everything in between. Some unschooling families think TV and video games are okay; others reject them totally. And again, there is every thing in between.
What unschoolers have in common is their trust of children. They believe that children can lead their own education. They believe that parents are facilitators, not taskmasters. Unschoolers think that kids should learn what they want, in the way they want, where and when they want. To unschoolers, learning is something as natural as breathing.
That scares some people. But when you get right down to it, this is what young kids who are not in school and adults who are out of school do. To learn is to be human. We all love to learn, unless we’ve developed a hatred of reading and studying because of our school experiences. Love and fear can’t reside in the same space. You can’t love to learn if you fear someone’s criticism or harsh judgment. Unschoolers remove the fear. The fear of bad grades, the fear of being called “slow,” “stupid,” or “special.” They remove the fear of having to be bored to tears by something that’s totally irrelevant to your life.
Is there any research behind the philosophy of unschooling? People who believe in learning styles and multiple intelligences would point to the evidence that school doesn’t appeal to people with kinesthetic intelligence, and that audio-visual learners also have a difficult time in school. In his book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn points to hundreds of studies that conclude that rewards are not effective in the long term and discourage the behavior, meaning that the way schools and classic curriculum are set up are counterproductive to learning. Kohn said that intrinsic motivation is what we should be after, and unschooling makes that possible. Edward Deci, Howard Gardner, and Thomas Armstrong have also written about research that supports an unschooling philosophy.
What about the thinking that unschoolers are lazy parents? I’ve learned that too is a fallacy. Unschoolers may have to work even harder to keep their children stimulated, because unschooled kids are always wanting to learn something of their own choosing. Sometimes an unschooling parent has to exhaust outside resources such as other people, institutions, books, libraries, etc. An unschooling parent is a facilitator, and a busy one! For unschooling families, life is learning and everything is a learning opportunity.
Unschooling helps kids understand that people are unique. While one seven-year-old who is unschooling may not read as well as another seven-year-old unschooler, it makes little difference. The one who isn’t reading as well may be a better musician. And that’s okay. When people are allowed to choose how they will work, they can become more competent. They can really hone their skills and work on their strengths instead of trying to be squeezed into another’s mold.