Education and Schooling #6: This is Unschooling

I’ve become obsessed with reading about unschooling. If I could wave a wand to make any kind of educational approach feasible for my family, at the moment unschooling is at the top of the wish-list.

At first I thought unschooling was the latest, hippest word for homeschooling, but no, it’s its own thing: learning without school and without a curriculum.

I don’t know any unschoolers personally, so all I know about it is what I’ve read on blogs and magazines recently (a couple of books are winging their way here from the Book Depository too).

So, from a novice outsider perspective, here’s an introduction to unschooling, with a lot of help from my bloggy friends.

The premise of unschooling is that children are best left to follow their own interests, learning along the way, rather than follow a curriculum.

Following an interest in mermaids, for example, might lead to all sorts of learning, like:

  • reading books about mermaids (aka literacy, world mythology, biology, history)
  • finding other mermaid enthusiasts online (literacy, social interaction, computer skills)
  • learning to swim with a mermaid tail flipper (physical education)
  • watching mermaid movies (media studies)
  • making your own movie about mermaids (film-making)
  • start your own online business making mermaid jewellery (economics, business studies, maths, computer skills)

I chose the example of mermaids because it’s based on a real person. The 13-year-old in this partly-homeschooling, partly-unschooling family has recently turned her mermaid interest into a blog that provides international mermaid fans with all sorts of resources. The jewellery business is next.

Just as with Michael’s recent post about all the transferable learning that can happen when you go for a walk with your kids, decorate a cardboard box with them or ask good questions at dinner, perhaps real life is all a child needs to prepare them for, you know, real life?

Canadian unschooling writer Pam Laricchia writes in her book, Free to Learn:

Unschooling is, at its most basic, about learning without a curriculum, without a teacher-centred environment, but sometimes the concept is easier to define by what it’s not. It’s not school-at-home, a re-creation of the school environment with a low student-teacher ratio around the kitchen table. And it’s not about leaving your kids to fend for themselves, far from it.

It is about creating a different kind of learning environment for your children. An environment based on the understanding that humans learn best when they are interested and engaged, and when they are personally involved and motivated.

Creating an environment conducive to real learning is very difficult if someone else – parent, teacher, or curriculum developer – is dictating what a person should be learning at any given time. But drop that outside control over the child and learning truly comes naturally. As the late John Holt, educator and unschooling advocate, notes so succinctly, “Fish swim, birds fly; man thinks and learns.”

I have so much I want to say and discuss with you guys about this! Way too much for one post, so consider this an introduction to an introduction. I’ll finish with this story of six-year-old Flora’s unschooling philosophy, from Undogmatic Unschoolers. More soon.

Flora: What’s this?

Receptionist: It’s a little desk, you know, for doing homework at.

Flora: What’s homework?

R: You know what homework is. It’s the stuff that teachers give you to work on at home.

Flora: Oh. I don’t go to school. I’m homeschooled.

R: Oh, that’s great. But you still have homework, right? Or do you finish all your work at school?

Flora: I just said, I don’t go to school.

R: Well, yes, but you have school at home, right? When your mom teaches you? And you do your work at a desk? Because otherwise, it’s just hanging out…

Flora: I do a lot of hanging out. With my brother, and with my friends, and with my mom and dad. And I play Heart dolls and pets, and I have a microscope, and I read books and do puzzles and crafts and stuff, and science experiments.

R: And you do some work at a desk.

Flora: I don’t understand why you’re obsessed with the desk.

So on the way home in the car, I mentioned that I had overheard her conversation and it seemed that the person she was talking with had a hard time understanding what homeschooling was really like.

Flora: Yeah, it was really hard to explain it to her. She seemed to think it had something to do with a desk. And I was like, no, I do all sorts of stuff. What does learning have to do with desks, anyway?

English: A Young Student at His Desk: Melancho...

A Young Student at His Desk: Melancholy (1630-1633) by Pieter Codde, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are your first impressions, first thoughts about unschooling?

I’m not at all sure our family will end up unschooling. It would suit us temperamentally (as far as I can tell so far) and ideologically to an extent, but certainly requires a fair amount of time and energy and not-working-outside-the-home, compared to school attendance. I have been thinking, though, that the things I find attractive about unschooling may be really helpful to mould my thinking about a) how schools can adapt and b) how we could approach school attendance. How can we get the great benefits of unschooling if SBJ goes to school?

So whether or not you would ever countenance unschooling, you may find aspects of it useful for your situation. As I say, I’ve got heaps more I want to chat about. What about you?

This is the sixth post in a series on all sorts of aspects of education and schooling (and unschooling!). If you want to catch up on the other posts, you can debate an animated critique of formal education, celebrate your favourite teachers, make use of a guest expert on primary school education, learn how to spot a great teacher for your kids, and share tips on building an educationally rich family life. See the whole series list here.

[Update: there’s a follow-up post on Unschooling and Socialisation, now, too.]

Please leave a comment on any of these posts if you have questions for guest experts or suggestions for topics to include in the series. Thanks!

And you are warmly invited to join us at the Sacraparental Facebook page for daily links, encouragement and resources, and/or follow me on Twitter and Pinterest. I have a Pinterest board on Unschooling, too.

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46 comments on “Education and Schooling #6: This is Unschooling”

  1. kindikat Reply

    I like the idea of weekend projects. I want to start Joanna up with collecting things (not sure what yet – I will leave that to her. Leaves, sticks, flowers, stones, feathers etc) this summer, and when she gets a bit older I can really see something like the above working out for us too. I cant afford to homeschool my child, and even if I could it is illegal here in Germany! We have always done our own art projects at home, so I think I can pick up on specific interests as you mention above, and see how far we can take them. I think this process requires a lot of imagination from the parent as well, to help open the child’s mind to the possible ways it would all go in.

    I like the idea of supplementing my child’s education. There are so many things wrong with the modern system, I hope we can avoid some by being in a Montessori school, but I am pretty radical, in German terms, anyway, because I believe that just because a child goes to school it doesnt mean that its the only place they should get information and education. Its a nice idea to think of providing a child with an alternative way of learning as an extra thing, I think.

  2. Alex Reply

    I think I’m with Kindikat on a mixed approach, with weekend and holiday ‘unschooling’ supplementing school life. As I think I’ve said on a previous post in this series, the thought of taking full responsibility for my children’s education, on top of everything else being a parent involves, frightens me – I just do not think I have the imagination, energy and mental resources to play that role for them. (I know the idea is that the child leads the process, but, on the surface at least, that feels like heaping a lot of responsibility on our children…) I think there is value in them learning from a variety of people (and I do mean people, not online resources etc), not just me; and that includes their school friends as well as their teachers. I also do think there’s value in them learning – or at least being exposed to – some things that they don’t enjoy, that they don’t immediataely find fascinating (although I’m struggling to articulate even to myself precisely what that is at the moment!) : ‘Real life’ isn’t always just about doing exactly what you want to do how you want to do it.
    Sorry if that sounds overly negative – maybe I’m just hopelessly old-fashioned and hooked on the idea of school… I’ll be interested to read more in this series and see where it leads.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      I’m saving half my responses for a new post (!) but I’m very interestedi n the idea from you and Michael below about the importance of hardship in the school experience. I want to think more about this… So I will!

      • Alex Reply

        I’m not sure I was really going as far as Michael down the “let them suffer” route (though I appreciate the underlying logic, and admire his skills as devil’s advocate!) But I do think it’s important for children to get to experience and learn things they wouldn’t have picked out for themselves. Not least because it gives them an opportunity to see others’ skills in action. I for one hated art, PE and drama classes at school (mainly, I suspect, because I wasn’t very good at them – I have always been a bit of a swot at heart!) but I think it was important for me to have the experience of being not very good at them, and to see my peers who struggled in some of the lessons I did enjoy really shine in other classes. I agree that there is a real question mark about the age at which this becomes important – I for one am constantly grateful that our son was born one week *after* the school starting cut off date – had he been born on 31 August he would have gone to school almost immediately after turning 4, and I think that would have been tough going. However, I do also think it’s worth bearing in mind that – in the UK at least, I can’t speak for NZ but from other comments below I suspect it might be similar – for at least the first year or so of schooling, the “curriculum” such as it is is pretty flexible in terms of how it’s taught, and much of it is done through play rather than what we might recognise as lessons. This reassures me, and makes me feel our system isn’t as far out of kilter with continental approaches that don’t start school until 6 or 7.
        I’ll stop now, and wait for the next posts in the series!

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Jason, do you mean you see ‘school-type’ thinking and behaviour in the rest of the world, or you’ve seen a lot of schooling in action? Keen to hear more.

      • Jason Preater Reply

        Sorry, it has taken me a while to get back to you. I see ‘school’ as a way of thinking. It starts when you say, “I have a term of thirteen weeks and I have this interesting stuff to teach. The best way to do that will be to divide it into equal little packets and have tests periodically as we go along and an exam at the end.” Then when the exams come around you end up with some people who get high scores and some who don’t and this has to mean something. You don’t really know what it all means but it gives you a bit of prestige to be the teacher so you never admit that half of it didn’t convince you in the first place. You try to make your test as accurate a reflection as possible of the skills and abilities of your students. They can’t get away from the fairness of it all. They can carry that sense of being average or having failed around with them for a lifetime. Meanwhile the ones who are not interested watch from the sidelines and feel violent about the “system”. The “successes” might end up in office jobs that are schooly in their own way and reward them for being well-schooled. They often get to a position where they have a little power and find that they have a little repressed violence also, which they pass on to the poor sod who has to ask for a building permit, for example. The “failures” can hang around parks and do graffiti; but they can also be creative in finding their own way through a life that is much broader and more diverse than school leads you to believe.

  3. JoeyC Reply

    You’ll be pleased to know this approach is actually pretty close to current best practice in NZ schools except the teacher usually gets to choose the mermaid- though to get 30 kids to agree on one topic would be great. Not so ‘un-school’ after all 🙂

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Hi Joey! Great to hear from you (is there a guest post waiting to be written…?!)!

      This is good to hear, and I’d like to hear more. Do you mean that best practice here is to wrap all sorts of curriculum areas around a big topic (mermaids, volcanoes, France, insects, whatever)? I gather that is a world-leading approach that we do well here. It’d be good to hear more from you about how it works and the benefits.

      I think I perhaps wasn’t clear in the main post though. The point I was meaning to make was that *choosing* the mermaid is the most important part in engaging deep learning and encouraging self-direction.

      If our learner chooses mermaids and has room to follow her obsessions, she’ll learn all sorts of things along the way (so we don’t need to worry that she’s ‘only’ learning about mermaids). But if the class is working on volcanoes, that’s a shame for our mermaid girl, who a) could be much more engaged and therefore learn better with mermaids right now and b) is stuck doing volcanoes which aren’t her thing right now.

      As several people are saying, the real-world solution for most of us is to support the mermaid obsession at home and find ways to accommodate it at school (she can still pick mermaid stories from the school library and do mermaid creative writing, etc) with good communication with the teacher. Perhaps you can give us some more insight into how to do this? If SBJ was in your class and I told you he was obsessed with mermaids or volcanoes, how could we usefully collaborate?

      I acknowledge there’s also great value in being exposed to volcanoes or mermaids or whatever you wouldn’t pick for yourself. More to say, more to say!

      • Frank Reply

        I think what Joey is referring to is slightly different. I think best practise is not to focus on a theme or context, like mermaids or volcanoes, but instead to focus on a concept or skill – like change or sustainability or (to take one from a resource I’m currently writing) that human decisions have an impact on environmental sustainability. Then students can learn about the concept in association with whatever context they are interested in. Of course, mermaids may not be relevant to all concepts, but the students can still choose an context they are more interested in, so if they really love mermaids, they could look at ocean sustainability or something I guess.

        • Jason Preater Reply

          Reggio Emilia is very interesting. You might also like to have a look at the IB primary programmes. International Baccalaureate organises learning through projects.

        • Georgie Reply

          Our kindy follows this philosopy. I’m not familiar with the detail, but I see teachers getting involved in kids current interests and extending them and expanding on it.

          As an example, last year some of the kids got really interested in role playing at fire fighting, so they ended up doing a whole series of stuff on fire safety, and even got some firefighters with an engine down to the park talk to the kids and let them have a go with the hose.

  4. ch3man Reply

    Hmm, not sure!

    I have two major problems about homeschooling/unschooling the first of which is socialisation. It believe that it is important for young people to discover how to get on with each other outside the family unit. It’s good and helpful to develop a circle of friends and you also need to be able to develop the skills to handle the difficult people.

    Secondly, and rolling the years forward a little, without nationally recognised qualifications, university applications and job seeking become rather more difficult.

    As you can probably tell I have never really been in favour of “sheltering” my children from the “big, bad world” and I have never been a supporter of homeschooling/unschooling … but I do firmly believe in goodschooling. Choice of schools is a very significant task for parents: I chose to keep my girls in the state system but we did have an amazing village primary school and an excellent high school on our doorstep but we now need to keep politics out of schooling and let the teachers get on with their job!

    However, we always did do projects at the weekend based on learning and fun – castles, kings and queens, flowers … the list goes on – does that count as partial unschooling?

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Thanks, ch3man. Your concerns about socialisation and qualifications are definitely biggies. More in the next post!

      Agreed on the partial unschooling!

  5. nothingbythebook Reply

    Thanks for giving my brilliant Flora a cameo on your blog. She’ll be thrilled. If I can lure her away from playing with her friends long enough to have a peek at the computer. I think, given some of the comments above, I’ll need to tackle the myth of homeschooling and socialization again… Enjoy the journey, new friend. 🙂 Jane, from and UndogmaticUnschoolers,

  6. Cate S Reply

    I guess I feel pretty strongly about not jumping wholesale into this kind of approach – although I can see why it appeals to you. When I used to run education programs at a big science museum, we would get all kinds of calls from homeschooling parents demanding (yes, demanding!) that we supplement our science-based AFTER school programs with science courses during the day for home schooled kids. They were upset that we didn’t offer daytime classes to serve their kids, and we kept wanting to say, “There are science classes available during the day already – it’s called SCHOOL.” But we didn’t, and of course, we welcomed home schooled kids into our programs that began at 4 pm, so they were not in any way excluded. We had a couple kids take a lot of our classes that were very proud of being “unschooled”, and would correct everyone if they used the word “home schooled” instead. They were very bright, and did not seem to have suffered educationally from the approach. Having said that, they were taking our classes several times a week, which tells me a fully self-directed approach was not fulfilling their needs once they reached 14/15 years old. I think by that point there are some subjects that are way way easier to learn directly from a real person.

    I think homeschooling in a community where many other people are homeschooling makes it easier (California is like this), because there are a lot of programs run during the day specifically designed for home schooled kids. That way your kid does not suffer at all from a socialization point of view. I guess I feel similarly to many of your other commenters – I don’t feel like I can or want to be the go-to person for everything in my children’s lives forever. It is like that now, because they are so young, but I can see already that my older son (4.5 yrs) is getting ready to be out and about and learn from other people. The path of least resistance to achieving that is certainly to send him to school!

    In the process of getting him ready to go to school, I have visited a couple schools, and I can see him fitting in and thriving there. I am sure I will be shortly frustrated with aspects of the school system, but I am definitely not ready to give up on it all together. I hope that as an educator and parent, I can work towards improving the system for all kids! I agree with Alex, kindicat, and ch3man that formal school is only a small part of your child’s education and you can support their interest and exploration at home, without necessarily removing them from school. Where we live now, the library has these age-appropriate bags for toddlers and preschoolers with book lists, activities, songs, and more all surrounding a theme. We’ve done pirates, knights, and monsters so far and the kids love them. This has already sparked further exploration of these themes in pretend play, costume design, and more, and I can see it getting a lot more sophisticated and self-directed as they get older.

    Anyway, I’ll stop now!

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Really great insights! Especially coming from the States where unschooling and homeschooling are much bigger movements than here, it seems.

      I really like those library book bags – what a great idea!

      More about self-direction and older kids soon, I think.

      I think the ‘being everything to my kids’ question is probably one of the biggest, philosophically, and isn’t addressed as much in what I’ve been reading (plenty of people talking about socialisation, the learning process etc). Lots to think about.

  7. SKATERAK Reply

    I would love to have more time to spend with my children, helping them learn about the world and their place in it. At their very best, schools do an okay job. They are seriously restricted by all the desks, timetables, assessments, boxes, walls… et al.

    If I home schooled my children, or unschooled them, I wouldn’t worry about their socialisation too much. There are ways and means of getting them to regularly mix with others. I don’t think it would be life scarring.

    BUT, there is one thing a school can provide which is essential for learning which is remarkably unlikely to be provided by a home or unschooling parent or tutor – hardship.

    Bullies, foreigners, unfairness, waiting around, rules, desks, boxes (to fit into) and the like all hep us learn what life is like. It would be misleading to teach my children that the world is fair, that hard work is always rewarded and the bad guys lose while the good ones win. Their first trip out of the neighbourhood will show them otherwise.

    I’m not saying that “Life is hard and the sooner they learn it the better”. I’m saying that even at a young age children should learn to deal with a range of people, situations and injustices. Their character and personality will grow and grow.

    I would be interested to see how a home/unschooling parent would provided an equally as rich environment for their child to learn these lessons, at home or the park or the gallery. Would they invite that cussing, rock throwing lass from the corner over for a snack? Would they tell their own children off for something they didn’t do? Would they insist that there is only one way to answer a question?

    It may sound cynical, but I send my boys to school for the hard bits, not the good bits. I can provided good stuff myself.

    Or am I just playing devil’s advocate? 🙂

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Ooh, thanks for this!

      The key question for me is – and the answers will be different for each child – what kind of hard experiences, at what ages, build good character and personality, and what kind of hard experiences (or mismatched learning styles) have long-term negative effects? I wonder if all children are best served by going to school at 5.

    • Frank Reply

      A couple of years ago, I essentially unschooled 2 of the kids in my class. To cut a long story short-ish (brevity is not my strong point), as a class we did an inquiry titled “can a 12 year old change the world?” where they all had to find some issue they were interested in and set out to make a difference somehow.
      2 of my boys got really into their issue. The sister of one of their friends had recently died of cancer and they wanted to fundraise for the child cancer society. They worked their butts off and raised HEAPS of money during our inquiry. When it came time to wrap up, they weren’t ready to move on, so I let them keep going. They spent an entire term planning a fundraising concert. They got some great bands, they organised the venue, budgeted etc. They worked so hard, even to the point of doing market surveys to make sure a concert was what people wanted before they committed to it. They did it all by themselves, with very minimal input from me.
      And it failed completely. They only had about 10 people turn up on the night besides their own families. They then got some people turn up later in the night who let’s say weren’t welcome in the state they were in.
      They were gutted and this was a really hard lesson for them.
      It seemed pretty unfair to me (and to them) that it didn’t work out. There were lots of tears, but they reflected in the end about what went wrong and I think the whole situation really helped their characters grow. I think that if I had more input (ie schooled them), it may not have failed quite so badly (I did think they were being a wee over-ambitious but had decided to just let them go) but they would have missed out on that character building hard lesson of dealing with failure.
      So I guess what I’m saying is that unfair situations would occur with unschooling as well as schooling. The cussing rock throwing lass on the corner may well still cuss and throw rocks as they walk past her on their way to talk to some expert about mermaids or jewellery distribution or whatever. She may even steal some of the jewellery off them and stamp on it so it’s unsellable – who knows! They might put their heart and soul into their jewellery line only to lose money and get bad reviews or have manufacturers rip them off.
      Plenty of room for character building in unschooling I reckon!

  8. not a wild hera Reply

    Thanks, everyone, for these thoughtful and impassioned responses. My thinking is developing actively through this discussion! I’ll work on drawing some of these threads together for another post to launch the next phase of the discussion. Thank you, so much, for engaging!

  9. Fiona Reply

    I was going to suggest you look up Reggio as well……..that is the most exciting approach ever….totally floats my boat and dovetails quite nicely with what you are talking about. Many early childhood centres have tried to adopt aspects of this philosophy and the results can be quite stunning!

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Ok, Joey and Fiona, tell us more! Would one of you (or someone else?) like to write a guest post on Reggio Emilia? I’ve read a few websites and seen that a few early childhood centres in Wellington mention it as an influence, but it would be good to have some concrete detail from someone who has seen it in action..

  10. Jenny Bucksmith Reply

    Perhaps unschooling/home schooling has less to do with the child and how best they learn, and more to do with the parent. My boys may well learn in a much more productive, satisfying manner under a home schooling type regime, however they are never going to get the chance because, unless Michael is prepared to undertake it, there is no way on this earth, or in any parallel universe that I would ever, EVER take on that job! It would take patience, persistence and ingenuity that are beyond my realms and I feel that, despite the rough aspects of school, my boys have better opportunities there. Even if they have a grumpy teacher, at least they can escape him/her at the end of the day and come home to parents that love them (even if they are still a bit grumpy too!). I’m not sure I would have the energy to fulfill both roles effectively. All I can picture is me getting impatient and frustrated! I know several home schooling mothers (all in America where home schooling is widely accepted and practiced) and I take my hat off to them. I truly admire their ability to add another dimension to their role as parents. It is not, however, for me, and therefore, not for my boys.

    • Alex Reply

      With you on that one, Jenny. I love my children dearly, but I cannot imagine spending all day every day with them for the next x years, much as I admire those who can and do.

  11. awhimamamarion Reply

    You have really got me thinking about what my perfect school/education would be. I am a secondary/highschool teacher and I can definitely see the benefits of unschooling. I think we are lucky in NZ that we have a such a broad and open curriculum. There is very little that is prescribed and education is moving more and more towards personalised and independent learning. My problem with the current school model is it is constrained by the institutional funding model and expectations we have of school. I would love to see education move away from subject areas towards skills and knowledge across areas of life and the world. So teachers at the primary level may have to make sure certain spheres of learning are addressed but not as subjects perse. And I would love to see that continue into secondary education. NCEA does provide so much flexibility, but unfortunately the Universities are determining the focus because they have such a traditional approach to assessing whether a person is capable of working at a tertiary level. Time has come to move from schooling preparing people like they are going to work in a factory for the rest of their lives, or in a discreet profession. Instead focus on transferable knowledge and skills so that they are prepared to adapt to jobs, society and a world that doesn’t even exist yet.
    I wonder whether a community based model of unschooling could work where no one parent is responsible for overseeing their child’s learning pathway. Instead groups in the community pool their skills and knowledge to provide wide learning opportunities that might interest local kids. Like someone keen on fishing takes some kids fishing, they learning about tides, ecosystems, fish biology, the fishing industry and managing the resource, weather, the list goes on. I think marae based learning has a lot to offer with this model. But with most of the community busy putting food on the table there is a lack of skills and knowledge, especially from men. Oh and the professional issues of being a teacher and care and protection of children. Oh I could go on and on…

  12. Hester Reply

    I’m currently homeschooling my children and am still discovering what approach to learning and lessons will work best for us. Part of my recent journey has included good conversations with those homeschooling around me and I have been particularly impressed with one mum who unschooled her children until they chose to go to school at about age 14. The key thing that I believe made unschooling so successful for them was Dedicated Time. The mum spent about 4 hours every day learning with her children, not letting housework, money making or the Internet get in the way. She didn’t plan what they did during the learning time, just made sure the time was set aside for learning. I’m sure there were learning experiences happening for them at other times too but this dedicated time ensured that these girls got a high quality education.

  13. manisheriar Reply
    • not a wild hera Reply

      Hi manisheriar!

      Thank you so much for stopping by and for your very helpful responses. I LOVE the letter your son wrote. I’m working through the other links now. Thanks heaps!

      My next unschooling fanpost is in the pipeline so hopefully you’ll be able to help us all out more as we wrestle with the ideas.

      Have a great day 🙂

  14. Pingback: Education and Schooling #11: Unschooling, Schooling and Socialisation | sacraparental

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