Please note that I am in no way claim that this is the one and only way to educate your children, nor am I setting out to put down conventional schooling. I am simply outlining and defining what works for our family at this time.
“Unschooling” is the popularized, but not necessarily flattering name for a method of learning also known as “child-led”, “child-centered”, “holistic”, and “organic”. Unschooling differs greatly in appearance from the other forms of schooling, but not in its fundamental end – the acquisition of knowledge and skill. As unschoolers, we simply go about this acquisition in a radically different way. In unschooling, the student, not the teacher, is the primary agent of learning. Ultimately, unschooling is a gentle and natural method of learning in which the innate curiosity of the child is respected.
As Aristotle pointed out in his work Metaphysics, “all men by nature desire to know”. In unschooling, this desire is respected and allowed to grow and flow naturally. The absence of blocked learning times leaves room for the child to explore and learn in a natural way. If presented with an environment ripe for natural learning, a child is guaranteed to garner knowledge. Despite the popular blueprint, learning need not be separated from living. As John Holt, the father of unschooling, has told us: “Children learn best . . . not by being taught, but by being a part of the world, free to explore what most interests them, by having their questions answered when they ask them, and by being treated with respect rather than condescension.”
Children naturally learn at different and individual rates. Unschooling respects this and allows the child to set his own pace in learning. There is time to “follow the rabbit trail”, so to speak. A child may run after his interests until this interest has waned and/or the natural curiosity is satiated. An unschooled child will gain knowledge via primary resources and hands on experience, therefore making the knowledge his own, instead of filling his brain with facts to be spilled back onto a page come test time. An unschooler learns for love of knowledge, not for the attainment of good grades.
Another benefit to this method of education is that the family learns as a whole unit. While older children will come away from an event with different information than the younger children, all will come away different and stronger because of the experience. For example, a hiking adventure may teach an older child about different flora and fauna in a certain area, differing life cycles and differing terrain while a very young child may simply find joy in an interesting bug or the feeling of sunshine on her face. Both of these children came away from the hike changed and better, but in very different and age appropriate ways. This gentle and natural learning fosters and life long love of learning and a desire to continue to gain knowledge long after the child has passed “school age”.
The role of the parent in the home of unschooler’s is not that of “vessel filler” but rather that of “resource provider”. The parent lays out an environment conducive to learning and then quietly steps into the background. This is NOT to say that the parent slips away and leaves the child to his own devises. Quite on the contrary, the parent must be always ready and willing the answer questions, research more information, or jump into the car for an impromptu field trip. Unschooling parents are always learning alongside their children. They must be equipped and eager to seize the learning opportunities in everyday task and events.
Another key component to successful unschooling is trust in the child. Unschooling is very child-based and child-led. We as parents must trust the child’s innate desire for knowledge and foster it through that trust. We must encourage individual curiosity by answering questions and providing materials and experiences which will allow the child to develop his natural interests.
Everyday life provides us with a multitude of learning opportunities. Because of our classroom-tainted vision of learning and the breakneck speed with which we move through our days, we very often miss these opportunities. As unschoolers, we must open our minds and eyes to the world around us and gently put the brakes on life so that we can see and learn as we move through our days.
Let me provide you with an example of gentle learning in everyday activities. Children love to write letters to friends and family members far away (my kids also like to send email!). A simple handwritten letter provided lessons in spelling, grammar, handwriting, and creative writing, as well as the joy of written correspondence. It is much more natural and enjoyable to write a letter than to study an arbitrary spelling list and take an exam on it, fill out a grammar worksheet, complete a creative writing assignment on a given subject, and labor over a handwriting sheet. Not to mention far less time consuming!
As adults, we gain knowledge be reading and researching whatever interests us at the moment – that is why we are here tonight! We learn through everyday life and experiences. We develop an interest and run after it, gathering knowledge along the way. As unschoolers, we are simply passing that liberty on to our children.