I LIVE THEREFORE I LEARN: Living an Unschooling Life
Unschooling means not depending on the usual school methods. It means no lesson plans, no curriculum, no assignments, no quizzes or tests, no required memorizing, and no grades. It means that the parent does not become the child's schoolteacher—it means not creating a miniature classroom in the home.
Instead, unschoolers focus on living a rich and stimulating life together. Seriously, that's it. We do not "school," but, instead, we concentrate on living a life filled with opportunities and possibilities and experiences. Human children are born learners. Literally. What unschoolers aim for is keeping that love of learning and intense curiosity alive as the children grow up.
How do we do this? In practice, it is going to look very different for each unschooling family. "We follow our interests," is the unschoolers’ anthem. And, each family's interests will lead to all kinds of learning—history, math, writing, music, reading, science, and all the other real-life subject matter that is valuable and interesting. But we won't think of them as “subjects.” We'll just think of them as interesting and fun and fascinating and something we want to pursue further or not. One thing will lead to another and life goes on and kids learn and parents learn and life is full of opportunity everywhere we look.
It is natural for people to learn—each in their own way. It is natural for children to want to understand the world around them. They also want to join the adult world and become competent and capable adults themselves. They'll strive for this in their own natural ways. Unschooling parents work on creating a home environment that supports their children's natural desire to learn and grow.
Each child is unique and experiences the world in a different way than any other person and expresses themselves in ways that are different from every other person. There is no curriculum in the world that is designed specifically and dynamically for any particular child, but an unschooling lifestyle can, in effect, provide a 100 percent individualized learning experience. Unschoolers aren't likely to learn exactly what the professional educators and textbook publishers think they should—so, in that sense, they will have gaps in their learning. But they'll learn so much more, too, that is not included in those lists of "learning standards." What is important for one person to learn is not necessarily important for another and we don't really have any way of predicting what will be important to know in the future. We DO know that learning that is forced or pressured is not lasting and that most of what kids are "taught" is not truly "learned" in any kind of lasting way unless it is something in which they are interested.
Unschoolers also have in mind a lifelong timeline for learning. We don't worry about whether a child is "at grade level" because we know that children are learning "something" all the time and that they will eventually learn whatever they need to know for whatever reasons they have. We don't worry that they'll miss something important because, if it is important, they'll realize that and find a way to learn it.
A true unschooling slogan is, "Life is learning, learning is life." Unschoolers simply do not think there are times for learning and times for not learning. They don't divide life into school time or lesson time versus play time or recreation time. There is no such thing as "extracurricular" to an unschooler—all of life, every minute of every day, counts as learning time and there is no separate time set aside for education.
Is unschooling right for everyone? My answer is, "It depends." I think ALL children can learn and grow and thrive as unschoolers. But, I also think it takes an intensity and focus on living life with a great deal of gusto on the part of unschooling parents. Unschooling parents work hard. For example, they must develop a very high level of sensitivity to their children to know what to offer, when to support, when to back off, how busy they want to be, how much solitude they need, when to nudge them a bit with encouragement, when to get more involved, and so on. AND parents need to be able to always have their kids and their interests in the back of their minds, thinking always about what would interest them; bringing the world to them and bringing them to the world in ways that "click" for that particular child. And it takes a great deal of trust that the child will learn without external pressure.
We could do the curriculum—I could put together a few hours per day of "school work," insisting that my children do it. But I've read everything I could get my hands on about learning and I've had 30 years of teaching experience and I know, deep down inside, that any coercion in learning creates either open resistance, passivity, or apathy, and I don't want to create any of those in my children. Learning feels good—it might be hard, but it is also pleasurable. Coercion feels bad and trying to learn under coercion is not pleasurable, even when we make the best of it. Children who have only experienced the pleasure of unforced learning show the effect in their incredible creativity, confidence, intensity, focus, persistence, self-knowledge, and strong sense of personal responsibility.
Not all parents WANT their children to grow up strong-willed and truly independent-minded. And, it is fair warning to say: "Be careful what you wish for." If what we mostly want is for our children to respect us and to adopt our beliefs and goals, unschooling may not be for us. Many parents have a general definition of "success" in their own heads, and what they want is for their children to achieve their version of success. Many want their children to offer living proof that they were good parents—they may even be especially interested in outcomes that will impress friends, relatives, and acquaintances. Again, unschooling is probably not a good fit under those circumstances.
Unschoolers do have goals, though, that impact our day-to-day interactions with our kids. We want our children to discover their life's passions and to jump into them with both feet, with confidence and trust in life and themselves. We want our children to know, deep inside themselves, that they are strong and capable and can make their own individual choices. We want them to be willing to buck the mainstream culture AND buck the counterculture and think for themselves and do what they think is right and good and worthy and valuable.
I think, most of all, we want them to love being alive—now and in their future.
Originally appeared in April 2005 HSC (HomeSchool Association of California) magazine.