Answers to the Most Repeated Unschooling Questions of All Time

These were gathered and answered, originally, for the Lisbon and Leiden conferences, in 2013. The Portuguese version is here: Perguntas mais frequentes sobre o "Unschooling". Rippy Dusseldorp, Marta Pires and Sandra Dodd worked up the list, Marta translated to Portuguese, and the responses are Sandra's.

1. How will they learn to read?

In school or out, every child learns to read in his own way, as he figures it out. Different people read different ways. Some are more visual, and some are sounding out letters, and some are reading groups of words.

Reading is complex, but teaching rarely helps. Until a child's brain and body are mature in various mysterious ways so that he can process the visual information and connect it to the language inside him in a manner that completes the puzzle for him, he cannot read, whether he's in school or not. Some children are three, some are thirteen, but shame and pressure never help.

2. What about algebra?
People always ask that. Many people who take algebra in school never understand it. Some who did understand it never figure out how to use it in their normal lives.

Algebra can help with logic, and it helps with programming, or html, in a way (some of the "language" of algebra) but kids often learn online formatting tricks with their blogs or games, and that makes learning algebra easier, if they get to a point in life where they need it.

There is an article here (in German and English) with some ideas about the kinds of math people worry about: /math/unerzogen

3. Can they go to college/university?
I've never heard of anyone being turned away from higher education because they were homeschooled in any manner. If tests are required, the kids can take the test cold and then prepare if they didn't do as well as they had wanted to, or they could study in advance of taking the test. Some universities will let people in on a trial basis, and if they do well they're in. Some will accept a portfolio in place of a school transcript.

There are dozens of stories from professors saying they love having unschoolers in their classes, and tales of unschoolers who enjoyed classes, and excelled.

4. What about socialization?
Schools "teach" children to get along in school. Children who live in the real world learn to get along with real people of all ages, in all kinds of situations.

When I was in elementary school, the lowest marks I got were C's (average) in conduct, or deportment. I talked too much. Way more than once I was shushed in class with the admonition, "You're not here to socialize."

5. How will you know if they're learning?
Teachers need to measure and document because they need to show progress so they can get paid, and keep their jobs. They test and measure because they don't always know each child well.

Parents know a child is learning because they're seeing and discussing and doing things together every day. Not five days a week, or most of the year, but all of the days of their whole lives.

6. How will you know if they can read?
How did you know they could ride a bike?
How do parents know when a baby can walk? Talk?
7. How will they learn how to spell?
Gradually and naturally. Each child figures it out. Some do better than others, but that's true in school, too. For some kids, school tells them when they're little that they're bad spellers, that others spell better, that if they don't work, study, practice that they will NEVER spell well. Unschoolers should never hear any such thing, and when they figure it out, they will feel successful.
8. If they decide to go to school, will they be able to catch up?
Some are already ahead. Maybe their handwriting won't have as much use, or they might need to learn mathematical notation and practice writing numbers by hand if they've been using computers and calculators and phones to to do calculations and to communicate. So in a way they can be way ahead, but give the appearance of "being behind," because kids at school are using paper and pencil, rather than computers.

Another way to think about school is that when someone moves from a very different culture—Kenya, Japan—where the writing system or culture or language are extremely different, they catch up in a year or two. Someone from the same culture and language shouldn't have much problem.

9. How will they learn to work in a team?
My kids participated in small theatrical projects, party organization, gaming shop activities and tournaments, sports they organized themselves, volunteer projects run by others—they weren't pretending to do things, they were actually doing real things, for real purposes and real people.
10. How will they learn to write cursive?
If they want to, they will copy other people's writing, or get a workbook. My grandmother was born around 1902. She said in the 1960s that she was worried that I didn't know how to use a fountain pen, but nobody my age knew how. In the 1970's, though, I learned to do calligraphy with dip pens, and made pens from feathers. It wasn't important. It was art, and fun.

When things are not required and aren't "chores," they are easier to want to do.

But the world is changing, and cursive might not be any more common in 2025 than fountain pens were in 1965.

11. How will they learn the times table if I don't ask them to memorize it?
Memorizing answers isn't the same as understanding multiplication. My kids played with filling in tables, and discovered the patterns themselves that way, but never memorized them. For small calculations, they do them in their heads. For larger things, they use calculators. They have calculators on their phones. Understanding how it works, and knowing there are patterns, is more important than memorization. In the 19th century before there were mechanical adding machines and all business math was done by hand, it was important for clerks to memorize sums. We're up to the 21st century now, and business is data entry.

There are two stories here of unschoolers and times tables here: SandraDodd.com/timestables

12. How will they learn how to deal with bullies?
Why should people practice for years dealing with bullies? There wouldn't be so many bullies if children weren't forced to be where they didn't want to be. There are bullies in schools and in prisons. Anywhere else? The military, maybe. Fraternities.

A strong person who grew up with confidence will be better equipped to deal with difficult situations in adulthood than will a person who has been bullied for years. And in school, some people never, ever do manage to stand up to a bully, or to avoid the cruelty of others. It isn't something parents should wish for or that schools should defend as healthy.

13. How will they learn to learn?
By learning.

Here (in progress) is another version of this page, with links to more information for each question, for those who really want to delve. SandraDodd.com/faqAnnotated
The questions and answers in Portuguese Video and transcript, on how to unschool Help for new unschoolers