Unschooling: You'll See it When you Believe It

Sandra Dodd

Following years of sporadic reports by people who claimed they had tried unschooling but it hadn't worked for them, I started tracking their similarities and, as usual, I learned something new. And, as usual, I thought I should share it so others might not have to wonder for ten years.

So here is a snapshot of what I thought I knew when I sat down to write this one day not too long ago: Some people don't know what unschooling is supposed to look like.

If I went to the flea market to buy a torque wrench but I didn't know what one looked like, I would have a pretty hard time just finding one by looking around. It probably wouldn't be on a table with clocks made of cross-cut cedar. Looking through a tray of cassette tapes wouldn't help. It would be especially difficult if I didn't even know what a torque wrench was for. I might look all through those wirey-boards and steel boxes computer-repair guy brought. I could look for hours through cloth and paperback books and come home saying "Going to the flea market for a torque wrench doesn't work."

I used to go to the flea market regularly, pre-motherhood, to buy medieval- and Rennaisance-suggesting things to re-sell in the SCA. It was fun. I used to make enough to pay our way to tournaments by setting up my little homemade tent and some tables covered with pewter and silver-plated bowls and plates, cast aluminum tankards or goblets, hand-blown glasses from Mexico, fur collars, little wooden jewelry chests, old-looking jewelry, leather bags, brocade curtains (without fiberglass or rubber), interesting little knives, wooden trays and bowls, and so forth. I'd sell them cheap, too. I learned a lot doing that, and had fun.

The Albuquerque flea market is huge. I would stand, walk, and pull my cart for two or three hours, scanning for shiny metal dishes, wood, leather, certain designs. But most of the stuff got only enough glance to determine it was NOT what I was looking for. I ignored piles of baby clothes, electronics, plastics and hand tools. Many a torque wrench lay unseen.

Unschooling parents come away from a small school and into the big wide world. Some say "Here is the wide world, and we will be in it and learn from everything around us." Then they proceed to scan specifically for math, history, science, reading and writing. Because they went to school, math to them looks like flat paper with numbers on it. History looks like books: many words and a few maps and illustrations, all arranged in chronological order. Science is wide open—it might be a microscope, or a bug cage or some rocks and a magnifying glass, until the kids are older, and then it will start looking like numbers on flat paper, or maybe a book on anatomy, or the feared and revered "Periodic Chart of the Elements." Reading and writing should look like reading and writing have always looked—books without illustrations (eventually, and the sooner and thicker the better), and reports with straight margins and numbered pages.

They scan their children's lives every day for schoolish things. They're looking for spiral notebooks and they ignore sunsets. Looking for a 50-minute session of history to prove attention span, they miss a pioneer dress-up game and an attempt to build a catapult.

As a final stop before giving up, some come and declare their failure to those who told them about unschooling. They tell us it didn't work for their family, and that after all, they are the experts in their children, and so they know that their own family is not creative enough to unschool, and their children crave structure. Sometimes it seems they think those who say "Unschooling is So COOL!" are deluded nuts who don't care much about their children. Other times I think they see our children as brilliant and theirs as dullards.

Now I have come to believe that they just ignored the million things looking for the five or six.

They thought if they left the kid alone for a month he might spontaneously create a four-subject routine, with some music, art and sports put in for extracurricular balance. They envisioned that their child might say, at the age of fourteen (give or take a few) years, "I'm ready to learn biology now," which would be the beginning of nine months of study, with three dissections and some tadpole measuring, maybe some plant genetics. By May they should declare whether they were more interested in botany or life sciences (step one in "do you want to go to medical school?").

When a science-minded kid loves to take the dog down by the river and look for wild berries and snakes, some parents say, "My kid just wants to play. He's not interested in learning. He'll never learn science just playing."

Each little experience, every idea, is helping your child build his internal model of the universe. He will not have the government-recommended blueprint for the internal model of the universe, which can look surprisingly like a school, and a political science class, a small flat map of the huge spherical world, a job with increasing vacations leading to retirement, and not a lot more.

Unschooled children can organize their knowledge in free and better ways. They never need to feel they are through learning, or past the point that they can begin something new. Each thing they discover can be useful eventually. If we help provide them with ever-changing opportunities to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, move and discuss, what they know will exceed in breadth and depth what any school's curriculum would have covered. It won't be the same set of materials—it will be clearer and larger but different.

"How will they learn everything they need to know?"

Do the best of the high school graduates know everything they need to know? No, and at some point, ideally, they start learning on their own. Some fail to get to that point, though. Unschooled kids have a head start. They know how to find what they need to know, and they have not been trained to ignore things that won't be on the test.

When parents see how and what their children are actually learning instead of just scanning for the half dozen school-things, unschooling will make sense to the parents. If you wait for school to congeal from a busy life, you'll keep being disappointed. If you learn to see everything instead of just school things, unschooling will start working for you. When you see it you will believe it.

The article above was first in the November/December 2001 issue of Home Education Magazine.

Read others' additions and comments here.

Ideas for beginners:

In response to a question about how to convince one's husband that natural learning could work, Amy/arcarpenter wrote:
You could. . .start keeping a journal about your days, and taking some pictures to fill it in, if you were so inclined. Then you'd have something to point to when your husband's questions caught you off guard.
Pam Sorooshian expanded on that idea:
I did this for three months when we first started unschooling. And I developed a little recording sheet to make it easier. What I did was just keep one sheet for each kid out on a counter and jotted things down throughout the day as I noticed them. The recording sheet doesn't have you keeping track of "subjects" like history, science, etc., but later that night I'd kind of fill in with my observations of what was related to school subjects - like if under "Watching," I'd put down we'd watched the musical, "Oliver," then I'd note some of the ways that was history and literature, etc.

Obviously I just was touching on some highlights of the day.

I did it as an exercise for myself - eventually I got my fill, I was saturated with seeing everything they did was LEARNING and was important, I was so deeply convinced that I stopped thinking about it. I stopped ever caring whether or not I could SEE how something they were doing could translate into a school subject - I didn't care anymore because I was so totally sure that whatever they were doing was valid and valuable. It might serve a similar purpose for a husband and help get him away from thinking in school subjects and in terms of the value of what the child is really involved in during his day.

Archive of Unschooling Discussion

Reading (Books, magazines, newspapers, websites .....Fiction, biography, nonfiction, poetry, drama, essays, articles,....)

Doing (Cooking, swimming, dog training, babysitting, volunteering, working, singing, acting, music, math, ....)

Making (Art, crafts, building, sewing, weaving, beadwork, .....)

Writing (Journal, stories, letters, website, email, articles, ....)

Watching (TV, movies, videos, live theater, demonstrations, exhibits, ....)

Listening (Tapes, radio, music, stories, audio magazines, lectures, .....)

Talking (Speech, discussion, explaining, directing, instructing, debating,....)

Visiting (Museums, zoos, field trips,....)

Thinking (Planning, analyzing, imagining, plotting, ....)

photos are links



Understanding Unschooling

Tales of "getting it"

Typical days of many unschooling families