Below are some frequently asked questions about unschooling (or life-led learning) and my answers. Remember, these answers come from one unschooler, not from the institution of unschooling. Especially since, by definition, there is no institution of unschooling.
What is unschooling/life-led learning/autodidactism?
Unschooling, et al. has a variety of definitions. Simply put, instead of going to a traditional school to learn, the unschooler allows their passions and interests to guide their learning. There are no formal teachers, curricula, tests, etc. Instead, as the student feels the desire and need to learn something, he or she will learn it.
Is this legal? Isn’t is neglectful parenting?
Yes and hell, no. Unschooling is under the umbrella of homeschooling. The unschool parent is responsible to the state (depending on local regulations) for showing learning progress, which usually consists of a portfolio of what the student has done during the year. The parent usually has no problem filling the portfolio with field trips, research done, etc.
Those who think of unschooling as neglect are misunderstanding the principle of it. Unschooled children are often as learned, if not more, than their schooled counterparts. Because parents allow learning to happen organically, the student never finds drudgery in the process. He or she delights in learning and will seek it out. Adults sometimes believe that certain things must be learned for a child to do well as a “contributing member of society.” For some reason, these things include algebra and diagraming scentences. If we don’t force our kids to learn them, these same adults feel we are doing them a disservice and therefore being negligent.
This isn’t true, of course. As adults, if we want to know something, we will learn it. Our children will do the same, if they are given that freedom. Unschool parents are doing the exact opposite of neglect – they are granting their children independence and the ability to follow their interests.
But, what does an unschooler learn?
Unschoolers redefine what learning is. We don’t only find it in the traditional school subjects, but in everything. It can be learning about film editing or dog training, not just math and science. An unschooler learns about living in this world, not in the superficial environment of school.
Wait, what about algebra?
Why is everyone so concerned about algebra? Here’s the thing: if a child needs to know algebra for their life, they will learn it. Do you remember the algebraic equations you learned in high school? If so, is it because you use them on a regular basis? If not, is it possible that you don’t remember them because they aren’t actually necessary to your life but if they became necessary, you would be able to re-learn them? So, relax about algebra. We don’t need it to survive. Trust me.
How does an unschooler succeed in life?
People believe that school prepares kids for the real world. In actuality, school is very little like the real world. School children are insulated from the world, and put into an artificial one. Unschoolers, however, never leave the real world. They truly learn to live life and will learn what they need to when they need to. If an unschooler wants to go to college, they will do what they need to make that happen. If they want to travel, they will. If they want any particular career, they can go after it.
To answer the technical question, an unschooler can get a high school diploma through the homeschooling path. This might entail taking some tests, depending on the state they are in. Most unschoolers find these tests simple (it’s the schooled students who have problems with them). Other unschoolers take courses at the local community college during their “high school” years and then transfer into college with some credits already completed. Many colleges are realizing that SATs and GPAs tell very little of the story and many of them prefer homeschoolers and unschoolers. There are also some learner-directed colleges dotted around the country that many students are drawn to. (And, by the way, college isn’t the be all and end all in life. If you’re doing what you love and you’re amazing at it, no one will care if you have a college degree or not. I have 3 of them and it hasn’t made much difference.)
Isn’t unschooling lazy?
Absolutely not! Unschooling is not just letting kids run free while parents go about their lives. The parents’ role is to create an environment where kids are inspired. This can include having large numbers of books and movies, trips to museums, parks, libraries, and other countries, or any number of things. The parent must also pay attention to their child (especially at the beginning of the process) and fascilitating their passions. A parent will know of resources that a child might not be aware of, so they may suggest things for that child to explore or might take them to places that will feed into their interest.
Won’t kids just choose to watch tv and play video games all day?
First of all, what is your fear if that does happen? Second of all, yes, they might do that sometimes. And third, they won’t do it all the time. When given freedom, kids don’t sit still for very long. Watch a child on summer break. At first, they seem “lazy” by our schooled standards. They watch tv, sleep in, etc. But, after a few weeks, they become bored. Given that they don’t have any dreadful summer schoolwork, they start to find things to do. It might be a new game, meeting a new friend, reading a new book, building something, or anything they come up with. An unschooler is always on summer break. There might be days where they just want to watch tv, but that won’t satisfy them all the time. They will, as humans always do, seek out their passion and learn about it. Think about it – that’s what you do too. Some days you feel like watching tv all day, but you can’t take it for long. If you allow yourself the freedom, you’ll soon be energized to pick up a hobby or research an interest. Why can’t we trust that kids will do the same?
How do I start unschooling my child?
I am a parent and have a lot of opinions, but I’m not an expert on the subject. I would recommend reading and talking to your kids about it A LOT. If they have been in school, there will be a deschooling process for both of you until you all get the expectations and definitions out of your head that have been lodged there by the traditional school system. To start, read Sandra Dodd, John Holt, and Grace Llewellyn.
The important thing is to TRUST your child. Adults don’t know what kids need to learn for their lives. We don’t know which child will be a scientist, which will be an artist, and which will be a judge. Yet, our system forces them all to “learn” the same rote material. If we allow our kids to follow their own path, they will show us what they need to learn for their life.
In closing, here are some of my questions for you:
—If you had to teach a high school class, how much of it would you have to re-learn? If you have to re-learn any of it, why do we need to teach it in the first place?
–Did you enjoy school as a child and do you think it was necessary to force you to learn the things you did in school?
–How often do you take standardized tests, receive grades on your performance, get divided into groups based on age and ability, or have to learn about something that you are not interested in and has nothing to do with your career? In other words, how is your job anything like school?
–Do you believe that our school system is succeeding?