Unschooling, part 2


That cartoon totally insults my career field, but that’s okay, I love the spirit of the message!  🙂


I need to update my information on unschooling a little bit.  What I said in that post was accurate, but not complete.  Add to it what I say in this post, and it still won’t be complete.  You have to understand that unschooling families each do their own thing.  There are no two families who unschool the same.

I’ve been poking around on the blogs and websites of families who unschool.  There’s no better way to see inside my head from afar than to read my blog, so I figured that reading unschoolers’ blogs would be a good way to get insight into their thinking and methods.  I found a few families who do it the way I said, following children’s interests, using them to give children opportunities to learn skills and information.  I also found a few who follow the children completely.  They give help only when the children ask for it, they trust that children will follow their interests and learn skills along the way, when they are needed.  Basically, they encourage the children to be responsible for their own learning.

I read one mother’s comments that, “If one day your child happily watches t.v. for the entire time they would have been in school, that’s better than unhappily being in school.”  She also discourages directing children to do chores at home, or limiting their t.v. and computer time, or even what they watch or what kinds of games they play.  I see her point, a little bit, because children do learn best when they discover the need to learn something on their own.  However, it just doesn’t quite fit with what I believe.  Yes, I could do whatever I wanted all the time.  I could focus only on this moment, not doing anything to prepare for the future.  But that’s mostly self-serving, most of the time.  God is the director of my life, and He doesn’t want me to do exactly what I feel like, all the time.  I don’t want to teach my children to live that way.  As I said, I want to teach them to be a positive impact on the world, not just someone who is along for the ride.


Betty left a comment about unschooling: ahhhh! so unschooling is kinda what we adults are doing all the time. We are just going along our way learning the things we need as we go–yeah, sometimes it involves a book, sometimes it involves a “museum” and sometimes it is trial and error.

That is exactly the spirit of unschooing!  Let’s think about a child who goes to school from the age of 4 to 22.  From birth to age 4, he learns things as he needs, by whatever methods are best for the issue at hand.  He learns to talk because it’s more efficient at communicating than just crying.  Maybe he learns to brush his teeth because he enjoys doing it himself more than when his mama does it for him.  Maybe he learns to write his first name because he sees mama writing, it looks like fun, and he asks her to teach him.  Maybe he learns about dinosaurs because he sees a t.v. show about them and gets interested.  Maybe he gets books from the library or bookstore for mama to read to him, and goes to a museum, builds dinosaur models, plays with dinosaur toys, and watches other t.v. shows and movies about dinosaurs.  He is being unschooled.

Then, from 4 to 22, he goes to preschool, elementary school, junior high, high school, and college.  He learns his schools’ objectives by books, lectures, practice worksheets, tests, etc.  Except in college, there is an element of choice in the matter.  He decides what he wants to study, and he has some choices in the classes he takes. 

Then after he graduates college, maybe this particular guy never takes another formal class again.  But is he finished learning?  Of course not.  He goes back to learning like he did from birth to age 4.  He learns things he finds the need for, in ways that are best for the thing he needs to learn.

Now think about this.  From the age of 4 to 22, did he never learn anything in this way?  Was all of his learning via classes, lectures, tests, etc.?  Well…how did you learn to tie your shoes?  Drive a car?  Shave your legs?  (And/or, your face?  haha.)  Go on a date?  Cook?  How did you learn to use those self-checkout lanes?  How did you learn to find and rent an apartment?  I’ll bet that most of those things, you learned by “unschooling” methods.  Those are all things that I learned that way.  I learned how to go on a date purely by doing it, because there was a need, when someone asked me on a date!  I learned how to rent an apartment because my aunt Betty told me what I should do, and then walked through the process with me.


Recently, we discovered that our students at the school where I work have a hard time with standardized test questions about time and money.  If you have two quarters and a dime, how much money do you have?  Which of the following picture of a clock says 6:45?  Stuff like that.  When I taught second grade, my students had the hardest time with the math chapters about time and money.  Are those two topics really any harder than other math topics?  No, I don’t think so.  I really think those are two subjects that must be “unschooled.”  Personally, I remember that every single year, I hated learning about time and money in school.  Not because they were hard, but because they were boring!  I had already learned to tell time and count money.  We talked about the clock all the time at home.  We need to bake this for 25 minutes, you have to sit on the naughty chair for 7 minutes, you have 15 more minutes to get that room cleaned, we will leave for school at 7:20.  And Mom or Dad would tell us what that looked like on the clock on the wall, if we wanted them to.  For money, it was the money in our piggy banks or the money in Dad’s pocket.  If Dad emptied his pocket change, lots of times we could count it.  We put our allowance in our piggy banks each week, and a lot of weeks after we put our 50 cents or whatever in, we would dump everything out and count it.  Sometimes Sarah and I would count separately and compare our amounts, other times we would work together, and count first her money, and then mine.  Were we ever told to do this?  No!  We did it for fun.  At some point, someone had to teach us how to do it, probably over and over again for awhile.  But because we wanted to do it, it could be taught.  And obviously, it could be taught at a younger age than what was required in the school’s curriculum.

The other spirit of unschooling that seems to permeate most of the families who do it, whether by child-led or child-dictated methods, is the idea that education from age 4 to 22 doesn’t have to get someone from point A to point B.  Society has very specific ideas about what is the most “successful” place to be at age 18, and age 22, and every other age, for that matter.  At age 18, you should have a kick-ass GPA, a list of stellar extra-curricular accomplishments, and a full ride scholarships to a great college.  At age 22, you should have a kick-ass GPA, a list of stellar extra-curricular accomplishments, and a financially lucrative job.  For the most part, some form of those ideas are considered the “best” thing, the “ideal” point B.  “I don’t mind if my child just goes to a community college and gets a decent job,” which is very nice and usually very genuine, but the thought behind that is often, “but wouldn’t it be nice if he did earn a 4.0 and get a full ride to Harvard?”  It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the accepted “best.”

That’s why unschooling is so hard, and also why it’s so frowned upon.  Homeschooling is “okay,” but only “as long as you can use accepted curricula and keep documentation so your child can still go to a great college.”  Unschooling is unacceptable, because it is “not a path that leads to point B.”  To unschool your children, you must first embrace (not accept, but embrace) the idea that the journey is between point A and point whatever is right for the child.  Only then can you understand that unschooling may very well include “accepted homeschool curricula” or even a formal high school.  If I had been homeschooled, knowing my mother, I bet it would have been a strongly unschooling experience.  But I bet she still would have sent me to high school, or used formal homeschool curricula for high school classes, because I wanted to go to college.  I still would have wanted to go to college if I was homeschooled!  I always saw college as the best thing in the world, because you could choose what you study, and the reason for going was to make you ready for whatever it was you wanted to do next.  Plus, I wanted the college experience of living in dorms, eating in dining halls, college classes, college friends, college fun.  And I’ve never regretted it for a second!  But not because it was an acheivement, or “success,” but because it was part of the life that I wanted for myself.  When you’re unschooling, you watch your children very carefully.  You give them the opportunities that they need and want.  If you see a kid who might want to be a doctor, you talk to him about it.  You explore with him how people become doctors, talk about what he might need to do to get there, and you decide together what he needs to do.  And you always, always give your children the freedom to change their minds, because childhood passions can be fleeting, but even the fleeting interests are valuable.


Sarah Anderson-Thimmes wrote a little article for www.sandradodd.com, which I now realize is an unschooling blog and helpful website for unschooling families.  (And just an entertaining read for me!)  Ms. Anderson-Thimmes wrote: Kids want to learn.  They just do.  Get the hell out of the way, and leave an interesting trail behind you.  That’s how you unschool, and how you homeschool, and how you school.

Train a child up in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.  This statement from Proverbs tells me that I must not only give children room to learn, but also teach them how to live.  That is the only place in which I think radically liberal unschooling is deficient.  No matter whether my children want to learn it or not, I will try to model for them and teach them kindness and love.  Assigned chores, for example, teach them to love their family.  Why do we clean, cook, do laundry, mow the lawn, feed the dog?  Because it is a loving thing to do for the people (and dogs!) who live there.  Why do we not hit our siblings when they steal our toys?  Why do we not steal toys?  You get the idea.  But also, if I train my child up in a way that makes him think money and big houses and fancy cars are the goal, that is how he will live.  If I train him to believe that he should listen to the passions God places in his heart, and do what he can to help the people of this world, are the goal, he is likely to end up with a job he enjoys that serves the community.  Those two kids might end up with the exact same job, house, and car, but the two people will be very different.  Think about the most successful job you know of.  Maybe a brain surgeon?  If you had to have a tumor removed from your brain, would you want the surgeon to be a surgeon because his parents taught him that it would be good if he was a surgeon and made a lot of money and held a lot of prestige?  Or would you want the surgeon who is passionate about the anatomy of your brain, and passionate about doing the best he could and giving you the best chance for survival and recovery that he could?  And after he cuts that tumor out of your brain and goes home, which doctor do you think is happier?


My brother Mark (who would have been a really fun kid to unschool with!) once told me, “You spend a third of your life working and a third of your life sleeping, so you’d better find a job you love and buy yourself a comfortable bed.”


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