A reader asked recently if I could share some insights on how to make the leap from homeschooling to unschooling.
Put simply, unschooling means not following a set curriculum and instead allowing childhood learning to be self-directed. There is no coercion, no top-down expectations for what a child should know and when, no arbitrary determination of subjects to be covered in a specific way at a specific time with a specific outcome. There is no "school-at-home." There is no forced learning, even if done ever so gently.
With unschooling, there is an underlying belief that children naturally learn. As my colleague at Alternatives To School, Dr. Peter Gray, writes: "When young people in our culture are granted the freedom and opportunity to educate themselves, outside of the boundaries of traditional school, they generally do so fully and joyfully. Through their everyday engagement with life, and especially through their free play and exploration, they acquire the skills, knowledge and values needed for success in our culture."
When we force a child to do something, to learn something, because we as grown-ups think it is useful or important, we can diminish--however unintentionally--a child's natural curiosity, natural drive to discover and create. This process of coercion, even when done gently and with the best intentions, can condition a child to become a passive onlooker in his own education rather than an active leader of his own life. It is hard to love something you are forced to do. It is hard to feel ownership of something when someone else owns it.
Music is a perfect example. Some of our culture's most talented musicians were self-taught and self-driven, developing an appreciation for music and performance and continuous improvement because they were in charge of their own path, their own learning, their own playing. They weren't prompted to select an instrument, cajoled to practice, forced to take lessons, made to perform in recitals. They found their way to music because it was their passion, their gift, and they taught themselves while gathering inspiration, guidance and instruction from others along the way.
Fundamentally, unschooling means letting go of the notion that learning is something that happens to someone, and instead embracing the idea that learning is something we humans naturally do. It means letting go of the notion that we are a child's teacher, and instead recognizing our essential role as a facilitator of our child's natural learning. Our child directs his own path, follows his own interests, while we as parents provide the time, space and resources for natural learning to occur. Unschooling means letting go of the prominent paradigm of education as schooling, and instead embracing the profound idea of education as whole-life learning.
Once we acknowledge the power and influence of self-directed learning, the philosophy of unschooling unfolds rather easily. We see our role as a facilitator of our children's own learning, not as their teacher. For instance, we unschooling parents accompany our young children to the library and encourage them to gather as many books as they want, and then we make the time and space to read, read, read -- to them and with them and alongside them, pursuing whatever topics or ideas they choose.
Unschoolers recognize the limitations of packaged curriculum and the message it sends to our children, however subtly, that they are not in charge of their own learning. We instead acknowledge that living and learning are constant and inseparable, and allow our children to learn as they live--as easily and effortlessly and continuously as they breathe--without set times for learning, without set activities and expectations, without coercion and compulsion.
We trust our children's natural, innate capacity to explore and master the tools of their culture in their own way and in their own time--just as they learned to roll and crawl and walk and talk in their own way, in their own time. Some children learn to roll sooner than others; some children learn to read sooner than others; some children learn to multiply sooner than others--and therein lies the great sea of human difference that should be celebrated and encouraged, not feared and controlled.
On a practical level, it is helpful and empowering to find a community of like-minded families who share your views on unschooling and natural, self-directed learning. While online unschooling communities are plentiful, and social media outlets can facilitate connections, building personal relationships with other parents in your community who share your worldview can be enormously uplifting. In urban areas like mine, it can be easier to find such kindred spirits and to take the important steps toward forging lasting friendships that nourish and nurture us.
But even in less-populated areas where unschooling may not be so prevalent or accepted, it is possible to find your "tribe." Sometimes finding this tribe may involve looking outside of the homeschooling community. Many families, mine included, found their way to unschooling as a natural extension of their Attachment Parenting/gentle parenting philosophy. Identifying local La Leche League meet-ups, Holistic Mom groups, or AP/Natural Parenting networks can offer a great way to meet similarly focused parents. And if such groups don't exist in your area, it is always possible to start one! You might be surprised at how many other families are looking for such an outlet. Finally, I would add that quality trumps quantity. You don't necessarily need to find dozens of families who share your natural learning philosophy. One or two good friends--kindred spirits--can be a wonderful gift.
There are many excellent resources available to families looking for more insight into unschooling and the philosophy of self-directed learning. If you haven't already, check out Alternatives To School.com for research and information on self-directed learning, as well as the excellent articles at Life Learning Magazine. And gather these gems at your local library or bookstore to get you started on your unschooling journey: