What is unschooling? That question has been debated among homeschoolers for years, but what’s happened recently is something I never would have predicted. The word “unschooling,” originally coined by John Holt in the 1970s, has come to be applied to free schools and alternative schools, or, if you will, unschooling schools.
That’s reflected in an article published last week in The Boston Globe, titled “Twenty-percent of home-schooled kids are getting ‘unschooled.’ What’s that?” Their definition has little to do with unschooling as my family and scores of other families experience it. We can’t know what John Holt would think of the vision of unschooling laid out in the article, which involves children attending free schools or learning centers (i.e. alternative schools) full or part time, but we do have these words he wrote in his book Teach Your Own:
Even in supposedly “free” or “alternative” schools, too many people still do what conventional schools have always done. They take children out of and away from the great richness and variety of the world, and in its place give them school subjects, the curriculum. They may jazz it up with chicken bones, Cuisenaire rods, and all sorts of other goodies. But the fact remains that instead of letting children have contact with more and more people, places, tools, and experiences, the schools are busily cutting the world up into little bits and giving it to the children according to some expert’s theory about what they need or can stand.
What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out. Finding ways to do this is not easy. The modern world is dangerous, confusing, not meant for children, not generally kind or welcoming to them. We have much to learn about how to make the world more accessible to them, and how to give them more freedom and competence in exploring it. But this is a very different thing from designing nice curricula.
I would argue that this access to the world is an integral part of what has until now been known as unschooling, access that, as wonderful as any free school or learning center might be, simply can’t be provided within the confines of the same four walls day in and day out. If unschooling isn’t about spending your days in a building designated for education regardless of how that education is carried out, what is it? At its essence, it’s a lifestyle that prioritizes trusting children’s innate curiosity and abilities, respectful relationships, process over product, and joyful living. It’s family-based but reaches into the wider world. Its heart and soul is free play, the spirit of which remains even as children mature and undertake self-chosen, serious study of their interests and passions.
The Globe article states that “Unschooling programs can reduce isolation and plug educational gaps for home-schoolers. The programs can also help students meet certain home-school requirements…such as regular evaluations, testing, or portfolios of work.” The oxymoronic idea of “unschooling programs” belies the experience of vast numbers of unschoolers. Most unschooled kids I know, far from being isolated, are out and about in the world. How does a child-led “unschooling program” plug “educational gaps” or help students meet homeschool requirements? Perhaps it’s as John Holt feared, that even well-meaning alternative schools are just that–schools.
I do believe a wide range of options will go the furthest in serving the needs of as many families as possible. As an advocate for independent homeschooling to remain as one of those options, my hope is that learning centers do not become synonymous with unschooling or homeschooling. One person interviewed in The Globe article claims that learning centers have changed what it means to homeschool because rather than replicate school-at-home, these centers allow children to direct their own learning. Homeschooling families, however, have been embracing and practicing unschooling concepts for decades, long before any self-directed learning center came onto the scene. The practice of unschooling has always been under the umbrella of homeschooling. How might use of the term “unschooling” by learning centers change its meaning, and how might this affect homeschooling overall?
Learning centers can replace traditional school for some kids and be useful adjuncts to homeschooling in some cases, but when learning centers replace the primacy of parents, the family, and the home as the central point of homeschooling, that fundamentally changes it. As one learning center director put it in an article I read a while back, a learning center can provide an important “home base” for homeschooling. New homeschooling families testing the waters may be particularly vulnerable to that sort of message. Thinking back to when I started out, if I could have afforded it I would have been more than happy to sign my kids up to spend a few days a week in a nice place with nice people. Doing so might have helped alleviate the anxiety I felt as a new homeschooling parent about whether I could provide a “good enough” learning experience, find social opportunities for my kids, and connect with other families. I’m so glad that we were able to discover for ourselves that our home provided the perfect home base, and the world at large offered all the opportunity we needed.
Ideally, learning centers would be part of the palette of ever-expanding options for families, helping to advance the freedom of children without undermining independent homeschoolers, a group of people already opting out of the system, but many learning centers seem to view homeschoolers as a market (“low hanging fruit” as I saw them described in start-up materials for one center). In my area at least, centers get plenty of free advertising on homeschool list serves and inadvertently play into parental insecurities about providing an education for their children.
So what’s an independent homeschooling family to do? Families must do what works for them, but figuring that out can be a process. Reflect on the careful thought you put into the decision to homeschool and put the same care into decisions about buying resources or enrolling in learning centers. Read John Holt and other authors, develop your homeschooling philosophy, and think about ways to implement that for your family. Listen to, trust, and enjoy your kids. Be proactive: explore your community, join support groups, organize outings, host book clubs or craft nights or whatever inspires you. Be a model: pursue the life you want to lead and do the meaningful work you want to do. Sometimes that will be alongside your children, as in writing or practicing a musical instrument. Other times it will be with your children participating, as in gardening or cooking together, volunteering in the community, building a piece of furniture, or playing chamber music. Rather than focusing on future worries like algebra or college, live in the now with your children, remembering that a free, joyful, play-filled childhood is a strong and sturdy foundation for any life. Practicing this kind of conscious homeschooling, which I’ve also called slow homeschooling, will help guide decisions about investing in resources, including enrollment in learning centers.