What is Unschooling?
By Earl Steven
"Over the generations, elementary school has
served as a window on the way our culture works. Two hundred years
ago people worked on just a few products at a time, and turned out
objects that were unique and of very high quality.
was sort of like that as well. The one-room school-house was
the domain of a single talented individual. Her job was to work with
each student individually and, after a few years, turn out students
who had actually learned something.
Industrial Revolution occurred and we changed our work habits to
include factories, and that change infiltrated our concept of
schools. Instead of relying on a unique individual to shape a few
students, we built school factories.
Each room is
like a workstation in a factory assembly line. The desks are lined
up in rows. Teachers teach from a standardized curriculum. Instead
of being rewarded as craftsmen, they've hired for their ability to
follow instructions. And at the end of each semester, the
students move to the next stop on the assembly line.
who don't fit their "batch" on the assembly line are
removed to special programs. Students who don't meet the quality
standards set by a centralized quality-control facility are
disciplined, repaired, or rejected. "
------ Seth Godin
It is very satisfying for parents to see their children in pursuit of knowledge. It is natural
and healthy for the children, and in the first few years of life, the pursuit goes on during
every waking hour. But after a few short years, most kids go to school. The schools also want
to see children in pursuit of knowledge, but the schools want them to pursue mainly the
knowledge and devote twelve years of life to doing so.
In his acceptance speech for the New York City Teacher of the Year award, John Gatto said,
"Schools were designed by Horace Mann and others to be instruments of the scientific management
of a mass population." In the interests of managing each generation of children, the public school
curriculum has become a hopelessly flawed attempt to define education and to find a way of delivering
that definition to vast numbers of children.
The traditional curriculum is based on the assumption that children must be pursued by knowledge
because they will never pursue it themselves. It was no doubt noticed that, when given a choice,
most children prefer not to do school work. Since, in a school, knowledge is defined as
it is easy for educators to conclude that children don't like to acquire knowledge. Thus schooling
came to be a method of controlling children and forcing them to do whatever educators decided was
beneficial for them. Most children don't like textbooks, workbooks, quizzes, rote memorization,
subject schedules, and lengthy periods of physical inactivity. One can discover this - even with
polite and cooperative children - by asking them if they would like to add more time to their daily
schedule. I feel certain that most will decline the offer.
The work of a schoolteacher is not the same as that of a home-schooling parent. In most schools,
a teacher is hired to deliver a ready-made, standardized, year-long curriculum to 25 or more
age-segregated children who are confined in a building all day. The teacher must use a standard
curriculum - not because it is the best approach for encouraging an individual child to learn the
things that need to be known - but because it is a convenient way to handle and track large numbers
of children. The school curriculum is understandable only in the context of bringing administrative
order out of daily chaos, of giving direction to frustrated children and unpredictable teachers.
It is a system that staggers ever onward but never upward, and every morning we read about the results
in our newspapers.
But despite the differences between the school environment and the home, many parents begin
home-schooling under the impression that home-schooling can be pursued only by following some variation
of the traditional public school curriculum in the home. Preoccupied with the idea of "equivalent education",
state and local education officials assume that we must share their educational goals and that we
home-school simply because we don't want our children to be inside their buildings. Textbook and curriculum
publishing companies go to great lengths to assure us that we must buy their products if we expect
our children to be properly educated. As if this were not enough, there are national, state, and local
support organizations that have practically adopted the use of the traditional curriculum and the
school-in-the-home image of
home-schooling as a de facto membership requirement. In the midst of all this, it can be difficult for
home-schooling family to think that an alternative approach is possible.
One alternative approach is "unschooling", also known as "natural learning", "experienced-based learning",
or "independent learning". Several weeks ago, when our
home-schooling support group announced a gathering to discuss unschooling, we thought a dozen or so people
might attend, but more than 100 adults and children showed up. For three hours parents and some of the
children took turns talking about their
home-schooling experiences and about unschooling. Many people said afterward that they left the meeting
feeling reinforced and exhilarated - not because anybody told them what to do or gave them a magic formula -
but because they grew more secure in making these decisions for themselves. Sharing ideas about this topic
left them feeling empowered.
Before I talk about what I think unschooling is, I must talk about what it isn't. Unschooling isn't a recipe,
and therefore it can't be explained in recipe terms. It is impossible to give unschooling directions for
people to follow so that it can be tried for a week or so to see if it works. Unschooling isn't a method,
it is a way of looking at children and at life. It is based on trust that parents and children will find the
paths that work best for them - without depending on educational institutions, publishing companies, or experts
to tell them what to do.
Unschooling does not mean that parents can never teach anything to their children, or that children should
learn about life entirely on their own without the help and guidance of their parents. Unschooling does not
mean that parents give up active participation in the education and development of their children and simply
hope that something good will happen. Finally, since many unschooling families have definite plans for college,
unschooling does not even mean that children will never take a course in any kind of a school.
Then what is unschooling? I can't speak for every person who uses the term, but I can talk about my own
experiences. Our son has never had an academic lesson, has never been told to read or to learn mathematics,
science, or history. Nobody has told him about phonics. He has never taken a test or has been asked to study
or memorize anything. When people ask, "What do you do?" My answer is that we follow our interests - and our
interests inevitably lead to science, literature, history, mathematics, music - all the things that have
interested people before anybody thought of them as "subjects".
A large component of unschooling is grounded in doing real things, not because we hope they will be good for
us, but because they are intrinsically fascinating. There is an energy that comes from this that you can't buy
with a curriculum. Children do real things all day long, and in a trusting and supportive home environment,
"doing real things" invariably brings about healthy mental development and valuable knowledge. It is natural
for children to read, write, play with numbers, learn about society, find out about the past, think, wonder
and do all those things that society so unsuccessfully attempts to force upon them in the context of
While few of us get out of bed in the morning in the mood for a "learning experience", I hope that all of us
get up feeling in the mood for life. Children always do so - unless they are ill or life has been made overly
stressful or confusing for them. Sometimes the problem for the parent is that it can be difficult to determine
if anything important is actually going on. It is a little like watching a garden grow. No matter how closely
we examine the garden, it is difficult to verify that anything is happening at that particular moment. But as
the season progresses, we can see that much has happened, quietly and naturally. Children pursue life, and in
doing so, pursue knowledge. They need adults to trust in the inevitability of this very natural process, and
to offer what assistance they can.
Parents come to our unschooling discussions with many questions about fulfilling state requirements. They ask:
"How do unschoolers explain themselves to the state when they fill out the paperwork every year?", "If you don't
use a curriculum, what do you say?" and "What about required record-keeping?" To my knowledge, unschoolers have
had no problems with our state department of education over matters of this kind. This is a time when even many
public school educators are moving away from the traditional curriculum, and are seeking alternatives to
fragmented learning and drudgery.
When I fill out the paperwork required for home-schooling in our state, I briefly describe, in the space provided,
what we are currently doing, and the general intent of what we plan to do for the coming year. I don't include long
lists of books or describe any of the step-by-step skills associated with a curriculum. For example, under
English/Language Arts, I mentioned that our son's favorite "subject" is the English language. I said a few words
about our family library. I mentioned that our son reads a great deal and uses our computer for whatever writing
he happens to do. I concluded that, "Since he already does so well on his own, we have decided not to introduce
language skills as a subject to be studied. It seems to make more sense for us to leave him to his own continuing
Home-schooling is a unique opportunity for each family to do whatever makes sense for the growth and development
of their children. If we have a reason for using a curriculum and traditional school materials, we are free to
use them. They are not a universally necessary or required component of our
home-schooling programs, either educational or legally.
Allowing curriculums, textbooks, and tests to be the defining, driving force behind the education of a child is
a hindrance in the home as much as in the school - not only because it interferes with learning, but because it
interferes with trust. As I have mentioned, even educators are beginning to question the pre-planned, year-long
curriculum as an out-dated, 19th century educational system. There is no reason that families should be less
flexible and innovative than schools.
Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's mentor and friend, said:
I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built upon the
supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Whereas if the child is left to
himself, he will think more and better, if less "showily". Let him come and go freely, let him touch real things
and combine his impressions for himself... Teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be
got rid of before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences.
Home-schooling provides a unique opportunity to step away from systems and methods, and to develop independent
ideas out of actual experiences, where the child is truly in pursuit of knowledge, not the other way around.