“All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall,” (Floyd, Another Brick in The Wall) while traditional schools bind our children to the dark fate of being nothing more than a number, unschoolers break that mold. They are given carefree, safe, fun learning environments, where the student decides what to focus on. Unschoolers use: no learning manuals, no text books, no teachers; just a child, the love of learning, and play time. Compare this to the doldrums classrooms where students are shoe-horned into state certified, brick-like, one-size fits all, curriculums built by politicians, and textbooks that were likely designed by school boards from states like California and Texas, long before your local school district gets any say. Homeschoolers across the nation are following the example of visionary John Holt, and learning naturally, known as unschooling: learning without any traditional educational methods.
Many say that learning requires structure; without it there can be no learning. While structured learning works for some children, most are castrated from their curiosity forced to learn “the right way,” and getting into trouble for speaking out, or for correcting the teacher. Unschoolers sing out, “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control.” (Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall) There is a better way, by focusing on five key values: using a self-motivated curriculum set forth by the child, the love of learning, trust that the child is learning, mutual respect between adult and child, and developing skills in care and compassion with a world view, children can excel while learning in a natural, curiosity encouraging, environment. “Love, trust, respect, care, and compassion … [these] are the cornerstones of unschooling." (Ricci, 47) Children can excel, while learning in a natural, curiosity encouraging, environment; one free from any instruction.
What does the unschooling curriculum look like? By eliminating “The dark sarcasm [of] the classroom,” (Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall) we use the world as our teacher. According to Jennifer Kaufeld, veteran homeschooling mom and author, “unschooling gives you complete freedom to do whatever you want as long as you’re confident that your children are learning.” (Kaufeld, 141) A day in an unschooling home looks nothing like that of a day in a traditional classroom. Math might just be a shopping trip, or a corner lemonade stand. History is acting out sword fighting. English is writing a letter to NASA because you like planets (Hairup, interview). Geology is playing Ticket to Ride. Physics, and Engineering, are playing with Legos. “If left unfettered, uncoerced, and unmanipulated, children will vigorously and with gusto pursue their interests” (Morrison, 42) Kristan A.Morrison, Assistant Professor in Foundations of Education. An unschooling curriculum is nearly an oxymoron, since at its core unschooling is learning without structure. What may look like a school break is the daily routine for unschoolers. Children are given the chance to: learn organically, play when they desire, have freedom in their life, make their own decisions. There are not limitations on when it is time to eat, use the restroom, play or to work. Many great things can come from learning at your own pace, enjoying the world, and only pursuing your own interests.
There are schools across the United States and Canada that use unschooling philosophies. There are no teachers, just advisors, no classrooms, just theme rooms, like music, video games, and art or math,
Structure has its place in learning. Guidance is needed to ensure that learning is taking place. Child psychiatrist and Harvard Medical Professor Steven Schlozman said “students need trained adults to help them make that leap from what's wired in our lower brain functions… to higher brain functions … because pre-adolescent brains lack the capacity for abstraction.” (Wilson, cnn.com) After generations of people have gone to traditional school it is easy to believe that structure required for success. Letting children play as learning can be the educational version of Lord of the Flies. Both learning methodologies have strengths and weaknesses. Having a self-motivated curriculum is one of those areas that has positive and negative components.
Love is potentially the most important part of unschooling. While a parent of traditional schooled children love their kids, they may not recognize the benefit they are cheating their children out of; the love of learning. Love of a topic encourages learning significantly more than any extrinsic motivator. Karl Wheatley Associate Professor in early childhood learning at Cleveland State University, and father of two unschooled children, has experienced firsthand unschooling and its benefits, talks about the love of learning and motivation:
“As someone who teaches others about motivation, I find it profoundly disturbing how many people glumly resign themselves to the idea that [not liking to learn] is just the way it is, and must be… ‘[N]atural’”. He continues that extrinsic motivators, “bribes,” begin to be used when the child stops participating in the assigned learning activities. (Wheatley, 29-30)
Ask most people if they love school and the answer they will give is no, ask people if they enjoy learning about their favorite topic and their response is yes. To learn is natural; to force retention of unwanted information is not. It truly is a crime against nature that we are putting our children through these unnatural processes, forcing them to study about things that don’t matter to them, all in the name of education.
The love of learning, a genetically coded need, starts at birth, and continues through life. It is this genetic need that Daniel Quinn, a tribal expert and an educational publishing editor, spoke of while at a Houston Unschoolers Group Family Learning Conference “the human biological clock is set [to go off] … at birth, the clock chimes learn, learn, learn, learn, learn… [This] chime… never disappears.” (Hunt et. al, Quinn 42) We injure, and sometimes permanently maim, this clock by removing the love involved with learning. Unschoolers strive daily to let life play out as it is intended. The need to learn is all encompassing, and may even be more important than the need to eat, as witnessed when an infant will stop nursing to turn their head to learn where a new sound came from.
There are several examples of unschoolers who have been very successful in their education because they pursued topics that they loved. Take 14 year old unschooler Zoe, who enrolled in Community College at age 12, because of an interest in Geology and wanting to know more on that topic. Unschooling is the only education she had ever received. Her first test ever was when she sat for the colligate entrance exam, it was “surprisingly easy,” passing with flying colors; she has now taken several classes including Chemistry, Algebra, Astrobiology, but mainly focusing on her passion, Exogeology, the study of geology on other planets. (Italie, huffingtonpost.com) Zoe might have stumbled across her love of Geology through traditional school, though too quickly it would have been “time to move on to another module” and would have not had the opportunity to learn more until later in life, possibly not until college, which may have been too late to truly excite her. Imagine if all children were given the opportunities that Zoe was given? How far would our world have advanced if every day was spent learning about what we want to learn, and not having to focus on topics that others have deemed important?
Self-progress is an area where traditional schools have failed, yet unschooling succeeds: keeping self-esteem intact through letting children learn at their own pace. When we force artificial deadlines on learning we halt the innate love of learning. Sally, an unschooling mother of three, talks about how her daughter is just now finding an interest in reading. Had Christina, 9, been in traditional school she would have been “made to feel inferior,” thus “[C]urtail[ing] [her] love of learning.” (Morrison, 46) Mekale, homeschooling mother of 4, has had the same experience with reading with her 8 year old daughter that Sally did. (Walker, interview) These mothers know that if they push their children, that they would begin to hate learning. Having given them the opportunities to read at their own times, both these girls will have a love of reading that many traditionally educated children, who were pushed unnecessarily, missed out on. Nanda Van Gestel, an unschooling mother of four, expounds that “as parents we are responsible for our child’s emotional well-being, life is more interesting and our own capacity for love and compassion grows." (Hunt et. All, Gestel 17) The emotional damage goes even further when these girls would have been teased by other students. The teachers, though well-meaning, would have potentially caused additional harm by adding more work, pressure, or segregation to a supplemental “slow learner” classes. It is wonderful that they did not have to experience the downsides of traditional schools, and are learning at their own pace.
An example of traditional schooling failing to nurture the love of learning is Mekale’s oldest and only child to ever go to school. Kady, age 10, when talking to her mother about going to College someday, “I don’t think I want to go to College, I don’t like school.” (Walker, interview) Even though she only went to half a year of kindergarten that was enough to damage a lifetime love of learning. Any parent, or teacher, wants the best for their children, and near the top of that list would be the love of learning. Sadly, we lose the biological love of learning through forced adherence to external requirements. What. When. And how we should learn, cut off from following our own paths, and having our “thought[s] control[ed]” (Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall).
Traditional schooling does have the advantage that you can be opened to a love of a subject that you would never have explored on your own. There are exceptional teachers that spark lights inside us that we never knew were there. Curriculums that force us to take classes we never would have chosen on our own yet excel at. In unschooling you are following only your own choices.
Traditional schooling transposes the burden of trust from the parents to the teachers. We trust they will teach our children, and keep them learning. Unschooling is the ultimate test of trust. A parent must trust that their child will learn. They must trust that important social, and cultural, requirements will be reached. Reading, and Math, are two of the major sources of evidence against unschooling. Opponents say that these subjects cannot be learned through osmosis. One of the case studies of Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison with the Institute of Education, University of London, shows how she learned that her son learned to read without any formal instruction:
“I honestly don’t know to this day how he learned to read. Sometimes he used to sit in bed with us when [his brother] was reading and it was bed time when we read. One day when he was eight, he was reading a Tintin book and I thought he was looking at the pictures and he was laughing. What’s so funny? Is the picture funny? “No, the joke is …” and he read the joke and I said: “Well how do you know that?” and he read it and he started reading the book out loud to me and I thought Wow! How on earth has he done it? Where he got it I don’t entirely know (Thomas, Pattison, 2012)”
Nothing was done outside of regular family together time, and her son learned to read. Seeing symbols on the page, he was able to make the mental connections to the letters, to the sounds, and finally to the meanings. Learning in an organic, natural, unforced matter, that when left to its own devices will go beyond any intellectual spoon feeding. A math success story comes from the Hunt family; their son Jason has never received any formal education. By age 2 he understood the concept of infinity, age 3 knew square roots from drawing dots in squares, age 7 wanted a math work book as a holiday gift, and at age 8 was doing multiplication and division in his head. (Hunt, 74) This natural process took a lot of trust on Jason’s parents’ part. The workbook he got as a gift had sat unused for months, the day his father had planned on suggesting they use it together, his son came up to him and said “let’s play math.”(Hunt, 75) The concept of math as play would never have happened from an external source. When trust is offered to our children they will learn things we never dreamed. Their unhindered imaginations make games. Environments are created for learning, which far exceed those found in the classroom, or lecture hall.
The trust that learning is taking place is a source of angst for opponents of unschooling. If there is no testing, no work sheets, no memorization regurgitation, what is there to go off of to measure the progression of each child? Mekale mentions that as she sees the intellectual growth in her children, something that the tests are not measuring very well; she is amazed at their subtle changes and growth. It’s something that only someone who is with their child day in and day out would recognize. (Walker, interview) The tests and rubrics are not the only way to show that intellectual change is happening. It takes someone who spends all their time with their child to be able to document the changes. The differences are more like that of watching a flower bloom, they may not be able to be recorded second to second, but when it opens in its own time, there is no argument that the seed has sprouted into something wonderful.
Trusting that a child will have the will power to choose activities that lead to learning is something that opponents say is not possible. “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding,” (Floyd, Another Brick in the wall) if you don’t have the meat, the spoon-fed work-sheet education, you can’t have any pudding, the playtime. It is believed that play and learning are different. Children think like children, not adults, and they will choose to play, not learn; unschoolers believe play and learning are one and the same. . In an interview for ABCnews on unschooling Dr. Reef Karim, a psychiatrist agrees. "The whole concept of cooperating with your kid, it's kind of cool in theory," he said, "and if a child was a little adult I think it would be great, but he's a child." (Chang, Unschooling: Homeschooling without Books, Tests or Classes) The truth is children do not think like adults, and because of this they can learn in playing. They have not been hindered to believing that play is play, work is work, and school is school that there is no cross-over from one to another.
“Children should be seen and not heard.” Many people do not believe that children deserve respect. That it is only given to those in authoritative positions that have earned it. There are those that do not see children as humans in smaller packages, but would relate to them in the same fashion as domesticated pets, incapable of making choices for themselves. When we respect children they will respect us, and do amazing things. John Holt, the father of unschooling, in response to criticism about children doing nothing: “once they trust us [adults in any teaching role, be it parent or other] and believe we respect their interest,” the tendency to “goof off” disappears. (Morrison, 45) Goofing off is a way for breaking the shackles that we force upon our children. Short of a Stockholm Syndrome-like respect, how can we expect any form of consideration from students when it is not given to them? Change is never made by those that sit quietly and follow the status quo, but by those that refuse to be shut off by their dictating leaders. Unschoolers, in letting their children direct their own daily activities, and thus their learning, are given the respect required to be the revolutionaries of tomorrow.
Care and Compassion
Care and Compassion are not exclusive to unschooling, but make up any well rounded homeschoolers curriculum; it is something so lacking in today’s traditional schooling that it should be included here. Some may argue that Care and Compassion has already been addressed by discussing love; that was the love of learning, and this is care and compassion on a global level. Carlo Ricci, an educational teacher at Nipissing University, and editor for Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, an unschooling website, believes “Thinking about others and the Community is critical and I believe that unschooling is the best way to prepare people to understand the importance of care and compassion and the global ‘us’” (Ricci, 47). The freedom offered to unschoolers lets children choose for themselves the activities they would like to do. For many families these choices begin to include helping others. With the lack of bullying, children do not shy away from being around others; they tend to seek out opportunities to be around others
Age segregation is eliminated. Exposure to all ages allows for skills to work with a broader spectrum of people. At the moment I am living with 4 generations in one house, from 85 years down to 15 months. My 15 month old son interacts with his Great Granny just as well as with the preteens at the park, or the other toddlers in play group. His interactions with his Great Granny, and other Elderly when we are around them, shows that fear of other generations is something learned, not genetic. His Great Granny needs her cane to get around, yet the forgetfulness from age causes her to leave it in a different room accidently. The first time my son saw this, he picked up the cane and carried it to her in the other room. This was not a freak onetime event; it has been repeated many times including while at a geriatric dentist when she left her cane at the receptionist. In trying to bring her cane to her, he got upset, since the door to where she was, was shut to him. After he made sure his Great Granny had her cane, he walked around the room and made sure all the other canes were right next to their owners. My son has never experienced age related segregation, since he is not in school; unlike most school aged children who are segregated, and will become agitated interacting outside their social circle.
Many homeschooling families take the time to volunteer for their communities. Time that would be wasted in a classroom, is spent helping others, and still able to call it a day of learning. While at a food co-op skills like math, division and subtraction are used while sorting. Artistic skills are gained while making clothing and blankets for the needy. Thank you notes encourage writing, and teach being grateful for what one has. Being involved and the importance of care and compassion are taught in through extracurricular activities as well. Sing in any choir and you will perform at hospitals, retirement homes, and schools. Scouts will get to experience the outdoors, have personal growth and a global perspective. Wheatley had this to say about traditional schools “the arts, physical activity, socio-economic, socio-emotional and personal character development are all left on the curb.” (Wheatley, 30) These activities teach us to not only think about ourselves, but the others around us. Our Country is struggling with a sense that everyone should have the exact same amount of everything, earned or not, and that we are entitled to be uniform. Having spent our formidable years in educational factories that expect everyone to do the same thing breeds these kinds of thoughts. When we are freed from being “just another brick in the wall,” (Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall) we can move mountains.
When you follow your child’s lead they will teach you how they learn since the desire to grow is already within them, and we as traditionally educated adults have forgotten that important detail. Rachel Allard, during a documentary interview explains why she follows her children’s lead: “We used our children’s guidance for nursing, sleeping, everything, and it just made sense to us to continue that in their education.” (Allard, Homeschooling & Unschooling: Learn Free) She knew that her children have a genetic code that enables them to live, and learn, and she followed their voices. Daniel Quinn talks about this genetic code that Allard was subconsciously aware of: “This comes about because the desire to learn is hardwired into the human child… It’s genetic. If there was ever a strain of children were not driven to learn, they’re long gone… Children don’t have to be motivated to learn… they [are] absolutely driven to learn it.” (Hunt et. al, Quinn 42) We learn because we need to, to survive; there is nothing that will stop learning when it is left unhindered from the beginning. When we force external, unnecessary learning we kill the natural love of learning.
By following a Self-Motivated Curriculum, and having Love, Trust, Respect, and developing Care and Compassion, a homeschooling parent can successfully unschool their children. When we lose one of these components, opponents of unschooling can be right that lack of structure is less likely to work. Life is learning, play is learning, if you let go, your kids will soar. Allowing your children be your guide, trusting and respecting them, have “teacher[s] leave them kids alone,” (Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall) and unschooling will work for those that pursue it.