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© 2019 by Joyce Fetteroll

First questions

I guess I am misunderstanding ... what, exactly, is unschooling?

 

While unschooling is the simplest thing in the world, since kids are born knowing how to learn, it's really, really hard to explain because people try to make the description of unschooling fit the images they have of what learning looks like (in school).

 

Most of us have an image of there being a body of knowledge that's necessary to learn.

 

Most of us have been through a process (school) of having that body of knowledge forced into us and for most of us that process was hard and/or boring, or at least took a 12 year commitment to do, so we "know" that it isn't easy to acquire that body of knowledge.

 

Most of us have an image of how that body of knowledge gets into people: teachers, homework, drills, lectures, tests, grades ....

 

If someone describes unschooling as the absence of that, then it sounds like neglect because we all "know" all of the above is true and necessary for kids to succeed.

 

But unschoolers, without that, do go onto to college or go directly to personally fulfilling jobs. All without what we're certain they need in order to learn what is necessary.

 

So what is unschooling? It's learning by living life. It's living a full, curious, free life with parents who support, encourage and help their kids pursue what interests them (while making opportunities available to expand their interests.)

 

Unschooled children learn as a side effect of doing. No child needs to know how to hammer in nails perfectly before building something for their own pleasure. They pound. Then how they nails go in gives them feedback on how well they're doing, they adjust, they take in advice (if it seems useful) and figure out better ways to get where they're trying to go. As a side effect of doing something they want (building a birdhouse or just creating a chunk of wood with nails), they get better at the skills needed to do it.

 

It's really, really hard to grasp the concept of a child growing up playing video and board and card games and spending and saving money and playing with art software and shopping with parents and cooking that they'll acquire the math they need. And yet they do. Will they have the same skills as kids in school? No. They will be weaker in some skills and stronger in others. Will those differences be detrimental? No, in fact helpful! Because the unschooled kids will have a deeper, more fundamental understanding of how numbers work, what contexts various concepts are used in and why. What they often lack is a concept of the formal notation. And that, they find, is easy to acquire -- because they also lack years of tedious, hard, boring work associated with math. It only take minutes to show them how to formally write concepts they deeply understand. It's the kids in school who are severely handicapped. They're trying to absorb the notation on concepts they barely understand. It's hard for most. And it makes them shy away from those same concepts in the real world because it reminds them of their feelings of fear and aggravation in school. The hope is that by repeating the formal notation enough, they'll develop an understanding of how numbers work. But it so very often fails. (How many people fear math who've gone through that process?)

 

(I do want to mention that I was very good in math at school and went on to get a degree in engineering. The concept of getting all those years of math in from playing video games, et al, was flabbergasting to me. And yet my daughter decided to take her father's college Statistics class for fun at 13. And always had one of the best scores in the class on homework and tests. At 15 she's taking her 5th college math class (the first ones with a teacher other than her father) -- again for fun. And honestly she is not a math whiz! She's just a regular kid who mostly likes writing and drawing and pretending. She wasn't doing math puzzles under the covers with a flashlight in the middle of the night nor beating her father at chess ;-) What she has gained by living life is a fundamental understanding of how numbers work. And a freedom from fear of numbers and math!

 

I should also mention that the goal of unschooling is not good grades, or taking college classes at 13. It's pursuing interests and having fun and a joyful childhood.)

 

That's unschooling in a nutshell, anyway. It's okay if that sounds totally wacko to you. It should sound wacko coming from a school-style-learning-is-necessary point of view! If unschooling could be explained in a few words in a way everyone could truly get what's going on and why it works we wouldn't unschooling lists to help people! ;-)

 

 

I'm just a little unsure of things. I guess I don't have a clear picture of what to expect. After all these years of "doing school" I want more for her than that. I feel that there's a better way I just can't seem to picture it. I probably don't make any sense at all.

 

You make perfect sense. It's hard for most people to imagine what learning through interests looks like when the only model they've ever had is experts deciding that everyone needs to get to point B, experts designing the path from point A to point B and experts leading kids along that path. How else can kids get to point B?

 

The answer is: Throw out point B. Replace B with "whatever path they want to explore".

 

This society is so focused on the necessity of getting to point B that we don't even question whether getting to point B is necessary or not. And we don't question the necessity of what's needed to get to point B. We often don't question it even when we look back and realize how little we've used of what was supposedly necessary.

 

But think about how your daughter learned to speak. She went from not knowing language exists to speaking fluently within a few years. Did you have an end goal in mind for her? Did you have a plan to get her there? How did she get from nothing to competence in a few short years?

 

(Hint: she got there by pursuing what interested her and using what she needed. She just used language because it was more useful than pointing and grunting and crying and got better at language as a side effect of using it. That's what natural learning is.)

 

To be more specific, I look at my two year old now and feel like in this journey we have begun I am walking around on eggshells now, asking myself"Am I being too overbearing? Should I participate with her in this or let her be? Shall I offer information about this or not? The child loves to learn and she loves to learn with me, so we read books and she asks me about letters and what they are and she just asks me about everything ... so I feel inclined to offer some knowledge and to learn together further about her questions but then I stop myself and think"Am I stepping on her learning now?

 

Take your cues from her about how much to give. Let her teach you how to be an unschooler ;-)

 

One of the hardest parts about unschooling is helping people figure out what to do. Though the philosophy is the same for everyone, how it looks in each family will be different depending on personalities and learning styles and interests. Some families will be going all the time. Some families will be home a lot.

 

Answer her questions certainly. But rather than picturing the body of knowledge that you feel you need to hand her, picture what you'd do if she was asking about something non-academic related. How would you go about exploring a new bin of bath toys that someone had passed onto you or an interest in construction machines or dinosaurs? That might make it easier to picture a leisurely trip through all that's available without that voice in the background saying that there's so much she needs to learn. Or the voice that says "This is hard boring stuff and any extra I offer is pressure." Letters can be like dinosaurs. They can be fun if we just let them be something to explore at leisure at the child's pace.

 

 

He hates worksheets and doesn't do well under the pressure of a test. He has a hard time focusing, too.

 

If your husband daily made you do things you hate, how well would you deal with it? How well would you focus? Being upset because you're being forced to do something doesn't require "many"problems". It should be normal! But our society trains us and our kids to believe that kids have a problem if they protest doing things that they dislike and see as useless. :-/

 

What if unschooling is the answer? What if the pressure was off and he just did the things he liked to do and wanted to do? How do I unschool myself? It eats me up if they aren't doing something!

 

What if your husband had an agenda for you, and a goal that he wanted you to reach? What if regardless of how he explained it and how much he believed in it, it made no sense to you? What if he watched over you and judged what you were doing against his standards of what was worthwhile for you to do? What if you felt his eyes on you as you turned on the TV for your favorite show, and you knew he preferred you to be reading something educational or doing housework? What if he thought the meals his mother cooked were the best for a family and your ideas were worth less?

 

Will his behavior get better if he is enjoying life instead of being hounded about school all day long?

 

Would your behavior improve if you were enjoying life and not being hounded by your husband for not sticking to the agenda he felt it was important for you to follow?

 

Do I give him a list of responsibilities around the house (he doesn't have a formal list right now, I just assign stuff)

 

They aren't really responsibilities if someone imposes them on us. Responsibilities are things we feel are important to us and accept for ourselves and own. His responsibilities are living a joyful life.

 

and let him do "real life" stuff to get him to learn things without him thinking it is school?

 

I think one of the big hurdles of unschooling is letting go of the idea that we need to get them to some place that we think they need to be. We think we need to get them to understand math, for instance, so we try to think of "natural" ways to get them from where they are to where we want them to be.

 

So part of unschooling is letting go of that and trusting that people will learn what they need when they need it. Learning is not artificial. It comes from needing something. If someone doesn't need to know something, then why should they learn it?

 

You probably don't need to know about Mongolian history. But if you needed to know, wouldn't you learn it?

 

What I meant by real life learning was teaching him how to cook and make up menus and such, shopping for that menu, having an assigned day that he does the meal planning and cooking? Things like that.

 

Those can all be part of unschooling if he thinks they're fun.

 

But rather than thinking in terms of finding things he could learn from, learn yourself to see the things he learns in what he does. And do things because they're enjoyable not because the kids could learning something.

 

 

All the things you mentioned -- presidents and the penny in lemon juice -- are things people generally think of as educational.

 

One of the tricks of "getting" unschooling is learning to see the things our kids do that aren't thought of as educational but are learning-filled nonetheless.

 

Kids naturally get unschooling :-) They don't divide the world into educational and not. To them the world is divided into interesting and not (yet) interesting. To them a penny in lemon juice or Spongebob or how many presidents or how many Pokemon are all just things that might interest them.

 

Unschooling isn't about letting go and the kids magically start doing school stuff on their own! ;-) It's about letting go of steering them in a particular direction. It's about helping them be who they are and grow into who they'll become. A cherry tree sprout is already the tree it will become inside. It doesn't need to be taught how to make cherries! It just needs the proper environment to nurture what's already there so it doesn't get stunted.

 

The one who appears to be waiting may have learned that in school. Or maybe she loves having a companion on her journey. I know I find many things a lot more interesting when I have someone to share them with :-)

 

And the child who has little interest may have interests that you're dismissing. I'm assuming he's not staring slack jawed into space. So what does he do during the day? Maybe Steven Spielberg's childhood might have been described as lacking in interest since he watched a lot of TV. Maybe had Tiger Woods grown up in a different family he would have been described as having no interests since all he wanted to do was play golf.

 

They're different kids! Expect them to have different needs and respond differently to the world. Tell us about what they already are interested in, what floats their boats :-)

 

Help them explore their interests. Get them to talk about what interests them. Join them so you can understand better. And look at the joy in their eyes. :-) Expose them to new things so they have access to new interests. Be interested in the world so you can share it with them as stuff they might find interesting too, rather than stuff that's good for them.

 

 

Joyfully Rejoycing