How unschooling works
Tools for Learning
Real learning is how children learned to speak English. If you can look at it objectively, kids don't consciously learn to speak. Language is all around them. They absorb how others use it. They play with it. They pick up a piece and use it as a tool to get what they need because it's better than the tools they had been using. (They realize "ook" gets them milk more efficiently than crying.) They never think, "Oh, English is useful. I need to practice and get better at it." They just use a variety of tools (including English) trying to get what they want and, as a side effect, get better at the tools that work best.
Just jump in to do it.
In real life we learn as we need a tool. If someone reads Charles Dickens and wants to know why society was like that, they'll read a bit about Victorian society.
Schools do it backwards. Kids are taught the tools before kids need them, e.g., making them study Victorian England in case they want to understand Charles Dickens better. Because the tools are so dull out of context, kids often tune out.
School is like hammer lessons. Schools teach kids how to pound various size nails into different types of wood with a lot of different types of hammers. Over and over and over. Then they move onto saws. Then move onto drills. The idea being that if kids have the skills then they're prepared to do anything.
But kids are so bored with the tools from the years of coerced learning, that the feeling washes over onto anything the tools connect to.
Unschooling is like building bird houses. Unschooling approaches learning the other way. It starts with bird houses (or stools or chunks of wood for whacking or toys for stuffed animals or whatever the child wants to do). Kids learn how to use the tools as a side effect of doing something they want to do.
Science, math, history, literature, writing, reading are all tools.
Without the questions, the answers aren't meaningful.
Science isn't the important part. It's the questions that are important. Anyone can look up the answers. Don't expect stereotypical, "Why is the sky blue?" questions. Kids will wonder about all sorts of things. Why do pigeons walk funny? Why did my friend do that to me? Why does the cat behave that way? Why do people believe that?
History is a tool for helping us understand why our favorite characters lived in the society they did, and why the things that happened to them happened.
Math is a tool that lets us compare things so we can make better decisions: This deal is better than that one. I need to save for 3 more weeks to get both toys. It's 11 AM and Daddy will be home at 6 so that's 7 more hours or 14 of my favorite half hour shows.
Literature is a tool for helping us answer the questions we have about humans. But without the questions, literature is just a bunch of words on paper.
Writing is a tool for putting our thoughts down on paper and potentially getting them into someone else's head. Without the need to communicate thoughts, there's no need to write.
Reading is a tool for getting information. It's one of many tools. It's a useful tool but unfortunately it's worshiped at the expense of other tools. Not because reading is light years ahead of the other tools but because reading is the most efficient tool for mass education. Which unfortunately gets interpreted to mean it's the best tool. But the best tool is whatever answers the child's questions. Movies, videos, hands on, talking, nature, listening can all beat reading if they work better for the child.
Pushing in versus pulling in
Schooling tries to pour expertly selected bits of the world into a child.
Unschooling works by the child pulling in what he wants and needs. It works best by getting to know what the child is asking for and helping him get it. It works best by running the world through the child's life so he knows what it's possible to be interested in.
How on earth do you unschool in Math and feel confident that they're learning everything?
By having an epiphany that school learning looks as it does not because that's how kids learn that knowledge best but because of the learning compromises schools must make
Real learning isn't linear. It isn't testable (in the one-size-fits-all school way). It doesn't cover "everything." (Nor do schools.)
Real learning travels the child's path of interest from one bit of intriguing (to them) information to the next. Real learning is self testing. How well it works in the situation the child needs it for is all the testing that's needed. Real learning is about understanding enough to make something work.
Schools have different goals than real learning. And that's important to realize when creating a learning environment at home. Schools weren't designed to provide the best education for each student. They were designed 100 years ago to cheaply raise the general education level of the masses.
Teachers and parents and educators 100 years later want schools to be more, want schools to provide what every child needs. But,
1) Real learning would be a logistical nightmare. It needs a rich environment where kids can explore whatever happens to spark their interest. They need time and a safe space to try out their ideas. To grow an understanding from what happens. To test their new understanding.
2) Educators don't trust learning that doesn't look like school learning. They're trapped by never having experienced real learning on the level that unschoolers do. It is hard to imagine how playing and exploring interests can lead to useful adult and college-material knowledge. I don't blame them if their extrapolations from what they know about schooled kids fail to match the reality of unschooled kids' lives! But if an educator discourages unschooling it comes not from knowledge but lack of knowledge. Educators know school. They have zero experience of what effect replacing school with a rich supportive environment has on a child's life. It's understandable they believe the results of failing at school will be the same as not having school. But their guess isn't even in the same ballpark as reality.
3) Educators are trapped by the requirement to prove what they're doing results in learning. It's understandable that parents, school administrators, the state want to know the schools are having the effect everyone wants. So educators need a process that's testable. Unfortunately what's easiest to teach and test is memorization. Memorization isn't the same as being able to use the knowledge with understanding in novel situations. Understanding is hard to teach and very hard to test.
4) Schools need something that's inexpensive. Depending on the state, schools spend between $10,000 and $20,000 per year per student. That doesn't sound inexpensive! No, but schools were originally designed to deliver mass education cheaply. That's why they look like factories with batches of children passing by each line worker. (Factories were wondrous marvels at the time.) Educators know that one on one learning is much more effective and yet schools are stuck with a structure designed to deliver mass education cheaply.
The fact is that learning the way schools teach is really hard. It's why it takes 12 years!
Teaching kids to build with Legos?
If kids were taught how to build with Legos the way schools teach everything, they'd first -- before kids had ever seen a Lego or even had the desire to build with them -- be made to memorize all the colors Legos come in, then the shapes, then ways Legos could be connected, then systematically go through architectural styles (since that would be practical knowledge that could be useful for future careers), and engineering principles. Then the kids would be given plans and told to put the Legos together exactly according to the instructions. (Points off for any bricks out of place.) And then the kids who were truly gifted in sucking up this information would be allowed free access to Legos.
Doing builds a sound understanding that naturally grows with more doing.
When your child was first acquiring language, did you worry that because he wanted to talk about balls and dinosaurs and favorite t-shirts that he would never be able to discuss how nuclear fission differs from nuclear fusion?
Think about the non-academic interests he can speak knowledgeably about and how he acquired that knowledge. Did it come from building an abstract foundation of knowledge before beginning to tackle what he was interested in? Or did it come bit by bit picking up more information as he used what little information he had? Basically doing something before he understood it.
That's how unschooling works. Kids build up knowledge about what interests them. They have a vested interest in understanding what interests them.
Growing an understanding doesn't look like school.
Unfortunately for new unschooling moms, what interests them usually doesn't look academic. It looks a lot like playing. (Play is how kids are created to learn!) Learning looks like video games and Harry Potter and making videos and reading and watching TV and playing with friends and pretend and chatting on line. It's only after kids are grown and following their interests into college and jobs that we can see how what they did led to where they got. But the ongoing process doesn't look at all like school.
Kids don't learn to ride bikes by studying the physics of rotation. They learn by getting on, wobbling, falling, wobbling less until they grow enough of a bodily understanding of what works and what doesn't to stay upright. Even once they can keep the bike upright, they don't know everything. They don't know how to go fast around corners. They don't know how to jump curbs. They don't know how to merge into traffic. They know just enough to get it working. As they do more, they grow their understanding bit by bit to do more better.
Is the goal to pass a school math test or to understand how to use numbers in real situations?
Real learning can work with bikes, language, walking, math ... Math -- understanding numbers -- comes from using numbers for personally meaningful uses. Games. Video games. Allowance. Art software. Decisions in the store. Learning math from using numbers in real situations takes way way fewer hours than the approach schools use. In school kids do abstract problems (which is testable) divorced from context. Educators hope the kids get the underlying concepts (which is really hard to test) but that isn't the goal. (And schools often fail. Schools grow more math phobia than proficiency. While schools take credit for the proficiency, they're no more responsible for math proficiency than art proficiency. Kids good at math are like kids good at art. But schools are responsible for kids fearing math and hating art and history and science and reading.) The way schools teach everything is ass backwards and really hard which is why it takes so much work in school.
Understanding grows bit by bit
Unfortunately there isn't a short cut from believing learning needs to look like school to knowing that playing, exploring and living is better. It needs experienced.
Some are drawn to unschooling but still harbor doubts. (The messages that kids must succeed in school to succeed in life are insidious with roots that run deep!) Read about the real learning unschooling kids do. Observe real learning in your own kid. (And take off the school glasses when you do it! ;-) Eventually you'll get it. :-)