Thursday, February 2, 2012

Unschooling is Not That Difficult, Folks

I just got home from some errands, sat down at my computer, and found a rollicking discussion going on on the Radical Unschooling Info page on facebook.

It starts with a link to an article by Pam Sorooshian, on her blog. The article is "Unschooling is not "Child-Led Learning"."

Pam makes some excellent points, and I may get to them in a minute, but mostly, I want to comment on the responses to that article. Between the time it was posted (4 hours ago) and when I first saw it (half an hour ago) there were over 50 comments. At first, as I was reading through them, there were several comments that I wanted to respond to. Then a few more. When I realized that I could probably write an entire book trying to respond to each detail, the overall feeling I had was that some people try to make unschooling SO complicated and forced.

For some reason, many, many people fight and resist understanding unschooling for a very long time. They are full of "but what if?" and "How about when...?" in response to every suggestion. They bring in extremes as their examples. They argue straw men. They want to discuss grand generalities, rather than specific, real situations. They want to worry about twenty years in the future rather than their relationships right now. They want rules. They want to know if they should offer, or wait until asked, or if they need to find a way to get their child to ask. They want to know what to do, step-by-step. They want someone to blame if it "doesn't work."

It's fascinating to observe.

The most fascinating part is that people seem to want to complicate something that is, at the heart of it, very simple.

In reading through those comments today, one thing I recognized is that there are people in the discussion on two different sides of a paradigm shift, as is often the case when someone new to unschooling tries to discuss it with people who have been living that way for years. It can be very, very difficult to communicate across that divide, especially when the new person wants ANSWERS rather than information. When they are unwilling to do some reading and research and come to a basic understanding before starting to ask specific questions, they don't have the context in which to connect with information they are given.

A simple example: "the kids do whatever they want" means entirely different things to people on the different sides of the "unschooling paradigm."

To people who don't understand unschooling, it sounds like a free-for-all, with kids running around wild, running roughshod over everyone else, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. They don't do anything that they don't want to do, which means, naturally, that they don't do any of the things the person who is stressing about it considers in the category of "things people don't want to do." People have long lists in that category, also sometimes called "things NO ONE would ever choose to do." These kids doing "whatever they want" are in opposition to everyone around them, and will "never learn" how to get along in the world, this world that is "full of things people don't want to do."

To people who understand unschooling, it is a matter of people choosing how to spend their time, prioritizing the various things in their lives. It means an understanding that people learn what they are interested in and emotionally connected to, they learn what they need to know, and everything leads to everything else, it all being connected. If someone has a need for certain information or skills in their lives, it is a fairly simple thing to find that thing out, or learn how to do something, as the need or interest comes up. Kids "doing whatever they want" means that they have the freedom and time to really explore their interests, to become experts even at a young age. It means learning to balance everyone's needs in the family and not automatically disallow something just because one person (often a parent) doesn't care for it or prioritize it. It means finding ways and means to reach out and connect with things and people outside the usual confines of childhood, not assuming that children are only interested in child-centered things. In an environment of respect and honesty, "doing whatever they want" tends not to involve disrespecting others.

Those are two EXTREMELY different images of the same concept.

And that is only ONE of the concepts that splits across that divide.

The thing I noticed today has to do with the different perspectives on each side of the paradigm.

On one, the world consists of parents, children, and other people. Parents are responsible for their children, and must teach them, or have them taught, various important things. There are subjects that "everyone needs to know." There is great fear of what might happen if someone has "holes in their knowledge."

In that world, when people first consider unschooling, they still have those fears and the separation between various groups of people. They want to be kinder and gentler, and respect their child, and perhaps, even have the child "make some decisions" about what they want to learn and how. They understand that people learn in different ways, but ultimately, still see learning as a separate subject in and of itself.

The parent needs to give the child what they need.
Or, if they are trying to go to the other extreme, the child is in charge, and the parent has to wait for "indications" from the child, or for the child to ask for what they want.

The thing about unschooling is that all of that is trying to categorize and measure and define (all left-brain activities) something that is all-encompassing and connected and shared (all right-brain things).

The first thing I try to explain to people, and this is so important that I'm careful to eliminate certain phrases from my vocabulary, is that unschooling is NOT something parents do to or for their kids. I do not "unschool my kids." Likewise, I don't "unschool sleep" or "unschool food" or unschool anything at all. My kids don't "unschool themselves", either. "Unschool" is not really a verb. I'd really rather not even describe us as "unschoolers" because it implies a verb, but it's a word that is understood by some people, and I sometimes use it as an identifier rather than a description. The title of this blog, for instance,  has the word "unschooling" in it so people can easily recognize what it's going to be about- but most of my posts don't have anything to do, really, with specifically "educating" anyone. They are about stuff I'm doing, or thinking about.

And that's what unschooling is.
Doing and thinking about. Talking about. Wondering about. Looking at, creating, sharing.

This whole "strewing" thing that poor Sandra probably pulls her hair out over people seemingly intentionally not understanding, is another part of this "two sides of a paradigm" thing. It's not about finding things to intentionally place strategically around the house so that your child will "find" them and then become inspired to learn something in particular, and therefore, a way to be sure that they "come across" the things you want them to know, thereby guiding them to that list of "things everyone needs to know," but in a kinder, gentler, less obvious and coercive sort of way.


It's far simpler than that.

We are a family.
We share living space, and we share each other's lives.
We share some interests, and have others that are unique to each of us.
Each of us brings things to the whole that we find of interest. It may be a physical object, like a book or CD, or it may be a link to something online, or a game or song, or it may be an idea, a conversation, a train of thought. It might be a way of looking at something, or it might be the thing at which we are looking. Or all of the above. Or something else, entirely.
All of this sharing is done from the perspective of wanting to share with each other.
Sometimes, it's that one of us hopes the others will be interested, so we can explore something toegther.
Other times, it's because we already know they will be- like finding a book for someone because you know that it's something they have been wanting.
It is very rare that the primary reason for sharing has an overtone, or undertone, of "you need to know this."
There is very rarely any serious disappointment if someone isn't interested in what is offered. If they aren't, they aren't. It's not a big deal. It's not like my interest and enjoyment of something depends on someone else's opinion of it.

Do we all learn from the various things/thoughts/conversations that are shared?
Of course we do.
Learning is what people do. Like breathing.

But it isn't that any of us is trying to make anyone else do or learn something.
We don't do these things SO THAT people will learn, we do them because it's what we do.

It has been a fascinating journey to share life with three maturing humans, and to spend time exploring their interests as they have grown and changed and developed. Likewise, it has been a life of my own growing and learning and maturing, which I have been able to value with the same heart.

I once had someone tell me that now that she was older, she "doesn't want to have to learn anything new ever again."
That sounds like a good description of "hell" to me.

The amount of stuff we each learn is roughly the same, considering that all of us are learning all the time. Some of the stuff my kids are learning, or have learned, as kids, I'm learning as an adult. Something my daughter is learning at 18, I might be learning at 50. So what? All those fears of "if you don't learn it when you're young..." are bullcrap.  Some of what I'm learning now is that I am actually learning things that were "taught" to me years ago, but I didn't really learn them. Some is stuff I wasn't interested in until recently, and some, things I've wanted to know for a long time, but there are only so many hours in a day, and it takes time to get to everything.

My point here, at least one of them, is that one of the biggest challenges to understanding unschooling has to do with that pre-unschooling separation of EVERYTHING. It puts things in opposition, that should be connected, cooperating, sharing.

Forget, or eliminate, the "kids vs parents" separation. Be a family.
Forget, or eliminate, the separation between different subjects, like "math" or "science." Instead of trying to learn those things in isolation, DO THINGS. The things that you do will involve all those "subjects" without any need to force them.

Live "intentionally."
Pay attention. Observe. Explore. Touch. Describe. Discuss.

THAT is what unschooling is.
Not some sort of rules, or "philosophy" or "teaching method" or even "learning method" (for those who are trying to get rid of the word "teach"). It isn't what the kids do, or what the parents help the kids do, because life is something we all are living together, sharing space and time. It is ongoing and all-encompassing.

Do that.
Share space and time with your family and friends.
Be together, physically at times, mentally at times, emotionally all the time.
Share your joys, your sorrows, your interests. Give to each other freely and enthusiastically. Accept from each other in the same spirit.
Move through the world with interest, with wonder, with fascination.
Fill yourselves up with life.
Expand your being.

It's that simple.


  1. I couldn't even make myself read the entire Facebook thread. It's interesting to me that when we first started with concepts like strewing or even just unschooling, we weren't looking for someone to tell us how to do it. We listened, applied some, ignored some, and pressed forward with our lives. This concept of wanting to "do it right" is baffling to me.

  2. I'm still thinking about it.
    One of the differences is that way back when, we might ask for help with figuring out a specific situation, or ask where to find certain information, but no one was asking "How do I unschool?" It wasn't a matter of wanting "to be an unschooler" as much as it was wanting to learn how to view things in a different way, how to make positive changes, how to have a happier family, etc.
    Now, it reminds me of something someone once told me. They said someone told them "I love to make bread, but I don't like the mixing and kneading part." His response was "Then you don't like making bread, do you?"
    It feels like people are looking to "BE unschoolers" but they aren't interested in the learning process itself, or in progressing through whatever changes they need to go through to be more comfortable in how they live their lives.
    For me, "unschooling" turned out to be the word people were using to describe the ways I ended up approaching life. Now, people see that label as the goal, and just want to GET THERE, without actually knowing if it's where they want to go, since they don't know any of the steps along the way. It just sounds good.
    Learn to mix and knead, and you'll figure out if you like making bread. You can't start from the bread, and ask how to get bread, without mixing and kneading first. Unless you just want to buy the bread. I'm leaving out bread machines, for the moment, before I get too carried away with this analogy!

    1. I use the bread machine to mix and knead. I do the final kneading and put it in fancy pans or little round mixing bowls and let it rise under linen dishtowels with pictures of Scotland, or of the calendar from the year Holly was born, or something. I put them in the oven when they seem ready and we have homemade bread pretty often, even though I don't like to mix or knead the yucky stage.

      I never was afraid of unschooling, though. I jumped in there and just swam and swam. :-)

      And nowadays, unlike 20 years ago, people can get a whole lot of ideas to work from when they're first unschooling. Still some have more fear than hope and more resistance than confidence.

      I'm going to keep trying to help them until I don't feel like doing that anymore.

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Frank. You're pretty interesting, yourself.

  4. The Bread Making is a good analogy. I'm still baffled. I started a blog post about it earlier today, but life got in the way. I'll let you know if I finish it. It's still pretty rambly. lol

    1. I may need to take that bread analogy somewhere later.
      Or maybe I'll just make bread. :-)

  5. You've described beautifully how I feel when I think about boundaries and discipline with kids. There's this idea that we need to train/teach our children to be socially acceptable, that we need to have boundaries with them for *their* benefit. Whereas I've always felt that of course I'm going to have boundaries with my kids, because having boundaries is a healthy way to be for oneself. It's just living. I don't need to teach my kid how to be social, how to behave right. She's born social and she learns by modeling and through her own experience. I think it's ultimately about how taking responsibility for oneself, one's own choices, preferences, comforts and discomforts, one's own interests, is the most alive, empowered way to live. You don't strew your kids' paths with interesting things to somehow trick them into learning the "right" things. I don't set a boundary with my daughter because she "needs to learn a lesson." I do it because I don't like or am not comfortable with what she's doing, and I make it clear that the boundary *I* set is about *me*, that it's a personal line or a cultural practice that *I* care about, and here's why. To my mind, that's a person being responsibly with another person, not a superior being with an inferior.

    Anyway. Just made me think. Thank you.

    1. Responsibility is a big issue, one that is not exactly encouraged in modern culture many places.

  6. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Cathy. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Some days, at least some of my thoughts come out coherently.

  7. You were much more coherent than I'd ever be describing this! Thank you for this blog post, it was wonderful and really nailed things I've observed as well (as does the breadmaking anology).

    1. Thanks, Kathie. I'm fond of that bread making analogy at the moment, and may write more about it soon.

  8. Thanks for the post! It seems like there are some very fearful parents and, as a result, they want someone to TEACH them how to stop teaching? I'm new to this. I've been struggling to be the parent I'm pressured to be and yet not be abusive like my parents! I'm used to having to learn and research something due to my adult life experiences which forced this.

    The ongoing fear I still have is how i'm going to deal with my NY school district. I'm going to have to find a way to live life and then piece it apart for 4 reports and a end of year summary?

    I'll keep learning.

    1. The NY requirements are not as daunting as people seem to think. They don't want much. Really. When I started, I felt the need to "educate" the school district by explaining what we were doing, and how it was different form the school model,etc. They don't want to know. They want paperwork that they can easily look at and cross off their list.
      Ask people near you for samples of IHIPs and quarterly reports.
      You do not have to include everything you do on those reports. You don't have to try to find a way to convert them to "educationese." You CAN, if you want to keep them yourself as some sort of record, but you don't have to.
      Mostly, they want some list of "objectives" and a note that those objectives were met for that quarter. They really don't care HOW you did it.
      Meet the letter of the law, and move on with your lives.
      A note: some districts are more "involved" than others, and many of them will ask for things they have no right to require. Stick to the regulations, and have them available to quote if you need to do so.

  9. Nailed it! And I am still trying to change my thinking on a few of those things, but at least I know what direction I need to head. ;0)

  10. Love this. May I repost on my blog?

    1. Sure, Donna, as long as you link it back here.

    2. If she or you are wanting to get higher rankings in Google Analytics (when people search your blog comes up higher) then you don't want to repost this article in content, just introduce it with your enthusiasm on your blog and direct your readers with a link to this blog post. That is the way. Hope that helps.

    3. Thank you for the information, Krista, but I don't really care about higher rankings. If I made money off a blog, THEN I might care, but as it is, it isn't something that matters to me.
      Interesting to know, though.

  11. My favorite is when people say, "How do I start unschooling?" And I always want to answer, "You don't start, you just stop." Of course that would just be confusing so I don't say it, but I have that impulse every time.

    Kudos for a beautifully written post! Excellently explicated!

  12. This is a great post - is there any chance you could add a 'follow me by email setting to the blog itself as I can't see any other way to follow you - I don't know how to use the Google follow so I usually follow blogs I like by email or by Subscribe (atom) and can't seem to here. Mary

  13. I think this is very good however i will say that the ?? that people have at the beginning of an unschooling journey are valid... and non-judgmental asking and answering are essential. We all need guides, mentors, to help us through journeys.. and the ?? are part of that. :)

  14. Thanks for sharing this! I've been in a whirlwind change in mindset over the past couple of month - switching my head from the old 'conditioning' to freedom. I sort things out by writing so you can see my thought process in my blog - it all seems so obvious now! One of the most freeing things was realizing just how simple it is - I am so struck by how we overcomplicate things. I see new homeschoolers running themselves ragged with all that they're trying to do (I did the same thing for almost 14 years). But, it is beautifully simple.

  15. Thank you for this post! I have been reading post after post on this site.. It has helped me tremendously. This one in particular has hit home with me.. Thank you!

  16. Fantastic! Well said. I haven't come up with any one-word name or description for all of this yet, so I fall back on "unschooling" but I really don't like the term. It's like saying we live "unprison" because we aren't incarcerated. It would be terrible to describe normal, free living on the negative or opposite. Any thoughts on a succinct name or description for curious living and learning?