When I had my first child I was under the impression that I didn’t have enough to give her – in any sense. I was partly worried about her education (wanting her to get as smart and well-rounded as she possibly could be). I had this feeling that she needed more. More of what? I wasn’t sure. But I was certain she needed it. I was determined to, once she became of age, place her in the best preschool program I could find in order to jump start her learning and make absolutely certain she was ahead in her educational career, and definitely not behind. I wanted her to learn everything. Things I had never known. Things I didn’t even know about. Everything anyone could ever know. I wanted her to learn all of it – and as soon as possible. Because, for some reason, I thought she would have no success in life without all of it. So I signed her up for as many baby, toddler, and young child classes as I possibly could (most of them physical – such as sports like soccer and gymnastics). I wanted her to have the best possible start to her life as she could. And as I had been told by many educators and government service individuals – without a good start in life my child would fall behind. It was all about giving my daughter the best of the best (and as much of the best as possible). Quality, as well as quantity, was very important to me.
By the time I became pregnant with my second child I had come to the conclusion that I would rather homeschool my children. I had always loved teaching (as I used to teach my sister what I learned in class as we were growing up). I had been an English major in college. And I had always liked the nuts and bolts of it all – creating homework and tests, grading things, keeping lots of sheets of data about attendance, and the like. I had given thought to homeschooling previously but had never found myself to be truly capable of it. Now here I was thinking “I can do this.” I finally had had enough training, and education myself, that I’d know how best to teach my children and make sure they were learning.
However, that idea slipped out the window one day when I was researching different homeschooling methods and came upon the concept of unschooling. I had never heard of it before. And at first it seemed absolutely ridiculous. How could my children become intelligent individuals if I didn’t cram as much information in them as possible? Without a proper curricula how could I possibly know what they ought to be learning about? I assumed that unschooling, as a homeschool method, was ludicrous. But something pushed me to keep exploring it. And the more I read about it, and the more personal experiences I read on blogs, the more it made sense to me. Children learn naturally. They ask hundreds (if not thousands) of questions everyday. And Those are the questions that really need answering. I realized that without the interest in something… there isn’t much learning happening. You can push and push for children to read and study, and say they’re learning when they’ve finally passed some test. But what have they actually learned besides how to test well? Most of what children (and even adults) learn for tests is forgotten soon after the test is over. The reason for this is that it isn’t useful to them. They had no real reason to learn it and have no reason to remember it either.
So why not teach children about the things they find interest in? Those interests will obviously lead to the most learning. And often times if subjects or topics aren’t pushed upon them they’ll discover them with wonder in their eyes. And That is the right moment for those things to be learned. Until they are truly needed, or at least wanted, what good does it do the child to know about certain things? If a situation arises in which someone needs to know something they will learn it. As adults do. Besides, there is no possible way to make sure a child learns everything they will ever need for any instance in their life. It is without a doubt an impossible task to even try and teach them that way.
In fact, teaching them at all is impossible. You may be giving bits of information and advice here and there, but to assume you are teaching them is to assume they cannot learn without you. They can, and they will. Children are always learning. They’ll do it while you’re there and they’ll continue to do it long after you’re gone. No matter where they are or what they’re doing – they are learning. As we all are. Learning is a life long process, not an activity we decide to do now and then. A child will learn what they want to know, and what they need to know. But most importantly they’ll learn things when they’re truly ready to learn them.
Even if you want a child to learn something in particular it is unlikely to happen. As people (children or otherwise) all interpret situations in completely different ways. You could experience the exact same thing as your child and you may both have very contrasting views upon it. Children will take whatever their brains are willing to take out of a situation. And this is why it is imperative to allow them to soak up as much information as they can in their own way, not a forced way. And about their own things, not forced things. As they are more likely to pick up more information about something if they are truly interested in it.
For example – I was walking with my infant daughter recently. Thinking that it was a particularly nice day (since it had been snowy and cold up until then) I decided to take her out and show her winter. As we walked I imagined, quite ignorantly, that she was learning all about winter as she soaked up her surroundings. But then it occurred to me…she wasn’t learning about winter, she was simply learning about the design of the world. She had rarely been out (as it had been so cold). She hadn’t seen much of the sky, or trees, or even the outsides of houses. She was soaking up lots of information, that was for sure, but it most likely had nothing to do with what I was assuming it would have. There was so much else outside that I hadn’t even noticed. All of it has become second nature to me. The houses and trees and streets and sky – they were so subtle in the back of my mind that all I truly noticed when I stepped outside was the snow and the cold. I had learned about everything else, and it had always been there for me, so it wasn’t new. I knew about the world and didn’t take much note of it. I only noted change. But without observation, how could she know what was change and what wasn’t? All of it was change to her – change from the world inside our home she had come to know. And it all hit me like a lightning bolt.
She was learning exactly what she needed to learn, what she was ready to learn – nothing more, nothing less. It took no effort or force, it just happened. It flowed freely. And in that moment I truly understood what it meant to unschool. It wasn’t something new. It wasn’t clever or creative. It was so simple and obvious that it almost took me by surprise. Up until that moment I had struggled with the idea of still writing down lists of things I planned to find ways to get them interested in learning. Though, after this experience, I looked at my lists in a new way. They weren’t things that were important for them. They were things that were important for me. Things I felt would be interesting to know about and interesting to share. And it occurred to me that I wasn’t allowing myself to learn like I should be.
For some reason I felt stunted, unable to learn without school. Like I was completely incapable of learning anything new. And I pushed the things I wanted to know upon my children – using their learning as an opportunity for me to learn, too. But I didn’t need them in order to keep learning. And it was best if I went forth on my own and actively tried to learn the things I wanted to. This would give them a role model for their own endeavors. If they saw me learning about things I was interested in – going out and pursuing information to quench my thirst – they’d learn ways in order to do the same. And maybe they would follow along and discover information with me, or listen to new things I decided to share. Because in all of the world, what better way is there to share information than to truly be interested in it and tell it from the heart?
So I decided that (since I am prone to list making) I would keep them as lists of ideas and starting off points in order to pursue for my own interest and understanding, as well as share with my children. For these are the things I felt deprived of. If I had not been forced to spend countless school hours “learning” about a multitude of concepts (and mostly facts) I cared very little about…who knows what I would have learned about. Who knows what I could have accomplished. But I refuse to settle down now with the idea that my learning time in life is over, as if I’ve hit some capacity in my brain that tells me I cannot possibly fit any more knowledge inside it.
I want my children to be lifelong learners. I want their lives to plague them with curiosity – like an infection that spreads throughout their minds until they reach a point where they are never full, never satisfied or content with the thought of knowing “enough,” but ever wandering in search of more that interests them and more ways in which to peak their interests.
If you’ve never read any of John Holt’s books – or never heard of him (as I hadn’t until discovering Unschooling) I highly recommend you do so. Starting with his first book How Children Fail and moving onto How Children Learn and then his book Teach Your Own. Although he has others you can explore, and this order is not one that must be followed. I suggest, though, if you are at all apprehensive about (and definitely if you strongly disagree with) what I have been saying that you do follow that order, as I’ve found it to be the best in conveying understanding and appreciation for the topic as a whole.
I also recommend reading any number of unschooling blogs that are circling the internet, as they show first hand (in most cases) how unschooling works, and gives a somewhat more crucial vividness to the picture you may hold loosely in your mind about what unschooling truly is and what it could be. I’ve listed a few Unschooling blogs below for quick reference, but this is not in the slightest a comprehensive list of all that is available. A quick search on Google (or another search engine) for unschooling (or anything related) will provide you with a plethora of options to choose from and sort through.
My advice in looking through any and all information you come across, however, is to take it with a grain of salt. No account, no matter how practical, logical, or otherwise realistic, can truly express to you what unschooling could be like for you and your family. There is an unexhaustable number of ways in which unschooling could be seen or put into practice. In the simplest form, unschooling is life (nothing more and nothing less). And since life can take on any number of forms, you can assume the same of unschooling. Still, reading true accounts of unschooling in action will help better prepare you for (or encourage you about) the reality of it.
The thing to take into account is that every child can, and will, learn in his/her own way. So it’s unnecessary to compare one to another (even within the same family) because it is likely to get you into a circle of uncertainty about what may or may not be working for one and why it isn’t doing the same for the other. Take each child, and each day for that matter, as a learning chance in and of itself. Children are always learning, always asking questions – some they’ll ask aloud, and others they’ll ask themselves.It’s important to remember to treat every child with respect and see them as their own individual person. Creating healthy relationships with your kids is key to successfully unschooling.There’s a great book about this parenting style, and I highly recommend it. It’s called Unconditional Parenting and it totally blows traditional thinking about the concept of parenting out of the water. For anyone considering unschooling, or even just trying to strengthen their parent-child relationship, it is a great book full of amazing information.
On the negative side of the spectrum we have the schooling system, which, as it stands today, and is likely to stand years from now, is somewhat like teaching a child about light without teaching the child where it comes from. The child cannot fully grasp the concept of light without knowing its origin, and thus gains a distorted understanding and incomplete picture that continues to confuse the child throughout their schooling and their life. They may try to rationalize the idea of it, but come up empty handed. Yet they are told that THIS is what learning is. They are told that learning is complex and difficult. However, if we would only allow the child to see the full picture…then learning would become simple and happen quite easily. Unfortunately, in the school setting, children are forced to focus on the light without knowing where it comes from. They’re told to focus so sharply, pointing their minds to such an acute angle of understanding, that the light itself becomes somewhat imaginary and incomprehensible. Yet they do it in such a way that the line between learning and confusion is blurred. As of it were the ultimate goal to confuse the child in order to make sure they were learning properly.
The best way to prepare a child for life is to let them live it. Becoming “educated” in a schooling sense is like being spoon-fed buckets and buckets of salt water by an alien race, who has the best intentions of genuinely wanting to quench your thirst but who ends up killing you (or badly damaging you internally). Of course you try to take it all in – you don’t want to be ungrateful, and they’ve told you they know what is best (they’re very smart after all, so you believe them) – but you just end up gagging and spewing no matter how you try to please them. They tell you it’s alright, it’s just part of the process. Better yet they tell you they’ve found a way around the gag reflex so that you can get down even more salt water without it badly affecting you. So they hook you up to an IV that pumps your body full of salt water. Your insides are aching, but since you are no longer gagging they assume they have solved the problem. Any medical issues that come up further down the line they attribute to other things (the way they placed the IV, the location of the IV, etc. or even worse your own body), thinking all the time they’ve got the ultimate formula for what you need. You don’t question it, even when you’re dying inside, because they’ve assured you this is what is best for you. And it’s been so long since this whole process has begun that you’ve nearly forgotten what it was even like to drink fresh water of your own accord.
This is what is damaging all of us. The assumptions of knowing what is best for another. We barely know ourselves well enough to provide what we need, how can we possibly know so much about others? Even if we do find ways to best take care of ourselves, we should never assume those ways will be what is best for others. Or that others even have the same needs that we are trying to meet within ourselves. We must take a step back and think, for even just a moment, that perhaps the one that knows best what they need is that individual. Again, here, I will recommend the book Unconditional Parenting. It may help you view your child and your relationship with your child, as well as their learning, in a whole new light. And honestly, don’t we all need something a little more refreshing?
It’s not that unschooling is the best way, or the better way. Thinking you know what is best for anyone else is exactly the problem. It isn’t that unschooling is better. It’s that it is better for You. Whatever a parent and child choose to do can be what is best, for them. As long as the parent and child choose it together, opposed to the parent making the decision For the child. Ultimately, a method only works if it works well for you. You need to take your best judgment on the matter, and ideally try out a number of ways, before choosing anything. And if along the way things change and you have to alter what you’re doing – well hey, that is what learning is all about.