About Unschooling: is it Right For My Child?
Choosing how your children will be educated is an important and personal decision. For parents to decide if unschooling is a good choice; they must first understand what it is, and then weigh the pros and cons.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are many methods for teaching and learning. No one method is entirely right or wrong; there are just different methods with the same goal: educating children. To some, unschooling can be a very non-stressful, rewarding, and effective way to learn. However, for others, it can be a difficult, if not impossible, adjustment.
Unschooling is a form of homeschooling that encourages natural, child-led learning although the way individual families choose to unschool varies drastically. The idea of disregarding the traditional classroom in search for freedom in learning is not new. Scottish writer, A. S. Neil, founded the Summerhill Community and “school” in 1921, which was based on the concept that children could be free from adult authority.
In the 1970s, the Open Classroom made its way into some public schools. This allowed students of varying skill levels to be in one student-centered classroom, each learning at his or her own rate. In homeschooling circles, this teaching method is referred to as unschooling, and John Holt is considered to be the pioneer.
The Pros of Unschooling
Freedom and Flexibility
Unschooled children are free to explore and learn about any subject matter that interests them within a flexible schedule. The family can pick up and go at a moment’s notice or schedule doctor appointments, piano and other lessons during the day when others are in school. Visits to museums and other places of interest are generally more relaxed and informative as these venues are not as crowded as they are in the evenings or on weekends when all the schooled families flock to visit.
Natural Hands-On (Real World) Learning
When a child is allowed to learn through hands-on, real-life situations, he or she learns the facts and not just how to manipulate a process. Before a child goes to school, learning happens naturally as part of life. Unschooling continues the environment for real-world learning from infancy to adulthood. Pat Farenga, a leading advocate for unschooling, explains, “get them out of the classroom and into the real world. It’s not about isolating them and drilling them.”
Knowing they do not need to prove themselves as professional, certified teachers by following the imposed demands of a curriculum relieves unschooling parents of a great deal of stress. Instead, the parent and the child are free to explore as much or as little about a subject together.
Time and Money Saving
In a traditional classroom setting, a lot of learning time is taken up with crowd control methods such as roll call, collecting assignments and other administrative duties. Unschooling can be done inexpensively or even for free. There is no curriculum to purchase, special uniforms to buy, lunch money to send, or costs for gifts for teachers and classmates.
Unschooling creates an environment where children are nurtured and allowed to grow and learn naturally. The emphasis is placed on learning and relating rather than finishing a chapter or passing a test. The result is a bonded relationship within the family structure. If there is more than one child in the household, this provides opportunities for growth and learning how to relate and get along with each other.
Love to Learn
The learning may be child-led, but the parents still become quite involved in their child’s education through guidance (not control), by placing learning opportunities within the child’s path. Unschooling is sometimes referred to as “stoking the fires of learning” as opposed to “filling an empty vessel”.
When a child is interested in a topic, it’s a natural progression to learn about everything associated with that topic. Learning, then, becomes easy and natural without friction and arguments. This opens up the potential of grasping concepts at a much higher level than is allowed in the confines of a set curriculum, thus creating a love for learning.
Unschooling allows every child to learn at his or her own level without competition. It works extremely well with parents of multiple-grade-level children. It’s difficult to follow traditional lesson plans with several students at various grade levels; but the entire family can use what Charlotte Mason refers to as “Living Books” (learning through literature, not textbooks).
If you read a story about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, for instance, a young child can color a picture of castles and knights while listening, whereas, an older child may want to delve into studying more about medieval times.
The Cons of Unschooling:
Lack of Structure (Confusion/Chaos)
Because unschooling does not spell out when and what needs to be learned, it can seem chaotic for a parent who is looking for more instruction and guidance on the precise ways to teach and keep order. Many parents who are new to homeschooling become discouraged and feel unprepared to allow instruction and learning in this manner.
Lack of Proof (No Standardized Testing)
Unschooling provides very little guidelines in terms of standardized testing results. What the child is actually learning may jump around from first grade level to fifth grade level and then back to kindergarten level. The child may even fall below grade level in some areas until he or she wants to catch up. With no quantifiable method of proof that their child is learning, some parents feel out of control.
Critical Eye of Others
Homeschoolers deal with negative or critical comments and questioning from others, but unschoolers tend to get this reaction even from their homeschooling peers. The notion of unschooling raises the eyebrows of many onlookers who are unfamiliar with, or disapproving of, this method of education. This can come from unexpected, otherwise trusted, sources such as an uncle or grandparent who feels the need to put your child on the spot by quizzing him on facts that even his public-schooled peers may not know.
Spoiled Child and Learning Gaps
There are critics of unschooling who say it is nothing more than out-of-control chaos and educational neglect within an environment the child controls, like something out of the book Lord of the Flies. This would suggest that the child is undisciplined and spoiled, never really learning how to cope with conflict, unpleasant circumstances or being told no.
No Traditional Rites of Passage
While some homeschooling groups organize ceremonies and functions such as proms, year book signings and graduations, these are typically smaller, less formal affairs than in a traditional school. This can be a difficult adjustment for a parent or student to make, especially if the parent grew up enjoying these rites of passage. If the child has already attended a traditional school for any amount of time, the parent and child can spend several months doing nothing more than adjusting to a new way of doing things and shifting cultural expectations.
The Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) reports that homeschooling, which includes unschooling, is legal in all 50 states, but some states require more paperwork than others. Some require testing. Most require some form of keeping track of the child’s work or logging a set number of credit hours for required subjects.
For an unschooler, this requires some creative thinking to figure out how a day filled with reading, visiting a museum, playing a computer learning game, and shooting some basketballs through a hoop all fall into the subjects required to be logged. In states where testing is required, it can be a difficult challenge for unschoolers who don’t believe in testing.
One Bad Apple
Because unschooling is a legal option, some parents are able to hide under the covering of unschooling (homeschooling) when in reality, they are neglecting or inflicting harm on their children. This, fortunately, is not the motivating factor for the vast majority of unschoolers. In fact, a parent who chooses to use the umbrella of unschooling to cover up an unlawful act is not even truly unschooling to begin with, but merely keeping her child truant for harmful intentions. It just gives the ones who are doing the real work a bad name.
- Pat Farenga, “Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling”
- Grace Llewelyn, “The Teenage Liberation Handbook”; 1998
- Unschooling.org: Family Unschoolers Network, http://www.unschooling.org/
- Home School Legal Defense Association, http://www.hslda.org/hs/state/
- Summerhill School, http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/pages/asneill.html
- Image Credit 1: Morguefile.com http://mrg.bz/Jcmb4M used under morgueFile Free license
- Image Credit 2: Morguefile.com http://mrg.bz/aXKx17 used under morgueFile Free license
- John Holt and Growing Without Schooling: “What Is Unschooling?” http://www.holtgws.com/whatisunschoolin.html