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Unschooling Undefined

by Eric Anderson

Unschooling is a word coined by negating the idea of schooling; it starts off with a negative definition. What, specifically, is it about schools that unschoolers want to do without?

The School Organization
  • Breaking up the day into learning time and play time.
  • Starting and stopping learning (or shifting topics) according to an externally-imposed schedule.
  • Telling students what they should care about.
  • Telling students when they should care about it.
  • Telling students what is good enough.
  • The complex hierarchy with the student at the bottom.
The De-humanizing Aspects of Schools
  • Having to ask permission for basic human needs.
  • Having to supply "acceptable" excuses for absence or lateness.
  • Routine abridgment of human (constitutional) rights.
  • Standing in lines, waiting for everything: food, water, attention of the teacher, time on the computer, etc.
  • Group rewards and punishments.
  • Neglect of individual gifts and problems.
  • Moving at the sound of a bell.
  • Students coming to view themselves as products, moving down a 12-year assembly line, with bits of knowledge poured in or bolted on by others as the belt moves along. Seeing the primary responsibility for their education as being in the hands of others.
Isolation from the Real World
  • Segregation by chronological age.
  • Separation from family.
  • Isolation from the working world.
  • Isolation from the effects of age and disease.
  • "Free" education isolates children from economic reality.
  • Subject matter is divorced from context.
Schedule Rigidity
  • Having to be in school at certain times means you can't see the World Cup or a solar eclipse if it happens during the school day, and you can't see the late show or a lunar eclipse if you have to get up in the morning.
  • Having to be in school limits your ability to travel.
  • Having to be in school limits your ability to do any time-consuming worthwhile activity.

Note that these issues do not address the questions of "problem schools." They are unrelated to questions of crime, drugs, threat of violence, time spent in forced commuting, illiterate teachers, etc. The problems unschoolers specifically care about exist (to a greater or lesser extent) even in "good" schools.

Moreover, many educational reform proposals act to make these problems worse. Improved security measures increase the dehumanizing aspects of school "discipline". "Back-to-basics" programs increase the rigidity of the curriculum, and often further divorce it from context. "Mainstreaming" programs exacerbate the effects of a one-size-fits-all curriculum, and often take up huge fractions of teachers' time and energy. Many reformers want to increase the number of hours in a schoolday or schooldays in a year, eliminating the chance for a student to educate himself in the off hours. The solution to the problems inherent in mass-produced education is not more of the same.

Unfortunately, telling what unschooling isn't doesn't tell what it is. In some ways, all homeschooling is unschooling -- we don't isolate our kids from life, or move at the sound of a bell, or require permission slips, or neglect the individuality of our children. Where unschoolers differ from other homeschoolers is the extent to which we let children be responsible for their own education.

Unschoolers believe that the natural curiosity of a healthy child, given access to a rich environment, will lead the child to learn what he or she needs to know. When learning comes about as a result of the child's desires, it is absorbed easily, enthusiastically, openly. The child works harder because he is doing what he thinks is important, rather than what someone else has told him is important. New knowledge starts with a context because it fits in with things the child already cares about. Learning driven by real desire is so much more efficient than passive absorption that unschoolers can tolerate much more exploration, dabbling, dawdling and play than can curriculum- inflictors. The unschooling literature abounds with stories of children who paid no attention to math or reading for their first ten years and then caught up in just a few weeks.

When learning is imposed from without, there are many deleterious effects. The child may not be ready for the material or may be beyond it; the child may resist it, either because he has something better to do or just out of general orneriness. When you force a topic, you short-circuit precisely the volitional parts of the mind that are critical to real learning. You may produce memorization, but cannot effect understanding. You risk the child developing a dislike for the topic, for the teacher, and even for learning itself.

Child-driven learning is fundamentally active. Children are doing things because they have taken responsibility for carrying out the actions needed to fulfill their desires. Unschooling is centered around the idea of learning, with the student as the center of action and the source of activity, rather than on the idea of teaching (with the teacher as the center of action and the source of activity). Not only does this make the learning more effective, but it encourages the child to develop virtues: independence, self-reliance, and a sense of responsibility. The child learns that if he wants something to happen, he has to make it happen.

As Jim Muncy pointed out in his "spectrum of unschooling" post [home-ed mailing list, summer of '94], homeschoolers unschool to varying degrees. Unschooling families do not set up miniature classrooms, with time set aside for studying, a parent playing the role of teacher, formal lesson plans and imposed curricula. Beyond that limit, we differ in how much order we try to lend to the learning process. "Radical" unschoolers impose little or no structure, though books and such are available to act as guides. Others allow children to learn what they wish, but provide strong organizational assistance to help the children reach their goals. (Assistance can take the form of lessons, or workbooks, or even assigned projects.) Some families use curricula for some subjects (often math) but are freer with others. Most try to squeeze learning out of the activities of everyday life. The common bond is acknowledging that the enthusiastic participation of the child is the most important single factor in the child's education.

This essay was written by Eric W. Anderson <> and is used with his permission.

Part of Jon's Homeschool Resources.

Markup copyright © 1995..2002 Jon Shemitz <>
July 5, 1995..September 23, 2002