How Do You Define a Successful Unschool? (Or, What Kim is Thinking About After Attending the WPA Homeschool Conference)

Last weekend my kids and I attended the Wisconsin Parents Association Homeschool Conference in OshKosh, WI, where I had the pleasure of attending Erich Moraine’s talk How to Unschool the ‘Right’ Way. Erich is Calm and Centered (with capital C’s!) He is also a well-prepared and very good speaker who made everyone feel safe to express opinions and ask questions. His talk helped me explore the following questions:

· What is the definition of unschooling?
· How do you know if your homeschool is successful?

Before you can define a successful unschool, you have to define what unschooling is. Unschooling is such a frustrating word, isn’t it? It means different things to different people. And understandably so; as Erich pointed out, the term ‘unschooling’ is an attempt to define something by what it isn’t, and you can’t really define something by what it is not. So what is unschooling?

I found these definitions on the Growing Without Schooling website:

· Unschooling is learning that doesn’t look like school. It does not have to happen at home— it is an effective way to work with, not on, young children and teenagers to help them learn.
· When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.
· …unschooling does not resemble school learning….. parents and children can learn and grow cooperatively…

Unschooling is learning through living, the way we all learned, naturally and organically, before we entered institutional schools. AND, it is doing what works in each individual family’s home. Let me say that more clearly. The ‘right’ definition of unschooling is what works in your home.

I think I’ll explore unschooling and learning more in a later post. For now, I want to move on to the second question because it helps answer the first.

What makes a successful homeschool in a home driven by an unschooling philosophy? Erich asked volunteers from the audience to share what they thought of when they pictured a successful homeschool. Here are their answers:

· You live in an atmosphere of peace and harmony instead of stress.
· Your child loves learning and does not see learning as a chore.
· Your child feels safe communicating with you.
· Your child can learn on their own and is learning how to learn.
· Your child feels satisfied, confident, competent, and secure.
· Your child has spark – curiosity, drive and passion.
· Your child is willing to try difficult things and can learn through failure.
· Your child is tenacious and patient.
· Your child is a balanced human being who knows him or herself and who knows he or she can learn. (Erich’s own answer)

These are all things you cannot measure or test for. They do not show up on transcripts (although you may keep them in mind for mention in a narrative portfolio).

When I came home I looked up ‘success’ in the dictionary and found these definitions:

· the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.
· the correct or desired result of an attempt.

To me, that points to the importance of defining what you want your homeschool to look like; what you want it to be about. Why are you doing this? What do you want to accomplish? You won’t know if your homeschool is successful unless you put some thought into what defines success for your family. And as Erich reminded us, your homeschooling may keep changing. It’s fluid, because the goal just might keep changing. And that’s okay. Unschooling is a process, not a product.

You and your family have the freedom to define success in your own terms. AND, you can redefine success at anytime to reflect your own growth as you get to know your children and as you settle on what is important in your lives.

Isn’t that liberating??? You and your family get to set your own standard; you don’t have to live up (or down) to someone else’s idea of success. You don’t have to define success with tests and grades, GPAs and credits, or with class ranking and awards for achievements in sports. What does any of that have to do with learning, anyway???

I would love to hear your comments – how do you define success for your homeschool?

6 thoughts on “How Do You Define a Successful Unschool? (Or, What Kim is Thinking About After Attending the WPA Homeschool Conference)

  1. A wonderful post! One way I defined success was to tell myself that if I did my job as a parent I would make myself superfluous; that is, my children would become ready to embrace the world as a solo act, no parent in the wings to fall back on. I naively imagined it would happen all at once, such as when they left for college. In fact, it is a process that starts while they are still young and happens at a different pace in different areas (for example, they both became independent learners of typical school subjects well before leaving for college, but my eldest needed to lean on me quite a bit recently when doing his taxes for the first time).

    In telling myself that success would mean I would become superfluous I was also recognizing that there would come a point when I would have to learn to do without them, but I did not realize how hard that would be. Indeed, I think they are rather ahead of me on that score. I would also tell myself that a basic unfairness of parenting is that after 18 very intense years this fascinating young adult one’s child has become just runs off and starts consorting with complete strangers!

    But that, I suppose, is another topic altogether.

    • Thank you, Roy, for your helpful comments. It is always good to hear from someone with grown homeschoolers!

  2. I really enjoyed this post, Kim. It feels so encouraging for me to hear words like this because it lets me know that I am doing things in a good way…in a way that I am not always able to describe with words. It’s a feeling. And I feel supported when I hear/read things like this.
    It can be hard for me because I sometimes feel like I have to come up with THE answer to what I am doing with my children at home when other people ask me about what we do at home together, or what they know, or where they “are at”, or if they get tested, or “how does that work?”, etc.
    It’s very good that you shared your experience about this talk and then wrote about it for us.

    • You’re welcome (assuming ‘miigwech’ is Ojibwa for ‘thank you’)!! I totally understand how you feel. It is much easier for me to write out my thoughts than it is to answer people’s questions. Writing helps me understand what I am doing and why and gives me a chance to articulate my answers. It’s still hard to answer people’s questions directly, though, and I think that is because their notions about what constitutes learning are so entrenched in a school mindset. Sometimes I just suggest to these (usually) well-intentioned and curious people that they read my blog if they want to understand my homeschool! Thanks for writing, April. You have great kids!

  3. Thanks for the mention Kim. The WPA conference was great as usual. If your readers have not yet attendeed I’d encourage them to give it a try. There’s something there for everyone.

    I’m glad you found my workshop presentations helpful. In a nutshell I try to help parents remember that they are guiding a human “being” first and foremost. Secondly they are guiding these beings toward how they will engage in the world of human “doings.”

    • Thank you, Erich, for writing. I really appreciate the time you spend at the conference every year, ‘teaching’, guiding, and mentoring homeschooling families.

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