Unschooling: A State of Mind

I received some helpful comments from reader Roy Underhill regarding my post How Do You Define a Successful Unschool, and I’d like to share them with you here.

Another good post, Kim. I find it interesting that nearly all the comments about what makes unschooling successful speak to attributes or feelings of the child (such as tenacious and patient or satisfied and confident) rather than the content of the child’s mind (such knowing the times table or how to write a book review). Along those lines, I have a few comments.

I sometimes am very annoyed at the term ‘unschooling’. Like Erich points out, it is not really possible to define something negatively. I think that what we call unschooling is really just learning , what I’m tempted to call real learning, as opposed to school-type learning, which is often (and mistakenly) taken as the paradigm of what learning is. The problem is really that the term ‘learning’ has been misused for so long. It now means something like “he passed the test” or “he got a B” instead of its simple, pure meaning, as in “NOW I understand!” or “NOW I can do this!”. I like the phrases ‘child-initiated learning’ or ‘interest-initiated learning’ but again, it seems to me that this is really the only kind of learning there is. Any other kind of ‘learning’ is really something else — a sort of training perhaps, or a form of temporary memorization to please pesky adults. Indeed, children are routinely trained in test taking strategies so that they may perform better on exams, (then we turn around and with a straight face assert that success on this test proves a child has learned).

I think when we talk about unschooling we sometimes don’t make clear whether we are discussing a particular method (letting kids do whatever they want) or a particular kind of environment and set of character traits (an atmosphere of peace and harmony populated by curious, confident and passionate children). And sometimes we make the mistake of assuming that the method of unschooling, if only we can be true to it, will inevitably lead to the results we want. This is a mistake no different, I think, than the schools’ assumption that if only we have enough testing and accountability then kids will learn. Both these attitudes fail to recognize that each child is different, each child is unique, so there is no one method that can universally and truly nurture all children. As your quotations suggest and as you say in your post, what matters is what works. Real learning only takes place when we are interested and positively motivated, so I think of unschooling as the assertion that interest and motivation should be front and center in deciding how to go about this learning process. It is a state of mind, being open to all the ways and places learning can happen, and focusing on creating a nurturing environment which in turn nurtures a confident learner who is capable of teaching herself what is interesting and necessary and beautiful.

The biggest contrast between institutional schooling and unschooling is in their attitude toward coercion. I see three important differences:

First, in a typical school, most of the child’s activity is coerced in one way or another and only a very small part of the day is spent in activities chosen by the child. In unschooling, those ratios are flipped — most of the day’s activities are determined by the child and only a small part is dictated by the parent (including things like brushing one’s teeth).

Second, coercion (by which I mean to include external rewards, comparison, guilt and fear of failure through use of grades, etc.) is typically used in school to force the ‘learning’ of specific content, as in “learn this list of spelling words or you will be embarrassed by a bad grade on the test”. In unschooling, the desire to learn specific content is either already in the child or is nurtured by the parent through exposure to new ideas and activities, gentle invitation to try things, or positive example.

Finally, the use of coercion in school is typically motivated by the need to maintain control, the desire to maintain the hierarchy, and the need for ‘proof’ to assure parents and taxpayers that ‘learning’ really is happening. At home, ideally, any form of coercion is aimed not at maintaining our unquestioned authority or forcing our children to do something that merely assuages our own insecurities, but rather at helping to develop our child’s personality as a free, curious and loving person. So, while we may punish our child for hitting his sister, or take our child out for a treat on completion of an especially challenging task, or require our child to choose an instrument and help them practice every day, or have a nearly inflexible rule that every day at 8:30 a.m. we will all write at least one sentence using a word one of us picked randomly from the dictionary, the apparent coercion is lovingly applied in service of the larger goal of helping and challenging our child’s full character and potential to fully blossom.

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