Unschooled Future?

Sharon April 26th, 2010

In my previous post, I observed that I didn’t really have a dog in the hunt of unschooling vs. other homeschooling techniques.  I’m starting to feel like I do, however, mostly because I find the language of unschooling advocates to be so troubling.  I have no doubts that unschooling is a great technique for many children and their parents.  I have no desire to persuade people against unschooling, if that’s the choice they want to make. Moreover, I’ll happily acknowledge that some kids will probably do best unschooled – maybe even many of them.

On the other hand, I find myself quite honestly pissed off by the language of unschoolers – anyone who needs to describe all other methods of parenting and educating with the language of violence using words like “force” and “coercion” to describe loving parenting relations that are different from your own choices deserves some real scrutiny – why is it necessary to then demean all other kinds of parenting or education?  I am deeply suspicious of one true ways, and when people tell me that all children would benefit from one technique, but not all parents are smart enough to pull it off – implicitly impugning the intelligence of anyone who doesn’t make your same choices, I’m turned off.

I am trying really hard to have some sympathy – I understand that people are often hostile to unschoolers, and perhaps these rhetorical techniques are the ones they’ve found work best as a defense – I’m not sure.  But The Light The Truth and The Way in teaching do not appeal to me – not from those who claim that Montessori or Waldorf or whatever is the one true way, and not from the same variety of evangelical (small e) homeschoolers who want to convince us that they too have found the right way to tend children.

That said, I do derive a good bit of my thought from unschooling – we are not really formalized in many areas, and I trust my children to lead us in large degree.  I admire Ivan Ilych and John Holt and other major figures that underly the philosophy of unschooling. My children spend less than an hour most days in formal “schooling” and much of it is self-driven.  Many of the unschoolers I know pretty much do the same things we do, and indeed, given the ubiquity of public education’s single model, I can understand why almost anyone who doesn’t “do school” looks like an unschooler.  My beef here is not with all unschoolers, but with those who seem intent on describe all other parenting as fundamentally destructive.

But besides that, I have of a couple of other problems with what I’m learning about the ideology of radical unschooling.  Part of it is that while I didn’t like a lot of my education, mostly because I found it very boring, the parts that I did like tended to be the ones where the most was expected of me, where I was pushed intellectually beyond the places I would have gone on my own.  Intellectual rigor and discipline in the cause of learning appealed to me – I didn’t find them a turn-off then, and I don’t find it a turn off now.  And while later in my life I could seek out those kinds of teachers, without some experience of that kind of discipline offered to me from an outer source, honestly, I wouldn’t have known where to look for it.

But perhaps the biggest objection I have is this – every unschooler observes to me that “Oh, if my child wants to become a rocket scientist and has never studied higher maths, they can just study hard and learn them, or find teachers and do them quickly.”  And that’s true for some students, in some subjects.  But as someone who has been an autodidact on a number of subjects, it is also true that there is a degree of fluency that often comes from early contact with ideas, a fluency that isn’t always replicable.

I think of it as a crack in the wall – on the other side is an astonishing and glorious wide view that you would not have had before.  But before you get there, you have to do the work of widening the crack enough to see the prospect beyond.  Some children, spotting a crack in the wall, will widen it purely for the fun of seeing what’s on the other side.  Others, however, will only know what’s there if someone encourages – or even requires them to set to the task of widening the view, because without that work and that other perspective, that voice of the person who has seen, there’s no way to fully understand what is there.  I know that many unschoolers have found that their children get to the same place mine will without the price of what they call “coercion.”  But I find myself wondering how big a price the kind of requirements we have “ok, now it is time to” really cost – vs, the risk of never seeing the wide view at all, or waiting until hollowing out the space to see becomes a true burden, more difficult than it ever would have been for a few minutes a day of effort.

I know this can be true – my husband may not have enjoyed Hebrew school every moment during his childhood, but I can see the difference between his fluency with a siddur and my own,  and the difference between my childrens’ relationship to their faith and mine.  Now I know that I could become more fluent with a greater degree of commitment and study, perhaps enough that only I would ever know that it didn’t come easily. But even that knowledge is sufficient – and why condemn my kids to that little hesitation, that limitation, when I can give them life without limits with 15 minutes a day of study – study they enjoy?  I’m not clear on what the case would be for this.  Why demand my teenager give up all the other things he loves to study only maths frantically to meet requirements, when those same things could come to him and he spend his time studying math and reading poetry and working outside? 

Time is not infinite for any of us, and every choice has its cost.  I am open to persuasion that the cost of requiring my children to do things is greater than what they might miss – but I haven’t seen this persuasion made, except in terms I find false – that attempt to equate the coercion one exercises on a prisoner, a colony, a dissident (because this is the language of coercion) with the requirements made by parents who love and teach their children.

Moreover, while the research on how well unschoolers turn out in their skill sets and employability may not be clear, research on some things is very clear.  We know, for example, that Jewish children raised to make up their own minds, without any of the equipment to do so, without the training in prayer and language, history and culture mostly don’t become Jewish.  Plenty of those raised with that training also choose not to be Jews, of course, but the numbers are radically different.  I do not care little enough about my faith to leave to chance whether my children will perceive the benefits of knowing these things before they make a choice – and make it difficult for themselves to acquire this knowledge.  I see no reason to believe that the rules are different for any profession, faith or culture that requires a background skill set that takes a long time to acquire – of course people *can* do it as adults and do.  But I know few people who have done it as an adult who think that they were happier or better off for not having the knowledge in the first place.

And while we do not know whether this is true of everything else, I would suspect it is true of more things than not – indeed, in at least one area, I now it it to be true.  Many of us, for example, grew up spending time with grandparents watching them do subsistence activities that are now largely abandoned, that most of us now have to relearn.  Grandma was there, offering us a useful model of how to can, knit, garden and use herbs.  Grandpa could have taught us to milk the cow and bank a fire in a woodstove and chop wood smoothly and sharpen tools. Some of us did, in fact, take advantage of that knowledge, and have it to pass on.  But most of us lived unschooling for a while, at the feet of our grandparents – and we didn’t learn enough, and now we are scrambling to catch up.  I hear daily from people who know that they can teach themselves these things – but for whom there are not enough hours in the day, and for whom those lost opportunities are a sharp and real sorrow. 

I live in a world where so many people are mourning the lost opportunity to learn – the chance was there, the opportunity, the willing teacher.  And in many cases, what was lacking seems to have been some externally imposed discipline – because no one said “what Grandma is doing is really important, so you need to help her with the gardening” two generations lost their knowledge.  I know some people who complain that they were required to go out in the garden with Grandpa, and then didn’t want to do it for the next forty years too – but not nearly so many as those who mourn the chance and wish someone had given them guidance and some gentle discipline, imposed by someone who has enough experience to see what’s on the other side of the crack in the wall if you just do the work of expanding the view..


30 Responses to “Unschooled Future?”

  1. Kate says:

    Thank you! This is such an intelligent post.
    We have a toddler and are still not sure what education path he will take. I do feel that there needs to be tolerance for every choice made. I wish we could all just coexist and be kind to each other and respect the differences. All the hardcore parents seem to have no ear for anyone outside of their beliefs.

    My husband and I had very negative education experiences, and many missed opportunities as well.
    Thank you for this wonderful post!

  2. GeekyGardener says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ll take it a step further & say that all people benefit from learning how to submit to the goals other people have for them now and then. Your analogy of a “crack in the wall” continues on in life. There are areas in my job that I wouldn’t have known could be so interesting, if it weren’t for a supervisor who required that I learn about them. An external push can often be the most important aspect of gaining a new skill, particularly if it is something that is intimidating (like public speaking).

    My husband’s family didn’t push him to do better in school and he DOES regret it. He was left to his own motivations and it has taken him a long time to catch up to where he wanted to be (and he’s still working at it).

  3. Terra says:

    I’m so glad you’ve written this. I was finding some of the language used offensive – and I was mostly unschooled, and now homeschool my children. I don’t like the implication that other paths of schooling, or indeed parenting, are just plain damaging. And frankly, using the words coercive and force are absolutely, in my opinion, making a judgment on others. Another thing I found strange was some people (on crunchy’s site) calling home-schooling school- at- home. Huh? Well, what a low blow – especially for those of us who have carefully reworked our lives to have our children home-schooled, to basically say that the only difference between a parent teaching or guiding a child and a teacher doing it is the actual setting? Give me a freaking break.

    I live in a state where you not only have to turn in a portfolio chronicling the years education, but also take standardized tests every 3 years AND meet with an assessor yearly, who then writes a report to the school district on how your child measures up. It becomes a little more imperative that my child learns things she isn’t interested in at the moment so we don’t have to deal with the school district in court. Which is, unfortunately, not too rare in my district.

    Also, I too, am not willing to take the chance that my child might miss out on a “view” or opportunity by following her every whim. Case in point: At 7, I was an excellent violinist. My teacher really thought I had a career if I wanted. And I preferred to ride my bike outside rather than practice. My parents took me seriously and stopped my lessons and I have regretted that for about the last 15 years. While some regrets can’t be avoided, I’d like to do my best to gently make sure that I am not the cause of the ones she will have.

  4. Maureen says:

    Excellent Post…..thank-you! We were just yesterday discussing this issue and the ramifications of the un-schooling approach. Tho we are big supporters of home-schooling we are a bit skeptical of leaving education completely up to the child.

    I think GeekyGardener makes an excellent point also…..”all people benefit from learning how to submit to the goals other people have for them now and then”. Unfortunately, ‘self-direction’ can easily become selfishness if left unchecked.

  5. megan says:

    I agree that suggesting that unschooling is THE ONE AND ONLY WAY is no different than saying the same for public school/private school/etc. The whole theory of unschooling seems to be undermined by the fact that some of the parents are so closed minded in regards to the possibility of there being other effective ways of learning or teaching.

    I think that an engaged unschooling parent exposes their children to as many learning opportunities as possible at a young age so that the children will see the learning not as “work” (as many of us considered school), but as an activity that is interesting and worthwhile. Maybe others would disagree, but, to me, Hebrew school could be a successful part of unschooling. If a child is exposed to all of the benefits of learning the traditions, they may choose to continue their education along that path by attending Hebrew school/lessons. The way I see it, unschooling not so much anti-school as it is anti-mandating that school is the only option. But, like I said, I’m sure that many “radical unschoolers” (I really dislike that term) would disagree with me.

    As to the point about rocket science, this is why it is so important to offer this exposure and these opportunities at a young age so that a child realizes how the process of becoming skilled at any subject works.
    Take engineering:
    1. I saw a catapult in a book or movie (or talked to someone about them) and I think that they are really cool.
    2. My parents have encouraged me to pursue this interest and learn more about how they work.
    3. My parents have told me that it is possible to learn to build my own catapult, if I’d like to do so.
    4. Through my reading, I’ve found that you have to learn basic physics to build a catapult. I should find a book about it, ask my parents for help, or ask them to find someone who can help me learn about physics.
    5. I’ve learned some basic physics and am now being offered the materials and help needed to build the catapult that I’d like to build.
    6. It didn’t work quite as well as I would have liked. I think that I can improve it by doing xyz. I’ll build another one.
    7. I’ve built one that works to my expectations. Now, I think I’ll try building something else.
    8. This is a subject that I would like to pursue.

    This works for unschoolers or those attending traditional schools as long as they are provided with opportunities, guidance and, most importantly, encouragement.

    As far as learning from our grandparents, had the exposure to their skills been continuous throughout a lifetime, the knowledge would most likely have been retained. The example of a person being forced into working in the garden and then not discovering that they actually liked gardening for another forty years is exactly why disciplining children to get them to do things is not always the best choice. Perhaps, instead of saying, “what Grandma is doing is really important, so you need to help her with the gardening”, we should be explaining to children why this activity is important and encouraging them to explore it for themselves. When done well, unschooling will provide opportunities for children to become more fully engaged in these activities and continue to participate in the ones that interest them most throughout childhood and into adulthood. In my case, one of the main reasons that I didn’t spend as much time as I should have learning from my Grandpa in the garden was that I was in school all day, came home, did homework, ate dinner and went to bed. It wasn’t even provided as an option because my parents were too busy. If, one or two days a week, instead of going to school, I had been dropped off at my grandparents house to learn from them, I think I would actually have been a much more well rounded “student” in the long run.

  6. Cindy says:

    Having always homeschooled by two sons, and looking from the perspective of having my oldest graduate in two weeks, I think you’ve made many good points. Over the years I have found there are just as many “ways” to homeschool as their are families doing it :-) We all have to figure out what works for our family and for each child. It’s also important to consider what season your family is in — homeschooling can look different depending on whether life is “normal” or your dealing with health issues, an elderly parent, multiple children under the age of 7, etc.

    I’ve tried about every method out there, and choose to consider myself a “relaxed” homeschooler. When they were younger, our studies were definitely more interest-led, and each was able to progress at his own pace.

    My youngest is 15, and much more of a free-spirit, right-brained thinker like me, so his education has definitely been and will continue to be “non traditional” in many ways.

    My oldest actually hated my free-spirited approach once he hit the age of 9 or so. He wanted more traditional curricula. So, we compromised :-)

    As they have both gotten older, our “schooling” looks more traditional in some ways. My oldest especially has enjoyed being able to take advantage of our local college’s offering of Dual Enrollment and will graduate high school is 43 college credits. Now that may sound like we really pushed the academics and were very structured, but truly during the elementary years we were VERY relaxed. In fact, neither of my sons did any formal essay-type writing until they were 12, and then very little, yet as he matured and entered Comp I, my son was able to easily learn what he needed and to complete all his writing courses thus far with no problem.

    The key it seems, is to be confident in your own choices. Listen and learn from others, but ultimately come to a place where you are at peace with your educational philosophy. Then, be able to appreciate and celebrate the successes that others have found whether they are doing it “your way” or not :-)

  7. Ann says:

    We homeschooled/unschooled our son. He’s 18 now. I think what everybody is missing in this conversation is that the decision to homeschool and the reasons behind that decision are highly individual and personal. This subject is very sensitive to most people, similar to religion. Everybody will have different reasons for why they decided to do it and different ways of going about it. I don’t think that one way is really any better than another. It’s all about what is right for the individual family and their kids. I wish that everybody would stop being offended and stop being offensive about this. We should all just agree to disagree in our mutual agreement to take our childrens education into our own hands. Cheers!

  8. Sue Sullivan says:

    So, to our grandparents admonitions that we should never talk politics and religion, I’m thinking I must add educational and parenting philosophies. I’m regretting posting and I’m sorry to have offended and insulted (I am assuming, perhaps wrongly, that you are responding primarily to comments on your thread, rather than Crunchy Chicken’s, which I haven’t kept up with.)

    I was explaining my choices and how I came to them in my own thinking processes. I’m wondering now if it is ever possible to tell someone else how you came to make an unconventional choice without it being taken as criticism of all other choices. I understand your dislike of the word coercion. I could, I suppose, lie about how I came to see my own parenting processes (as coercion) and began to explore alternatives. But if I hadn’t developed such a “radical” view of the predominant parent-child relationship, I wouldn’t have become an unschooler. I’m really at a loss as to how else to have explained this.

    I’m not sure if you’re referring to me when you refer to uschoolers who define all other parenting as destructive. I’m quite abashed if that’s how I came across. I will reiterate, I think society needs people of widely varying backgrounds, interests and conditioning to be healthy. Different parenting styles, different childhood resourses and experiences, and genetic predispositions are what assures that.

    I did say that I think all kids could benefit from unschooling and I also said that I could be wrong. Just as non-unschoolers believe that all children need some amount of pushing/external discipline/coercion/submitting to the goals of other people to make the most of themselves.

    As far as parental intelligence and unschooling goes, there are so many resources available in this world, all I have ever thought necessary to be a good homeschooler or unschooler is an understanding of how to find and share those resources coupled with a joyous curiosity and energy to bring new experiences into your family’s life.

    I could continue on trying to explain what I mean by the spectrum of coercion I perceive and the fuzzy edges of that and my curiosity about how it might affect human conditioning, but I don’t see it being worth the effort.

    I think when an opposing viewpoint is presented there’s a human reaction to defend one’s own counterpoint (if one is strongly held), to try to be heard by the other. I’m doing right now, as you’ve done in this latest point. All I can say is, I don’t think conscious parents who aren’t radically unschooling are “damaging” their children, they’re conditioning them in ways that are different than how I am conditioning mine. Of course I think my style of parenting is beneficial and healthy; what sort of monster would I be if I thought otherwise?

    I’ve done my best to explain why I’ve made the choices I have. I’m doing my best to explain how I can simultaneously respect other choices. I don’t know how else to express it.


  9. kate says:

    Thank you so much for this intelligent response to the original issue, Sharon! I tried to leave what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment on Crunchy Chicken’s original post and was immediately slapped in the face by Sandra Dodd and others. I found the responses from many of the “radicals” very defensive and hurtful.

    I have two young children. I hold a master’s degree in elementary education, and I am certified to teach prek-6 in New York. I know a bit about education, I think. In fact, I wrote my master’s thesis on constructivism and the work of John Holt because I was really tremendously interested in his ideas.

    And what I believe is that for some children, the structure and challenge of a traditional school day is a wonderful thing, and many children thrive that way. The main thing, I think, is that parents cannot and should not abdicate all responsibility for educating their children once the children are enrolled in elementary school.

    My husband is in awe of my involvement with our kids…we go to the library, museums, botanical gardens, aquariums, parks, and any other place I can think of to expose them to the stuff of life (they are 5 and 1 1/2). My husband remembers no books in his house, was never taken to the library, and rarely went on outings with his family other than shopping trips. And he struggled MIGHTILY in school, largely due to utter lack of support and encouragement from home.

    My son is a toddler, but an incredibly curious one. He likes to do the normal toddler activities of playing with toys, dumping stuff out, etc. But we also have foam letters in their play area to begin letter recognition, and because of those my daughter was asking us to write words for her before she turned 2. I have always read to them and encourage my daughter to explore anything of interest. I am sending her to public kindergarten in the fall because I think it will be the best choice for us all RIGHT NOW. I fully intend to keep up with the home involvement and encouragement of her interests and curiosity, and if something I deem important is going on outside of school, especially if it relates to something in which she has expressed interest, I will take her out for the day. My husband and I have also agreed to constantly evaluate both kids’ educational experiences and change mid-stream if necessary.

    Oh, and my daughter knits because she has seen me do so and was curious, she embroiders and sews for the same reason, she helps me start seeds and work in our small garden, and she is learning to cook and bake at my side. We are “schooling” as a family all the time, or unschooling, or just living, whatever you want to call it. No one single family has it right over any other family. We must all do what we believe is best for our children, stay involved, and guide them as best we can.

    As for “coercing” a child into doing something they may not like, well, sometimes a little push is a good thing! My parents insisted my siblings and I all stick with a musical instrument for several years to see if we were any good at it, and though I loathed practicing, I loved being in band and made all of my best friends there. I was never excellent, but I got pretty good and certainly enjoyed myself. I hated swimming lessons when I was 6 years old, but my parents made me stay with it, and in high school I was on our district championship-winning swim team and had boxes of blue ribbons to show for it. Thank goodness my parents were there to shove me in directions I might otherwise have ignored!

  10. Kate says:

    Family A: A child violinist hates to practice. Drags his feet. His parents insist that he practice, and he ends up with a lifelong appreciation and understanding of music. He credits his parents with keeping him on track. (Or he credits himself.)

    Family B: A child violinist hates to practice. Drags his feet. His parents insist that he practice, and he does so until he leaves home, when he gives up his practice with relief. He never uses his musical understanding, and he ends up with a lifelong grudge over his parents’ lack of respect for his wishes. (Or he’s not the type for grudges, and just forgets about it all.)

    Family C: A child violinist hates to practice. Drags his feet. His parents allow him to quit, and he blames his parents for his lifelong regret over his lack musical understanding. (Or he’s not the type for blame, and just regrets it.)

    Family D: A child violinist hates to practice. Drags his feet. His parents allow him to quit, and he doesn’t mind, even credits them with respecting his wishes. (Or just forgets about the whole affair.)

    I know people who fit all of these types. (I was Family B, subtype 2, in case you’re wondering!) You can apply the same thinking to math, teeth brushing, discipline, etc. What to do? We just make the best decisions we can for our families, based on the knowledge we have at the time!

  11. Brad K. says:

    Um, Sharon? I was one that stated I thought it was the parents that would be the limiting factor, in making unschooling work. But – I wasn’t thinking of intelligence.

    Just as we acknowledge some teachers are better than others, I think the difference is in experience, and who they learn from. Discipline in the classroom must relate to motivating children for unschooling, too, and is one of the tougher skills to learn, and least easily taught.

    Time, emotional balance, and reserves of energy and vitality are probably much more important than simple intelligence, in making an educational environment of any kind “work” for a given student.

    Any teacher with an understanding of organization of information and resources will have a better time, for presenting information in a useful form. Even for unschooling, the parent has to be ready to refer to various resources as needed. The student has to respect the teacher’s credibility and ability to obtain information, or they stop trusting the teacher.

    I am just thinking generalities, here. I didn’t notice anyone else mentioning that parents had to be smart enough to make any education work, and I didn’t mean smart in the merely intelligent sense. I meant something closer to wisdom, wisdom for the masses, something most anyone with an interest and having the resources available could master.

  12. Sue Sullivan says:

    In talking with my husband about this thread, he raised a point that makes me realize I had written something that I regret. Blanket statements, he pointed out, are inflammatory. It’s not possible to say that all children could benefit from unschooling. That’s patently not knowable. I wrote at some point that I believed that all kids could benefit from unschooling. It’s true that I believe it; it’s not possible for me to know it; and it’s inflammatory for me to say it. All I can truthfully say is that my kids seem to be doing very well in a “radical unschooling” household. My apologies for raising the heat in this discussion with that statement.

  13. KiwiRach says:

    I surprise my self by quoting from the English education act here because it’s currently very sensible (sadly in danger of change). As home educators we’re required to provide our children with an education that’s “suitable for their age, aptitude and abilities.” And that’s all it says. Nothing about how. I think that’s about right.

    Labels are such hazardous things. One of the joys of homeschooling is that we don’t have to find The One Right Way to do it (unlike perhaps a govt devising a national curriculum), we just have to find what works best for this particular child this particular week

  14. Mama Bean says:

    I couldn’t quite articulate why I was feeling resistant while reading unschooling blogs etc. and here you’ve articulated it quite nicely. I find the concepts of unschooling very attractive, but the underdog rhetoric does get tired.

    Thanks for the great post!

  15. knutty knitter says:

    Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou!!!! I was really hurt and hacked off by being told that I was a bad and unintelligent person for not homeschooling our kids. It didn’t seem to matter that I am involved at all levels and even teach some of the classes they have taken in school.

    They also didn’t seem to understand that I had tried homeschooling and found that it just wasn’t going to work for eldest who has learning problems. The school we sent him to was so good that I haven’t felt the need to homeschool the youngest. He has a great group of friends and a wonderful teacher.

    I would struggle to give him anything like the education he is presently receiving so I consider myself free to do other things. If this should change, of course I would reconsider the matter.

    viv in nz

  16. Help. Please. Send in the reserves. No, really, I’m enjoying most of the conversation going on over there, although there is a lot of condescending circular logic being applied by a few.

  17. Geomom says:

    But Sharon, in this post, you’re generalizing *all* unschoolers (“I find myself quite honestly pissed off by the language of unschoolers”) based on the language of a few very passionate, radical unschoolers. How is that any different than what is making you angry about *some* posts by *some* unschoolers? People who become dogmatic and sanctimonious can give a bad name to any philosphy or movement (including peak oil and climate change).

    I considered myself an unschooler for many years–but my kids had rules to follow and some subjects they had to do on a regular basis whether they wanted to or not. Because of that, I would not be considered an unschooler by many. But who cares? There is no official classification system to rank homeschoolers on their educational beliefs and practices.

    There are extremes at either end of any philosophy or religion, and a spectrum in between those ends. I don’t think unschooling should be dismissed out of hand just because the language and tone used by some people offends you. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  18. Christina says:

    I am open to persuasion that the cost of requiring my children to do things is greater than what they might miss – but I haven’t seen this persuasion made, except in terms I find false – that attempt to equate the coercion one exercises on a prisoner, a colony, a dissident (because this is the language of coercion) with the requirements made by parents who love and teach their children.

    I think you are making that the language of coercion, rather than accepting greater nuances to the concept. Relationships between parents and children involve issues of power and authority, and I find it a bit disingenuous for you to insist that a discussion of power and authority in the parent-child relationship means we’re categorizing children as prisoners.

    If your (any) family has principles and rhythms, children are generally happy to work with those principles and rhythms because that, like learning, is hardwired into humans as social creatures. If your Jewish rituals and processes are simply understood components of life, there is never an issue of coercion because there is really never an issue of choice. There are plenty of unschooling families who have similar areas of non-choice; for example, perhaps they don’t have a television or the omnipresent-in-unschooling-discussions video game console. Therefore screen time is a non-issue, a non-choice. At some point the child may make it an issue for their family, just as at some point Jewishness may become an issue in your family – American children are generally raised in a heterogenous culture, and later individuation might result in rejection of the family’s principles and rhythms in favor of other exposures. Unschoolers rank the child’s free agency in education over any requirements the parents may hold; radical unschoolers rank the child’s free agency in all matters over those requirements.

    I am deeply suspicious of one true ways, and when people tell me that all children would benefit from one technique, but not all parents are smart enough to pull it off – implicitly impugning the intelligence of anyone who doesn’t make your same choices, I’m turned off.

    You inferred the impugning, I did not imply it. You can be smart enough (have the basic literacy and numeracy) to unschool successfully, and choose not to do it. It doesn’t make you stupid – but lots of people say “I could never do that” when the reality is they would never CHOOSE to do it, because they have other acknowledged or unacknowledged priorities, and those really aren’t the same thing at all. Just because many would never choose to unschool doesn’t mean that children would not thrive if unschooled. Many parents choose to allow their children large quantities of unhealthy food; all children would thrive under a principle of healthy nutrition.

    But most of us lived unschooling for a while, at the feet of our grandparents – and we didn’t learn enough, and now we are scrambling to catch up.

    I think this comment really sums up how little you are understanding, or alternately how poorly unschoolers are communicating, about unschooling. I don’t think anyone said that unschoolers learn simply by being around those who are doing, absorbing by osmosis. (That’s assuming we were at the feet of our grandparents while they did these things, instead of relegating the grandparents to holidays, birthdays and Saturday/Sunday dinners while we spent the rest of the time at the roller rink.) We/Humanity stopped acquiring the skills and knowledge of our grandparents because those things stopped having value in modern life. We didn’t become a skills-and-knowledge void – instead we acquired others, like how to drive a car and operate a computer. It’s unfortunate that modern society appears to be a short-lived phenomenon, and that we actually understand and can regret the recent losses; it’s also fortunate that the losses are so recent that enough people and institutions are still carrying the knowledge so that we might regain it in part.

  19. marta says:

    It is interesting to see how the great majority of the commenters (and the general population) who unschool were traditionally schooled themselves. Nevertheless they seem to have been able to acquire the criticism and creativity skills necessary to choose what to do with their children… ;)

    In my country homeschooling, let alone unschooling, is virtually non-existent. Most children are in public education – and even those on private schools need to follow the national mandated standards. It is also interesting to aknowledge how the children turn out varies – making the case for the role of families, rather than schools, in making THE big difference in the education and life (health, well being, money, social, work, job) prospects of the children.

    I come from a family where women have a particular talent for languages. A lot of them have worked as language teachers, translators, interpreters, secretaries to multi-lingual companies… I have graduated in history but most of my jobs have dealt with language – as a journalist, as a translator/subtitler. Still, I can see what difference it has made 1) the fact that I started learning English at 9 and 2) that I had a rigorous, disciplined teacher for the next 5 years. Later on (at 11) I learned French with a sucession of bad teachers. As a young adult and as an adult I’ve come across other languages (boyfriend – dutch, picked up during summer vacations – spanish, independent study – german) and never became fluent (or any way near that) in any of them. Later on, at 25, I lived for 3 years in Italy and learned the language through books, tv, friends and basically no formal study. Being the 3rd language I can consider myself fluent in, it does lag behind English – and I’m not even bilingual ;) . The point is, after a certain moment in life, learning languages is much more difficult without the steering, the discipline and the hard work a good teacher can impose.

    And as speaking different languages is a lifeskill, I don’t see how it is detrimental to anyone to “school” teach it to children. It is doing them a service, showing them love and respect. And the same goes to maths (it’s not just adding and subtracting, as most unschoolers will say…), music and some physical activities, like cycling or swimming (at least in my country, where we can enjoy the beach almost 6 months a year…)

    marta from lisbon, portugal

  20. Sharon says:

    Sue, I apologize if it seemed I was picking on you (and not you either, Brad) I was speaking very generally of a number of comments made by others, not only of yours.

    Christina, all relationships involving authority do not involve force or coercion – and those aren’t words I used. I’m not trying to erase differences in power, I’m trying to put them in perspective. There are words that can be used to articulate those distinctions that aren’t laden with implications that all distinctions of power contain an underlying violence, but I don’t see those words being used, I see the ones that apply inappropriate use of force being used. And that’s undoubtedly true of some parenting relationships – but that doesn’t make all parenting relationships describable in those terms.

    You however, did say,

    ” But I agree with what I think you are saying – and I think Sue and other unschoolers also agree – that not all parents would be able to unschool their children. The parents themselves need to be at some fundamental level of both education and parental intelligence – not degrees or diplomas, but literacy and numeracy and the ability to nurture and strew.”

    The implication is that parents who don’t unschool are limited by education and intelligence, not by choice or other worldview.

    As for your comment about Grandparents – I don’t think I was suggesting that it was a matter of simple absorption. I think many grandparents set about the teaching of their grandchildren – but the children lacked precisely that formal structure that says “even if you cannot see, even if our society as a whole demeans the less than obvious, you need to learn.” I’m not sure how an unschooler would pass that along.


  21. Our daughter, a math major and German minor, will graduate next year from college.

    A homeschooler from grade 2 through 12, she couldn’t have achieved Phi Beta Kappa membership without imposed discipline, time limits, and clear learning expectations while growing up.

    The homeschoolers we knew who didn’t impose daily time discipline, also didn’t raise children who were high academic achievers in college, or presumably, beyond.

    It’s clear to me imposing discipline is a primary function of the role of being a parent. Those who shirk that responsibility risk being nothing more than check writers and chauffeurs; certainly not real parents.

  22. marta says:

    Sorry, just to clarify what I mean in the above comment…

    1) Picking up languages can be a talent, speaking and writing and making them your professional work requires a lot of “coercion” (self- or inflicted by others) and unpleasant stuff. Of course if the motivation is there you’ll be able to do your best – but time to learn something specific, with no other constraints (money to earn, meals to cook, children to care for) can only happen – if at all – until you’re of a certain age…

    2) Our family is friends with another family who practices an “unschooling” approach to certain activities in their children – cycling and swimming come to mind – although both parents can cycle and swim and do it in front of their children. While their children have picked up cycling – even if two or three years later than most- they cannot yet swim nor dive and are uneasy in the water (they’re 11 and 8). They have great, caring parents – who in this particular athletic/motorskills field (but not in others, mind…) choose not to force or press them in the littlest possible way.
    These children are definitely missing out whenever we go to the pool or to the beach. They’re not rowing boats, cycling and diving from the pedal boats, goofing around in the sea, boogieboarding and all.
    Maybe they’ll acquire the skills some day or other, maybe not (a lot of adults cannot swim – and all the ones I know deeply regret not having been taught by their parents/adults when they were small). But right now they are missing their summer fun inherent to childhood – because they’re afraid or unmotivated or something else – and their parents, by not willing to “force” them and choosing to wait and see, are watching them go through these years without experiencing the simple pleasures you can only have when you’re 5 or 8 or 11… When you’re an adult, bombshelling in a pool or diving for seashells isn’t half as thrilling…

    We didn’t “coerce” our own children (5, 8 and 10) to cycle or swim. We gave them the bycicles, pushed them innumerable times, helped them up innumerable times, through some tears and scraped knees and hands and “yes, you can do it!”s and in two days they were cycling. The oldest two when they were 5. The younger when he was 3 and 1/2. We thought it was the time for them to try. We felt they were mature enough to do it, they didn’t not know whether they were or not.
    Our friends waited and waited and waited. Our youngest was cycling before their 8 yo (who started this year). Having realized that, they decided to push her harder and ignore more of her pleas not to. And off she went. And neither of them have regretted the extra cajoling and, yes, mock-bribing. Not very “unschooling”, but all are the happier for it now. (And I hope sometime during this summer they apply that to swimming as well ;) )

    Marta from Lisbon, Portugal

  23. Sharon says:

    Sorry, let me reframe that last comment – I’m sure unschoolers could pass that along. But it strikes me as a dilemma that strikes precisely at the heart of our problem. When the social message, when the mainstream message stands at odds with the message parents choose to give, a model that always respects the autonomy of the child on some level always lends power to the mainstream. Unschoolers articulate quite brilliantly and clearly how schools often do this – and they do. Unschoolers often teach their children brilliantly critical thinking about the world. But setting two things – the moral suasion of a parent vs. the carefully calculated social messages of advertising as though they are equal, and the child can choose freely between them, I think that’s a false analysis. I’m sure it works very well in some families – but the very fact that the video game discussions are so endless suggests to me that it doesn’t always work that way.

    There’s every chance that my kids may reject my religion, feelings about video games, etc… But they will do it knowing what they are rejecting fully, first of all, rather than what they think they are rejecting, and second of all, and more importantly, I think, do it older. Given the health consequences of things like sedentary behavior, even delay here is worth a good deal.


  24. [...] 27, 2010 by Elizabeth Interestingly, Sharon Astyk blogged about unschooling this week.  She does touch on some of the things that were troubling [...]

  25. James Kalin says:

    My daughter did coop childcare, Montessori elementary, progressive jr high, two years of a top private high school, and then two years of unschooling. She left the high school because she said it got in the way of her desire to take more control of the pace and focus of her learning. Her unschooling was a mix of tutors, UC Berkeley classes, and self-guided learning, plus smart well-educated parents: it was very successful. Right now she’s a second year “green” architecture student at Carnegie Mellon and loving it, facing three more years of no sleep and an incredible work load. Her self-discipline, self-motivation and work habits make me look like a slacker.
    I don’t think that unschoolers, home schoolers, traditional schoolers and so on have any monopoly on ideological fervor. All of them have their share of fundamentalist true believers, some of them high-profile and noisy. One has to wade through that to get at the heart of the features and benefits of the various modes of learning. Nothing new there. Unschooling shouldn’t be singled out for this.
    Your remarks about coercion seem odd. As parents of course we coerced our daughter as necessary to ensure that certain core requirements were met, primary for her health and safety. “If you do/don’t do ____ we’ll do ___.” That’s coercion pure and simple. I think your problem isn’t with the concept of coercion, just with the word sounding bad.
    Now that she’s legally an adult she can choose to participate in coercion-based learning programs, such as her architecture schooling, as she wishes. She has little or no control over the content and pace of CMU’s architecture schooling program, and there are definite penalties exacted if she doesn’t toe the line. But going to CMU was her choice and she’s willing to put up with the coercive structure because it gets her the professional architecture degree she desires.
    Her unschooling program was up to her. Her unschooling wasn’t about entirely avoiding coercion, or at least it wasn’t for us and our daughter: it was about her having the power to choose whether or not to participate in activities that might include coercion, such as UC Berkeley classes. When she was much younger she often didn’t have that choice in her young life. As she got older we used coercion less and less and depended on negotiation and persuasion more and more. Again, we used coercion primarily when health and safety requirements were the issue. Religious, cultural, political and behavioral issues were generally resolved using negotiation and persuasion, rarely coercion. We were successful. Others might not be.

  26. Christina says:

    The implication is that parents who don’t unschool are limited by education and intelligence, not by choice or other worldview.

    No, the implication is that parents who CAN’T unschool are limited by those things. Actually, I think it was explicit: I clearly said those were the reasons “not all parents would be able to unschool”. The ABILITY to unschool is limited by fundamentals of education and parental intelligence (I meant parenting intelligence, vis a vis the concept of emotional intelligence, though I can see the adjective “parental” is unclear). Again, there is a very large chasm between being actually unable to do a thing, and being simply unwilling to do that thing (by choice or other worldview).

    I think many grandparents set about the teaching of their grandchildren – but the children lacked precisely that formal structure that says “even if you cannot see, even if our society as a whole demeans the less than obvious, you need to learn.” I’m not sure how an unschooler would pass that along.

    A radical unschooler would not pass that along – if the child didn’t see the value, if the parent could not convince the child of the worth of the project, that would be the end of it. A simple unschooler – someone whose unschooling focus is academic learning and not the whole shebang of life – might use other tactics to bring it about.

    I don’t think children lacked the formal structure, though – they lacked sufficient motivation that the activities were valuable. Grandparents are important, but by the time my parents were youngsters in the 50s (if not sooner), I think the value of elder-knowledge in U.S. culture was in steep decline if not rock-bottom. The elders may still have valued what they were doing – my great-grandparents had a one-acre (double-lot) farmette in suburban New Jersey, for example, that my father and his siblings spent a lot of time at – but the intervening generation (my grandparents) weren’t transmitting the value to the children. All of whom had plenty of formal structure in place for learning things, via Jesuit schools. At that point, even the elders may have felt their knowledge and skills were obsolete – my grandparents never tried to teach me to knit, cook, garden, fish, unless I showed an interest – but just kept on doing what they were used to doing.

    When the social message, when the mainstream message stands at odds with the message parents choose to give, a model that always respects the autonomy of the child on some level always lends power to the mainstream.

    I totally agree with this, and it is why I am do not qualify as a radical unschooler. I believe in the autonomy of my children, of their free agency and their individuality, but I firmly believe it is a DEVELOPING autonomy, agency and individuality, culminating in their achievement of full maturity. I do not believe my 4yo can intellectually or emotionally interact with Thomas the Train merchandising; I reserve the right as an adult to mediate between my child and the world when I feel the world is presenting high danger (of physical, emotional, spiritual, or other nature).

  27. I am not a parent, but I am a educator – at university level. This conversation interests me, as I been recently attended a workshop on ‘threshhold concepts’ – things you MUST learn in order to proficient within a particular scholarly discipline (there’s a good overview here: http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html).

    One of the things we were discussing is the way some students seem to grasp key concepts almost intuitively, while others struggle desperately, or scrape through, but never really develop more than a rote knowledge of a concept. It often seems to teachers that no matter how hard we try to reflect on and refine our teaching, the bottom line is some people are ‘primed’ to learn the things we are trying to teach, and others aren’t.

    When you combine the challenges of teaching & learning with the challenges of parenting, it’s no wonder discussion become heated!

  28. Nina says:

    To me homeschooling is about tailoring the childs education to their unique and specific needs and interests.

    We may do this by allowing them to lead or by requiring them to follow. I do both depending on what I think will be best for them in each situation we encounter.

    The resources used, the approach taken is as unique as the needs and interests of each individual. As a parent we have been givin the privelege of parenting, guiding, mentoring and teaching our children the ways in which we do this will differ from parent to parent. I believe that I am doing what is best for my children and I as their parent will at times make decisions on their behalf just as I will allow them to make their own choices and decisions at times. This is my way.

    However, I do not believe any one single way is right or best as no two children are the same. They all have their own unique needs and interests and they all require their parents to respect and acknowledge these but how we respond to these will differ from child to child. There are definitely parenting approachs that I feel are flawed or even at times are damaging to a child I don’t deny this but when it comes to homeschooling I think that based on all I have read and observed that all homeschooling parents are trying to do what they think is best for their child and have their best interests at heart.

    My favourite saying is this….

    Creativity is seen in the uniqueness of every creation. This is how I approach life with my children. They are unique creations with unique needs and interests and how I parent and teach each of them will in itself be unique.

    I resent being told by anyone that they know better than I what MY children truly need and how I should parent or educate them.

    This is why I homeschool!

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