Some would argue that there is no real consensus on what unschooling is, but I'd say that's not really true, because if you look at the main unschooling websites, the Wikipedia article on unschooling, and if you go to workshops at any unschooling conference or read any of the books out there on unschooling, you will find a definite consensus.
The consensus being that unschooling is student directed learning, which means the child or teen learns whatever they want, whenever they want. Learning is entirely interest driven, not dictated or directed by an external curriculum, by teachers, or by parents. For an unschooler, life is their classroom.. Parents give up their ideas of what their children MUST learn in favor of supporting their children in following a path of their own choosing.
There is even a general consensus on what radical unschooling is, and that is giving children the freedom over academic choices, plus extending that freedom of choice to all other aspects of life: food choices, bedtimes, TV and computer usage...
Why do I think it's important that people who embrace the label of unschooling do actually follow that model of trusting children with their own education?
There are a couple of reasons:
- Unschooling is not very well understood by the majority of people out there (if they've even heard of it), and it seems to me that when lots of relaxed homeschoolers (parents who allow their children some freedom in what they learn, but still ultimately dictate their children's learning) call themselves unschoolers, it further muddies the waters. It also gives critics the least "radical" people out there calling themselves unschoolers to latch onto: "well, obviously some of these 'unschoolers' teach their children what they need to know, it's just the radical/extreme ones who let their children do what they want!" Thus all opportunity for an understanding of true unschooling (a child or teen directing their own education, with parents/other adults in their life, acting as facilitators) is lost.
- This false view of unschooling completely misses the point of unschooling, which is the realization that life and learning are inseparable, and trusting that children and teens who are trusted and respected in their learning will gain all of the skills needed to be happy, "successful" (whatever that means to the individual) people.
All I'm saying is that there's already a term for relaxed homeschooling: unschooling is something different.
You cannot unschool part time: for two hours a day or every Friday or one week out of every month. Unschooling is a whole lifestyle and radically different way of looking at learning and life. It's not something you can just turn on and off!
You cannot unschool except for math and/or reading and/or science. Unschooling is genuinely trusting children to learn what they need to know, when they need to know it. It's not really unschooling if you only trust them to learn a couple of things on their own, but think you have to force them to learn other things.
You cannot unschool only until you disapprove of what your children choose to do. If you're happily "unschooling" during a time when your children are willingly and by choice doing math workbooks and reading the classics daily, but quickly step in with enforced curricula when your children instead start choosing to play games and read back issues of People magazine for a while, you weren't unschooling in the first place. If you don't plan on respecting your children's choices in learning even when you'd prefer they be doing something else, then you're not unschooling.
I want to make it really clear that I'm not at all trying to diss parents on a difficult journey who sometimes panic and try to teach their uninterested 9 year old to read: what I'm saying is that there's a fundamental difference between families who believe in the principles of unschooling--in trusting children, and trusting the learning process, and who endeavor to follow these principles, even though they sometimes do panic--and families who stick the term unschooling on themselves without really trusting their children to learn at all.
My frustration, which I'm sure is apparent in this post, comes because as an unschooling advocate, I deal with people's lack of understanding about unschooling all the time, and that lack of understanding is exacerbated by the sheer amount of people using the unschooling term without really embracing the principles of unschooling.
Being the polite plus people loving person that I am, I'm not exactly going around telling people they're not really unschooling to their faces, but after reading through the comments on this post, the exasperation built to a level that just needed to be let out in a blog post. (It's also important to note that the comments on this post are far more respectful than are often seen on unschooling articles: I wasn't angered by the comments, simply frustrated by the lack of understanding shown by many.)
I have no control over what terms people choose to use, and in the grand scheme of things it's not overly important. But in my own work and from personal experience, I find it important to make a few distinctions. And one that I see as being pretty important? That unschooling is NOT the same as relaxed homeschooling.