Friday, October 14, 2011

Unschooling: Are We Teaching Ourselves?

Virtually every time unschooling is covered in the media (such as the newest segment on MSNBC's Today Show) people, either in the segment itself or in the comments, refer to unschooling as an educational "method" where kids "teach themselves."  And that's always struck me as being way off the mark.  Unschooling isn't about unschoolers "teaching themselves": it's about unschoolers choosing how and what and with whom they want to learn.

The world is big, and we're constantly learning.  Sometimes the learning happens when you're alone, sometimes with just one other person, sometimes in a large group.  These are just a few ways that unschoolers can and do find knowledge and learning:

The internet and books.  Here is a way that could be considered "teaching yourself."  Looking up things you're interested in on the net, reading books on the subject...  Yet even that isn't necessarily an all-by-yourself thing.  Sometimes someone will read something out loud to me that they think I might be interested in.  I regularly share article links and in turn have people send me links.  I interact with people and learn from them on the internet quite often.  I visit the library or a second-hand bookstore with family and friends, and we share the interesting books we find. 

Classes and lessons.  I know, shocking, isn't it?  But Unschoolers do actually take classes sometimes!  My sister takes Ninjitsu and has music lessons.  I've gone to various classes in the past.  Many unschoolers do, because sometimes, they're just the best or easiest, most interesting or fun way to learn something new, improve a skill you already have, or just enjoy learning along with a bunch of other people!

Workshops.  I could have included workshops with classes, I suppose, but I wanted to put this separately because I feel like most of the time, workshops  have a different feel from classes: they're more horizontal, rooted in the community, have less of a here-is-an-expert-teaching-us-stuff and more of a here-is-a-member-of-the-community-sharing-knowledge feel.  In case you couldn't guess, workshops are one of my favourite ways to learn with others, share knowledge, have great discussions, and meet new people.

Mentors.  My sister's Ninjitsu instructor and drum teacher are both most definitely mentors.  They're people she's friends with, people she respects, and people she learns a lot from (and as in all healthy relationships, no matter the type, I imagine they learn from her, as well).  Mentors can be found through formal things like classes, as well as informally, through your community or extended social network.  But no matter how you find them, people who are passionate and knowledgeable about something (be they accredited teachers or not), and are happy to share that knowledge and experience with others, can be a really wonderful way to learn.

Talking to people.  Everyone has skills and knowledge and things to share.  If you simply talk to people--friends, family, acquaintances, strangers--you learn a lot about a lot of different things.

The whole damn world.  I think that when people are first learning about unschooling, it can be helpful to point out specific ways to find knowledge and gain skills, but when it really comes down to it, learning is everywhere.  Whether walking in the woods, reading a book on architecture, going to Spanish class, talking to a friend, or contemplating clouds, learning is happening.  And I think that's one of the biggest paradigm shifts people make as they move towards unschooling: seeing that learning happens everywhere, all the time, not just between certain times in the day, or when engaging in certain activities.

Occasionally (really, it doesn't happen often), I've heard people say that they think that children are fine growing up with only their family unit around them: that all that kids need is a stable, loving family, and I definitely disagree with that.  While I think family is/can be extremely important, humans are social animals, and I believe having a wider community is also extremely important (and I also want to acknowledge that for some people--children and adults--who do not have any family, or whose family is not loving or supportive, people from their community are the most important people in their life).  So I think that by looking at unschooling as something done by a child, alone, that's really inaccurate, and misses out on what I think can be one of the best things about unschooling: the fact you're living in the actual world, interacting with lots of different people, learning and discovering within your family, and within your community. 

So, sometimes unschoolers learn on their own.  Sometimes they don't.  Some unschoolers spend more time learning with others, some unschoolers spend more time learning alone.  But overall?  Unschooling definitely isn't about only ever "teaching yourself"!


  1. Thank you! This is one of the best descriptions I have seen of unschooling.

  2. I agree with Bev, you did a fantastic job of explaining unschooling. We struggle all the time with trying to explain it to people. I might have to print out your post and start quoting it :)

  3. Man, if it was about kids teaching themselves I could go back to work!!! Thanks for the post :-)

  4. Thanks! I'm leaning more and more toward unschooling for my kids. I love watching how my almost four-year-old picks up on everything, and asks questions about everything. There's no stopping his knowledge acquisition. No need to "start" homeschooling, when his learning has been happening since before he was born.

  5. @Bev: Thanks so much, I appreciate you saying that!!

    @Tina: Yay, I'm so happy you like it so much! Thank you. :-)

    @Crystal: Thanks. :-)

    @Ingi: *Grins* So many people don't realize how very involved unschooling parents generally are...

    @BennyHadrianMum: Learning really is something that happens all the time. Wishing you the best of luck in your life learning adventures!

  6. Just discovered your blog, and I like this post. I think it describes unschooling well. I think unschooling can be hard to pin down and can be hard to commit to as a parent, but when you do it just works so well. Thanks for putting this information out there.

  7. Thank you for this blog. it is absolutely wonderful! I have been on the journey towards unschooling with my children for the past 23 years. I began as a "homeschooling" mother of a son who I removed from the public school system because of his inability to conform to their standards. He was labeled as having an attention disorder and was referred to as a "non-reader and non-speller" at the age of 7. I thought I would do it my own way for a while, get him on track and then he would return to school. That never happened. He is now 23 years old and in college aspiring to be a writer and editor. I will never regret my decision. I have seven children now. My second oldest, who is now 16, CHOSE high school last year. He is an athlete who is working toward a professional career and scholarship in baseball. Participation in high school athletics is not available to "homeschoolers" in our state of Maryland so he decided to give school a try. It worked out well for him although, it has been an adjustment for me! After being unschooled for his entire life and never taking a written test, he gets all A's and B's in his academics and made the varsity baseball team as their starting catcher. Not too shabby. All the rest of my children are still learning at home. My 12 year old daughter has danced for a private studio since age 3 and is considering auditioning for The Baltimore School for the Arts for high school. My 10 and 8 year old sons are learning through living each day and are involved in many activities, Legos being one of their greatest passions these days. My two little girls ages 4 and 2 are happy and healthy living and learning in a family that loves and cares for them in a completely cooperative environment. I hope that I can continue to provide the gift of freedom as independent learners to them as they grow. As I said, it has been a journey that has taken 23 years. In all, my children have been officially "homeschooled" for 16 of those. After reading much on the topic and most recently, your writing, I know we have evolved as true unschoolers. We are all teachers as well as learners in life. The difference is made in being given real choices and being trusted with what you choose. It has been a very turbulent path but we have been empowered by the experience and rewarded by our successes.

  8. I started unschooling in March so, when I come across stories and articles like this, it strengthens my resolve. Thank you for such an elequent example of great unschooling explination.

  9. Fantastically expansive and succinct in the same breath- a great explanation. Thank you so much!

  10. Thank you for this blog. it is absolutely wonderful! I have been on the journey towards unschooling with my children for the past 23 years. I began as a "homeschooling" mother of a son who I removed from the public school system because of his inability to conform to their standards. Visit college paper for best papers.