Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Notes on Unschooling: From Our Talk at the AQED Symposium

A couple weeks ago, as I've previously mentioned, my family spoke at the AQED symposium.  I think a lot of this has been covered on my blog already, but I figured I'd share the notes for our introductory speech on unschooling!  Most of our time slot was devoted to answering questions, but this is what we started with.  Regular font is by me, italics are by my mother, Debbie.
So, what is unschooling?

To use Life Learning Magazines definition, unschooling (also known as Life Learning) is personalized, non-coercive, active, interest-led learning from life. (back to my own words) Unschoolers don’t have a set curriculum, are not “taught” by their parents, and instead learn from the world by living in the world, learning on their own terms with parents acting as facilitators instead of teachers.

How We Came to Homeschooling, or The Very Early Years
I’m told that before my birth, my parents had never even heard of homeschooling, let alone unschooling. It was only when I was a toddler that my mother found out about homeschooling, and started getting interested in it as an option for our family. However, my father wasn’t as impressed with the idea, so when I reached the right age, I was shipped off to half day kindergarten. However, there were some problems: problems big enough to convince my father to try homeschooling, so just halfway through my very first year of school, my parents pulled me out, and that remains my only experience with formal, institutionalized education. My sister, Emilie, who’s a couple years younger than me, has never been to school.

From Homeschooling to Unschooling

We started out as eclectic homeschoolers. My mother bought a few different programs & books from different companies, and encouraged both my sister and I to use them. But even in those early days, she was pretty relaxed, and when we didn’t want to do something, when it wasn’t working for us, it was generally fine with her if we stopped doing it. The only thing that was ever really an issue was math, because for a while, my mother still felt that math had to be “taught”. I think we became true unschoolers when we realized that there really were no “exceptions” to the concept: through simply living, following your passions and interests and curiosity, you really can (and do) learn all that you need to know, including math.

Like homeschooling, unschooling is not one single method, it is a continuum.

Academic Unschooling:

At the end of the spectrum nearest to eclectic homeschooling, is academic unschooling. Academic unschooling is allowing/encouraging your children to be responsible for their own education. It means that you don’t give them a curriculum to follow, but trust that they will learn what they need to by their regular daily activities and choices.

Radical Unschooling:

Radical unschooling is at the other end of the unschooling continuum. Radical unschoolers trust their children to make their own choices in everything that they do. They let their children decide when to go to bed, what to eat, and what to do with their time, or in other words, how they will live and learn. Radical unschooling is really a lifestyle. You trust that your children are capable of making choices for themselves.

Not "Unparenting"

Radical unschooling does not mean unparenting.

You are still there for your children.

When your children are young, you are the main source of new information and experiences.
You are the one to introduce new topics and information.
You are the one to bring them to new places.
You’re there to marvel over the wonderful things they discover.
You’re there to share the wonderful things you discover.
You’re there to share your interests and hobbies, and to be fascinated by theirs.
You set an example by your behaviour, of how people should behave.
Your manners teach your children about good manners.
Your love shows them what it is like to be loved.
They learn how to treat their friends and family by seeing how you treat yours.
You’re there to take them home when they are in situations that they can’t handle.
You’re there to cheer them on when they handle difficult situations well.
You’re there when they need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to talk to about why something happened the way it did (whether it is you or them doing the figuring)
You’re there to listen when they need someone to talk to. Someone who can just listen if that is what they need, or give advice or sympathy if that is what they want.

As your children get older, you are still there to tell them of the fascinating things you discover, and to hear what they are fascinated by. 

You’re there to marvel over the new things that they discover.
You’re there to drive them places until they get their own license.
You’re there for talks about boys and girls and romance.
You’re there to give opinions on drinking and driving, and drugs and teen suicide, and other things that are important to teens.
You’re there to support them when they make decisions they regret, without saying “I told you so”
You’re still there to help them find info that they can’t find themselves.
To encourage their dreams.
To sympathize with their disappointments.

You are still a parent, you are just not a controlling parent. You trust that they will be able to control themselves.


For all of this you must have trust in your children, and they must have trust in you. For unschooling of any kind to work, you need to have trust.

- You have to trust that your children are capable people.
- You have to trust that they will want and be able to learn.
- You have to trust that your children are capable of making good choices.
- You have to be willing to listen without judging.
- Your children have to trust that you will not ridicule their choices.
- Trust that you will listen and advise when advice is wanted, but that you won’t insist that the child follow that advice.
- Your child has to feel that you trust her to choose well

There are also many unschoolers who do not believe that academic unschooling is possible. They say that if you trust your children to learn “academic” things, you should trust them in all things. Also, since everyone learns by all their activities, control of food, bedtime, etc is also life learning, and by limiting control of this you limit what your children will learn.

This trust does not include their other life choices. In other words, if you are academically unschooling, you still make the choices, or at least must approve the choices, for bedtime, food, clothes, etc. Anything that does not involve school recognized learning. Sometimes, but not always, academic unschooling leads to radical unschooling as parents see how well their children choose.

Post Secondary…Or Not.

One of the most common questions I get as an unschooler is “can you get into college or university?”. Another big one is “so what are you doing now?” since I’m one of these mythical grown unschoolers, and people are always really interested in hearing my answer to that.

Firstly, unschoolers can definitely get into university. Unschooling is considered by universities to be under the wider banner of homeschooling, and as I think everyone here probably already knows, most universities have a special protocol set up for homeschoolers at this point, and some universities are even specifically seeking out homeschoolers, including unschoolers. Last time I heard, homeschoolers still aren’t able to easily get into CEGEP, if at all, though I’m sure the workshop on legalities of homeschooling in Quebec would have more to say on that subject.

However, I kind of object to this idea that’s so prevalent in our culture that you MUST go on to “higher education” to be “successful”. There are so many different paths out there, and only a few of them require a university degree above all else. The things I’m most interested in, and the things I think I might like to do as jobs in the future, include writing and editing, being a vegetarian cook or caterer, teaching primitive skills, and being an herbalist, or natural medicine consultant. None of these things require your typical university degree. In that vein, I’d like to share the words of of an unschooling mother, Ren Allen:

"I hope my children are not prepared for college at all. I hope they're
not prepared to hand over years and years of their lives for a thin
sliver of hope at a job they'll despise. I hope they're not prepared to
go into debt for that which does not feed their spirit, bring them joy
and ignite their passion for learning. I hope they can't do mindless
recitation of facts that mean nothing to them. I hope they're not
prepared for anything less than exactly what they love.”
As for what I’m doing now, I often have trouble answering this question, because I feel like what people really mean when they ask this is are you in school, or are you working fulltime, because those are usually the two options people think you should be doing if you’re 18 or older. And I’m 19, by the way. But what I’m doing is organizing local unschooling meetings, organizing, along with my mother, the first ever Summer Montreal Unschoolers Gathering, an event going on this summer that’s really exciting. I’m putting together the second issue of a zine I publish, called DIY Life Zine. I’m writing lots, blogging lots. I’ve been asked to speak at an unschooling conference in the fall. I’m really putting effort into finding/building local community, because in recent years I’ve found a lovely North America wide community, but I still kind of feel a lack of community here. I’m still learning and growing as much as I ever was when I was younger, and still trying to figure a lot of stuff out. But, I feel like I’m on the right path, and that things are going to work out well. I hope I’m right!
Thank you for reading!



  1. Just found your blog today (link was on some anti-civ site or other). Really interesting stuff! I'm reading Jensen and Quinn, but I never really considered formal education's role in civilization until I saw the ABC segment and went looking for an insider perspective like yours.

    You're awesome, keep up the good work!

  2. For people newly introduced to the practice of unschooling,the idea could seem terrifying and even laughable. You've done a good job of presenting it.
    One thing that still baffles me though (as an unschooling parent) is 'unfooding.' Have you heard of that? Letting your kids eat whatever they want? Drink pop? Eat chips and cookies all the time? I don't think so. I guess it would work though, if all that was available to eat was good food. It wouldn't be an issue then.

  3. @Bethany: Thank you!! :-)

    @Coleus: Cool! I love both Jensen and Quinn... :-) It seems many people, even more radical sorts, don't really think much about the schooling system, and what negative effects it might have... I guess I see things differently since I came to unschooling first, THEN anti-civ stuff! Anyway, thank you very much! :-)

    @Debra: Thanks! :-)

    @rfs: Thank you! I've never heard the term "unfooding", but I'm entirely in support of parents supporting their children in making their own food choices (as most (all?) radical unschoolers do). If unschooling parents realize that their children are capable of making other important decisions in their life, like choosing what they do with their time (the heart of unschooling), I don't really understand how people can think children aren't capable of making other choices in their life, like when to go to bed and what food to eat... My personal experience with many radical unschooling families (who do not control food) is that their children make largely healthy choices. Everyone, children included, know what makes them feel good or bad when they eat it. Eating only greasy, sugary food doesn't feel very good! So as long as parents provide lots of healthy food choices as well, I don't really think it's an issue...

  4. I have been getting a lot of questions lately like 'but how do you learn?' and 'when do you make time for school work?' and 'how are you going to get into college?' and I can never seem to put it as simply as you do. But then again, 'I'm learning by living'/'don't need to make time for "school work"' doesn't seem to be the answer most people want for any of those questions.

  5. @JZ_hill: I find that a short answer NEVER works when explaining unschooling (after this speech, we spent 1 1/2 hours answering questions!). If you're going to explain unschooling, I've learned you're going to have to answer about a dozen questions before they even *start* to get it! It can be pretty frustrating trying to put things in a way that is most likely to be understood... Wish I had any words of wisdom for this, but I think patience and a willingness to explain, and explain several different ways, is the way that most often works!