At its most basic, unschooling is about learning without a curriculum. Moving to unschooling can be scary because there is comfort in curriculum—comfort that soothes our fears. And near the top of that list is a fear that our children may not learn something they need to know.
Even as people learn more about unschooling and begin to see all the learning their children are doing in all sorts of situations, there are sometimes skills that parents think are so important that they are too scared to “leave to unschooling.” Usually they are basic skills, like reading or math, and they may say things like, “we unschool except for math.” Or, “once she can read then we’ll unschool.”
There a few of ways that this mindset can make unschooling more challenging for the family—parents and children. Let’s use math as an example. With this perspective, the parent looks at the topic and says, “I think math is so important that my child needs to learn it formally, with curriculum.”
How can that declaration undermine their unschooling?
First and foremost, it puts math on a pedestal, above everything else. It implies, “You can learn everything else as you encounter it, but math is a special case.” Special cases are intimidating. That’s the path to cultivating math phobia. It puts math out of the realm of the every day, whereas in reality, math is all around us. This “unschool except for math” stance may even be the result of the parents’ math fears: they feel intimidated and as such want to turn the topic over to an “expert” i.e. a curriculum. Yet if we aren’t careful, our fear can breed fear in our children. Pam Sorooshian wrote a great article about getting past your own math anxiety.
Second, it devalues unschooling. The child absorbs the message that, if they really want to learn something, if it’s important to them, they should use a curriculum. That can make unschooling learning a lot harder to recognize and respect. And it can lead children, especially as they get older, to fear that with unschooling they are being lazy, because “important, real learning needs to be done with a curriculum.”
And third, it can make learning math even more challenging for the child. By insisting on a curriculum for math only, the child internalizes the message that they aren’t capable of figuring out math on their own, that their parents don’t trust them. Yet curriculum isn’t often the most helpful way to learn something. They may memorize the symbols and procedures and what to do when they see them, but for solid learning and understanding, seeing it “in the wild,” the way the skills are used in the world, is very helpful. Out in the world, math doesn’t look like worksheets.
Like the opening of the TV show Numb3rs says, “We all use math everyday.” Unschooling will steep your child in the real world scope of math, which is much bigger than an arithmetic-centric curriculum. As unschooling parents, it helps if we can see the big picture of math in the world, not just the small slice in a curriculum. It’s precisely because math (and reading) are basic skills that our children will encounter them all the time. We just need to be able to recognize it when it happens.
So if fears are leading you to “unschool except for X,” it is definitely worth the time to dig into those fears, or else they may undermine your unschooling as a whole.
What other ways can fear of what our children are or are not learning manifest itself?
It’s not unusual to find pockets of fear even after unschooling for years. Maybe in conversation you realize your child isn’t very familiar with the provinces or states of your country, or doesn’t know that matter is made up of atoms, or whatever piece of knowledge you find useful or interesting in your life. All of a sudden you fear your unschooling child is missing chunks of vital information or skills.
How do I work my way through those moments?
By asking myself questions—after the rush of fear and adrenaline have passed. Deep breaths. Maybe it goes something like this:
Huh, they don’t seem to know X. Apparently they haven’t yet encountered X in their lives.
Why does that make me uncomfortable? Well, I had learned it in school by their age.
Was it something I really needed to know by that age? Well, I found it interesting enough to remember, but I guess the age at which they taught it was pretty arbitrary. Apparently not knowing it isn’t doing them any harm because here they stand.
Can I think of a situation they may encounter soon where that knowledge would be useful to them? Well, it came up in passing here, but probably not in conversations they’d have with others.
Would it be okay if they learn it whenever X comes up? Hmm. That seems to be working well so far.
What if X never comes up? Well then, I guess in their life, it wasn’t a useful piece of knowledge. I guess that’s possible.
Do I think they might find it an interesting bit of knowledge about the world? Yes/not right now.
If I think so, I typically watch for moments when I might bring it up in a related conversation. If related conversations don’t happen in the near future, no wonder they haven’t encountered it yet, their mind is busily focused elsewhere!
I could certainly blurt it out at any old time, but then it’s more of a random fact than a connected piece of information, so it’s less likely to spark conversation and understanding i.e. learning. That’s more like teaching to an uninterested audience—it doesn’t do much. And if I do that too often, my child might start tuning me out.
Yes, unschooling learning isn’t predictable. Our children follow their curiosity instead of a curriculum. That means that at any given time they may know lots about one thing and little about another. But that learning is rich and lasting. It’s also one of the reasons why, with unschooling, we look at learning from a lifelong perspective. We aren’t tasked with a finished output, a “graduating student.” We realize the container of all that may be learned is large and ever-changing, and that the order in which we learn things matters little when we look at learning separately, yet is key when we look at the grand scheme of life. Learn what you are engaged and interested in now.
Learning is always happening, throughout our children’s lives. And our own. With unschooling, learning and living are beautifully woven together. Our fears are woven in there as well, and we can choose the threads of response that we want to bring to the tapestry of our lives.