Unschooling looks like life.
Like an endlessly unfolding summer vacation, minus the warm weather (unless you live a lot closer to the equator than I do!), but with one big difference: the kids don’t spend it decompressing, burning off steam from months of strict schedules and the stress to perform. And they don’t end up complaining they are bored because someone isn’t telling them what to do. Instead, they are busily pursuing the things that interest them.
In contrast, what does learning look like at school? The vast majority of us parents went to school, so we understand that process quite well: there’s a curriculum that dictates what we learn; a teacher that tries to help us understand it; and a test that determines if we remember it. Repeat that loop over different subjects and many years. It is an exacting process designed to meet its goal: teaching large numbers of students a defined collection of information and skills, within a set number of years.
The big question is: how does pretty picture number one accomplish the learning that so many of us have been taught to think has to look like picture number two?
To answer that, let’s dig into some of the ways unschooling differs from school and why.
(1) No curriculum
Unschoolers don’t buy into the idea that everyone needs to know a generalized (and sometimes out-dated) set of skills and information by a certain age. Understanding that people are unique and will end up doing different things as adults, unschooling parents see it as more effective for their children to focus on learning the things that interest them. Those interesting things have a better chance than a generic curriculum of leading to the skills and information that will support their personal work and life as an adult. It’s what they like to do now, and is likely a step on the path to what they will choose to do in the future. They follow their interests, their curiosity, instead of a curriculum.
What about that certain set of skills and knowledge that is needed to get along in society? Since unschooling kids are living and learning in the real world, interacting with people in their society as they grow up, they will encounter occasions where those basic skills and knowledge come in handy, and they will pick them up then.
(2) Supportive atmosphere
But not following a curriculum doesn’t mean that unschooling parents are doing nothing. Instead, you’ll be replacing it with a supportive learning environment. One based not on an outline, but on your child’s interests. Instead of a teacher dispensing information and directing the children’s activities, unschooling parents are actively supporting their children as they follow their interests. The children’s goal isn’t learning, but doing what’s appealing to them. The really fascinating thing is that when living is the goal, learning is an incidental, yet wonderful and intense, process that happens along the way. *You* are the one who will see the learning, because you are the one looking for it—they are having fun and happen to be learning along the way. And in my experience, they are learning a lot!
Another way the atmosphere differs is that unschooling parents don’t believe children will actively avoid learning unless forced. My experience shows just the opposite! Children are interested in exploring the world around them. Just watch a toddler who has recently learned to walk! That doesn’t change as they get older, unless the adults in their lives take the enjoyment out of it by directing or forcing it.
(3) Focus on aspirations
Schools focus on teaching skills they believe students will need in the future. With unschooling, we pursue our interests and pick up the skills we need to accomplish our goals along the way—both kids and parents! The value isn’t in the skill; it’s in what you can do with it.
And the learning is much better from that perspective as well. Remember how often a teacher told you “you’ll need to know this when you’re older”? At least for me, that wasn’t compelling motivation to invest my time and energy. But what about when you have something you want to accomplish now? That’s when the skill or piece of information has significant meaning. There is a reason to do the work to understand the information or master the skill—you want to learn it so you can continue in pursuit of your goal. There’s also a much better chance you will remember it because it was of value and made a strong connection to your existing knowledge. That’s real learning—learning that is understood and remembered.
(4) Interact with people of all ages
Schools group students together by age—it’s the easiest way to deliver the curriculum sequentially. One downside is that the large number of students per teacher means there aren’t a lot of role models nearby; students learn a lot of their social skills from their age peers, who know as little as they do.
Instead of having their pool of potential friends and acquaintances limited to kids their own age that live in close proximity, unschooling children often have friends with a wide range of ages. But without that ready pool, how do unschoolers find friends? Through their interests. Karate. Building robots. Sports. Art. Video games. A shared interest is a much better basis for a developing friendship than age.
Having friends with a range of ages also gives children opportunities to nurture those that are younger or less experienced, actively play with those with similar interests and skill levels, and learn from those with more experience. Age is just not a defining factor outside the classroom, so neither is it a concern for unschoolers growing up day-to-day in the world.
(5) No vacation from learning
The learning is found in the living. Once your family is enmeshed in unschooling, it’s life. And there’s no need to take a vacation from life. Vacations are about exploring new places and experiencing fresh surroundings; not about escaping from obligations. Come June, my youngest is still asked if he gets the summer off and we just answer “No, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.” It’s a pretty meaningless concept when life is like summer vacation!
Those are just five of the many ways that unschooling looks different than school. It’s an entirely different way to live and learn! And it’s a lifestyle that not only supports real learning, but also the development of strong family relationships that will last far beyond the kids’ compulsory school years.