How to unschool

So if from one movie a child learns one bit about Napoleon and from another there's a sight gag about Wellington, and on Animaniacs they get some more Napoleon, who will do better on some standardized-test answer on Napoleon, that kid or one whose mom plunked in a documentary on Napoleon?

Not the right question. ;-) If the goal is doing well on standardized tests then making a child sit through a documentary or read a textbook is better than unschooling.

But unschoolers want something better than good performance on standardized tests! :-)

Maybe it's helpful -- rather than thinking in terms of helping kids learn about something that they may not yet be interested in -- to think in terms of finding things they will enjoy.

An Animaniacs or Histeria cartoon, or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure will give them good feelings about Napoleon rather than the "this is boring" feelings the "important" facts in a textbook or forced documentary might. The first will likely stay in their heads and cause their ears to prick up when they hear more bits about Napoleon. The second will likely leak out as soon as they are free to forget and will cause them to shut their ears when they hear more bits about (dry, boring) Napoleon.

I just don't have the first CLUE where to begin!

Begin with your kids. What do they like? Don't even think in terms of school. What do they do over the summer? What kind of things make them happiest?

Sometimes it's tough to determine what schooled kids like because a great deal of their off time is spent doing things to recover from school pressures. :-/ Probably what my mother would have listed for me is watching TV and reading Nancy Drew ;-) -- which isn't much indicative of anything other than being stressed by school!

Live life with them. :-) Do things that they enjoy because that's where their interests lie and where they will draw their careers, jobs and direction their lives will take from.

And you'll need time for deschooling. They need to recover from being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it for 11 years. They may not even know what their interests are since they haven't had time to leisurely explore anything.

Someone mentioned The Teenage Liberation Handbook. Excellent book! Try to get the 1998 edition since she did some extensive reworking on it.

Sandra said: "Instead of thinking of it as 'quitting school,' think of it as welcoming her to real life early!" I really like that! It's scary getting released from school. You realize how little you know about life after being locked away for 12 years. But of course most of us are still convinced it was all necessary. (12 years of being told how important it is is pretty good brainwashing.) But the stuff we need will be the stuff we use which is the stuff we would have learned anyway doing the things that interest us.

You've talked a lot about what he isn't doing. You haven't told us anything that he is doing.

Real learning doesn't look like academics. It looks like playing. That's why kids do it :-)

Don't think in terms of field trips. Field trips are for schools. Think about fun places to go that you and he might normally do on a weekend or over the summer if you were already confident that the school were handling his education. Go for walks. Go shopping and stop and admire his admiration of what he calls you to see. Take him to places where he can do the kinds of things he enjoys doing (rollerblading, biking, whatever). Go for leisurely trips to museums and just look at the stuff he wants to.

I suspect he's picking up the nervousness that's coming through loud and clear in your post. He can feel you hovering over him waiting for him to do something that will calm your fears.

Calming your fears isn't his job. Your fears are your own. His "job" is to live the life of an 8 year old. Let him do and be an 8 year old rather than a product in preparation for adulthood. Kids spend way too much time training to be adults. There's a reason kids are 8. It's a stage they need to pass through and he only gets one chance at it! He needs to be involved in 8 yo things. His 8 yo things. Nintendo. TV. Games. Puzzles. Tickling. Seeing if he can cram a whole hamburger into his mouth. ;-) Playing with friends.

Don't hand him books. Snuggle up on the couch under a quilt and hot chocolate and read to him. Put books on tape on in the car. Watch movie versions of favorite books and talk about what you liked and didn't like. Your job isn't to make him read. Your job is to make sure he has pleasurable experiences with reading. And has reasons that are meaningful to him to read. (Like if he likes to play video games, make sure he has the guides. It will be reading for meaning.)

I am very relaxed about what she reads, I just want her to read!

How about turning your concerns around and looking at them from a different point of view.

Husband: "I don't care what my wife reads, I just want her to read!"

"My wife basically just wants to do the things that interest her all day, without ANY of the things I think are worth while for her to do."

How would you want him to spark interests in you?

If it were me, I wouldn't want my husband watching me and judging that what I was doing wasn't good enough and judging that I should be more interested in things he thinks are worth while!

Unschooling doesn't look like kids pursuing academic things on their own. It really does look like play. The reason kids like to play is because that's how they're hardwired to learn. :-)

Unschooling can be frustrating for parents because it doesn't look like it's headed anywhere.

Unschooling is a kind of balance between letting them be and providing access to the world. If you aren't pursuing interests on your own for your own enjoyment, then is it reasonable to expect her to? It'll work a lot better if you do things and provide access because you want to share things with her and because you think they're enjoyable not because you want her to be interested. You may end up going to the same places and doing the same things you would if you were more school oriented, but your attitude will be different. She won't unconsciously pick up any pressure that this is something you want her to do.

And you might want to reassess what her interests are. It's what she plays and what she does in her free time that's important.

So what does she play when alone and with friends? What kind of things does she do on her own? What kind of programs or movies are her favorites? What kind of books does she read when she does choose something? (Do you still read to her? Kids' listening level tends to be at a higher level than their reading level so we shouldn't stop reading to them when they can read. Books on tape are good too, especially when doing crafts and sometimes for cleaning too.)

Maybe it's an oversimplification, but sometimes I think unschooling is not all that different from schooly stuff, just in its pace and timing. Any thoughts?

The huge difference is that the interest is child owned. How the parent then facilitates the child exploring that interest will be different for each child and each parent. It may at times resemble something kids would do in school. Most times it won't.

Maybe, as a beginning point, look at it as how you'd like your husband to help you explore an interest.

You'd probably appreciate it if he happened to notice a book or video or article or event that might interest you and point them out to you or buy them for you. You wouldn't want him to take over the interest and feel your learning was his responsibility and how much you learned depended entirely on how well he performed for you. You wouldn't want him to overwhelm you with an itinerary of things to do. You wouldn't want him hovering over you to see how much and how well you were learning. I think you'd appreciate being left alone to explore at your own pace, to delve as deeply or shallowly as whimsy strikes you. Any help he gave you would be a gift with no strings attached.

Of course kids are different. Younger kids generally aren't scanning the list of week's activities in the newspaper and may not even care to look up books at the library. (The process of finding the information and sorting out the useful from the not useful can be overwhelming.) So we need to be more active, but still recognize that the child owns the interest and should have the freedom to explore as deeply or shallowly as he or she wishes. We just make sure the resources are available. (And if we get frustrated with them not digging deep enough, then we should dig deeper for ourselves :-)

How does this happen? How do our kids just learn?

How did they learn to speak English? This is an incredibly amazing process that kids start out without even realizing language exists and within a few years have mastered it. We shrug it off as mysterious but trivial because all kids do it.

But I think we really need to pay attention to that incredible process. They learn English purely as a side effect of living life and trying to get what they want. A bit of English is a useful tool they happened to pick up and use one day because it was more effective than pointing. And the more they find it useful and the more they pick it up the better at it they get. (And then compare how effective that process is to how effective formal foreign language instruction is.)

Everything is like that. Math and science and history and writing are all tools we use to get what we want and explore the world. Adding 15+23 isn't important. What's important is who is winning the game. And how much allowance they have accumulated versus how much they need. And how far away this trip is compared to a trip they know well. And how much longer until Daddy gets home. And how can we double 3/4 cup so we can make a double batch of cookies. Kids pick up how numbers work (and nature and people and communication) by using the tools. Despite what years of torturous math instruction has led us to believe, kids don't need to be told to work numbers in order to work them. They figure them out. Just as they figured out the intricacies of the English language.

He is concerned about, how do kids just know what to learn. (This is a very hard question to ask, the words aren't coming.)

Unlike what school leads us to believe, they don't need to know what they'll need ahead of time. They just grab what they need as they need it. Each piece slowly builds into a larger picture. And because they're interested, they will be absorbing stuff other just because it's interesting.

We are told that we need to understand before we use. But that isn't true. If it were, toddlers would never learn to speak!

Unschooling is the way kids teach themselves HTML and Java. It's they way they learn complex trading card games (like Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon) that baffle parents. It's the way they figure out their way around computers and the internet. It's the way they learn fancy skateboarding techniques.

They won't have to figure out everything on their own. They will naturally get together with others who like the same things, they read, we help them out, they watch videos and so on.

One point is that learning that way doesn't take nearly as long as it does when forced to in school. Plus there aren't years of experience with learning being dull. If a kid needs math to explore what he wants to in college, he'll have learned (by using) enough math to get him as far as he is and can build on that understanding to get the rest of what he needs. It won't take him years. It will take months at most.

I guess what I am meaning is, if we don't direct them to say Ancient Egypt or something else, how will they arrive there?

Do they want to go to Ancient Egypt? If they do it's because somewhere somehow they stumbled across something about Ancient Egypt that intrigued them.

It isn't up to us to make sure they get Ancient Egypt. It's up to us to make sure there are interesting things in their lives to encounter. We put interesting things in their paths: books, items, trips to places, movies, conversations, people. Ancient Egypt is just one of many interesting things that include spies and hippopotamuses and Zoombinis and drawing and Dragonball Z and ...

Rarely will the Ancient Egypt they stumble on look like the Ancient Egypt of textbooks. It will look like The Mummy or hieroglyphs kit or a story set around The Great Pyramids at Gaza or hearing that Ancient Egyptians revered cats. It will be one or many things that form an impression that Ancient Egypt is cool.

Then you'll say, hmm, maybe if I pointed out a show or brought home a book or a kit on hieroglyphs or pyramids or mummies .... And you can gauge how much more to direct depending on their level of interest.

But their learning won't be about "topics" like Ancient Egypt. If you see learning as needing to acquire a particular chunk of information you won't be able to see learning when they're playing.

 
 
 
Last updated: April 2009