Follow our family's journey as we seek to nourish our souls with music and literature, good company, great cooking, time spent in nature, and always, the love of Christ especially through the sacraments of His Church.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What is this unschooling thing, anyway?

Recently ABC News did a piece on an "unschooling" family, creating great controversy with sensationalist reporting. It seems that, not uncharacteristically, the mainstream news sought an extreme example in order to make the world gasp. I thought that the portrayal was rather shocking, but to my mind, the problem was that it failed to paint a broad enough picture for anyone to even understand the subject. Just searching on my own and reading a few blog posts "from the horse's mouth" have given me a much more complete view of this unique type of education.

This past year I've investigated the whole concept of unschooling with curiosity. I find the very term "unschooling"  negative and misleading. Don't you just think "not schooling" when you hear it? As in, "not learning"? That would be a grossly erroneous conclusion (ahem, ABC). Some families have tried to rename the concept, which does in fact have many shades of meaning. Interest-led learning. Relaxed learning. One moniker that I find intriguing is "tidal homeschooling" - meaning the lessons ebb and flow with the seasons, with the liturgical (Church) year, and with the family's natural rhythms of life, birth, growth.

Inside all the terminology is a lifestyle based on natural curiosity and unhindered discovery. Learning stems from life experiences which are not boxed in to age groups or sharply-defined subject boundaries. There's no time of day when you're "in school" or "out of school". To our very limited experience of school, here and now in our culture, it seems alien. But it's really not strange at all. One thinks of Abraham Lincoln reading by the fire, working in the fields, giving speeches to the tree stumps in between his chores. Basically self-educated, he followed his passion all the way to the White House. Learning through apprenticeship was once very common as well. The world is full of wonders, and it's a lucky young person who is given the freedom to explore and pursue them at will. Everything is interesting when a child learns freely. As a parent to a child who resists outside pressure to do anything, including learning, I've discovered for myself the merit of following the natural inclination to discover. In our case, it's freeing for all of us, and I consider it a gift to have had to explore this path.

Importantly, unschooling parents are not lazy. They are often relaxed. But they are always watching for opportunities, seeking to know their child's strengths and interests, cultivating a home atmosphere to nurture the sprouts of genius in each child and to pass on their most cherished values. Those with several children may employ different methods with each child, as one loves to do math workbooks for fun, and one wants to build things with his hands. Many times, different methods are tried and abandoned and tried again later, or cycles of bookwork follow cycles of fieldwork. Over-arching is the peaceful integration of learning with normal life.

One thing I've noticed about the unschooling crowd is the diversity of sources from which they draw learning opportunities. Of course, books are the backbone of learning in many cases, but not often textbooks. Electronic sources are shunned by some and embraced by others. Outside activities are common, from simple nature hikes to community involvement and a broad range of real-life exposure. Sometimes the kids run their own businesses or work with a parent. The one sure thing is that there is no one way to do this education. It's as diverse as the many families who practice it - an estimated 100,000 in the USA.

As I have mulled over the various shades of non-traditional education recently, the metaphor I see in my mind is that of a huge tree. Institutional education is set up for everyone to learn the exact layout of the trunk and where each branch is, and exactly how far it is from the other branches. The alternative educational view is more like the freedom for each child to play among the branches, finding a nest or examining the seeds and flowers, wandering from one branch to another and taking the time to find out more. It's also comparable to driving on a main road according to a map, versus wandering through neighborhoods and exploring. As anyone can see, both have their merits.

I'm still investigating. Like many parent educators, my method is in flux. I see advantages in many kind of learning. I try different things. As a control freak, I'm scared to abandon my textbooks! I worry that my husband will think I'm crazy. But we both watch in awe as our kids learn and flourish and go in directions that they clearly didn't get from either of us. Maybe you'd like to explore, too. I'm posting some links in my sidebar to share what I've been reading. But be careful! Pretty soon you might be finding that institutional schooling feels strange. You might even feel sorry for that kid waiting for the school bus. It's a slippery slope, my friend! I'll keep you posted on how things unfold.

Melissa Wiley on Tidal Homeschooling
Math learned naturally
A relaxed take on learning

(photo credit)


  1. Brilliant article! Very well said and thoughtful. I agree that "unschooling" is a misleading name for this way to raise our children. I personally like "interest-led." Looks like your kids are already doing it. :)

    I love your photos. Did you take them?

    And thanks for linking to some of my posts on your sidebar. :)

  2. Thanks, Jena! That means a lot to me, coming from you :) The two middle photos are mine. The first one on the post looks JUST like my oldest but it's a stock photo, LOL. Thanks for visiting! Come again!

  3. This is indeed a great post. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Ahh, Lynn. That was very well written and points to something Kathryn and I were discussing last week. She has a book with lots of questions for your "friends." I was the target that day and one question was, "Which of your friends are you most unlike?" That was not a hard one to answer, Mrs. Baunach, and your name jumped right out of my mouth! So nice that we can be on opposite ends of the spectrum and still respect each other's views. I can see merit in a mixture of the traditional and the interest-led. For me, I spend my summers, nights, and weekends with interest-led learning. The world is a classroom, but I value the structure of traditional learning as well. As long as you ensure your children are learning the basics, I think it's a personal choice. Now, if you say "Kid A doesn't like math so we don't do much," I have a problem. I'm always open to new ideas...well, sort of : )

  5. This is one of the most thoughtful posts I've read on this subject. I, like you, am finding my footing and definitely prefer the terms "interest-led learning" and "relaxed homeschooling."

    (As my kids watch "Man Vs Wild in the background. ;-))

  6. This is probably one of the best posts I have read about "unschooling". I find the word misleading as well. I like using "delight directed" or "interest-led learning".

    Many blessings :)

  7. Ashley! I found a name for what you do. It's called "after-schooling" :P Really, I just saw a group for it. And I know that about you - we aren't so different at heart, really. One of the posts I linked (Where art thou, Reggio) was because I liked her mix of 3 Rs and unschooling. So many different levels of this adventure! Thanks for being here and keeping an eye on me ;)(Say hello to my Special K!)

  8. This is a great article. My twins are only 4, but I am so excited they will grow up led by their interests and passions. I see my role as continually introducing them to more things, to make the world more accessible to them. They are free to take whatever they want of it. As of now, they sure take a lot of it!