Unschooling: Reclaiming the Term

John Holt, the well-known author and homeschooling pioneer, coined the term “unschooling” in November 1977 in the second issue of his fledgling newsletter for homeschoolers, Growing Without Schooling (GWS).

In this issue, Holt writes:

GWS will say ‘unschooling’ when we mean taking children out of school, and ‘deschooling’ when we mean changing the laws to make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to grade, rank, and label people i.e. to make lasting, official, public judgments about them.”

It’s fascinating to consider how these terms have evolved since Holt’s definitions emerged. While initially meant to describe removing children from school, unschooling today is often more narrowly defined as a specific homeschooling approach that is self-directed rather than curriculum-driven. The term deschooling has also evolved from Holt’s initial definition advocating for eliminating compulsory schooling laws that was largely influenced by his interactions with Ivan Illich, the author of the 1970 book, Deschooling Society.

Today, “deschooling” is often thought of as the period of time it takes a child who has been schooled to overcome a schooled mindset and reignite her natural learning instincts. As most of us adults were also schooled, the modern use of the “deschooling” term applies to us as well, as we try to shed the idea that one needs to be schooled in order to learn.

Language changes, and it is no wonder that as the homeschooling population has soared over the last four decades its terms would also be stretched and shaped. This is a sign of success. Holt never imagined that more than two percent of the U.S. school-age population would be homeschooled; today, the percent is nearly double that.

I appreciate what the term “unschooling” now means for many families, particularly for the homeschooling families who navigate the many educational philosophies and approaches available to them in search of the best fit. I also think it is worthwhile to reclaim the term’s origins and dig deeper into Holt’s initial message–not because we should change how we currently use the language of unschooling, but so that we can expand it.

In the first pages of Holt’s inaugural issue of GWS, he writes about his disinterest in alternative schools except to the degree that they allow more families to take or keep their children out of conventional schools. Holt writes:

GWS will not be much concerned with schools, even alternative or free schools, except as they may enable people to keep their children out of school by 1) calling their own home a school, or 2) enrolling their children, as some have already, in schools near or far which then approve a home study program.”

In other words, Holt wasn’t supporting alternative schools but alternatives to school that would enable more parents to remove children from conventional schooling for unschooling–often using homeschooling as a legal designation where necessary. At the time, before homeschooling was fully legally recognized in all U.S. states by 1993, these alternatives may have been the only option for some families. I would argue that today, for many families, these alternatives to school are also the only option they have for abandoning forced schooling for unschooling. While there are plenty of single parents and two working parents who make family-centered unschooling work beautifully, for many parents this is not possible.

There are also many families who are deeply committed to unschooling but find as their children grow that their kids crave new and different opportunities, often surrounded by a gaggle of other kids. Some of these children end up going to school after years of homeschooling. With more alternatives to school, Holt’s vision of enabling “people to keep their children out of school” would be more widely successful.

By reclaiming Holt’s initial definition of the word “unschooling” to mean “taking children out of school,” and appreciating his tolerance for alternatives to school that make unschooling more possible for more families, we can help to make unschooling a more expansive, comprehensive term. We can affirm the homeschooling families who allow their children to learn at home and throughout their community in a self-directed way, while also embracing alternatives to school that empower parents to take charge of their child’s education and remove them from forced schooling.

And while homeschooling is now legal in the U.S., (but sadly not elsewhere) thanks to the efforts of Holt and others, compulsory schooling laws continue to define education as schooling and trap young people in coercive schooling environments for most of their childhood. I wrote recently about the Four Things That Would Happen If We Eliminate Compulsory Schooling Laws, including a disentangling of education from schooling.

So while the modern use of the term “deschooling” is helpful and important in allowing children (and ourselves!) ample time and space for detaching from a schooled mindset of learning, we would be wise to also expand its definition to include Holt’s vision for challenging compulsory schooling laws as a whole. In fact, in his 1981 book, Teach Your Own, Holt writes:

“At first I did not question the compulsory nature of schooling. But by 1968 or so I had come to feel strongly that the kinds of changes I wanted to see in schools, above all in the ways teachers related to students, could not happen as long as schools were compulsory.”

However we use the terms “unschooling” and “deschooling” the goal is clear: Help more parents to remove their children from coercive schools and create a world in which education is separate and distinct from schooling.

Originally published at Whole Family Learning.

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An Unschooling Tale: From Watching YouTube to Reading Financial Statements

It started with a “Dude Perfect” video on YouTube. A couple of years ago, when Jack was very interested in basketball, he found these guys who create fun videos about making baskets with all sorts of twists and turns. He continued to watch these videos, even after his interest in basketball waned; and when his interest in photography sprouted, he followed the basket-swishers on Instagram. It was there that Jack first learned about the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The “dudes” posted a video of a young boy with muscular dystrophy who had an opportunity to be in a “Dude Perfect” YouTube video as part of Make-A-Wish’s efforts to grant wishes to critically ill children. Jack was mesmerized. He visited the Make-A-Wish Instagram page and was increasingly curious.

Jack then asked if I knew about the organization. I said I had a vague understanding of their mission, but suggested he visit their website to find out more. He read to me the gripping story about the organization’s beginnings to its current impact. I was in tears. He explored much of the site, reading more stories and learning more about the different chapters. He decided to make an online donation, giving 20 percent of his total savings to this organization that captivated him. He wanted to know how much Make-A-Wish’s total annual donations amounted to. I suggested he search on Wikipedia, but he couldn’t find the information there so he returned to the organization’s website and downloaded their 2017 annual report and analyzed their audited financial statements to determine annual revenue and expenses, all on his own.

Were you voluntarily reading financial statements at age nine? I certainly wasn’t. And I’m fairly certain that the first time I read one was to prepare for a test, not because I was personally curious about an organization’s economic health.

This is unschooling. This is where attaining strong literacy and numeracy skills meet individual interests and innate childhood curiosity. This was not forced. This was not part of a curriculum or an objective to get my child to do something or to learn something. It sprouted from a circuitous path of emerging and waning interests to a current desire to learn more about a specific topic. It involved my adult presence and support and interest in his interest, and my encouragement of his knowledge-seeking. This is how parents and educators create the conditions necessary for self-education.

If someone asks what an interest in basketball has to do with “real” learning or how watching YouTube videos can be “educational,” this is a good example of how genuine interests lead to deep learning–when those interests and that learning are supported by grown-ups.

In her article, “How Do They Know That?” long-time unschooling author and advocate, Wendy Priesnitz, writes about the natural and enduring ways children learn without schooling. She explains that the difficulty in imagining how one could learn without school is firmly rooted in our own schooled experience, in our own conditioning. She writes:

“The elephant in the room is that much of what is supposedly learned in school isn’t really learned at all. It is mostly material that has been memorized, whether it be history dates, mathematical formulae, or the difference between a verb and a noun. Absent any interest in learning the material and any context for it, as well as sufficient time to experiment with, adapt, and apply the information, I do not think that we can call this process learning. Rather, it is memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting. (Why else would teachers and some parents bemoan the ‘ground lost’ during summer vacation?!)”

Independent of curriculum and assessment, learning outside of conventional schooling happens organically through real-life immersion in the people, places, and things around us–both real and virtual. When young people are supported in their self-education, and when we adults respect their interests and encourage their curiosity, they learn and do remarkable things: things (like reading financial statements), that many of us would otherwise only do when forced.

Originally published at Whole Family Learning.

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Unschooling Has No “Last Day”

When I was a child, I remember counting the days until the end of the school year. Once June hit, I would mark off on the calendar the field trip day to a museum and “field day, with its tug-of-war and potato sack races. Those days wouldn’t “count” in my total remaining days of the school year because they wouldn’t actually be school days. They would be fun. And I loved school! Yet, today I wonder: If I loved school so much, why was I always so eager for it to end?

My Instagram feed fills this time of year with photos announcing the last day of school, for both homeschoolers and conventional schoolers alike. Often, these photos are accompanied by a “first day of school” photo from the fall, showing the beginning and the end. I get it. Childhood moves so quickly that we crave tangible markers of the passage of time, visible measures of growth.

These photos are a vivid reminder of how different unschooling is from standard schooling or school-at-home. With unschooling, there is no beginning and end, no start and stop. I can’t even imagine having a “last day of the school year” photo for my kids. What would it look like? The last day of what?

For unschoolers, learning is woven into the continuous, year-round, natural process of living. It is not separated into certain subject silos or reserved for a specified number of hours or days. It is not orchestrated by a linear, sequential curriculum determining how, when, and in what ways a human will learn. It is not pre-determined. It is not forced.

In How Children Fail, John Holt describes how children become conditioned to be taught, to be coerced into learning, to be prodded with bribes and punishments. Children learn that this is what it means to be educated, that others hold the puppet strings. They learn that learning is not within themselves but at the command of others. Holt writes:

“This idea that children won’t learn without outside rewards and penalties, or in the debased jargon of the behaviorists, ‘positive and negative reinforcements,’ usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat children long enough as if that were true, they will come to believe it is true. So many people have said to me, ‘If we didn’t make children do things, they wouldn’t do anything.’ Even worse, they say, ‘If I weren’t made to do things, I wouldn’t do anything.’

It is the creed of a slave.” (italics in original)

My kids read, write, do math, and explore all sorts of topics all year long–not because we tell them to read, write, calculate, and explore, but because they are genuinely excited about learning. They have not been trained otherwise. They read books that they love, ask daily if they can do Prodigy Math on the computer because it is so much fun, write blog posts or scripts or emails or stories because they decide to do so–not because they are cajoled into it. They have no reason to think that math is only something one does during certain seasons or as an “enrichment” activity. They can’t imagine a forced writing or reading assignment. They write and read because they want to, because it’s useful and enjoyable. They have no mental model to think that reading, writing, and arithmetic are somehow onerous subjects to be avoided, or only reserved for certain times and places.

My 11-year-old daughter has been taking a rigorous fiction writing class through Outschool.com, an online learning platform for kids. The class is taught by an award-winning fiction writer and incorporates live group discussions with her classmates around the world and ongoing writing expectations and feedback. It is quite a commitment, but it is something that she is passionate about, that she is driving. As an unschooling parent, I connected her to Outschool as a possible resource, as well as other local writing classes, and she found that this online class was the best fit for her writing goals. She writes all the time, enthusiastically prepares for her class, and connects with many of her classmates around the globe through Google Hangouts. She also knows that if this course no longer meets her needs, she can leave. So far, she has no interest in leaving and signed on for a three-month summer extension of the course. I found it interesting that some of her other summer classmates are homeschoolers.

Non-coercive, self-directed, interest-driven, adult-facilitated learning has no first day and last day. Unschooling is interconnected with daily life, and authentic learning isn’t tied to an arbitrary calendar. There is no ending my children are anticipating this month. If there was something they didn’t want to be doing, they wouldn’t be doing it.

Summertime rhythms will be similar to springtime ones. They will continue to play with friends and pursue passions. Tomorrow will look much like yesterday and next week. We’ll do just as much swimming in September as we do in June. Reading, writing, arithmetic–and so much more–will be explored, freely and joyfully. Photos or not.

Originally published at Whole Family Learning.

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Unschooling is not ‘Lord of the Flies’

I recently read William Golding’s classic 1954 book, Lord of the Flies, to Jack (age 9). Unschooling is often cartoonishly characterized by critics as a Lord of the Flies environment, where chaos ensues. In the story, young boys stranded on a deserted island devolve into tribalism and savagery.

There is an important difference between freedom and chaos. With freedom, comes responsibility; without that responsibility, and the fetters it naturally creates, chaos could reign.

In the book, the absence of adults to model and nurture responsibility is palpably felt. Adults matter to children. They guide, protect, tend, reassure, and mediate. The lack of calm, care, and stability that adults offer children is what ultimately triggers the boys’ downfall. Of course, the great lesson from this great book is that it isn’t just children who would descend into brutality when calm, care, and stability are missing; it’s all of us.

Unschooling requires a significant adult commitment and ongoing role. Whether they are unschooling parents or educators working in a self-directed learning center or unschooling school, adults are central to unschooling’s success. They hold the space for children, maintain calm, and tend to their needs. They facilitate children’s self-directed learning by identifying and supporting a child’s interests and connecting those interests to available resources.

Most importantly, adults model freedom and responsibility. Unschooled children are granted tremendous freedom in their lives and in their learning, but they must also assume responsibility – for their actions and for their interactions. For example, most of the unschooling centers and schools that I visited while researching my forthcoming ‘Unschooled’ book, have clear expectations for clean-up and chores, for acceptable behaviors and obligations. In some cases, these expectations are drafted by the children themselves, in community with adults, as part of their school’s philosophy of democratic self-governance. In other cases, they are established by the adults running the space and agreed to by the young people who attend.

Similarly, most unschooling families have explicit or implicit expectations for freedom balanced by responsibility in their own homes and communities. My children have chores and responsibilities, just as we adults do, in contributing to the smooth functioning of our shared home. We also all try to live and learn respectfully with one another and in accordance with our own values.

The responsibility component to freedom is what enables us all to live peacefully and respectfully in a community with others. It is what prevents us from the chaos of the lost boys on the island. As the 20th century Nobel prize-winning economist, Friedrich Hayek, wrote in The Constitution of Liberty: “Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences…Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.”

Freedom, as Lord of the Flies so vividly shows, is the easy part. Responsibility is far more difficult to define, demonstrate, and tend to–for unschoolers and for all of us.

Originally published at Whole Family Learning.

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Gay Offspring, Libertarian Regulation, Universality of Unschooling, & Economic Law (27m) – Editor’s Break 080

Editor’s Break 080 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: how to handle one of your children coming out as gay; what sorts of regulations libertarian advocate for; why unschooling is for everyone so long as they want it to be; the harsh truth of economic law; and more.

Listen to Editor’s Break 080 (27m, mp3, 64kbps)

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Violence, Aggression, Gun Control, Talking Back, & Unschooling as Abuse (30m) – Editor’s Break 077

Editor’s Break 077 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: are libertarians opposed to violence?; what he hates the most: aggression; why state gun control in any degree is a violation of the right to bear arms; whether or not children have a right to “talk back” to their parents, and the importance in doing so; why he unschools to hide his “abuse” of his children; and more.

Listen to Editor’s Break 077 (30m, mp3, 64kbps)

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