Homeschooling is a legal option for parents in many countries in the world, including the US, Australia and the UK. It is growing in popularity: in the UK alone, figures are estimated at over 50,000 and these are rising by 80 per cent per year. In some areas it’s even higher – Lancashire, for example, has seen an 829 per cent increase in home schooling since 2002. Parents cite numerous reasons as motivations to homeschool their children, including better academic test results, poor school environment, improved character/morality development, the expense of private education, bullying, objections to what is taught in school, and a belief that school is unnecessary for learning and cannot cater for different learning styles. My own reasons for taking my children out of the school system six years ago were because our eldest daughter, Molly, was unhappy there. At the time, I wasn’t really aware of the options available to us, but I soon discovered schooling isn’t compulsory. Ensuring your child gets an education is.
Although many homeschoolers, such as myself, start off following a curriculum (often referred to as ‘school-at-home’ or ‘school-in-a-box’), many end up following the unschooling philosophy. Also known as self-directed, child-led, interest-driven, and natural learning, unschooling is not a new method of homeschooling, but a flexible approach that has been practiced since before traditional schools were established.
The philosophy of unschooling is that children learn everything they need to learn as long as they are free to learn what they want, when they want, in the way they want. Unschoolers have faith that all children have a natural thirst for knowledge and all they require is a facilitator to supply resources and support their learning, therefore making school entirely unnecessary. We believe that;
. Learning happens all the time.
. Learning feels good.
. Learning does not require coercion.
. Learning becomes difficult when a person is convinced that learning is difficult.
. Learning must be meaningful.
. Learning is often incidental.
.We don’t have to be tested to find out what we’ve learned.
. Feelings and intellect are not in opposition and not even separate things.
. Learning requires a sense of safety.
. Learning is inevitable and is not something that has to be ‘done’ to someone.
. The learning process is different for everyone.
learning through playing
Unschoolers believe that young children learn through the activities that they choose and engage in freely. We argue that as long as our children do not go to school or otherwise experience a coercive teaching environment, they will continue to learn through playing, having fun, experimenting, etc. We don’t believe that learning can’t be fun or has to be difficult, in fact we feel that attempts to coerce learning in a child who is not yet interested or ready will hinder future learning.
“Children have a natural desire to fit in and learn from those around them, so to be a successful unschooler we need to spend a lot of time with them, and have fun together, so that they can feel safe enough to step away from us to learn, knowing that they can return at any time.” Sally, unschooling mother-of-three.
is it legal?
Unschooling is a well-recognised method of homeschooling by local authorities but, unlike in school, there are no standards set to monitor the home educated in the UK. Authorities rely on the cooperation of parents, and often do home visits and request work samples, but can only intervene if they have a real concern about the education a child is receiving.
how do children learn at home?
Subjects, such as history, science, geography, geology etc., have been invented by schools to package up learning in a way that makes it easier to ‘teach’ the masses. For unschoolers, however, learning doesn’t happen in subjects but is a series of connections made whilst living life. Our children have acquired all the knowledge they’ve needed over time through real life experiences such as listening to stories, cooking, gardening, doing puzzles, building, doing artwork, experimenting, watching movies, playing video games, having conversations, using money – basically doing everyday, real-life stuff! When our children have an interest in more advanced concepts that we don’t understand, we simply find the resources (books, computer games, DVDs, classes, a tutor) and become their facilitator for learning.
“When Daniel was young it was clear he had a very mathematical brain and he loved numbers, and I was so worried because I was always terrible at maths in school. The important thing I had to remember was that a child who is entranced and consumed by mathematics does not need their parent to keep up with them. With only a little help from me, Daniel found his way.” June, unschooling mother-of-one.
a desire to read
Learning to read is often a controversial issue among educators and parents, and conventional wisdom tells us that children cannot possibly learn naturally. However, all unschoolers will tell you that if you live in a print-rich environment (and unless you live under a rock then you do), your children will desire to read. Because school makes too big a deal out of learning to read, and because they teach it too early and in the wrong way for certain children, so many become non-readers. In contrast, unschoolers report that reading and writing seem to just ‘happen’ for their children.
“I would answer any question my daughter had about spelling or what a word was. We played rhyming games. I read to her. She used software and games that required recognising various words. She was surrounded by printed words that she knew went with particular words. All those little things combined helped her figure out the code for herself. I never taught her. And she reads.” Joyce Fetteroll, unschooling advocate and mother-of-one
witnessing it working
Another unschooler who did no ‘teaching’ discusses how discovering your child can read without any formal instruction often takes you by surprise. Leonie, mother to five unschooled boys, says: “When one of my older sons was seven, we realised that he was reading after we’d watched a video together — he read out some of the credits to us. My husband and I looked at each other, surprised —we didn’t know he could read like that yet!” These mirror my own experiences with my children and, for me, this was the turning point for putting my complete trust in unschooling as I witnessed it ‘working’. My eldest daughter seemed to pick reading up by online chatting as she was highly motivated to be able to communicate with her friends. We would sit for hours with her asking me how to spell certain words, and to read responses out to her. In just a few weeks she was reading and writing to secondary school level at the age of seven with no formal instruction. I was blown away as it was so easy and painless. We then decided to unschool our other three children and have never looked back. Sandra Dodd, unschooling advocate and mother of three unschooled children, now adults, claims she sees this all the time: “After twenty years of involvement with unschooling, I know of not one single unschooler who didn’t learn to read. I’ve known two adults, in 58 years, who couldn’t read. They both went to school. I’ve seen a dozen unschooled kids close-up learn to read (my kids and other local unschoolers), and have accounts of hundreds of others. They read. Some suddenly, some gradually, but every single one of them reads.” She warns that school-at-home can “do the same kind of damage school does to the love of reading, the joy of mathematics, the fascination of history or science… unschooling can help people avoid that damage.”
how to support learning
Unlike the stressful process of choosing a curriculum, preparing our homes for unschooling may be one of the most exciting and enjoyable aspects of this approach. For unschooling to be successful, we need to set up a house conducive to learning that is full of interesting, real-life things that may catch our child’s interest, such as board games, arts and crafts, books, experiments, toys, puzzles, animals, computer games, costumes, artefacts, and natural objects. Outside of the home we may take our child to zoos, museums, social clubs, organised clubs, libraries, the beach, restaurants, the post office, parks, garden centres – we expose our children to a wide range of experiences, follow and support their interests (whatever they may be), and make great efforts to make life as sparkly and as full as possible.
“If a family experimenting with unschooling can try to go some amount of time - a week, a month - without learning anything, but during that time they keep active, talkative, busy with life, maybe some art, some music, theatre or movies, walks to collect things (in the woods, in the dumpsters, it doesn’t matter) - just being, but being busy - at the end of that time (or halfway through) I think it will become apparent that learning cannot be turned off, that given a rich environment, learning becomes like the air - it’s in and around us.” Sandra Dodd.
is there supportive evidence? Numerous studies have been undertaken on homeschooling, most notably by the independent agency, National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), who have conducted and collected research about homeschoolers for two decades. Their findings in 2011 report that the home-educated typically score up to 30 percentile points above public-school (equivalent to state schools in UK) students on standardized academic achievement tests, and that they are increasingly being actively recruited by colleges. What many don’t know is that homeschoolers, if they choose to, can take the tests necessary to get into university, and some universities accept students without. Indeed, the NHERI report that homeschoolers “go to and succeed at college [university] at an equal or higher rate than the general population”. Due to the fact that their interests are valued throughout their childhood, unschoolers are often very clear about where their passions lie and have the self-motivation to build careers from them, and many become successful entrepreneurs.
What about socialisation? Whilst many parents may not doubt the academic success of homeschoolers, they commonly have concerns about their child’s socialisation. I myself had reservations but, like many unschoolers, I quickly saw how my assumptions that children need lots of friends their own age were flawed. Some do and some don’t. Some like to play with children of different ages, some children need bursts of playing with others and some prefer spending every day on their own. Unschoolers are fortunate in that they are able to treat their children as individuals with unique social needs. In our house, for example, my daughter is the social butterfly who regularly has friends over or is busy visiting them. My son, however, likes to play only with his siblings except for the weekly homeschool social club that we attend. Unschooling has allowed me to meet the social needs of all my children without judgement or expectation.
The NHERI research supports the view that the home-educated are not in fact the social misfits that many would expect. They report that “the home-educated are doing well, typically above average, on measures of social, emotional, and psychological development. Research measures include peer interaction, self-concept, leadership skills, family cohesion, participation in community service, and self-esteem.”
what unschoolers say
Adult unschooler, Helen Thompson, 18, is now studying to be a doctor and says; “My unschooling experience has taught me to follow my passions without restraint.” Similarly, grown unschooler, graduate and now unschooling parent, Vanessa Wilson, 31, argues that “as an unschooled kid the world is full of so much that school cannot give… I credit unschooling for my insatiable love of learning.” But what of those who don’t choose to pursue further education? “Instead of college, I chose massage school and self-education for entrepreneurship. To me that is the best thing about unschooling; the freedom to create your own life, to heal, to grow unhindered, to explore without imposed limitations. Amazing things happen inside of freedom,” says business owner and grown unschooler, Tara Wagner, 29.
how do you begin? Those who remove children from school to unschool need to go through a process of deschooling. This is both for the parent and for the child and is basically just like taking a long holiday where your children are free to decompress, and you let go of all your assumptions given to you by school. When I started deschooling, my fears diminished and my confidence grew as I began to see unschooling ‘working’, and it is now a way of life for us. I get so much joy from seeing my children learning happily and freely, surrounded by those that love them.
“For those that decide to learn to trust themselves and their children, they soon find their lives a bubbly, interesting swirl of natural learning.” Ren Allen, unschooling mother
I realise that the unschooling philosophy is a complete reversal of the educational wisdom millions have followed for decades. Re-evaluating is scary but it opens the door to new insights. With the rising popularity of attachment parenting, we are seeing more and more parents question traditional schooling and turn to unschooling; what has a minority following today may not tomorrow. A revolution has begun! .
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), nheri.org/ResearchFacts-on-Homeschooling.html
WHAT TO READ
The Unschooling Handbook Mary Griffith tinyurl.com/unschoolinghb
Dumbing Us Down The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling tinyurl.com/jtgatto
Deschooling Society Ivan Illich tinyurl.com/iillich
Unschooling mother-of-four, Chaley-Ann Scott is the author of The Shepherdess; Mothering for a Gentler World (Wombat Books). She also is a renowned parenting and education writer, speaker and counsellor. For more information, go to progressiveparenting.org.