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Friday, July 07, 2006

Live and Learn: Unschooling Basics

There are many unschooling resources for those interested in learning more, but I wanted to write my own ideas on the subject, as it is a topic that many people ask me about.

Unschooling is basically learning by living life. There is no curriculum to follow. An unschooled child chooses whathow and when he learns, at his own pace, according to his interests and passions. There are no tests to pass, no grades to earn. The phrase “live and learn” pretty much covers it all. You can stop reading here; because that really sums it up in a nice little nutshell. Or you can continue to read for further insights.

Unschooling children are given the opportunity to explore and live their passions. If they are interested in a subject, they are able to become immersed in it for as long (or little) as they desire. If, for example a child is reading a book or working on a project, there is no bell to ring signaling “time is up”. If a child wants to learn about entomology, his study could take weeks, months or years. It most likely would consist of a lot of reading and many, many hours outside studying insects in the real world, both live and dead. In a school setting or even a traditional home school setting, it may be studied for an hour a week for several weeks, and then it would be time to move onto something else. When unschooling, if the child is interested in something, he has all the time in the world to learn everything he wants to. And if there is something he is bored senseless by, there is no need to waste time on it, simply because it’s on the “schedule”.

There are always the specific “how do they learn...” questions. How do they learn math? How do they learn to read? There is no one way to answer any of these questions because every child learns differently. Math may be practiced by using money, playing cards, cooking, building, and sewing, just to name a few. Math could be learned by playing music, studying history or dabbling in geography. Math is not a subject separate unto itself. When you unschool, you realize that math has its applications in life, and that is precisely where the child will learn it when he desires to.

A child may have no desire whatsoever to learn addition, let alone geometry, until the day he decides to build a birdhouse for the birds he excitedly watches in the yard every morning. Building a birdhouse requires math, among other skills. If he’s developed a deep passion for birds and decides they need a birdhouse, he will learn math. He will also learn other valuable skills, such as carpentry, that weren’t on the “schedule”. He will learn more about birds, as he will need to know the size of the birds, and which birds will fit in the house. He will need to know what the birds eat. He will learn more about geography as he studies which birds are indigenous to the area he lives in. The list goes on and on. But to answer the math question, he will learn math as it applies to his passions. There is no question about it. Learning math is not separate from living math. This theory goes for all the other “subjects”. They are all connected; they are all part of life. If you need it in life, you can learn it from life.

There are certain subjects that need never be learned if the child has no use for them. I remember getting my first “bad grade” in school when I refused to cut open a pig in Biology class. I never needed to take that class, as I never had any interest in becoming a doctor. A class on herbal healing, knitting, sign language, cooking, publishing or holistic health (just to name a few), however, would have had much more relevance in my personal life, but I was not offered those choices in high school. Had I been unschooled, my passion for learning would not have been stunted during the hours spent in the classroom and hours spent doing meaningless homework, learning what someone else wanted me to learn. All the skills and hobbies I am passionate about have been self taught.

Have you ever asked a teacher, or heard anyone ask the question “Do we need to know this for the test?” Doesn’t it seem senseless to learn something just for the sake of it, only to forget it after a required test? Wouldn’t it be ridiculous for someone to come up to you now, as an adult, and force you to learn how to do something you have no interest in, like play the accordion? What if you had to study this instrument for hours a day, and take a test on it next month? If you didn’t pass, you would get in trouble. Now, you’ll never need to play the accordion again in your entire life, but you HAVE to learn it just so you can pass this test, just so you won’t get into trouble. How ridiculous is that? It is no less ridiculous when forced upon children. The meaning of your life and what you want to do with your life doesn’t start at age 18. Life is lived from birth. Passions should not be on the back burner until you reach some magical age. Not to mention that when you finally do reach that point in time, you usually have to take a job you hate just to pay the bills, instead of continuing in a field that you have lived and loved for years.

How do children learn? The same way adults do. They read, they ask or watch someone who knows, they experiment, they make mistakes, they learn, they do. Unschooling families make resources available to their children, but don’t force any particular subject on them. Resources include (but are certainly not limited to) books, games, magazines, movies, music, art, cooking, crafts, experiments, plays, the internet, time spent in nature, library visits, museum visits, time spent with family and friends, and endless other activities and experiences.

Unschooled children are trusted to direct their own learning. They are given the freedom to be who they are, who they truly are, and not something someone else thinks they should be. They follow their hearts and are not forced to achieve certain levels of “success” based upon their age. They are not required to excel at something they aren’t ready for yet, nor are they held back from challenges they are ready to take on.

Children have a natural love of learning that can’t help but be crippled in a structured setting which discourages free thinking, imagination, creativity and energy. It’s unnatural for a child to sit at a desk for eight hours a day. Schools put kids on drugs now just to keep them in their seats like zombies. It’s wrong and abusive. Having to request permission to go to the bathroom. Getting in trouble for talking…this one really gets me. Needing someone’s permission to allow you to speak…wow. Just thinking about how my children’s spirits would completely die in a school setting breaks my heart. My children are full of energy and life, and are always conversing and singing and dancing and frolicking. I can’t even imagine them stuck in a desk unable to speak their minds. The learning that happens solely through daily conversations is more valuable than anything they could learn in school. Kids are full of questions that can’t possibly be nurtured in a classroom setting. In school they are learning how to conform while in the real world, they are learning how to truly live. In school, they are unnaturally grouped according to age, while in the real world they know how to coexist with people of all ages, from babies to seniors and everyone in between.

Unschoolers believe that life-learning fosters confidence, self-motivation, responsibility and a lifelong love of learning and growing. Unschoolers are not likely to give in to peer pressure, as most of them have a secure and strong sense of self worth, having been raised to trust in themselves and having been given the gift of knowing that their greatest achievement is being true to themselves.

It’s so basic, it’s so natural, it’s so simple, it just makes sense. When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew I would home school, even though I knew nothing about it, and didn’t know anyone who had been home schooled or had home schooled their children. Yet there was still something that didn’t feel perfect about it. Though I knew I could never send my child to a stifling and dangerous school setting, it seemed like schooling at home would still be boring and limited. The first time I came across the term “unschooling”, it just clicked for me immediately. I didn’t need to be talked into it, or convinced of anything. I just needed to read a couple of sentences (far less than the article you are reading now) for it to make perfect sense to me. In fact, most of the convictions I hold happened for me in this way – when it’s right, I know it instinctively.

Giving my children anything less than the freedom of unschooling would be depriving them of the life they deserve. Unschooling allows our family to be together, while at the same time allowing the freedom for each child to pursue his own interests and decide who he is and what he wants to do with his time and with his life. Because I can’t think of anyone else who should have that right.

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