Unschooling at Home and at Work: Part I

Here’s how Monkey’s days go (I haven’t yet told her about the pseudonym):

She wakes up, too early for our tastes. Then she does pretty much whatever she wants until one of us gets up. Usually, that’s some combination of reading, playing, drawing/crafting, writing stories, watching television and playing video games. (We used to control her screen time, but we’ve moved away from that so that she could self-regulate, and she’s doing well with it.)

Someone makes breakfast – sometimes her. After breakfast, if no outings are on the docket, she does more of whatever she wants. Generally that includes playing games with whichever parent is home, playing with the dog in the yard, practicing the violin [okay, there are usually “reminders” (read:nagging) over that one], making various messes with chemistry sets (read: anything we keep in the kitchen), climbing all over the house, creating obstacle courses for her to jump over, recording herself making loud, crazy sounds into a digital recorder, playing make-believe of all kinds, covering herself in body paint, and generally causing more mayhem than one would believe one child could cause.

Once or twice a week, we get together with other unschooler friends for “free school” (several hours spent in a local space with space to run around, a stage and a bunch of tables and chairs) or outdoor activities. In between, she has friends come to our house or she goes to theirs, as often as we all can swing it. Once a month, she has her unschool book club, at which a handful of kids ages 9-13 talk about the book they decided to read at the last meeting.

She plays organized soccer and takes violin lessons. We don’t “make” her do either (though we do, as admitted, nag her to practice the violin).

The term “unschoolers” covers a wide range of folks, many of whom believe different things and do things differently.  Here’s an overview that fits with my perspective on it.  We are unschoolers because we reject compulsory education.  We reject the emphasis on conformity.  We believe that children learn best when they have the space to discover, the freedom to choose and the room to do nothing.  We believe that children learn best through playing.

We are not “radical unschoolers,” at least according to my definition of the contested term.  (By this definition and this one, we are, mostly.  But my sense of the term is from over a decade ago, and it still makes the most sense to me.  Radical unschooling, to me, involves a commitment to avoid setting limits of any kind in any realm, at least partly so that the child learns to set them herself, and thus grows into a confident, happy, unbullied, competent citizen.

I am sympathetic to this.  In general, I am an anti-authoritarian kind of parent (um…unless I’m highly irritated…).  There is no “Because I said so,” or time-outs, or punishments or “rules,” at least per se. This, to me, is consistent with my attachment-parenting philosophy, which I view as distinct from my unschooling philosophy, though nicely complimentary.

But we have our realms.  We insist that Monkey brush her teeth, give us our own space at night (unfortunately, our insisting on this does not always garner the desired result, but we insist nonetheless), eat the meals we prepare, and knock on our bedroom door before entering.  I say things like “knock it off!” and “If you don’t stop making that noise  this room I’m going to swing you around by your nose,” and do a host of other stuff that some unschoolers would find unacceptably authoritarian in nature.  Sometimes we even insist that she clean her room.  Monkey does not like this (okay, that’s a pretty major understatement), and usually these are awful days.  But if she does not, then either a) this will lead to problems for all of us, on the practical level like us getting out of the house for an appointment or the dog getting sick because he ate a toy or me cutting my foot on something on her floor or her tracking red who-knows-what-the-hell-that-is all over the rest of the house…into the carpet, or b) we will have to clean it ourselves.  And both of those options suck for many reasons on many days, whereas her cleaning her room sucks only for two reasons (we’re being coercive, and everyone is miserable) on only one day.  So we do it.  (Although I suspect that lately Partner-Person has been covertly picking things up  in there when I’m not home.)

What we do not do, is tell her what she should read, what she should know, what she should think about, what she should or should not play.  When I identify as an unschooler, what I mean is that I leave my child alone to learn what, when, how and as she pleases.  I am passionately committed to this.  I  wholeheartedly agree with nearly every word John Holt has published, and I unschool in large part because this is not how school works.

Here’s the thing, though.  As it happens, this kid is wicked smart.  (I say this as a both parent and a professor.) Monkey is a voracious reader, with a college-level vocabulary.  She is a steel-trap kind of logician. Her curiosity is insatiable and she possesses a sort of intellectual (and verbal) relentlessness that brings to mind the love child of a badger and a pit bull.

And in my most honest moments, I do not know whether we could, or would, do what we do if she were not who she is.

Therein lies, as they say, the rub.  I am unschooling a person who is inclined to read, inclined to think critically, inclined to learn – about pretty much everything.  As much as I believe that all children would be more like this if they were unschooled, I know that doesn’t mean that they would all be like this.  I know that my kid’s passion for academics makes it a breeze for her academic-type parents to unschool.  Given who she is, it feels a little bit as if, as unschoolers, we’re somehow… cheating.

My students have taught me this.  As much as I try to integrate my unschooling philosophy into my professional pedagogy, I know that I want my students to develop particular skills and inclinations.  I want them to be readers and writers and critical thinkers.  I believe that unschooling is the way to get there, but I very much want them to get there.

And many, many of them are not there.  They tell me they have never read a book – and I believe them.  They call every nonfiction book that I assign a “novel.”  They write dialogue without quotation marks,  and they find 250 pages as daunting as – dare I say it? – we found War and Peace.  (Yes, which we read while trudging six miles through the snow, shoeless.)

So unschooling in my classroom is not about letting them “grow up” to be whomever they choose to be. In the first place, my actual job is education.  When I chose this career, I did so under the mistaken belief that I would be teaching people who wanted to learn what I would be teaching.  I assumed that they had already grown into what they wanted to be, and what they wanted to be now was college students.  In other words, I take for granted in my daughter a love of learning that I cannot take for granted in my students.

Therefore, and in the second place, my students do not have the freedom to not read, or to not write, or to not think.   When they walk into my classroom, they make the decision that they want to commit something to this process of learning, much like when Monkey decides that she wants to continue with violin lessons she decides to make a commitment.  She does not have to take violin lessons.  This is her idea.  But she either wants to study violin, or she does not want to study violin.  If she did not want to study violin, we would just buy her an old violin, add it to her box of musical instruments, and she could fiddle whenever she got a hankerin’.  If she chooses to study, she has to do some heavy lifting.   My students have chosen to study, and I am there to facilitate their practice.  The problem is, they do not agree that they have made this choice.  They feel coerced.

Where, then, do I get off calling what I am trying to do in my college courses “unschooling?”  Tune in next time for Part II.


2 comments on “Unschooling at Home and at Work: Part I

  1. just thought i’d let you know that i am hearing what you write, as a phd candidate wife of a tenured prof here in Oregon; we currently *natural learn with our 5 year old. thoroughly enjoying you being back on the page, bravely–putting it out there. very helpful for me at the moment, as ‘i’, the only one i can really speak from, unschool + strive to publish (social science + medicine, at bat!). tx

    • Hi J! I’m not sure how I missed this comment, but I am glad to see it now! Kudos to you and your partner for natural learning. I hope to see you more often…social science, medicine, and natural learning…we have much in common!

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