Home Educator's Family Times - Home Education & Family Services - Homeschool Support Network
Sept/Oct 2000
Volume 8, No. 5

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What Is Unschooling?

By Marsha Ransom

The term unschooling was coined back in the sixties when John Holt, trying to promote school reform, learned about homeschooling. From his observations in the classroom setting he felt that children learned best when they were self-motivated by specific interests and allowed to follow those interests. When he corresponded with and observed homeschoolers, he discovered that many of them were doing interest led or natural learning with their children. John Holt came up with the word unschooling to describe learning that was diametrically opposed to that usually used in the institutional setting. Over the years the term has come to have different meanings to different people. There has been a lot of debate about unschooling and many heated discussions with people taking sides for and against unschooling.

I don’t believe there needs to be such adamant pro and con debate about unschooling. Parents can make their job as homeschoolers much more enjoyable by tuning in to their children’s interests. If the parent has a need for external structure, they can accommodate that by planning their curriculum around their child’s interests. I use the term curriculum loosely; substitute learning experiences if you like.

One of the basic premises of unschooling or natural learning is that of letting the child follow his interests. While some feel that to be a true unschooler, the child must learn while the parents keep their hands totally off, in reality most children crave a certain amount of adult interaction and attention while exploring and researching a subject. This does not mean, however, that the parent needs to step in and turn an interest into a five-day-a-week lesson plan, complete with textbooks, quizzes, and tests. Including a child in choices while planning curriculum is a good way to move from a school-at-home approach to a more natural method of learning. Asking your child questions that offer choices rather than yes or no answers can be helpful to keep things within your comfort zone. If expensive field trips are not an option, don’t offer that as a choice.

Unit studies are being used a by many homeschoolers and when based on the child’s interests can be a form of unschooling or natural learning. We do what I call relaxed unit studies. I don’t plan ahead a lot; rather I browse library shelves, the computer card catalog, book stores and catalogs for books, videos, projects, and other materials that will help my child learn about whatever has sparked his or her interest. I search the community for museums, programs, and field trips that match up to his or her interest. I keep my records on a calendar with large blocks. After eleven years it still amazes me when we cover nearly all the curriculum areas by simply following interests.

My daughter has been enamored of the ocean for two years now – we’ve visited aquariums, read books about ocean animals, watched videos about dolphins (from National Geographic documentaries to Free Willy), decorated her room by sponging it blue and stenciling and stamping ocean animals on the walls so it looks like a giant aquarium, made scrapbooks about the ocean plants and animals, learned the names of the oceans and seas, and more. She found an oversized coloring book at the grocery store which featured many pictures of shells. Looking up the shells in reference books, she colored each one accurately; her idea, not mine!

I have also spoken with people use textbooks and call themselves unschoolers; there are those who would say, ?Oh, no, they can’t be unschoolers if they use texts.? But if the child is begging for textbook learning, if that is what his or her current interest or need is . . . do I make my point?

I think of unschooling as tapping into the inner structure of the child rather than imposing an external structure. Many homeschoolers are afraid to consider unschooling because they believe that unschoolers don’t teach their children anything, that the children aren’t learning anything. They envision children running through the meadow making daisy chains or something. Most unschooled children I have met are learning an amazing number of things; things most institutional schools don’t or can’t teach; things many homeschoolers who use the traditional approach will never teach their children. One unschooled child followed the stock market, made investments, graphed the results and used this interest to get a scholarship into college. Many unschooled children have found their niche by starting their own businesses at a young age, and fine-tuning that interest into a career later. Some unschooled kids have started doing volunteer work or community service and turned an avocation into a vocation.

I believe unschooling is about working with the child’s interest rather than saying, ?Okay, now we’re going to study bees? when he or she is not the least bit interested in bees. We have many side trips. When we’re reading about an ocean animal there may be a reference to something else and we may make that side trip. So we aren’t studying the ocean to the exclusion of anything else in life. Rather we’re using it as a starting point to get to the whole world. Sometimes an unschooler’s most important learning is serendipitous.

Sometimes it’s easier not to use the term unschooling when describing what we do. Since the term is so often misunderstood, homeschoolers have adopted a variety of alternative terms to describe what they do: natural learning; child-led learning; interest-oriented learning, or real life experiential learning. I believe eclectic homeschooler is another way to say unschooler. Eclectic homeschoolers choose the best from a variety of approaches. Why do they pick and choose? To best meet their child’s needs. A rose by any other name is still a rose. And no matter what label is attached to those families who are implementing an education that has meaning, developing life-long learners who love books, exploring, researching, and living life to the fullest, the bottom line is the same. Devising a learning plan that takes into consideration the child’s interests, personality, and learning style just makes sense.

About the Author:

Marsha Ransom, wife of Dwight and mother of four homeschooled children, is beginning the twelfth year of homeschooling. Two of their children are still homeschooling while two have graduated and are attending college. Marsha has worked with her local homeschooling support group for eleven years, teaches creative writing for the local homeschool cooperative, and is field trip coordinator.

As a state liaison for NHEN (National Home Education Network) she is responsible for helping home educators find support groups in their area. She has spoken at a number of conferences on such topics as Getting Started Homeschooling, Relaxed Unit Studies, and Apprenticeships and Mentorships for Teens. Marsha has been published in several homeschool, parenting, and family publications, as well as several homeschool newsletters. She is currently under contract with Macmillan Publishing for ?The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Homeschooling?, to be published in March 2001.

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