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Unschooling: opportunity or limitation

Message boards are jumping and the buzz word is "unschooling."  Good Morning America aired a report (and follow-up interview) about "radical unschoolers" from Massachusetts, and now many critical and negative thoughts about unschooling are flying around the Internet.  Not surprisingly, the GMA report was limited in scope, choosing to show only one side of unschooling, and leaving out crucial details. There are unschoolers throughout the DC area, many of whom have shown me what it does (and does not) mean to follow the unschooling path.

Unschooling allows a child to explore the world and make connections, not forcing learning to happen in any particular order or at a certain time.  By using life as the basis for education, unschooled children will come into contact with a wide variety of people, discover things that are hard to do, and find their passions. Unschoolers do not lead structureless lives, nor do they spend every day lounging around, eating candy while watching tv (although making candy or taking apart a television might be encouraged!)  Unschoolers use opportunities, experiences, and materials to fill days as well as minds (and unschooling parents spend much time both finding and providing these things!). As unschoolers become more interested in particular topics and want to understand algebra, or write stories, they will find a way to learn the necessary skills. Unschooling parents feel that children want to succeed in the world so they will embrace learning even difficult topics, when the time is right. It is a belief that is grounded in faith in children's inherent abilities.

There may be unschoolers who will struggle with certain subjects.  Some may never have a complete grasp of physics, others may have trouble remembering grammar rules.  Some may need tutoring to "catch-up" (which is a questionable phrase, since being "behind" is only relative to what a particular school district has deemed as "required.") But, could not the same things be said of ANY child who attends school, public, private, or even charter?  Can any school make the guarantee that each child will understand and retain every bit of information that is presented?  Of course not. Sadly, we see examples, every day, of children who attended school but did not grasp certain concepts.  Many adults still lament their high school math classes, saying they never truly "got" what was being taught.  Unschoolers operate from the mindset that getting help, when needed, is simply a part of learning.

Many people who are now lambasting unschoolers seem almost afraid of what unschooling represents.  Why?  Are they truly afraid that by allowing children to learn by exploring their passions, some harm will come to the world?  All children have interests in things, all children are enthusiastic about what they enjoy, whether it is cooking, baseball, how a computer works, or how to repair a car.  Giving them the time, space, and resources to delve into these topics will only serve to enhance their knowledge and understanding of the topic at hand and all that goes along with it. (And as my family of homeschoolers has dabbled with unschooling, we have experienced these things first-hand.) Perhaps more importantly, this type of learning shows a child the need for self-motivation and responsibility.  Self-directed learners are sought after by colleges and employers alike, so it should be no surprise that unschoolers have the potential to succeed in the world.

Many children leave high school with no clear idea of what they want to do or how to pursue their goals. They are accustomed to life being compartmentalized into 45 minute blocks of time, being told what, when, and how to do things. Part of the problem with this approach is that children struggle to see how learning is connected to life. Unschooling encourages children to find, explore, and understand these connections.

If you would like to learn more about the power of encouraging children to explore the world, you might like these books. "Homeschooling for Excellence  ", by David and Micki Colfax, chronicles a homeschool/unschool  family of four boys; three of them attended Harvard, and "Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves,"   by Alison McKee (a former teacher), showcases all that children can do when allowed to pursue things at their own pace. 

For a different look at schooling, check out Sudbury Schools and their unique approach to education.  There is a Sudbury school in the DC area; the Fairhaven School, in Upper Marlboro, MD. A small school on a beautiful campus, children from ages 5 to 19 learn and grow together, with adult involvement happening only as necessary.  The children are not directed in what to do; adults are there to make suggestions and provide guidance. Students must write and defend a thesis to graduate; and many graduates attend college and pursue careers in a wide variety of fields. The school is offering a tour on May 3rd; reservations are required. Information is available at the school's website.

Twitter is a great homeschool resource!  Please follow me at @Memories2Write.

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