How is Unschooling like Santa Claus?

I have been so interested in the many posts on homeschooling styles that have been cropping up around the homeschool blogosphere. It’s been on my mind a lot. This post, in fact, has been growing and evolving and is still unfinished, but I want to let it go!

I could have stopped a while ago, but a quirk in how God saw fit to make me means that I don’t usually leave well enough alone . . . because I don’t really believe in “well enough.” It’s just in my nature, often for better though sometimes for worse, to look at something and try to improve it. I am not a go-with-the-flow person, and I am pretty sure–after some years of trying to be otherwise–that I am not meant to be. (There must be some kind of irony in there, that I have finally chosen to leave my improvement-oriented self “well enough alone.”)

This is one reason I’m not an unschooler, I suppose. But after all the reading I’ve done in the last few weeks, I’ve decided that the real reason I’m not an unschooler is that I don’t believe in unschooling.

What I mean is that I think of unschooling like Santa Claus — the spirit of the thing is huge, with multiple variations across cultures (“6 to 8 Black Men,” anyone?), and the reality of it rests in how and whether a family practices it. But as a thing in itself, it doesn’t exist.

What got me thinking about this was reading Melissa Wiley’s many wise thoughts on how her own family has moved towards a more unschool-y style. She wrote:

Unschooling is outside school, bigger than school. It doesn’t need to be the ideal best-possible version of school. It is something broader, richer, more rife with possibilities.

And I could not help but think, But how is that different from homeschooling? Homeschooling for us has been about drawing comic books and writing songs as history “narrations”; sitting down at the piano before breakfast, and then again before lunch, and then again after dinner; dropping English as a subject and picking up Chinese instead (and soon, German too!); dumping long division for a while and playing with protractors and compasses. And of course it has been chin puppets and orchestra concerts and sisters playing Harry Potter for an entire afternoon. It’s full of surprising connections, giving Victoria opportunity to say “just like Mozart!” or for Violet to draw stories weaving together the fiction and history she’s reading with her love of manga.

But no one would mistake us for unschoolers. I mean, you could say we are child-led learners, in that I follow my children’s interests at the pace they seem to want to go (though I find I tend to underestimate that). But how do you unschool Chinese? And if sitting down with a computer program or a workbook and doing the sometimes tedious work of memorizing characters is unschooling, then what is not unschooling?

We also feel free to take time off. This “school year” we’ve been to Disneyworld, Mexico, and South Dakota when everyone else is still in school. On busy days or weeks we let any formal lessons slide. But those aren’t unschooling times. They are part of the flow of our family life, the center of home education.

I came to homeschooling late in the game, of course. I’ve heard that once-upon-a-time there were two groups of homeschoolers: hippy-dippy institution-rejecting radicals, and super-fundy ultra-conservative insular radicals. Perhaps then the distinctions between homeschooling types were more marked, and more important.

I also came to homeschooling after pulling out of public school. We deliberately “de-schooled” for a time, but Violet was itching to dig into the fun stuff she’d been missing out on, like Chinese and history and playgroups when you were not too tired to play. We have a direct comparsion for how our family’s way of home education is “bigger than school.”

I read Charlotte Mason books when we first started, but it just wasn’t something I got into. This may sound arrogant, but I think maybe the reason I didn’t get into them much is because they didn’t seem all that different from our lives. Good grief, I write about literature and history for a living! When isn’t someone in our house nose-deep in a “living book” and reporting what they find? I think our house is “strewn” beyond what is reasonable! And “twaddle?” If anything I have always erred on the side of limiting my kids’ reading and viewing too much, forcing my “high-culture” ideals on kids who ought to have a little more room to develop their own tastes.

I don’t mention this to condemn devout CMers or to say that I am “beyond” her beautiful vision of a home educating family. No — if only I could live up to it! I guess I’m just trying to say that I came to homeschooling with a lot of homeschooling already in place in my family.

But enough about me. One “classical” homeschooling family I know said that they had all their formal work done by 10am, so the rest of the day was open for whatever. Another “classical” family I know schedules their winter lessons around skiing and their spring around golf, because golf and skiing are family activities that take precedence. (Oddly, one of the more free-spirited, Waldorf-style homeschoolers I know is always driving her daughter to co-ops and classes, but I think she’s an outlier.) Even the families I know who have enrolled in online public school but still consider themselves homeschoolers bend the rules, speed up and slow down at will, and explore their own interests.

All of these families do more formal curriculum than we do, and we do formal curriculum here too, but it’s plain from how they try to live their lives that they too are intentionally trying to make education something bigger than school, more rife with possibilities. (With apologies to Melissa for leaning on this phrase, but I think she succinctly articulates something that most, if not all, homeschoolers aspire to.)

So I’m not sure what is to be gained with the term unschooling, unless it means that you never offer any direction to your child or support for her exploration of her interests — or her opportunity to discover unknown interests. [Edited to add: I have plainly botched this sentence, based on the comments I’ve gotten. What I was trying to say was that most people do not consider “unschooling” to mean not offering direction or support, and therefore I am not seeing how “unschooling” as the description of educational practices offers a significant distinction from “homeschooling.”] “Homeschooling” may not be the best term either, though it seems to have stuck. (A little bit like “gifted,” eh?) If I ruled the world, everyone would be talking about “home educating” and we’d all be “home educators,” because I think the salient point in what distinguishes home educators is that education takes place in the organic context of home and family.

Home is the place where you are valued for who you are, are expected to make a reasonable contribution to your family life, and mature into freedom within thoughful limits set by people who know and care for you. Home education flows from there (and the best school-based education models itself on that pattern). Among families there are degrees of formality and spontaneity, different areas of interest, varying levels of energy and activity, and a wide variety of tolerances for things such as mess, noise, and fart jokes.

I am starting to wonder, however, if among home educators distinctions at that point are any more meaningful than distinctions between snowflakes or stars in the sky.

As I told my friend Patience, it seems to me that the bedrock principle of either homeschooling or unschooling, if you must call it that!, must be that all participants are true to themselves, especially the parents, as the children are still experimenting and discovering. (Well, so are the parents, but I hope you know what I mean!)

If the homeschooling parent is homeschooling in a way that is contrary to her own drives, loves, quirks, hates, beliefs, needs, and tendencies (except perhaps the universal human tendency toward sloth!), is it really education in the heart of the home, as Elizabeth Foss says?


Filed under Curriculum, Learning Styles, Why Homeschool?

14 responses to “How is Unschooling like Santa Claus?

  1. Labels are always problematic, aren’t they? I think what you say about unschooling is very much to the point — what ISN’T unschooling, once you’ve stepped outside school? I actually like unschooling as a label more than I like “homeschooling” (because we don’t “do school” a whole lot in our home); or “home educating” (sorry, just sounds clunky and sterile to me — when I was a teacher I was a teacher, not an educator, which sounds to me like somebody going to principal school so that they can get out of the classroom); or “lifestyle of learning” (which again sounds clunky when you try to use it five times in conversation, to make it part of your vocabulary).

    Of course, if nobody ever asked us about these things, we wouldn’t have to have a handy label for what we do. Or if they asked wanting to stand around all afternoon and hear what we actually do, instead of having it all summed up in one word (as in “How are you?” “Fine,” instead of “How are you?” “Well, my hemorrhoids have been acting up, and the goldfish died, and the tomato plants have shingles, and somebody stepped on Janie’s violin so she can’t play in the recital, and . . . “).

    And yes, I think that much school-based education, good or not-so-good, consciously or otherwise, constitutes an attempt to replicate in an artificial environment what would go on naturally in a child’s life in a good home.

    Thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I keep meaning to write more about all this myself, but it’s probably just as well that all I’m doing is going around commenting on other people’s meditations. Thanks again.

  2. patience

    So good to see this post 🙂

    I like how your thoughts have developed, and I especially like the last paragraph. That is key, in my opinion. My mother always used to say, “as long as the mother’s happy, everyone’s happy,” a sentiment with which I actually disagree – although when Mother’s *unhappy*, certainly everyone else is too! But in the case of homeschooling, I’ve learnt that, when I attempt it contrary to my own instincts and needs, it goes badly. Perhaps this is because over the years my instincts have always reflected what is going on at the unspoken level with my daughter. When I need something, it is often echoing what she needs too.

    Good on you for posting this, it is smart and thoughtful.

  3. I really love these essays you have been writing recently.You made some excellent points.

    I think unschooling is also a parenting style. I don’t agree with it in that I really don’t trust that children will make the best decisions for their long term selves. The just don’t have the wisdom.

    When I was a kid I was allowed to eat anything I wanted. At some point my diet was a two liter of soda, a couple candy bars and, maybe, some fast food. I ended up suffering from malnutrition. How does a regular suburban girl, this day in age, get malnutrition? I ate what I wanted and what was easy.

    I had to be put on a special diet that included fruit, veggies and fish.

    When people tell me that children will self regulate and learn what they need to learn I have to wonder why I didn’t. Why are so many kids overweight? Why are so many boys spending their childhood in front of a computer screen instead of getting outdoors?

    I guess I just don’t believe that kids will learn what they need to learn. I really think parents have a responsibility to guide their children with the wisdom and knowledge they have gained.

  4. I agree with much of what you say but I think I disagree with how you set up “unschooling”. While many people seem to think it involves no parental input, structured lessons, or whatever, when I read what John Holt defines it as, it is precisely as what you are saying “home educating” is. And I think he actually makes that point. What you are doing is NOT school. Because school is a disciplined system that is about imposing a structure of what need to be learned, when, on kids. It is as much (or more) about producing people who can follow rules and accept authority as it is about the content. And thus, yes, most homeschoolers are un-schoolers in that sense.

    Which might be the same as the point about labels, but maybe not quite. I’m still not clear about the role of different labels WITHIN the homeschooling community and why people want to police the boundaries of whatever label they decide to give themselves.

    And I guess your last point about doing it the way that fits with your own personality and values seems obvious except that the search for the right “method” is partly about needing some external validation rather than trusting your own mind. Though I think Holt says something about that, too, in that this difficulty trusting ourselves was trained out of us in school.

    Excellent contribution to the debate.

  5. okay so I realized that I should add that I think radical unschooling probably does work for some. Just like some kids do naturally prefer healthy foods.

  6. I like your point about the importance of home schooling according to your own wants, needs, drives, quirks, etc. I know that every time I try a method which requires a rigid structure it inevitably falls apart in a short time.
    I think the same concept can be applied to our children. There are certainly those kids who crave structure, prefer to have boxes to check off, or need more parental direction. A real unschooler would recognize these needs and offer the appropriate support to her child. A textbook for Chinese is perfectly within the realms of unschooling (as some define it) if the child asks for it (or responds positively to it when offered). Others would say this is simply home schooling.

    The confusion comes from the problem of defining what we do in a world where many of us are making it up as we go.

    In a way, I think it is natural for us to want to define, or label what we do. It is a huge part of human nature to name things, fueled by our need to communicate-though admittedly the urge is stronger for some than others. The problem here is that we all have different ideas of what unschooling includes–where exactly the boundaries lie between unschooling and home schooling. In fact, your description of it…
    (“I’m not sure what is to be gained with the term unschooling, unless it means that you never offer any direction to your child or support for her exploration of her interests — or her opportunity to discover unknown interests.”)
    is what I used to think it was, too, and why I dismissed it for so long. Now I realize I was way off. Unschooling is all about offering help, support, and opportunities according to your own particular child’s needs. What you describe is not unschooling; it is neglect (though others may call it “radical unschooling”). Definitions again.
    In the end, I do not think it is important whether we call it unschooling or home schooling, or home education, or whatever. As long as we find our groove and keep learning.

  7. adsoofmelk

    This is mostly to Janedeau — if it feels better, I’m skeptical (at least for our family) about unschooling as I understand it of being completely child-led, not imposing any structure or parent-led order or curriculum on the child’s interests.

    I think one of the joys of homeschooling is what Shaun’s pointing out, which is that in many ways it’s a buffet which allows people to take from this dish and that. For us, anyway, I’m partial to having curriculum on core subjects (English, math, history, science) but following child-led interests on top of that. To extend your food idea, it’s sort of like making sure your kid eats a little protein, a little carb, a green veggie or two, and then they can eat seconds of whatever appealed to them.

    Cool ideas.

  8. shaun

    I put a little note into the original post, as a consensus seems to be forming that I’ve defined “unschooling” as “you never offer any direction to your child or support for her exploration of her interests,” & c. This wasn’t my intent, so I apologize for the confusion.
    As I note above, those things are *not* unschooling for the majority of people who embrace the term unschooling — but then, what is? And if it means something different to everyone, does it mean anything?
    I mean what I say about unschooling and Santa, however — maybe it would help to say that although there is no fat man in a red suit at the North Pole making elves build toys, we enthusiastically embrace the spirit of Santa Claus here. I feel a lot the same about things I read about unschooling.

  9. I see what you mean now. Its highly possible that the difference between unschooling and plain old homeschooling may be simply differences in degree rather than in substance.

  10. I think homeschooling originally WAS called unschooling. “Homeschooling” didn’t seem to quite work as a description to the original homeschoolers in the 70’s because the people who practiced it weren’t necessarily always at home, nor were they doing anything like schooling in an institutional sense. Plus, they were very aware that keeping kids out of school was a radical and rather daring act, in those days when there were no legal provisions for doing this. It isn’t quite like that anymore.

    When I read what the original unschoolers did, it was often much like the kind of eclectic life learning that you are describing. It is in a bit of opposition to the second wave of home educators, coming in the 80’s after changes in tax regulations, who tended to use strictly schooly materials and teaching methods, only at home instead of in a private Christian school.

    I have always thought it interesting that it was the word “homeschooling” that became the word for the general movement and “unschooling” became a subset — perhaps that is because unschooling seems like a negative term rather than a descriptive one.

  11. inneedofchocolate

    Very intriguing post! I have spent a lot of time over the last year reading about different styles of homeschooling as I’ve considered homeschooling my daughter. Previously I had dismissed unschcooling because I believed all “unschooling” was what I now think of as radical unschooling and that it always went hand in hand with a very hands-off parenting style as well like no rules about eating, bedtime, cleaning up, etc. Thanks to lots of posts I’ve read recently, I’ve realized that there is a much wider called unschooling and that it’s not necessarily and all or nothing style. As adsoofmelk said, it’s like a buffet and you can choose what you like. I also like the idea of being more “schooly” for core subjects and “unschooly” for other interests. Your post pulled together a lot of what I’d been thinking about – that unschooling isn’t necessarily completely separate but really the same thing as home education i.e. doing chosing something other than traditional school.

  12. Amy

    Your last paragraph totally sums up my philosphy on it all! Thank you for articulating what I have been trying to say to myself and others for weeks now (the whole post, not just the last part). 🙂

  13. Simone

    Technically, I suppose, you are unschooling. Provided that you define ‘unschooling’ as a lack of ‘school’ (to subject to systematic discipline; to train).

    Radical unschooling would be to remove the schooling from regular life, while homeschooling – school at home – is just that, the child is systematically disciplined (or trained) inside the home, instead of in an ‘institution of learning’, that is a school or college.

  14. Interesting take. From what I’ve read, “unschooling” used to be a much broader term, and one claimed by people who might now consider themselves “relaxed homeschoolers”. I suppose the most defining characteristic of unschooling now is that if a child doesn’t want to perform a specific academic task, or even prefers to omit an entire subject, the parent accepts that without question. With radical unschooling, kids have veto power over their whole lives, not just their academic lives.

    I agree with your last paragraph– as parents we need to make decisions that make sense to us. The unschoolers I’ve seen that make me uncomfortable are those who take a dogmatic approach to it.

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