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How do Unschooling Parents Know their Children are Learning?
by Jan Hunt
In unschooling, the child's current interests are followed, and the parents act not as teachers but as tutors and resource assistants. This approach is often misunderstood, because it is based on assumptions that are quite different from those implicit in conventional schooling.

Unschoolers are often described by what we do not do; we do not "teach"; we do not impose an arbitrary, artificial curriculum; we do not structure the hours of our "school day". But there are so many things we do:

  • Answer questions. Many of us believe that this is the most essential aspect of unschooling.
  • Encourage creative and cooperative solutions to problems as they arise.
  • Find resources and information to support whatever interests the child is currently exploring.
  • Attempt to illustrate, through our own actions every day, such personal qualities as kindness, honesty, and responsibility.
  • Model the joy of learning through our own discussions, reading, and research.

While it is not impossible for a conventionally schooling family to pursue the kinds of activities I have described, it is simply more difficult to do so when parents and children have so much less time together, and when even after-school hours are taken up by projects, homework, and other school-related demands. School children can also become used to seeking emotional support from peers rather than parents, and this pattern can be difficult to interrupt even when school is not in session.

The assumption that unschooling parents somehow lack awareness of their children's progress, and therefore require formal evaluation of that progress, is related to the fact that unschoolers function outside the arena of the schools, and our philosophies and methods are not always well-understood.

How do unschooling parents know their children are learning? The answer to this question is, to put it most simply, direct observation. I have only one child. If a teacher had only one child in her classroom, and was unable to describe the reading skills of that child, everyone would be dismayed - how could a teacher have such close daily contact with one child and miss something so obvious? Yet many people unfamiliar with unschooling imagine that parents with just this sort of close daily contact with their child require outside evaluation to determine that child's progress. This puzzles unschooling parents, who cannot imagine missing anything so interesting as the nature of their child's learning.

No unschooling parents have twenty-five children, and we are thus free to focus on the enhancement of learning without being continually distracted by the many time-consuming tasks, unrelated to learning, that are necessary in a classroom situation. This freedom from distraction is a major factor in the establishment of a lively, creative, and joyful learning environment.

Any parent of a toddler could almost certainly tell us how many numbers her child can count to, and how many colors he knows - not through testing, but simply through many hours of listening to his questions and statements. In unschooling, this type of observation simply continues on into higher ages and more complex learning.

There are many times in the course of a day when a reasonably curious child will want to know the meaning of certain printed words - in books and newspapers, on the computer or television, on board game instruction cards, on package labels, on mail that has just arrived, and so on. If this child's self-esteem is intact, he will not hesitate to ask his parents the meaning of these words. Through the decrease of questions of this type, and the actual reading aloud of certain words, ("Look, Daddy, this package is for you!") it seems safe to assume that reading is progressing in the direction of literacy. This may seem to outsiders to be somewhat imprecise, but unschooling parents learn through experience that more specific evaluation is intrusive, unnecessary, and self-defeating.

If the government were to establish compulsory evaluation of babies to determine whether they were walking on schedule, everyone would think that was absurd. We all know that healthy babies walk eventually, and that it would be futile and frustrating to attempt to speed up that process - as foolish as trying to speed up the blooming of a rose. Gardeners do not worry about late-blooming roses, or measure their daily progress - they trust in nature's good intentions, meet the needs of the plants under their care, and know that any further intervention would interfere with the natural flow of their growth. Such trust is as essential in the education of a child as it is in gardening. All healthy rose bushes bloom when ready, all healthy babies walk when ready, and all healthy children in a family of readers read when ready - though this may be as late as ten or twelve. There is no need to speed up or measure this process. When a child is free to learn at his own pace, he will continue to love learning throughout his life.

The child's progress is not always smooth; there may be sudden shifts from one stage to the next. Formal evaluation given just prior to such a shift may give unfair and misleading information. At a time when I knew (through a reduction in the number of requests for me to read certain signs, labels, etc.) that my son Jason's reading was improving, but not, as far as I knew, able to read fluently, I told him one evening that I was unable to read to him because I wasn't feeling well. He said, "Well, you can rest and I'll read a book to you." He proceeded to read an entire book flawlessly, at a level of more difficulty than I would have guessed.

Thus it sometimes happens in the natural course of living with a child that we receive direct and specific information about his progress. But it should be stressed that this is part of the natural process of supporting a child's learning, and that requiring such direct proof is almost always self-defeating. Had I required him to read the book, he might well have refused, because he would have felt the anxiety which anyone feels when being evaluated. But because he chose to read voluntarily, and his accuracy was not being examined, he had no reason to feel anxious.

Unschooling parents, then, cannot avoid having a good general idea of a child's progress in reading, or in any other area. Without testing for specific learning, we may underestimate a child's abilities to some extent, but all that means is that we make delightful discoveries along the way.

If unschooling parents do not measure, evaluate and control learning, how can the child himself know when to move on to the next level? If we were to ask a horticulturist how a rose knows when to bloom, he or she could not answer that question; it is simply assumed that such knowledge is built into the wondrous genetics of the seed. A child's schedule of intellectual growth, like the rose's blooming, may indeed be a mysterious process, but it nonetheless exists within each child.

Jason, one day at age three, though not yet a fluent reader, taught himself squares and square roots. How could I have guessed that he was ready for that level of mathematics on that particular day? Had I been imposing a standard curriculum, I might have discouraged early math and emphasized reading, and to what end? He is now proficient in, and greatly enjoys, both areas. Ultimately, it made no difference when he achieved this mastery. As John Holt once observed, children are not trains. If a train does not reach every station on time, it will be late reaching its ultimate destination. But a child can be late at any "station", and can even change the entire route of the learning process, and still reach every area of learning.

The unschooling child not only knows what he needs to learn, but how best to go about learning it. Jason has always devised ingenious ways for learning what is currently in the foreground of his interest. His method for learning squares and square roots - rows and columns of dots on paper - would never have occurred to me, even if I had guessed correctly that he was ready for this subject at that early age. At age 6, he was looking over a new globe, and made a game of guessing which of several pairs of countries was larger in area, then larger in population, and so on. These sorts of games went on constantly; his creativity in designing interesting learning methods far surpassed my own, and I never had to give a single thought to motivation. My child is not unique; many unschooling parents have reported just this sort of creativity and joyful learning in their children.

Jason has had no lessons in the conventional sense. He has taught himself, with help as needed and requested by him, reading, writing, math, art and science. However, these subjects are not treated as separate categories, but as parts of the topic of current interest. My role has not been that of "teacher", but of facilitator. I am not merely a passive observer, however. When he asked questions - which he did many times each day, I answered as well as I could. If I couldn't, I became a researcher: I made phone calls, helped him to use the encyclopedia, went with him to the library, or found someone with relevant experience with whom he could learn; whatever helped him to find the answer (today's parents, of course, also have the Internet as another resource.) This was not merely helpful in answering his specific question, but in the more general sense of modeling the many ways in which information can be obtained.

While I did not choose unschooling for religious reasons, I have always welcomed the time available to explore questions of personal ethics, and to encourage such qualities as kindness, honesty, trust, cooperation, creative solutions to problems, and compassion for others. We have also appreciated having time in the morning to discuss such things as dreams from the previous night and plans for the day ahead, when I would otherwise have been preoccupied with helping him to get ready for school. Believing that modern life is already overly hectic, we try as much as possible to make room for unhurried time in our family.

In an age of "information explosion," it is no longer meaningful or realistic to require rote memorization of specific facts. Not only are these facts meaningless to the child unless they happen to coincide with his own current and unique interests, many of these facts will in any case be outdated by the time he is an adult. But if a child learns how to obtain information, he can apply that skill throughout his life. Regardless of which specific topics were covered, our primary focus has always been "how to learn" and "how to obtain information." As John Holt wrote, "Since we can't know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned."
 

 
Portuguese translation
 
 
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers email counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting, unschooling, and personal matters. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.
 
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