|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
- 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,
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
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
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