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Why Unschooling?

Q. My kids go to a family school. I spend a lot of energy helping them learn about the things that they are inspired by. Am I hurting my kids by letting them go to school? Why unschooling? They seem to just love school.

A. I'm glad to hear that you're so pleased with your children's school, and I'm especially happy that you are also helping them to learn at home. You haven't given their ages, but my guess is that they're still young. Even the best schools tend to get more structured, and to move further away from what children really need, as they move up in grades.

Research has consistently shown, for example, that in the early grades, most of the questions are asked by the students, but by grades three or four and on to graduation, most of the questions are asked by the teachers. This is an important consideration for two reasons.

First, the best way to learn anything is to explore whatever we're most interested in at that precise moment. If a child is asked a question, it would be an unlikely coincidence if the teacher guessed what the child's greatest interest was at that time, and even if the teacher could, it would be very difficult for any teacher to cover all of the students' individual topics of interest.

Second, we need to look at how learning works best. If a child is asked a question, and she already knows the answer, what can she learn? She already knows it! If the child doesn't know the answer, how can she not feel a sense of failure (and in many classrooms, also embarrassment and shame)? In such a stressful situation, and with a subject they have little interest in at the time, they're not likely to remember the answer later. This is why so many of us remember little of what we were taught in school. In contrast, my 27-year-old son Jason was unschooled from the beginning and now has an immense knowledge base - including many details learned years ago - because he learned them at the most effective time: the moment he wanted the information.

From my perspective as an unschooling parent and counselor, I would ask the opposite question: Why school? I'm guessing that your children love it mostly because of their interactions with good friends they meet there. Yet with approximately 2 million homeschoolers and unschoolers currently in North America and numerous local support groups starting almost daily, it should be surprisingly easy for them to find good friends in the unschooling community - and be able to talk and play freely with them instead of having to wait for lunch and recess breaks from class. In addition, unschooling children are among the happiest and most mature children I've met and make exceptional friends.

I would recommend finding a local unschooling support group and attending some of their activities, so you can see firsthand what the families are like. You'll also see that unschooling is far more than just an educational choice - it's a way of living with children with full respect, trust, and compassion. And, of course, unschooled children have far more opportunities to spend time with people of all ages, not just those within one year of their own age.

To help families learn more about all the benefits of unschooling, Jason and I have co-edited and published The Unschooling Unmanual, a collection of stories and essays by eight writers, to help parents learn more about this approach.

I also highly recommend the short, eloquent book How Children Learn by John Holt. It was our introduction to unschooling, and we never looked back!

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