|Following years of sporadic reports by people who claimed they had tried unschooling but it
hadn't worked for them, I started tracking their similarities and, as usual, I learned something new. And, as
usual, I thought I should share it so others might not have to wonder for ten years.
So here is a snapshot of what I thought I knew when I sat down to write this one day not too long ago: Some
people don't know what unschooling is supposed to look like.
If I went to the flea market to buy a torque wrench but I didn't know what one looked like, I would have a
pretty hard time just finding one by looking around. It probably wouldn't be on a table with clocks made of
cross-cut cedar. Looking through a tray of cassette tapes wouldn't help. It would be especially difficult if I
didn't even know what a torque wrench was for. I might look all through those wirey-boards and steel boxes
computer-repair guys brought. I could look for hours through cloth and paperback books and come home saying
"Going to the flea market for a torque wrench doesn't work."
I used to go to the flea market regularly, pre-motherhood, to buy medieval- and Renaissance-suggesting
things to re-sell in the SCA. It was fun. I used to make enough to pay our way to tournaments by setting up my
little homemade tent and some tables covered with pewter and silver-plated bowls and plates, cast aluminum
tankards or goblets, hand-blown glasses from Mexico, fur collars, little wooden jewelry chests, old-looking
jewelry, leather bags, brocade curtains (without fiberglass or rubber), interesting little knives, wooden
trays and bowls, and so forth. I'd sell them cheap, too. I learned a lot doing that, and had fun.
The Albuquerque flea market is huge. I would stand, walk, and pull my cart for two or three hours, scanning
for shiny metal dishes, wood, leather, certain designs. But most of the stuff got only enough glance to
determine it was not what I was looking for. I ignored piles of baby clothes, electronics, plastics and
hand tools. Many a torque wrench lay unseen.
|Unschoolers come away from a small school and into the big wide world. Some say "Here is the wide
world, and we will be in it and learn from everything around us." Then they proceed to scan specifically
for math, history, science, reading and writing. Because they went to school, math to them looks like flat
paper with numbers on it. History looks like books with many words and a few maps and illustrations, all
arranged in chronological order. Science is wide open - it might be a microscope, or a bug cage or some rocks
and a magnifying glass, until the kids are older, and then it will start looking like numbers on flat paper,
or maybe a book on anatomy, or the feared and revered "Periodic Chart of the Elements." Reading and
writing should look like reading and writing have always looked - books without illustrations (eventually, and
the sooner and thicker the better), and reports with straight margins and numbered pages.
|They scan their children's lives every day for schoolish things. They're looking for spiral notebooks and
they ignore sunsets. Looking for a 50-minute session of history to prove attention span, they miss a pioneer
dress-up game and an attempt to build a catapult.
As a final stop before giving up, some come and declare their failure to those who told them about
unschooling. They tell us it didn't work for their family, and that after all, they are the experts in their
children, and so they know that their own family is not creative enough to unschool, and their children crave
structure. Sometimes it seems they think those who say "Unschooling is So COOL!" are deluded nuts
who don't care much about their children. Other times I think they see our children as brilliant and theirs as
Now I have come to believe that they just ignored the million things looking for the five or six.
They thought if they left the kid alone for a month he might spontaneously create a four-subject routine,
with some music, art and sports put in for extracurricular balance. They envisioned that their child might
say, at the age of fourteen (give or take a few) years, "I'm ready to learn biology now," which
would be the beginning of nine months of study, with three dissections and some tadpole measuring, maybe some
plant genetics. By May they should declare whether they were more interested in botany or life sciences (step
one in "Do you want to go to medical school?").
When a science-minded kid loves to take the dog down by the river and look for wild berries and snakes,
some parents say, "My kid just wants to play. He's not interested in learning. He'll never learn science
Each little experience, every idea, is helping your child build his internal model of the universe. He will
not have the government-recommended blueprint for the internal model of the universe, which can look
surprisingly like a school, and a political science class, a small flat map of the huge spherical world, a job
with increasing vacations leading to retirement, and not a lot more.
Unschooled children can organize their knowledge in free and better ways. They never need to feel they are
through learning, or past the point that they can begin something new. Each thing they discover can be useful
eventually. If we help provide them with ever-changing opportunities to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, move
and discuss, what they know will exceed in breadth and depth what any school's curriculum would have covered.
It won't be the same set of materials - it will be clearer and larger but different.
"How will they learn everything they need to know?"
Do the best of the high school graduates know everything they need to know? No, and at some point, ideally,
they start learning on their own. Some fail to get to that point, though. Unschooled kids have a head start.
They know how to find what they need to know, and they have not been trained to ignore things that won't be on
When parents see how and what their children are actually learning instead of just scanning for the half
dozen school-things, unschooling will make sense to the parents. If you wait for school to congeal from a busy
life, you'll keep being disappointed. If you learn to see everything instead of just school things,
unschooling will start working for you. When you see it you will believe it.