Unschooling Philosophy

Sandra Dodd: “Although unschooling is often described as a homeschooling style, it is, in fact, much more than just another homeschool teaching method. Unschooling is both a philosophy of natural learning and the lifestyle that results from living according to the principles of that philosophy. The most basic principle of unschooling is that children are born with an intrinsic urge to explore — for a moment or a lifetime — what intrigues them, as they seek to join the adult world in a personally satisfying way.

Because of that urge, an unschooling child is free to choose the what, when, where and how of his/her own learning from mud puddles to video games and SpongeBob Squarepants to Shakespeare! And an unschooling parent sees his/her role, not as a teacher, but as a facilitator and companion in a child’s exploration of the world.

Unschooling is a mindful lifestyle which encompasses, at its core, an atmosphere of trust, freedom, joy and deep respect for who the child is. This cannot be lived on a part-time basis. Unschooling sometimes seems so intuitive that people feel they’ve been doing it all along, not realizing it has a name. Unschooling sometimes seems so counterintuitive that people struggle to understand it, and it can take years to fully accept its worth.

The purpose of (discussion among unschoolers) is to move out of our own comfort zones as we critically examine our beliefs, ideas, and viewpoints about learning, and seek a deeper understanding of unschooling and more respectful relationships with our children.


UPDATE April 2009

From Rolfe Schmidt, who is retiring his blog this month and we don’t want to lose this page for posterity:

How We Homeschool

We are just starting out as homeschoolers, so it’s pretty amazing how much our attitude toward education has already changed. So many of our preconceived notions about education are out the window, and not all of them went easily. We decided to try homeschooling about a year ago, mostly for these reasons:

  1. We wanted a learning environment that allowed our kids to focus on subjects they love, not subjects where they are falling behind.
  2. We wanted our kids to know that there are no limits to what they can learn, but the learning is their responsibility.
  3. We wanted to be free to travel when fares are cheap.

There are other reasons too, but that captures most of it. We had no thoughts of unschooling — we hadn’t even heard of it — and we expected to run an efficient, personal school at home.

Over the last year, our experiences have changed our perspective entirely. Some of the incidents have been dramatic, like the time I reduced G to tears by trying to “help” him read a phonics book. Mostly they have been subtle and cumulative. At this point we have given up on anything like “seat work”. We listen to the kids and try our best to help them. They have learned more than we would have ever tried to teach them, even though they haven’t learned all the things we thought we needed to teach them.

Now it looks like we are unschoolers of one stripe or another. We still like our original reasons for homeschooling, but as we’ve been converted to unschooling we see many more. Mostly, we’ve learned that kids can be wildly happy and be learning more than you ever dreamed at the same time. Of course it’s not all smiles and prizes, but it is pretty good.Here are a few of the things we’ve learned that seem to make it work.

Be the person you want your kids to be

The most important lesson I’ve learned is that I’ll never teach my kids the most important lessons by talking to them. You can’t just tell someone what to value or how to live and expect them to care. If you want your kids to be interested in things, you need to be interested in things too. If you want your kid to have goals, you need to set goals too. If you want your kid to work hard pursuing those interests and goals, then you need to work hard too. You are one of the few adults that your kid sees living life. Watching you is how they know what it means to be an adult. Even if they are rebellious and break all of your stated rules, when they get out into the uncharted waters of adulthood they’ll be using what they saw of your life as a guide.

Of course this also means that if you sit on the couch watching TV and tell them to go read a book, they will learn to sit on the couch, watch TV, and tell other people to read books. (Nothing against TV here, just hypocrisy.)

This sort of teaching as a role model is powerful. Sometimes it seems like the only teaching I can do reliably. But occasionally it gets even better: kids will want to imitate their parents. When this happens you have a rare opportunity to teach a receptive and eager student. Never pass it up.

Listen to your kids and take their ideas seriously

While you can’t always get your kids interested in thinking about the things you want them to learn, you can always listen to them, understand what they are thinking, and help them run with their ideas. One of the things I’ve learned teaching Math is that when students try to answer a question and get it wrong, there is usually the germ of a good idea in their head that was just not applied in the right context. One of my most memorable incidents like this happened when my oldest boy and I were talking about place value. You can read the long story, but here is the short one: he was doing it wrong, but his mistake led us to “discover” a new number system. This left him excited about place value, proud of his ideas, and I’d like to think it helped him realize that it takes a bit of work to turn a good idea into something that gives “right answers”.

So many benefits, and to think I almost told him “No, you’re doing it wrong. Do it this way…”.

Expose them to all the ideas you can, but don’t worry that many don’t stick

I’ve really given up on thinking I can find the best way to present a subject. All such hubris was wrested from me when I tried to help my oldest boy learn fractions. He was asking a question that needed fractions to answer: when we walk to the library and back it is three miles, so how far is it just to go to the library? He thought maybe it was one mile there and two miles back, but that couldn’t be right. He was stumped. I tried all sorts of manipulatives and explanations but he never felt comfortable with the answer. Finally one day after I’d given up, he announced that he figured it out. It was three-half miles. He figured it out using a space-time diagram. I’ll just quote my post about that incident:

I would never have thought to explain fractions this way. I still would never explain fractions this way to anyone other than G. I have no idea why this helped him, but it did.

The only thing I can do is keep exposing him to as many different ideas as I can.

That pretty much sums it up. Forcing lessons doesn’t work for us. Relaxing does, even though it took a while to realize it.

Don’t worry about other people’s tests and timetables

People learn things at different speeds and in different ways. They tend to really learn about subjects they’re interested in, and there’s a good chance that those subjects aren’t going to make up the core of your favorite standardized test. Just remember that there’s also a good chance that the person who aces that standardized test has no clue how to be a productive member of society. I’m not saying my kids will be productive when they leave home — they probably won’t be. But I do hope that they’ll know how to learn — and to learn whatever they want, not just what they are told. Then they’ll be able to figure out how to carry their own weight in the world.

It can be hard to ignore society’s values. I know we’ve run into some trouble with the way people overemphasize the importance of reading. People fawn all over our son who can read, but don’t pay much attention to his older brother who doesn’t. This has caused some heartache, to be sure. But if I’m ever going to be an over-protective parent, this is the sort of thing I want to protect my kids from.

Relaxing doesn’t mean doing nothing

One of the big misconceptions people have about unschooling is that they think unschoolers don’t do anything. This couldn’t be further from the truth for us. Every hour of every day has the potential to be a learning experience. My wife and I are always on the lookout for those great moments when the kids ask questions or need help with something — they don’t always happen at the most convenient times. Our kids are usually in to something, even though it doesn’t always seem educational. For us, life is school and we’re always on call.

Read about how other people do it

As happy as I am with our approach to homeschooling, the doubts still creep into my head every now and then. One of the best ways to deal with those is to talk to people who have already been there or to read their stories. The internet is full of great resources, but if I could pick just one I’d recommend reading as much as you can at Joyce Fetteroll’s site.

8 responses

3 10 2006
MSNBC Does Unschooling (What Controversy?) « Cocking A Snook!

[…] If unschooling piques you and your interest, check out Snook’s more “radical” unschooling resources. And consider that force-feeding the child’s body is considered abuse these days. Some of us see it that way for the mind and spirit too. Posted in Unschooling, Institutions and Individuals, Public Communication, Intellectual and Academic Freedom, School is to Food, Ethics and Philosophy | […]

5 02 2007
beatrice ekoko

Hi there, we would like to be added to your unschooling resource list. We are a family of home learners who produce a weekly radio show by and for homelearners/unschoolers.
In exchange we would like to add this site to our links page.
many thanks,

29 10 2007
Sandra Dodd

I’m credited with the description above, but it was written by Joyce Fetteroll and tweaked by Pam Sorooshian and me before it was published at the UnschoolingDiscussion site, on googlegroups.

I didn’t see Joyce Fetteroll’s site linked on your main page, and it’s a great one.

29 10 2007

Thanks Sandra – my mistake. I know the three of you collaborate as a great team each with different strengths, but I didn’t how this particular statement had evolved.

We do in fact have Joyce linked in the blogroll under UNSCHOOLING (scroll to bottom of categories), along with Sandradodd.com and your new personal blog, too. Joyce’s was one of the first sites we heard a direct thank you for linking, from new unschooling dad-blogger Rolfe.

Did you see that only this morning I’ve borrowed something from your Google list that Pam wrote? I wasn’t sure how to “credit” it more than I did. Any suggestions? I haven’t even had time to send her the link yet . . .
“Is Your Love for Your Kids Controlling?

JJ Ross

12 02 2009
“Teaching Without Teaching” Even When It’s Math « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Unschooling Philosophy […]

15 08 2009

I’ve got a question for you. What do you do when your child insists on you planning school for him? My younger two willingly go through their days learning at will. I do provide them with reading material, but they’ve had good experiences with my suggestions, so read it willingly. For them, I utilize the scatter method. I scatter books on the floor, and they find them and read them. But, that older one wants an exact schedule of what, when and how to it. He, of course, is the only one that has ever been to school. 🙂

15 08 2009

It comes up on unschooling lists and in every unschooling family sooner or later. I remember trying to figure out the larger philosophy of it all when Favorite Daughter at one point insisted I give her spelling tests every day.

Here’s a brief newbie-tested answer I found today, from those same two brilliant unschooling mentors above in these comments, Joyce Fetteroll and Sandra Dodd:

“As Sandra succinctly put it:

It has more to do with why people are doing what they are doing and what they believe about it than WHAT they are doing.

If a child thinks he needs to do a workbook in order to learn something, then he isn’t unschooling. Even if he asks for the workbook.

[JJ’s interpretation: IOW take it as an important cue that independent learning confidence needs to be built before the full flower of unschooling can bloom, so that, rather than any subject matter, is the real learning help for which mom’s most creative efforts may be needed first. The child just doesn’t know to ask for THAT.]

But if he does workbooks for fun like puzzle books or video games or cartoons, picking them up when he feels like it, and the mom doesn’t value them more than anything else the child enjoys doing, then that’s unschooling.”

15 08 2009

The goal is to think of it and have it actually BE, as if you’ve been asked to read a bedtime story out loud or be a chauffeur or human alarm clock or secretary for the child “boss” of his own affairs, or an exercise buddy or a butler helping a child pack for a dance trip because he’s worried about forgetting something or can’t find stuff or isn’t organized and doesn’t much care to work on that aspect of the experience, or whatever.

Just be sure the child knows he’s in control and you are just a happy helper at his disposal in all things, and learning is inseparable from all the other lovely parts of life. Learning is not work and you are not a teacher authority doling out the knowledge and keeping the chore chart to check up on him and then reward or punish.

Then that is unschooling! (even when it’s a lot like school)

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