A friend asked me recently what I wish I had known when we began unschooling. It’s an interesting question. There were lots of things that I didn’t know, and there were others that, intellectually at least, I did know, but didn’t quite believe. So, here’s my list. All the things I wish I had known, and all the things I did know and wish I’d believed were true.
That children are born to learn
They don’t need rewards or bribery. They don’t need us to motivate or cajole. They don’t need us to dress learning up as fun games, or to sneak it into the day. They are perfectly-designed learning machines. Our children may not learn what we would choose for them to learn, but that’s really our issue, not theirs (see the next point). Their learning is driven from within by their own innate curiosity and personality, based on their own desires, needs, interests and values. If, from the outside, we try to force it, correct it, speed it up, or redirect it, we will inevitably mess up this beautiful process. And, if we keep interfering, we will never see what magic happens when we just let it be. All we can do is provide a safe, interesting and loving environment within which they can learn as they please.
That the main obstacles would come from my own insecurities and fears
The biggest obstacle to unschooling is always the parents. Most of us were schooled traditionally and, even when we know that’s not what we want for our children, it’s hard to break free from all the deeply ingrained paradigms and fears. I understood unschooling, but it took me a long time to trust what I knew. I would regularly have fearful moments. Gripped by some indefinable worry for my children’s futures, I would attempt to hijack their process and turn it into something more socially acceptable, clumsily introducing a little maths for example, or suggesting some ‘learning’ activity. Luckily, my children are smarter than me, and would see through that immediately.
That unschooling is about so much more than learning
When we started this journey, it was all about finding an alternative to school, and I was entirely focused on learning. I read so much about how children learn naturally and I was armed with ideas and activities and theories. But, in fact, that’s not the journey at all. The learning happens by itself. The true journey is all about connection and relationships. It’s about what we value and how we live our lives.
That it’s hard! And requires a lot of introspection
Throwing so much conventional wisdom out is challenging, and for a time there are likely to be many insecurities that will be triggered often. These will become less and less over time, as the fears become replaced by positive real-life experiences. The best way to get through the transition period (sometimes referred to as ‘deschooling’) is to really try to understand what your fears are and what triggers them. By delving in deep and getting some understanding around your reactions, you’ll be more compassionate with your struggles, and able to spot when they are showing up.
That children want purpose and meaning in their lives
There’s an idea that we must prepare our children for purposeful lives. That this is something adults instil in them. But my children have shown me that we are born with a strong desire to do things that are meaningful. Society may tell them to be be quiet and behave until they’re older, but they want to engage now, not at some random future age. They want to understand real life and what part they can play in it. The most passionate conversations here revolve around ‘adult’ concerns, like politics, money, social issues, business ideas and the environment. They care an awful lot about how the world works. A by-product of this is that they absorb huge amounts of information and learn many skills, because it is inherently meaningful and important to them.
That I would never be able to compare them ever again to their peers
I was worried at first about my children not ‘keeping up’ with their peers. What if they got to 12 or 14 or 16 and weren’t at the same point? I smile at this now. At various times in this house, there has been a child who doesn’t know what a fraction is but can tell you all the elements on the periodic table and what they’re used for. A child who hates to write by hand but whose nighttime reading is an ancient Chinese text translated into English. A child who can’t read but who knows pretty much every flag in the world. Are they where they ‘should’ be? I have no idea! Who could possibly tell? And who on earth decides where they ‘should’ be anyway?
That so much of what they learn at school, they learn through life. And the rest, well, it possibly doesn’t matter much
Most things that are struggled with and agonised over at school, are just picked up quietly along the way. Reading, percentages, adding, subtraction, history, geography, economics…. Real life is packed with all of these. As my children engage with life in the way that best suits them, they willingly gather up everything they need. Often this is effortless, though sometimes they will push themselves hard because they want to. They often just spot things they are curious about, and ask about them. A recent example was verbs, adjectives, and nouns. So that became an interesting conversation.
NB: At some time in the future, they may well need to know some of the things that don’t just arise naturally. This will almost certainly be because they choose to take exams. At that point, they’ll learn those things (by themselves or maybe with a tutor or through some classes) because it will make sense to them to learn them.
That true learning doesn’t look at all how I imagined it would look
I initially imagined that learning meant absorbing information from a specific place in a specific way. I assumed it would come to us through documentaries, museum visits, books etc, and that I would be instrumental in bringing these things to them. I would facilitate the learning and watch it happen. As time went on, I realised that the less I did, the more they learned. Now, most of the time I don’t really know where they’re getting their information from, but what I see is that when they’re interested in something, they’ll seek out information until their curiosity is satisfied. For some things, the fascination may last a few hours, whereas other things are fixed topics in their lives, and they delve in and out of these regularly. Which brings me to my next point…
That subjects only exist in school
In real life, things are all mixed together. No subjects really stand entirely by themselves in life. Geography, history, economics, languages, literature, science, reading, maths… And so, children don’t learn in a linear way as they would at school. They learn in a gloriously higgledy-piggledy way, with new things slotting into the web of knowledge they’ve already acquired. It’s messy, unquantifiable and as complex as life itself.
That our version of unschooling wouldn’t look like anyone else’s, and that’s okay
It’s important to leave aside any ideal of what this lifestyle will look like for your family, as there are as many ways to unschool as there are to live. There will still be arguments and bad moods, and juggling with work, and relationship issues, and financial stresses, and all the other things that life throws at most people. So don’t worry about how anyone else is doing it, and certainly don’t compare. Having an ideal in your mind will distract you from all the real beauty that is happening.
That, actually, I don’t always know best
Children have a lot of autonomy in an unschooling home. They get to know themselves well, in terms, not just of interests and how they want to spend their time, but also in terms of a host of other things, such as what time they get up, what they eat, what social activities they go to etc. I may have an opinion on what is the best course of action, but I’m not them. I can’t feel into every emotion, notice all the cues from my body, consider how my choice might influence other things on my mind. Much better that they listen in to all of these things and act according to what they believe is best. If I think I genuinely have something valid to bring to the table, then I’ll say it, but I may well not know best.
That they would know so much about things I know nothing about
When someone asks if I teach them, everyone stifles a laugh. They have many interests and passions that I know almost nothing about and they wipe the floor with me in many topics. Sometimes, I have to do a sneaky Google search just to keep up with the conversation.
And…that I would learn so much
I left school convinced that there were subjects I was naturally good at (languages) and subjects I was average or bad at (all the rest). My children have taught me that this is not the way things should be. It has taken me a big effort to get over my acquired aversions, but I’ve learned so much through my children’s wide-open, curious minds. Best teachers ever!
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