What Is Unschooling Really?

I know it is difficult for a lot of people to conceptualise what unschooling ‘is’. Unschooling can seem like a pretty scary term, and for people who associate education with school, it can generate some inaccurate assumptions. You see a lot of catch phrases like ‘life learning’ and ‘child led’, maybe you see some photos and some articles featuring kids in nature or completing some project and it still doesn’t translate into ‘education’ in your mind. What is unschooling, really?

You might be surprised to know that ‘unschooling’, in essence, is a very well documented and researched method of learning which, when educators attempt to translate it into a classroom setting, is called ‘experiential learning.’

You have an experience, you reflect on it, learn from it and try again.

And this is what learning looks like in our home. A whole range of experiences, questioning, practising, talking, observing, reading, practising some more. It comes together over time to create an incredible and meaningful learning experience.

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Sometimes, this looks like a huge push to learn everything there is about a topic, and the obsession will generate knowledge at a rapid pace.

As a family, we support these intense interests with trips to the library, trips to museums and exhibitions, purchasing relevant resources, finding documentaries to watch together, traveling to relevant places as a family to see things first hand, finding mentors in different subject areas, finding classes to try, cooking together. But most importantly, from the youngest age, we respect the autonomy of each learner in our family by removing barriers that prevent experiential learning (No you can’t go outside without your jacket because it is cold. No, you can’t mix the playdough colours).

On a trip last year, we visited a museum that housed the mummified remains of an Inca child that had been sacrificed. The high altitude, low oxygen environment had preserved the body naturally. My six year old had a LOT of questions. In the weeks that followed, we learnt about Inca culture and mummification, we mummified a chicken to experience the process, we went to the library to find books on mummies and learnt about how other cultures preserved the dead. The process was intense and continued until he had experienced and taken in everything he could about the topic. And just as readily, he moved on to the next interest.

Other times, the learning ticks along at a more constant pace. My eight year old has been passionate about fossils for a couple of years now. We have taken road trips to fossil rich areas, visited museums, observed at a fossil prep lab, read books, watched movies and documentaries, found and prepared our own fossils and many other things. Over time, he has narrowed this focus to be particularly interested in marine fossils from the Miocene. This interest doesn’t consume him each day, but it is constantly there in the background and he is drawn back again and again, wanting to learn more.

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Sometimes, experiential learning is quieter.

It could be your child helping to prepare meals. They cut the tomato in half each day. There are two pieces. This process will be repeated over and over in different contexts. They continue to cut the tomatoes, they share half of their cake with their sibling, they fold paper in half, and one day the abstract of ½ + ½ = 1 in every context makes sense. This might present itself as a child suddenly realising while baking that they don’t need both the one cup and the half cup measure to make one and a half cups, when they can use the half cup three times. My eldest two children readily add, subtract and multiply fractions, even though we have never sat down and ‘studied’ fractions. The way they have learnt has been in a concrete, hands on way, that makes sense.

Our brain is an amazing thing. We are learning more and more about it all the time thanks to some incredible research. This is a simple article on how the brain learns. In basic terms, everything you learn builds on things you have learnt before. With time and practise, you can link knowledge pathways together to interpret and understand new experiences. The more you repeat these experiences, the easier and faster it becomes to draw on this knowledge. But most importantly, reaching this stage of higher learning, relies on a really solid knowledge foundation.

I’m not talking about maths and literacy basics here! I’m talking about a solid experiential basis for what you are trying to learn more about. In a recent study led by Professor Sian Beilock from the University of Chicago that looked at hands on learning experiences and knowledge retention, the researchers found that ‘[t]hose students who physically experience difficult science concepts learn them better, perform better in class…and the effect seems to play out weeks later…In many situations, when we allow our bodies to become part of the learning process, we understand better.”

They found that this was especially true for the initial stages of learning, or what we know with brain development, as the very important foundation of knowledge from which we will continue to build on with dendrites and synapses. Beilock concluded that “[r]eading about a concept in a textbook or even seeing a demonstration in class is not the same as physically experiencing what you are learning about.’ She thinks that ‘we need to rethink how we are teaching math and science because our actions matter for how and what we learn.”

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I could quote many, many studies concluding the same thing. ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ Pursuing a path of education that facilitates this deeper form of learning about topics that are relevant and meaningful to the child shouldn’t seem radical or fringe or revolutionary. And yet the term unschooling continues to conjure up these terms. There is, essentially, a fundamental misunderstanding of the term.

As we know, the mainstream schooling system continues to highlight the merit and importance of experiential learning and the need for more hands on learning experiences. I can understand why teachers are so eager to mimic this style of education in the classroom. Yet it can’t be replicated in a school environment, because very rarely is this kind of learning going to come out of a process that is dictated by someone else. True experiential learning cannot happen where the desired outcome is pre-planned, where the learning process is imposed or where the outcomes are being assessed by someone else.

Carl Rogers, in his incredible work ‘Freedom to Learn’ written in 1969, wrote about the characteristics of experiential learning.

  1. It has a quality of personal involvement in which “the whole person in both [their] feeling and cognitive aspects [is] in the learning event”
  2. It is self-initiated – “Even when the impetus or stimulus comes from the outside, the sense of discovery, of reaching out, of grasping and comprehending, comes from within”
  3. It is pervasive – Significant learning “makes a difference in the behaviour, the attitudes, perhaps even the personality of the learner”
  4. It is evaluated by the learner – The learner knows “whether it is meeting [their] need, whether it leads toward what [they] want to know, whether it illuminates the dark area of ignorance [they are] experiencing”
  5. Its essence is meaning – “When such learning takes place, the element of meaning to the learner is built into the whole experience”

Although there are many, many differentiators between experiential learning in the classroom and real life, the two biggest factors are time and choice. There is no artificial time limit on our experience. The time to learn about dinosaurs doesn’t end with the school term. And if we couldn’t care less about dinosaurs, it is ok to miss it altogether right now. As unschoolers, we understand that no amount of experiential learning about palaeontology is going to resonate in the same way as designing plays for the future actor.

Carl Rogers wrote:

I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of the poor helpless individual tied in to his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING – the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy to absorb everything he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of his ‘cruiser’. I am talking about the student who says. “I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me.” I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: “No, no, that’s not what I want”; “Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need”; “Ah, here it is! Now I’m grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!”

This is unschooling.

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