The further down this road my family travels and the more studies I devour, the more confused I get. It is so perplexing to me that people still see unschooling and respectful parenting as a bizarre fringe movement. Unattainable for some? Sure. Physically impossible for others? Ok. Without merit? Now I disagree. How did we get to the point where treating children with respect and empowering them to make choices about themselves defines me as a change-maker? When did nurturing a love of learning become an illegitimate pedagogy?
I’ve sat on this for a while. Rewritten it. Thought about what it is that I really want to share. I guess it boils down to this growing unease inside me. Simmering frustration. I want you to see that this is not just some mommy-blogger with her wack ideas about child led learning and mutual respect. There is so much out there, and it would be impossible to include everything, but this post is heavily hyperlinked to examples of the books, articles and studies I have found useful.
We live in a world with access to extraordinary minds, an incredible amount of research and an ever growing understanding about the human psyche. Over time we have begun to piece together the optimum way that humans learn and the ideal conditions for emotional development.
We know that every individual has interests and strengths unique to them. As education has progressed, particularly in developed countries, there has been a growing body of research calling for a move towards more personalised learning in the classroom. We recognise that students do best when they are met at their level and presented with material that sparks genuine interest. Despite this, we continue to enforce a style of education that is one size fits all, while viewing unschooling, which epitomises personalised learning, with suspicion.
We know that students learn in a more concrete way when experiencing something first hand. We know the optimal conditions for experiential learning. Allowing learning experiences to exist in an environment without limits on thinking and exploration, without expectations or conditions on where that experience can take your mind, is what drives innovation and creative thinking. The modern classroom’s efforts to incorporate experiential learning are mostly thwarted by measuring, grading and the need for a ‘correct answer’. Unschooling provides a model environment for experiential learning to occur, in exactly the way that research tells us is ideal, yet for many people, educators included, it isn’t a legitimate form of ‘education.’
Research shows us that making something compulsory does not lead to enjoyment or intrinsic motivation. Yet mainstream education continues to approach literacy in this manner. We know that spelling tests don’t improve spelling but go a long way to increase anxiety levels and decrease confidence in students who don’t do well. Yet teachers and schools continue to keep them in the teaching repertoire. We know that starting a formal literacy curriculum at an increasingly early age does not correlate with higher reading abilities down the track. Yet much of the developed world supports a system that continues to push in this direction. We know that students who enjoy reading have a more meaningful interaction with literature. Yet most mainstream curriculums refuse to give children the time and space they need for this to happen, often stifling enjoyment through compulsory readers, formal instruction before natural interest can develop and the ever present measuring and grading. Why then do we as a society accept this, while casting a glaring eye at an educational philosophy that empowers children to explore and interact with literature on their own terms?
We know that punishment and rewards are extrinsic motivators that kill intrinsic motivation. Yet we have built our modern education system on these foundations. Intrinsic motivation is the kind we want to see in our kids. We want creative thinkers and self-starters. Employers keep telling us, not enough people are thinking outside the box! We need creative problem solvers! These are the learners who are motivated to engage because they want to and find it naturally rewarding, not because they feel like they have to. Why then do we continue to monitor, grade and test in more and more extreme and nuanced ways? Unschooling removes these barriers and nurtures intrinsic motivation and creativity, which is exactly what research says we should do, yet is viewed as alternative and unconventional.
We know that children grow optimally in an emotional environment surrounded by people who care for them and are invested in their emotional wellbeing. Yet we continue on a path that separates children from their families at an increasingly early age and for increasingly long periods of time. This is done in the face of evidence that shows that any benefit of kindergarten programs have disappeared by third grade and may actually be more harmful than beneficial. We know that life is a multi-age environment, but we continue to segregate based on age for the entirety of the formative years. Unschooling allows children to grow with those who care for them most. Unschooling gives children the confidence to be teachers and learners within their multi-age peer group. Unschooling allows children socialisation in real world settings for real lengths of time, not dictated by bells and narrowly defined peer groups. Yet socialisation and emotional growth are concerns aimed squarely at the unschooling community, not mainstream schooling.
Respect cannot be demanded. We know that the best way to teach true respect, is to treat people with respect. If we want to raise kind children, we should model kindness. If we want to raise children who grow up to be people who feel in control of their bodies, we should give them bodily autonomy. If we want to raise confident decision makers, we need to let children make decisions. All of this makes sense. Yet mainstream parenting continues to favor illogical boundaries and control. Meanwhile, respectful parenting, that empowers children in a very conscious way, is seen as passive or extreme.
I respect that there is a huge amount of privilege that comes with being able to raise a family this way. And obviously, I don’t feel like we have it completely right. We are constantly learning more and adjusting our approach as we learn to deeply trust our children. But still, I am confused. This isn’t some flight of fancy for me. I’m not parenting on a whim which is what I often feel is suggested. I have spent so much time reading, learning, questioning, thinking. Raising humans to go out into this world alone one day isn’t something I wanted to leave to chance. We have chosen this path because we want to optimise the conditions for learning and emotional growth for our children. It doesn’t feel like a crazy, extreme thing to do. So regardless of where you fall on the parenting spectrum, tell me, how am I the radical one?
Cannot thank you enough for your thoughtful sharing. My greatest obstacle to fully unschooling is my susceptibility to the judgment of the community we live in. We are the outliers! We are also very social my daughter and I so our choice has left us without a tribe that gets us. I don’t feel extreme but it that projected onto us by our immediate community. It’s hard not to waffle when you’re feeling alone. I believe we are doing the right thing for our daughter for all of the reasons you listed and more! I understand your desire to write about this important and thoughtful choice you made! Thank you! And now I wish you lived just down the road!!!!
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Thanks Holly. It is hard when you feel like the only one. Keep searching, sometimes people just like you are hiding where you least expect it! There are lots of facebook groups to ask in too. Send me an email if you want some links to some big global unschooling groups and you can ask if there is anyone local to you.
A thousand times yes! This is the post I’ve had in my head for years and never been able to write. Although we didn’t discover unschooling until we took our son out of school in the middle of 8th grade almost 20 years ago (a few years later our daughter took herself out of school after 9th grade) we researched everything we could and ended up paradigm shifting in a way where you an never look back, and there’s no going back.
It went hand and hand with respectful parenting, which was our natural inclination but not supported in the larger world around us. It’s so great now to have books, research, blogs and communities living it and writing about it. But it is still, sometimes to my naive amazement, the outlier and I too have often wondered, why am I the radical one. Thank you for writing this.
Thank you! And yes, once you start asking questions, it is hard to stop. No going back.
I homeschooled in the early 90’s. Homeschooling felt natural to us but onlookers made me feel as if we were radical extremists. Your post is excellent in articulating the contradiction in the true essence of education and public school’s idea of education.
Thank you! It is so wonderful to hear from people who have been through the whole process.
I understood where you started, with a plea for understanding and tolerance of the choices you’ve made for your family. Of course, no one should make you feel like an extremist or a radical. But then as the post went on, it began to feel to me like you were building a different case, arguing that you have all the evidence on your side, that the choices you’ve made are not just the right choices for you, but for everyone, and that in fact it’s the world that has become extreme and wrong, while you and others who have made similar choices are reasonable and right. That to me is where the unschooling and respectful parenting movements become a bit radical. By all means do your thing. But you can’t expect everyone else to do the same thing, and you shouldn’t interpret anyone else’s choice to do something else as a rebuke to your own choices.
Thanks for your comment. I hope I didn’t come across as rebuking the choices of other families. As I said, I feel like we are in a position of extreme privilege to be able to choose this lifestyle for our family and there are many families who have a different reality. This article didn’t come about because I felt like the choices of others make me feel like they condemn our choices, it came about because of direct comments online and in real life, and a lot of negative commentary I read about unschooling. This is an unschooling blog so obviously I am pro-unschooling! However, the point of the article was highlighting the hypocrisy in criticizing the choice to unschool without perhaps understanding that it is very much in line with research on learning and emotional growth, while being very much in favor of a system that has turned its back on those findings. Whether or not you are ok with that is always going to be a personal choice. And I have lots of friends who think what we are doing is great but choose to send their children to school because it works for their family.
My hope is that this article might reach some people critical of this movement who perhaps don’t understand its basis. I’m sorry if the impact for you was negative. That wasn’t my intention! Thanks for your feedback and thank you for reading.
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Yes, yes, yes!!! 💙
What fascinates me is the research you quote is mostly done by traditional schoolers. When we started homeschooling, I did some research to find out how best to teach a child with ADHD. To my surprise, I found a ton of things that the schools researched and knew would help, but for some reason weren’t doing. Even relatively simple things like more recess. Unschoolers follow schools’ own research better than schools do.
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Yes! This is obviously anecdata but my two older children went to jk before we withdrew them. My eldest son is neurodiverse and it was so difficult to get accommodations (simple ones) in the classroom despite our clear, open and positive lines of communication about his needs. His teachers would still use punishments and rewards that defied these. For example, our son needs to move his body a lot and finds being outside very calming, yet despite this knowledge, his teachers would still use missing recess as a punishment for not completing schoolwork. And then this would flow into the mood for the afternoon. In the end, I realized that even with our best efforts, what they really wanted was for our son to just change so that he didn’t need any special thought or attention. We found a better way.
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Right on. But I do supposed that “extremism” is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t feel like an extremist because my own background is somewhat wacky/extreme/what the f am I doing?. I’m a homeschool graduate (5th grade thru highschool), trained to be a missionary pilot overseas, then became a doctoral level school psychologist. I know, right? But I’ve seen behind both sides of the curtain, and its for all the reasons you mentioned above that we’ve decided to “off the grid” with our two kids. But, if I’m being totally honest, the sidelong glances and assumptions that I know others make about my wife and I do bother me. I couldn’t care less about what others think, but I guess I do have some anxiety around the comments other people make to my five year old son. They look at him like he’s a lost and abused little puppy when we say that he won’t be going to the town kindergarten next year. Would love to hear how others have navigated those awkward moments.
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Yes, it’s hard. The best way we have found is to build a community around you. We spend a lot of time with other homeschoolers, unschoolers or just people who respect children. It is easier to stay true to your values when you feel like those around you support rather than judge what you are doing. Being at the park with my barefoot babes is easier when they are running around with their barefoot friends! You tend to not notice the shoe-ed judgers anymore.
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Fascinating article thanks for sharing. I love that you have included the studies and I plan on checking them all out. It drives me mad when people write these amazing blogs about unschooling and then don’t link the science which they refer to. I love reading all the studies and papers first hand. It makes your arguments and point of view so much stronger.
I am saving this for future reading and referral, what an awesome and well presented post! This is a question I am finding myself asking more and more as I see other people’s choices around education and raising kids in a new light. Thank you for articulating this so well and providing a touchstone for those of us who are wondering “how are WE the weird ones?” 🙂
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and I am so happy that you found this post useful.