What is Unschooling?

There are many interpretations of the term unschooling, which has been defined as learning without a curriculum or plan or education that consists solely of what a child wants to do. I dislike these definitions, and even the term unschooling, which seems to describe what it is not, rather than what it is. I prefer the terms child-led and self-directed because their meaning is clearer. The term child-led implies that the child is leading—but not without guidance or assistance.

Does child-led learning lack curriculum? Curriculum is a word for an educational plan. I have found plans to be exceedingly helpful, except when you are forced to stick to the plan. At that point, it can become a limitation instead of an asset. The process of enacting a plan often leads you to modify and clarify the plan, so not allowing for flexibility of change and adaptation becomes foolish and self-defeating. Successful work naturally requires change as part of the process. The same should be true for any plan, especially curriculum.

A curriculum can be created with the child’s interests and learning style at the heart of the plan. But with child-led learning, you are free to change the plan, at any time, as the child’s interests change or mature and as new opportunities appear.

In a child-led or self-directed approach, the student may choose what, how, when and where they learn. A teen can sleep late every day and immerse herself in art or theater. A middle schooler can study everything through the lens of ancient Egypt. A young child can wake up to dinosaurs or fairy tales every morning. While the child-led approach is flexible, it can also be traditional or structured if that matches the child’s preferences. While most children may dislike workbooks, some children ask for them.

So what is your role in child-led learning? Parents, teachers, and mentors are needed to assist the child with finding resources and obtaining what they want, helping them learn how to learn, and guiding them to the next step in their learning. Adults are also needed to expose a child to things that they have not yet experienced, to awaken curiosity, and to broaden thinking by presenting new ideas. It can take a long time, a lot of exposure and experience to discover the thing that drives you to want to learn more even when it requires a lot of work. If we only give children what they ask for—and fail to expose them to additional topics and experiences—then we have not helped them to fully discover what they want to learn (and they may only ask for what they already know). Learning is a process of discovery, and the parent is often the one opening the new doors.

What about the things we don’t want to do, but have to do? (After all, there are always unwanted chores that have to be completed.) Here’s what I suggest: The completion of undesirable tasks is a valuable skill to attain, but it is most easily done if the undesirable tasks take up a minor percentage of your day, This is another advantage to a child-led curriculum. It’s easier to put up with 10 minutes of grammar practice if you can write and learn about dinosaurs or fairy tales (or whatever you want) for the rest of the time. Math practice can be “horse math” or “fairytale math” or “airplane math” to tie in a child’s natural interest. Subjects can be combined, and learning can be creative. Unschooling gives you that freedom.

I discovered the child-led approach simply by paying attention to what worked with my own child. If my child wasn’t interested in what I was trying to teach, learning simply didn’t happen. After all, you can’t force someone to want something. But a good teacher’s enthusiasm can be contagious, and it is possible to inspire interest.

But (and this was the light bulb moment for me) why go to such lengths when interest is already present? Skills in reading, writing, analysis, communication, presentation (and more) are much easier to acquire when the student’s interest is at the center. Even though this made sense to me, I was unprepared for the real results of this approach. By following a child-led learning approach, my children found their direction much earlier than I had thought possible, seeking higher learning in their chosen areas when they were barely middle school age.

Here are 10 reasons why child-led learning works
  1. When interest and curiosity are present, LEARNING IS ALREADY HAPPENING.
  2. When the student is genuinely interested, learning feels like fun.
  3. When learning is fun, the mind is playful and fully engaged.
  4. With full engagement and playfulness, creativity, problem solving, and research are more fruitful.
  5. Interest equals motivation. Self-directed learning is intensified, deeper, and more meaningful than imposed or forced learning.
  6. Unexpected results, often surpassing expectations, happen when curiosity is alert and allowed to lead.
  7. Actively following one’s interests results in connecting with others of like mind, often regardless of age, background, and geographical location.
  8. The pursuit of what we love endures, leading to extended learning experiences. This results in confidence, expertise, and opportunities.
  9. Self-directed learning allows us to be ourselves, encourages self-discovery, and leads to self-awareness.
  10. Ultimately, we each choose our own direction in work and in life. Self-directed learning gives us an early start. Others suffer though a standardized enforced education, waiting for their “real” learning to begin.

If child-led learning sounds like it might be the right approach for you and your family, I encourage you to learn more. My website is a resource for homeschool families, primarily in the New York City area, but the advice and insights are universal.

Laurie Block Spigel, educator + author
Laurie Block Spigel, educator + author

Laurie is a veteran homeschooling parent who teaches popular classes, lectures and writes on alternative education and homeschooling, and runs an informational web resource for homeschoolers.

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