What is unschooling? And what is it NOT?

Let’s start with what unschooling is NOT.

Unschooling is not unlimited freedom. Not only is unlimited freedom virtually impossible, it’s also not actually what freedom means. By definition, my freedom HAS to end where yours begins. Otherwise, I would be free and you wouldn’t, and that would not be a free society; it would be selective freedom. 

Unschooling is not selective freedom, because freedom, by definition, is not selective (see above). By extension, this also means that freedom, by definition, means freedom of ALL people. The alternative is an unfree family, community, society, nation, world. You cannot care about freedom and not care for everybody’s freedom. You cannot be an unschooler and not care about everybody’s freedom.

Unschooling is not living in a vacuum, or value-free environment. There is no such thing. All environments are constructs and as such they contain assumptions, inherent values, socially constructed dynamics. Even an attempt at being value-free isn’t actually value-free, because your intention is to be value-free. Your values are inherent in your lack of values, if you see what I mean. Unschooling is NOT a lack of all assumptions, an assumed neutrality on all topics, an utter lack of opinions, relativism. Not only would that make for extremely boring conversation with your child, but also, everyone has opinions, beliefs, assumptions, biases. We can’t help it, we’re human. It’s okay to share them with your child, to share your thinking process, your journey and your inner work with them, and then to ask what THEY think. It’s okay to feel strongly about things but also get curious about your child’s thinking process and their possibly different opinions on things. It’s okay to get comfortable with having differing viewpoints and beliefs, while staying true to YOU.

Unschooling is not steamrolling over other people’s needs. It is not permissive parenting. It is not putting children’s needs over adult’s all the time. It is not leaving children to figure things out that are way too big for most adults to handle alone. It is not ignoring your children, and leading separate lives. It is not never sharing your opinions, thoughts, and experiences. It is not neglect, and it is not control either. It is not helicopter parenting. It is not an open and shut method, to follow blindly. It is not the same for every family and child. It is not self-sacrificing. It is not selfish.

So what IS unschooling?

Unschooling is self-directed. That means that each individual child ultimately ‘owns’ their own education. No one is deciding what to learn and teaching it in a top-down fashion. Rather children live their lives and follow their own interests. If a child lives in a family that is engaged, supportive and curious, they will learn. They will find passions and follow them and learn things in the process. They will build relationships. They will engage with issues big and small, through books, movies, online research, conversations and being out in the world. If they are encouraged to take an active part in their environment, as John Holt envisaged, it would be hard not to learn the things that matter to their family, community and culture. Children absorb from their environment and are inherently driven to learn. They ask questions when they need an answer. They explore, they make, they research, they communicate. They do all of this with adult support, but they don’t need an adult to lead.

Unschooling is freedom. Freedom from school and school-at-home and everything that comes with it (control, schedule, top-down teaching, forced compliance, peer pressure, the adult gaze, assessment and evaluation). For some, it is freedom from patriarchy, systemic racism, ableism, and discrimination, because unschooling means choosing as much as possible to not operate under oppressive systems.

It is also freedom to learn at your own pace, learn the things that interest you, follow your intuition, find purposeful work, find out who you are and how you want to be in the world, figure out what brings you joy and what you’re good at without unwanted feedback. It is freedom to belong to a family, community and society, and freely undertake certain responsibilities in order to be part of a bigger whole. It can also look like freedom to choose to be taught, to use a curriculum and follow it (or not!), to take classes, to take exams, to be part of a team or group. Unschooled children can be made aware of the options and make decisions about them. It can be freedom to go back to school, and freedom to stay home. 

Unschooling is collective freedom. It is working to identify and dismantle oppressive systems wherever they show up. It is not selective – you can’t be an advocate for children’s liberation but ignore the role of institutions, governments and economics in the oppression of marginalized groups.

Unschooling is trust, relationship and mutual respect. Children are given as much freedom as the adults in their lives can “comfortably bear” (Pat Farenga’s words), which means that the dynamics of respect go two ways. Freedom and respect are given to the child, but also expected by the adults. With increased freedom also comes an increased sense of responsibility for our own words, actions and decisions – again, this works both ways. Trust and connection are prized above all else, because the adults feel confident the child will learn what they need to learn if these two elements are present. This doesn’t mean the adults will walk away, fingers crossed. It simply means connection is more important than control, every time. The adults will still support, encourage and help when needed or requested. 

Unschooling is consent-based, but it goes further than that: it is questioning hierarchy and assumed wisdom. It is asking ourselves, is that really the case? Could it be different? Can we reimagine it? It is a journey without an end point. It is a process of deconstructing, shedding, deschooling, decolonizing and so much more. 

Unschooling is political. I think it is political because all of our choices are political. John Holt believed that lasting social change happens slowly, and when individual people start to change their actual lives. He believed the best way to change people’s minds was to live your own life the way you believed it should be lived, and tell people about it. He wrote, “Private action, however radical and satisfying, only becomes political when it is made known.” He believed unschooling was not for a small, privileged, white minority; it had the potential to grow because it could be done in different ways, by all sorts of people.  

Which brings me to my last point: Unschooling is about your child, your family, your culture and your community.

THERE IS NO ONE WAY TO DO IT, THERE IS NO SPECIFIC PATH TO GET TO IT.

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