The term unschooling refers to an educational model in which the child decides how and what to learn. This is also called child-led learning or interest-driven learning. In other words, the parents allow each child to follow his or her own interests in deciding how and what to learn. In most cases, it also means not using any prepackaged curricula (unless specifically chosen by the child).

Many people are intimidated or even outraged by the idea that children can safely direct their own learning. We are surrounded by the message that humans are naturally lazy and, if allowed, will sit around doing nothing all day. Certainly schools mete out punishments and rewards in an effort to motivate students to accomplish something. But is this really necessary? How exactly does unschooling work?

There are two parts to unschooling, in my opinion. The first involves trusting human nature. I don't subscribe to the belief that humans prefer to be idle or ignorant. If, like me, you believe that human beings are generally happier when they are productive, learning and doing useful things, then it follows that a child will naturally want to learn about her world. She'll not only want to know what's going on around her, she'll want to participate as much as possible.

The second part is a belief that each human being has a right to a certain amount of autonomy. Of course, children need some guidance. They have fewer life experiences upon which to draw. Young children have more primitive thinking skills. No one is suggesting that children be completely abandoned to their own devices. However, even the youngest children can successfully direct their own learning. And more importantly, each child has the right to forge his own path of education. Even if we have misgivings about human nature in general, we can still recognize that the child is an independent human being with the same rights and abilities to learn what he needs to know as we adults have.

Although parents may accept that children have the right to follow their own interests and hope that their children won't disprove their theories of human nature, they may still have some doubts. What if their child doesn't want to learn something the parents consider essential? Will their children really develop a breadth of knowledge if left to their own devices? These fears are usually alleviated as the parents spend time with their children. Learning goes on all the time about all different things if we can only train ourselves to observe it properly.

To take the second question first, it's amazing what kinds of tangents one can discover when following one's own interests. An interest in dinosaurs can lead to learning about paleontology, archeology, the history of the earth, weather patterns, etc. etc. Any one of these tangents could require further study of math, statistics, logic, and of course, reading. The distinction is that while unschooled kids will learn a great many things, certainly a wide breadth of knowledge, these will not be the same things that the kids in school are learning. In fact, they won't be the same things that other unschooled kids are learning, even in the same family.

The question about learning essential things is a bit trickier. For one thing, this question implies that the parent knows the child's mind better than the child, or that the parent is a better predictor of the future than the child. Both premises may be true, but may also turn out to be false. How can anyone know that the topic at hand will in fact be useful or interesting for the child? Could the child have gotten better use of his time by concentrating on something else that never occurred to the parent? For another thing, it depends on what one considers to be essential. There are certain types of knowledge, like reading, which I consider essential. In my opinion, you really can't lead a productive life without them. Therefore, I have no doubt that any child would come to the same conclusion. If I'm wrong and it is possible for a person of normal intellect to happily go through life without reading, then by definition, reading isn't essential. As far as most other subjects go, I can't think of any that are truly essential for every human being. There are far too many things in the world for everyone to know even a little about all of them. If something were truly essential, people would want to know about it. They wouldn't be able to avoid knowing about it!

As many families have known, unschooling does work. Children can and should direct their own learning. Human nature demands that children learn all they need to know, and human rights demand that they be allowed to do so.

Written by Kathryn Orlinsky, Ph.D, Editor of Beyond One Year


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