Friday, May 21, 2010

How Wikepedia and I define Unschooling

Yesterday at our homeschool playgroup the topic of unschooling came up as another mom and I were chatting. We are both unschoolers and were discussing some recent activity on an unschooling email group to which we both belong. As often happens when having discussions about unschooling the topic turned to the strict regiment that some people put on what constitutes unschooling. We agreed that often people are too narrow in their definition but that some people go too far in the other direction and have a definition that is so broad that it loses any meaning.

I understand that unschoolers are viewed as people who are bucking the system, challenging the status quo and living outside the parameters of conventional wisdom. I agree with all of those statements. I don't agree that this means there are no rules. I decided to begin with the agreed upon definition. Wikipedia seemed like a good place to look because it is held to the public standard and anyone who may disagree with the definition may challenge or change it. The fact that the definition is written as is means that the unschoolers who have visited the page agree with it. I have visited and I agree. (Emphasis mine)

Unschooling refers to a range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including child directed play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities led by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. Unschooling differs from conventional schooling principally in the thesis that standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child.

Learning through natural life. When you build a birdhouse with Grandpa you learn to measure. When you hear an unfamiliar word and Mom explains it you learn vocabulary. When you must share cookies with your friends you learn division. When you want to know why we have a holiday called Pearl Harbor Day you learn history. These things happen organically through living life with curiosity in an environment that supports and encourages that curiosity.

The question about Pearl Harbor Day may lead you to the library, The History Channel or the Internet. It may not. You may get all of the information which interests you from the person to whom you posed the question. If your natural curiosity leads you to the library that is unschooling. If your mom decides that today is Pearl Harbor Day and we must go to the library, find a book and read it together that is NOT unschooling.

This is the part where people get defensive, when you tell them what unschooling is not. But there are guidelines. It isn't a criticism of how you choose to do things, it is a statement of fact. I can call myself a vegetarian but if I then proclaim that I choose to eat meat three times a week then I'm not a vegetarian. There's nothing inherently wrong with choosing to eat meat (at least from my perspective) and stating that I am not a vegetarian isn't a criticism; its a fact. I can call myself liberal but oppose gay marriage, abortion, gun control and welfare while supporting large armies and school prayer. I can call myself a liberal within those circumstances but it doesn't make it true. The same can be said for unschooling. If you still have requirements for what your child must do, if you want to use a curriculum for just one subject, if you are still guiding your child's education instead of letting it unfold naturally then you are not an unschooler. Not a criticism, just a fact.

However, as I stated earlier, it is also possible to be strict in the defintion and squeeze people out. Leaving a book laying out that you think your child might enjoy is also still within the guidelines of unschooling, in my opinion. Making suggestions and bringing up interesting topics are all a part of unschooling. No one lives or learns in a bubble. My friends and I enjoy sharing book and movie titles with each other, filling each other in on the information learned in a magazine article, and just generally exchanging information. I do the same for my kids because it IS a natural part of life to do these things.

Furthermore I don't think unschooling has to reach into all areas of life to work. You can decide that tooth brushing is important in your house and that TV will be limited and still be an unschooler. You can even give your kids chores and be an unschooler. Demanding that these decisions are part of unschooling pushes people away who come to us seeking information and trying to learn about the philosophy. So let me be clear about my position- strewing books is unschooling, assigning book reports is not.

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