What Exactly Is an Unschooler?

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Ah…that good old question seems to be popping up again and again lately. What exactly is an unschooler? I realize that I just posted yesterday about the pros and cons of labeling, but today I’m going to delve into this topic a little more, as a reader posed an easier question to answer…”What is your general definition of an unschooler?”

I like that word “general” because I’m certainly no expert on the subject, and I think that when you start getting into specifics, it can get a little murky because you would probably get a different answer from each unschooling family because we all do it differently. So, yeah. General I can probably do.

My understanding of this method comes directly from John Holt, author of Learning All The Time. He is the man who initially coined the phrase “unschooling” when he referred to the process of natural learning.

You will hear from many unschoolers today that this means no curriculum is to be used; the definition has evolved a bit from the initial meaning. Unschooling is letting a child pursue what they want, when they want, and how they want. So, if a child chooses to study a particular subject with a textbook, they are no less an unschooler than they were the day before because it is still their choice. This principle was actually perfectly stated on “John Holt and Growing without Schooling“:

“Unschooling, for lack of a better term (until people start to accept living as part and parcel of learning), is the natural way to learn. However, this does not mean unschoolers do not take traditional classes or use curricular materials when the student, or parents and children together, decide that this is how they want to do it. Learning to read or do quadratic equations are not “natural” processes, but unschoolers nonetheless learn them when it makes sense to them to do so, not because they have reached a certain age or are compelled to do so by arbitrary authority.”

I’ve gotten quite a few comments about how my daughter’s Sherlock curriculum does not fit in with the unschooling method because it has structure and, yes, books. This quote says exactly what I’ve been trying to explain in terms of my daughter’s approach to learning, but I think it is so hard for people to comprehend that sometimes unschoolers use textbooks because there are those who completely discredit anything that might look schoolish. But if you look at the original definition of the word, it is obvious that the use of any curriculum can, indeed, be a part of natural learning if it is initiated by the child.

I honestly have a hard time with people even questioning the fact that structure and textbooks can have a place in an interest-led learning environment. Think about it. What if when Devin requested to use a curriculum for some of her interests, I would have said, “Oh no! You can’t do that. We’re unschoolers. Textbooks are the devil!” (Yes, I’m prone to exaggeration.) I’ll tell you what would have happened: I would have hindered the opportunity for her to learn what she wanted to and how she wanted to. Now that’s something that doesn’t fit in with unschooling!

As parents of natural learners, we are there to facilitate our children’s learning. We help them find ways to pursue their passions. We tap into resources and try to find materials that will fit with their learning styles, whatever those resources may be- books, or not. And that, my friends, is unschooling.

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