Unschooling Question

Donna, who I mentioned here, left another comment where she asked another multi-point question. The first part of that question is

Can you answer this question for me, because I think this is where I’m having the most trouble: What is the history behind the term “unschooling”?

John Holt is generally credited with coining the term unschooling. I’ve read 5 of his books in the following order: How Children Fail, How Children Learn, The Underachieving School, Teach Your Own, and Escape from Childhood. If you were interested in learning the history of the public school system, I’d recommend The Underground History Of American Education by John Taylor Gatto. Chris has done an excellent synopsis of The Underground History.

From my perspective, it sounds like a term rooted in a belief that schools are inferrior and perhaps should be done away with. Why not utilize a more positive term, such as “interests-based learning” or “exploratory education” or “self-realization education”

I cannot speak for all unschoolers, but I honestly expect that most unschoolers would prefer to use any or all of those terms to describe their children’s education. If I may borrow a term from the field of Adult Education, my children are Self-Directed Learners. In Teach Your Own, I read a paragraph that has stuck with me:

I have used the words “home schooling” to describe the process by which children grow and learn in a world without going, or going very much, to schools because those words are familiar and quickly understood. But in one very important sense they are misleading. What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth into the world is not that it is a better school, but that it isn’t a school at all. It is not an artifical place, set up to make “learning” happen, and in which nothing except “learning” ever happens.

It took us less than 2 months of homeschooling to learn not to tell people that our children (at the time just the oldest) did not go to school. The reactions of many over the years, even when saying we homeschooled, are memorable. We quickly adapted to saying homeschool to save giving the endless and repetitive reassurances that CFS was not going to come take our kids, it was legal for them to not go to school, that we were still giving them an education, we did not need to be certified teachers, that we were capable of doing this, etc.

In a way, I’m still amazed when someone says what amounts to, “Do you have a room in your house that is a classroom (i.e. desks, chairs, blackboards)?” or “I don’t want to interrupt school.” While school teachers may equate school with education, I’ve found that society equates school with desks, chairs, blackboards, bells, lectures, assignments, tests, and classrooms. And, the unshakeable belief that education is a byproduct of socialization.

The term “unschooling” suggests to me that perhaps unschoolers perceive the public education system as unsalvagable.

In you comments last week, I linked to a post wrote last year. While I hope that it addresses the statement above, I’ll say FTR that unless compulsary attendance laws are repealed, public schools are unsalvageable.

>From my perspective, there are already many people of power who create laws that are crippling our public education system. Why declare yourselves loyal to a school-of-thought (pun intended) that includes a negative prefix?

To add to my previous statement, what I believe is crippling the public education system is that it is obligated, through legislation, to deal with “clients” who do not want to be there. At a workshop I gave last year, I used a portion of Tennessee’s homeschool law to illustrate a point about society’s perception of school. I pointed out that a homeschooler in TN is expected to maintain attendance records (I interjected the question, “And where else are they going to be?”) and instruct a kindergartener for 4 1/2 hours a day for the length of the school year. Everyone laughed because they are ridiculous requirements. We taught our older children to read, write and do simple arithematic in what would average out to about 1/2 hour a day, 4 days a week.

I expect it unlikely that I will be able to affect a universal change to mandatory attendance laws. The best I can offer children (other than my own) is to set out to make as many parents as possible aware that there are alternative methods of education. Secondly, for those parents who have already chosen to homeschool, many still approach their children’s education as school-at-home. I use the term unschool to suggest them what is captured in the John Holt quote above (i.e. that it doesn’t need to be school at all).

Author: Ron

Homeschooling dad of 4 (ages 27 - 14), grampy to 3, WordPress core contributor, former farmboy & software developer by profession.

6 thoughts on “Unschooling Question”

  1. In the UK, we tend to use the term ‘home education’ generically for those children educated other than at school, and ‘home schooling’ is used to describe those ppl who do do school at home complete with curriculum, desks and books. Very rarely see the term unschooling, although deschooling is used to describe the process of getting over having been to school, getting it out of your system as it were.

    I love John Holt’s books, it was reading them while (ironically enough) on a post grad teacher training course that I found out about home education, and stored it up as a future dream 🙂

  2. Great response, Ron. I too attempted to answer Donna’s questions on her site, where I had already responded to some comments. Donna, I am really enjoying this discussion—in both places!

  3. There are a fair number of people here who use ‘home education’, but for some reason the term hasn’t really stuck. We adopted ‘homeschooling’ because it cut down on the explanations the most. ‘Autonomous education’ certainly is a more useful term for unschooling.

    I would personally love to switch over to using Self-Directed Learner but I expect it would involve too many long explanations.

    Melissa: I have one more follow up that I’ve done. It’s due to show up in the blog in the near future.

  4. “I pointed out that a homeschooler in TN is expected to maintain attendance records (I interjected the question, “And where else are they going to be?””

    What a great response!!! While I have been outspoken against the concept of unschooling as I have understood it, I thoroughly enjoyed this post and agree with you 100% regarding your comment regarding public schools being unsalvagable.

    Blessings ~ Patricia

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