Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I'm sure you've all heard of homeschooling. The most extreme version of homeschooling, inspired by the writings of John Holt, who coined the term, is called "unschooling". One practitioner of this radical approach to education is Sandra Dodd, who maintains an excellent collection of articles and resources on this subject. I often browse them using her random page server. 

Not only do unschoolers keep their children out of school, they also don't follow any regular schedule to  teach at home. They give the kids enormous freedom to follow their interests all day so they can learn whatever they wish to or need to on their own, through self-driven activities like playing games, reading, talking, watching tv, listening to music, traveling; in other words, by living rich and fulfilled lives, unrestricted by any externally imposed notion of a curriculum. It should be mentioned that unschooling parents are not completely hands-off in that they do try actively to expose their children to a very wide range of activities and experiences, and are always there to answer their children's questions and help them, but this is all done in a non-interfering, non-controlling manner.

The fundamental premise of unschooling (which I believe because I have experienced it myself) is that children given such freedom do not abuse it, but rather exercise their natural desire to grow and learn autonomously.  But an essential key to its success is something Sandra calls "strewing", which consists of actively and continually exposing the children to a wide array of interesting materials and experiences.

The main goal of an unschooling parent is not to "teach" their children, but to help them "learn" in a very natural setting. In "What Teaching Never Can Be", Sandra Dodd clarifies the essential distinction between learning and teaching:

If I want to teach someone how to use quotation marks, I can talk, show them, make jokes, draw stick figures with speech-balloons, and I could maybe sing songs about it. So IF the person who's in the room "being taught" is thinking about how to file down that one piece of a machine gun that can turn a legal semi-automatic into an illegal automatic, and how to hide that part really well, disguised as something altogether different, what am I doing?
I'm talking, writing, drawing, dancing, and singing. But I'm not teaching. I'm reviewing for myself something I already know. I'm just performing a play of sorts, without any audience. I'm playing with myself. I'm ...well, you know.
So if I'm reading a magazine about machine guns and someone comes and says, "How do I punctuate a quote within a quote?" I can show them. If they don't totally understand, I can draw pictures or give other examples. When I perceive that they have learned the thing they wanted to learn, I should shush up and go back to my magazine, because the action is completed. .
They learned. I helped them learn. I was "the teacher" but I didn't do the work that resulted in learning. The learner did that in his own head. I could put ideas in the air, but only he could hear and process and ask more questions. Without his active work, no teaching can possibly take place.
Sandra writes that it is key for an unschooling parent in the beginning stages to "see learning as a separate process from their own song and dance. In advanced stages there is teaching, but it is compassionately and competently facilitating another's learning." 

I would argue that this is valuable advice to teachers everywhere.


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