I have a friend who unschools her two children, and is passionate about unschooling as an educational method. Here children are ten and eight now, and she’s been unschooling them since her oldest hit kindergarten. She takes them to museums and art shows and cultural festivals, she takes them to living history parks and art classes and science programs, she takes them to planetarium shows and on county geological field trips and to the library. Their home is full of material that is intellectually stimulating and interesting reading for people of all ages, and awash in toys and games that encourage learning. She introduces her children to new experiences and new subjects to help them learn what they like, and is quick to find a class or field trip for whatever they find interesting. My friend puts a lot of effort into being the facilitator of student-directed learning, and her children are growing up in an engaging educational atmosphere with a mother who listens to their needs and desires.
If that is what unschooling is, I have no problem with it. And often, this is indeed exactly what it is—leaving aside grades and textbooks and curriculum plans and instead raising children in an educationally rich environment where the parent serves as a facilitator to student-led learning, learning that is not limited to school hours but instead simply incorporated into life itself.
Sadly, though, I’ve also seen unschooling invoked as a cover for bad homeschool environments. I know a girl whose parents stopped educating her when she was elementary aged. Her father was abusive and never held a job, so instead he put his children to work cleaning houses, pet sitting, etc., and took the money they earned to pay rent. When she was 17 she came to me, distraught. She told me she very much wanted to get a college education, but not only had no textbooks to learn from but was actually kept so busy she wasn’t allowed time to study. I recently told this story to a passionate current homeschooler I know, and her response was: “Oh! She was unschooled!” This wasn’t said in a negative way, but rather as affirmation of this girl’s parents’ actions—the girl wasn’t going uneducated, I was assured, she was simply being unschooled. I’ve seen way to many homeschoolers, when faced with a bad homeschool environment where education was not taking place, respond by saying that actually everything was just fine, the family was simply “unschooling.” And that’s not okay.
Sadly too, I have also seen unschooling used as a cover for lazy homeschooling. I recently told the story of a young woman named Sarah, who grew up homeschooled in a state without any oversight or assessment requirements and never actually studied science. She told me that her mother had textbooks, and planned to get through them with her and her siblings, but just never actually did—and that her mother used “unschooling” as an excuse for this failure. Unschooling, Sarah said, functioned in her family as an excuse her mother made to be lazy. It wasn’t something her mother did with intent or care—it was just something her mother would throw out as an excuse when she felt bad about the fact that they weren’t getting through the work she had originally planned. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen unschooling used this way either.
I’m totally fine with unschooling when it involves the parent serving as a facilitator of child-led learning in an educationally rich atmosphere in which the parent listens to the needs and desires of the child. What I’m not okay with is unschooling serving as an excuse for not schooling or as a way to give a pass to exploitative child labor or bad homeschooling situations. And you know what? Unschoolers shouldn’t be okay with that either.