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Unschooling? How Will They Learn?

Unschooling? How Will They Learn?

It’s a question unschoolers hear relatively often. Grandparents, friends, sometimes neighbors ask “but if they don’t go to school, how will they learn …. to read? … to do math? … about history? What about social skills?”

Often, those questions are a reflection of how little the adult asking remembers of what they learned during their own time in school. I’ve sometimes asked why we believe that lessons learned in school, and quickly forgotten, are necessary to learn at all.

Part of embracing unschooling is acknowledging that our unschooler won’t learn everything that is taught in school. Similarly, no student in school learns all the material. Some students learn most of the material taught; most students learn some of the material taught; some of them never learn enough to graduate and ultimately drop out. Of those students who learn most of the material, few of them retain all they’ve learned in school. I’ve found it helpful to remember that attending school is no guarantee a child will learn what someone else thinks he or she needs to know.

Think about the things you know today, the facts that you access daily. How many of them were learned outside of school? Did you learn each of your skills in the same way? Did every skill you learned require a teacher? My husband and I are confident that the things our children learn, will be what they need to know. We’re also sure that they’ll learn in the ways that work best for them, which makes it more likely they’ll retain what they learn. More important to us, our children will recognize that they can learn what they need to know when they need it.

In the almost ten years since we decided not to send our younger sons to school, we’ve watched as they learned to read, write, and solve math problems; as they learned about history, social issues, and health; as they become more adept at social situations and being a good friend, and more. It’s not unusual for me to begin to share some bit of knowledge I think is important, only to find my child already knows it.
We’ve watched both the younger boys, (Andy is 15, Dan is 10) learn from a variety of sources. Somewhere along the way, Andy apparently heard that you don’t learn anything valuable from tv, because he delights in saying, “I learned that on tv”. In fact, Andy learned to read by watching tv. When he was 6 he was a big fan of Pokemon cartoons, and wanted to know all the words to the theme songs for his favorite shows. We showed Andy how to set up the closed captioning for the tv, and how to rewind the recorded shows to catch all the words in the songs. Next thing we knew, Andy was reading street signs, and we could no longer spell words we didn’t want him to overhear! In the years since, Andy has become a voracious reader and a real stickler for proper grammar.

Dan learned to write before he could read, with no help. One day when he was 7, he asked me how to spell ‘help’. I was cooking so without looking to see what he was up to, I spelled the word for him. A few minutes later, he brought me a sign he’d made that read “HELP ME DAN”, very neatly written. Currently, at 10, Dan is becoming quite a reader, too. Just last week he pointed to a sign and told me what he used to think it said, before he could read. He’s really become quite adept at reading long words.

I grew up doing what I call ‘math as parlor tricks’. By this I mean, I do most math in my head, although I tend to check my work on paper when it’s important. Naturally, when our boys needed help using math to figure out more than they could count on their fingers, I shared with them my mental math skills. Not surprisingly, both boys prefer to do math in their heads, and are quite good at that method. We’ve shown them how to do math on paper, if only to check their work.

Recently, Andy asked me the meaning of pi. I told him that pi is written as 3.141519 (and so on), represents the ratio of the arc of a circle, and is used to determine the circumference of a circle. Actually, first I tried to push the question off to Gary, whose understanding of geometry is more complete than mine, but Andy wasn’t having any of that. He wanted me to explain how to find the circumference, and how to do it in his head. I said ‘you multiply the radius by pi’ to which Andy said, “no Mom, you multiply the diameter by pi”. I replied that I tend to confuse diameter and radius, so it seemed he already knew more about it than I remembered from my days in high school. I talked about my process for creating math formulas, and came up with one to estimate the circumference of a circle in our heads. In no time, Andy was figuring out good estimates on his own, which we checked by measuring a circle on paper.

It helps to remember that unschooling doesn’t mean just letting a child figure out the whole world on his or her own. We spend so much of our time with the boys just talking, about everything from current events and world affairs to relationships to science concepts and more. My favorite learning moments come from our conversations. The more bits and pieces of the world a person discovers or hears about, the more connections we can make. Often one of the boys will say, “oh, you mean like that story on the news about…..” tying two separate events together, making comparisons and contrasts.

Both boys are very curious about figures of speech lately. Often I’m explaining phrases like “read the riot act” or “got the drop on”. It’s impossible to explain American idioms without touching on history, social attitudes, politics or science, which of course expands one’s understanding of how interconnected everything is. Sometimes I make a point of using a less-known idiom when sharing a story with them, just for the opportunity to explain what it means, because I can count on the boys to ask.

When I say we trust the boys will learn, it’s so much more than sitting back with some blind belief that learning will magically happen; it’s an active trust, one that calls us to be ever more present with our children, and blesses us with so many unexpected joys and wonders along the way.

Written by Sylvia Toyama with trust and love

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5 Responses to “Unschooling? How Will They Learn?”

  1. Amy says:

    A great way to explain unschooling, I always get blank stares when I explain what it is. I think that next time I need to, I will give more concrete examples about how we unschool in our family.
    Amy´s last post: Hiking McIntyre BluffMy Profile

  2. Twitter:
    Thanks for such a wonderful post! We just made the switch to unschooling last fall, and we’re loving it. People who haven’t lived the lifestyle simply can’t comprehend the amount of learning that happens naturally. While I like to explain to people how it works, there are also some who just aren’t open-minded enough to really grasp the concept. But I let those ones go, and stay true to myself. I know in my heart that what we’re doing is right–and an unschooling life is an awesome life!!
    Samantha Burns´s last post: Citizen Science For SummerMy Profile

  3. Sylvia says:

    I’m so glad my article helped you gain some clarity, Darcel!

  4. Twitter:
    I love this post! I have been feeling quite worried the last few weeks. My oldest is 6.5yrs and I had been toying with the idea of getting a curriculum and trying it with her, but I realized it wasn’t what she needed. it was what I thought she needed, in order to make myself feel better, but the solution is not a curriculum, it’s me doing more with her. Trusting her like I have been for years and conversing with her, letting her live life and being there to answer questions.

    I felt a huge weight lift off of me after I read this. Thank you so much.
    I look back over the past two years at everything she has learned, and I feel excited about what she’s going to learn in the future.

  5. Great article! I think almost all of what my kids learn is through conversations, reading together, and questions. That definitly can’t happen in a classroom with one adult and twenty to thirty kids!
    Christina Pilkington´s last post: 10 Unusual Ways to Explore ScienceMy Profile

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