Updated: Sep 14, 2020
“… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.” John Holt
What is unschooling? There are lots of different definitions. One is simply learning naturally. Babies do it, children do it and adults do it. If babies didn’t learn naturally, we wouldn’t be here as a species. Their natural instincts drive them to take actions that insure survival. When placed on their mother’s abdomen immediately after birth, a newborn will crawl to the breast, latch on and begin to suckle without any help. Turns out they do a better job of latching all by themselves than when we try and “help” them by separating them from their mother, cleaning them, hurrying the process or holding them upright. Learning that babies can do this all by themselves feels very empowering to me. It highlights the drive to survive withou
t intervention and it’s a good analogy for unschooling.
Unschooling is a philosophy of education that allows a child to follow their interests, learning what, when, where, how and with whom they want. It’s an open-minded approach that views learning as joyful and empowering, unencumbered by grades or other external motivators. Because when you’re learning something you’re already interested in, or doing an activity that you like, you don’t need external motivation. Your motivation is coming from within, which is always the most powerful place. Yes, there might be some practical limitations along the way, but the idea is to give a child freedom to learn by removing unnecessary barriers, to preserve that natural curiosity, to respect each child’s unique path.
We have a recent history of thinking that we are helping by intervening, but are we? Just as assisting a butterfly out of its cocoon ultimately causes its early demise, maybe our help short-circuits what should happen naturally with a baby, or educationally with a child. Given our natural curiosity and drive to explore, self-learning is not only possible at any age, it is also a great way to preserve the talents and passions inside each person that lead to success in life. Imposing an unwanted educational agenda on a child disrespects what they bring into this world. The process of insisting on a curriculum designed by someone who has never met a particular child may limit, delay or even completely squelch unique and valuable talents that they bring and that our world needs.
Unschooling is respectful and allowing rather than imposing or interfering. It supports natural learning and this leads to success in life. In my definition of success, happiness– or maybe joy–is what I strive for and what I want for my kids. I equate happiness with confidence, freedom to do and to be what I love, freedom to pursue my interests and a feeling that my abilities are contributing to society. Money and power may be in many people’s definition of success and I’m not saying they can’t add to happiness, but I certainly don’t feel that they are essential. Unschooling, or learning what you love, is practicing happiness all the time. A truly happy person doesn’t bully others or hurt others. They aren’t looking for trouble or acting out. Because given free rein to explore, they are too busy enjoying that to the fullest. If children grow up spending time on what they love and are good at, feeling joyful, I think that’s likely to result in future adult contributions to our society that no other person could have fulfilled. And in my book, that is a worthwhile way to spend time.
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