The Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents


Schooling and Unschooling at Home

Basically, homeschooling refers to doing school at home. That is, reproducing the teaching methods of school, but doing it at home. Now, this can be done in many different ways along the scale between homeschooling and unschooling. Some people carry it to the extreme of setting the alarm and being at the kitchen table (or whatever their chosen workplace is) at 9am saying prayers, or singing “Oh Canada.” They then proceed to cover the usual text books, take recess breaks and even have tests and unit studies. This is not my style, but it does satisfy many people. They feel they’ve covered the education they want to cover, and that they’ve avoided many of the difficulties of the school system, such as the negative social experiences, bullies, belittling teachers, or poor role models. They also are more involved in their children’s lives and have the possibility of being closer and more of an influence on them as a result.

Unschooling means a less structured style of learning at home. At the far end of this spectrum, it means simply letting the children do what they want to do and trusting that they will learn what they need to learn. Perhaps surprisingly, it seems that this often works very well. Humans are driven to learn and grow and they do. Often these children are the ones who develop a passionate interest in something and in pursuing it independently they teach themselves many valuable study skills. I have seen people who carry Unschooling to the extreme that they actually avoid teaching. This seems to me to be a misunderstanding of the concept. I feel that unschooling is more of a mentorship relationship, being available to answer questions and provide direction and resources, but following the child’s lead.

Perhaps leaning more toward the middle of the unschooling spectrum, my personal style has been to create an environment that surrounds the child with interesting possibilities that may capture her interest, and then play the part of mentor or facilitator. I also have workbooks that cover the basics of spelling and math, just to have these skills available for whatever study grabs her interest. Now, the way we use these workbooks is definitely on the UNschooling side– Tessa will suddenly be inspired to do math and will spend several weeks doing little else– and then will lose interest and leave it for the rest of the year, except for maybe an hour or so now and then. The funny thing is that even when she hasn’t done any math or spelling for months, she comes back to it with improved skills.

The hardest part of unschooling is learning to TRUST. Just as we had to trust that our toddler would stop wetting diapers, we have to trust that our child will learn. Just as with toilet training, we provide the example (we use the toilet ourselves), and the materials (the potty) and then let our children show readiness. We also provide support and encouragement along the way as she works on these skills.

The hardest part of school-at-home style homeschooling is the stress and having to play disciplinarian teacher. (I suppose my potty training simile works here too–as some people are more structured in this area as well!) I am not comfortable in this role, and prefer to keep my relationship with my children on a more egalitarian basis.

OK, have I confused you? I am now in the happy position to be able to say that our unschooling has been tried and proven. Our oldest two are now in university and college. The middle one went to high school after unschooling until she was 12, and graduated with honours. Their passionate interests in a wide variety of subjects and their professors’ appreciation of their enthusiasm for learning show me that for them, unschooling did what I hoped it would do. It preserved for them the love of learning that they were born with, and that I feared that school-style enforced learning would stifle.

© 1998 Terry Stafford