Rebirth of Reason


Why We Unschool
by Kelly Reynolds

I won't be sending my child to school. I won't be schooling her at home, either. We are unschoolers, which means that we don't dictate what our child will learn and when. We fill the house with interesting, age-appropriate books, activities, and materials, and then we step back and let the learning begin. If she asks us a question or shows interest in an activity, we answer or participate or point her in the direction of more information. But mostly, we stay out of the way.

The most important reason why I don't force her, pressure her, or try to influence her to learn particular things at particular times is because of her volition. It is far more important that she learn the lessons of morality (that her values are her own, that her life is her own, that her agenda is her own, that it is her responsibility to exercise volition) than it is for her to learn math, reading, or anything else. When we tell a child that he must learn spelling rather than whatever else he wants to do, we are telling him that our desires for him are more important that his desires for himself. A child does not reach 18 and suddenly start acting for himself when he has been trained to act for others until that point. (I do use force in situations where a child is endangering himself significantly or infringing on other's rights, but I always weigh the consequences of the force against the consequences of the child's action.)

We unschool also because it preserves the joy of learning in a child. All of us remember being in a classroom where we were taught things we weren't interested in. It made learning into a chore. We have also all had the experience of becoming interested in something new and then voraciously learning everything we could about it. I want my child to always have the experience of learning for pleasure, for value pursuit, for her own goals.

People often say that our child will never want to learn the basics she needs for her life if we don't teach them to her. Who, when she wants to know things about the world, wouldn't want to read? Reading is a gateway to knowledge, and children will decide to learn how to read when they want that knowledge bad enough. A boy desperate to learn about airplanes will decide to learn to read when he wants to know how they work. A child who saves up his money to buy a special toy will decide to learn how to count, add, subtract, and maybe even figure tax. The things we learn should be useful to our lives or interesting to us, and so we should have the motivation to learn them.

People often say that our child will not have the basics for college. If she decides to go to college, how hard will it be to learn algebra really quickly if she finds out she needs it? She will certainly have the motivation to do it if she knows that it is necessary to reach her goals.

People often say that children can't know what they need to learn. They certainly know what they need to learn to do the things they want to do right now. They know that they have to practice putting a button in and out of the hole in order to be able to dress themselves. It works the same for future goals for older children. If a child wants to be an astronaut, she can certainly find out what subjects she must study to do it. She may find that she needs physics. A study of physics may lead her to the need for calculus. Studying calculus, she may realize she needs trigonometry. She will find out what she needs to learn based on her values, not on some arbitrary list of courses set by someone else.

People often say that because knowledge is hierarchical, children must be given knowledge in a hierarchical structure. I think these people misunderstand the meaning of knowledge being hierarchical. Heirarchical refers to the way we store knowledge, the way our brain forms concepts. Knowledge is hierarchical because when we learn a fact, we place in its proper place in the structure of our whole body of knowledge. When we learn about a new animal, a platypus maybe, we file it under animal. We know the concept animal is built upon lots of individual animals like platypuses, dogs, cats, and orangutans. We hold our knowledge in our minds by organizing it hierarchically. That does not mean that we must be presented with knowledge in a particular order. We don't have to know “platypus” first in order to know “animal.” That isn't the way learning occurs for adults. We encounter something in reality that interests us. We learn about it, and it leads us to something else interesting.

People often say that our child will not have the benefit of our experience or the experiences of all the people who came before her. They say that she will have to reinvent the wheel. She may reinvent the wheel, but only if she wants to. If she has questions, wants advice, wants me to teach her math, wants me to sign her up for a class in Spanish, all she has to do is ask. I will even let her know what activities are available in our area, but I will never pressure her (even subtly) to do any one of them.

Most people allow babies and toddlers to play and explore and learn freely. Without instruction, they learn to understand language and to form their own concepts. Without instruction, they learn to use their own bodies to do the things they want. Without instructions, they learn to do puzzles, to build with blocks, to zip and unzip. Unschooling is merely allowing children to continue to choose their own direction, their own interests, their own values.
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