In Defense of Unschooling

18 Nov 2003

by Tracy Aitken

Ah, school. The nostalgic pictures that word conjures, eh? Children sitting neatly in rows of desks, quietly copying notes from the blackboard as the teacher instructs them of the importance of the subject.

Okay, maybe that’s not your picture of school. Maybe you see desks crowded together, a frazzled adult standing and speaking loudly in the midst of mayhem and rowdy, uncontrolled behavior.

Maybe you see tables with groups of children at each one, working together on projects as an adult or two wanders around the room, looking over shoulders, making a correction here, a suggestion there.

Whatever your picture of school, if you are reading this article, it is likely that you have opted not to have your children participate. You have made the decision to homeschool for one reason or another, or perhaps a number of reasons. Particularly in this state of North Carolina, it is a misconception that most or almost all homeschoolers make the decision to keep the kids out of school for religious reasons. There are as many reasons to homeschool, almost, as there are homeschoolers! And yet, let’s take a close look at the name we use to describe ourselves.

Look again at the descriptions of “school” a few paragraphs back. Do those scenarios even remotely relate to what goes on in your house? The percentage of homeschoolers who truly set up a “school”-like environment, in my experience, is very low. Sure, I have (a few) friends who have a “school” room in their house. And some of those have even chosen to decorate the room with bulletin board-type materials. Generally, however, these are the first-year moms who begin the “school year” thinking they will ape the schoolroom. They quickly learn that Johnny is too busy reading to do math right now, thank you very much. Or Susie is spending the day in the garden, so history will just have to wait until tomorrow.

We are home educators, not schoolers. I doubt any experienced educating parent will argue with this. If we wanted to “school,” some of us would simply put the kids on the bus and call it a day. We home educate because we feel “school” hampers our children’s creative, natural learning process that is uniquely their own. Perhaps this is not the reader’s primary reason for choosing home education, but I doubt many would argue that the crowd-control, schooling educational system must, by definition, hamper that unique interest-based creative learning process that each individual follows. In other words, herding cats is a lot easier when you have two, rather than thirty, cats to herd.

With all of this in mind, I hope the reader can make the next little jump with me. When I use the word “unschool” to describe the learning style in my house, I am not stating that we do not educate. “Unschool” simply means that we do not school. We don’t have a formal curriculum that must be finished within a certain time frame, like they do in school. We don’t have lesson plans in order to explain to someone else where we are going and when we intend to get there, like they do in school. We don’t measure the success of a child’s learning experience with a definitive process called “grading,” like they do in school. We don’t need to test; we KNOW what the child knows. We do not school.

Too often, homeschoolers hear the term “unschool” and think “they do nothing at their house.” In truth, there are many more “unschoolers” out there than “homeschoolers.” If you compare your daily household educational system to the local school, and then to my daily household educational system, I think most home educators will see that they more closely resemble my “home” than the local “school.”

Surely, you may have purchased an expensive (or not), comprehensive (or not) curriculum that has daily (or not) lesson plans and regular methods of measuring the learning that has come about by using them, called tests (or not). You may have chosen to home educate with a lot of structure, either because you want to assure yourself that certain bases are covered or because you want the convenience of having all the steps laid out for you. You may feel more secure knowing that a certain system follows your chosen standards, whether they be educational, religious, political, etc. The decision to go with a pre-written packaged curriculum that promises to cover whatever needs you have for your children’s education is, definitely, more school-like than what goes on in my house. But while there are a few homeschools that stick to a school-like schedule with a school-like reward system, most are far less school-like once you get past the curriculum chosen.

The spectrum of home educators is far and wide, with an actual “homeschool” (that is, a school held at home) on one end. Some of us, however, choose to educate our children without any school-like tendencies at all. We are on the other end. And most everyone fits somewhere in between.

I realize the importance of legitimizing our efforts. Perhaps the reader is thinking, “If we tell everyone we don’t school, they’ll think we aren’t educating. That’s not what we want the world at large to believe. We want them to understand that this is an improvement!” Thank goodness, test scores, college admissions, and national focus are now all pointing to the fact that home education is superior. And what educator can argue with the fact that one-on-one education is always going to be better than one on thirty? Or twenty? Or ten, even?

In reality, to let the world at large believe that we are improving the school situation by taking it home and duplicating it is—what? Ironic? Just plain silly?

So, from now on, if you ask someone what curriculum they use, and they smile and say, “We unschool,” don’t judge. Just smile back and say, “So do we. We home educate.”


Tracy and Jeff Aitken live in Spencer, NC, where they have unschooled three boys, ages thirteen, nine, and six, for thirteen years.


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Cindy's picture

My heart is pounding! I have a fourteen year old son that is in tears because I thought I needed to have a strict curriculum and make him fit into it. It takes him 1/2 the day to get through 2-3 pages of math and the manual says he should be doing 3-5 pages a day (not to mention the other 4 subjects he's expected to complete that day). I told him this morning that we were going to have to buckle down and starting doing more so we don't get behind and he said this that he felt like "life" (as he knows it, exciting and adventurous) is over". I knew he was right because if he did what was expected he would be schooling for 10 hours a day. He is an outside, adventurous and creative. He has several projects going on outside on our farm and I won't let him go out and "create" until he is through with school. Oh, how my heart was breaking to see his face and his heart so low this morning when I told him that I expected even more than he was already doing (to meet someone else's standards). I prayed this morning and asked for help from my ALL WISE FATHER IN HEAVEN. That is why my heart if pounding! I believe this is his merciful way of speaking to me. Thank you for sharing! I am so excited!!!! I do have a question though. How do you assure that your child will pass a standardized test each year? Blessings