How to Unschool in 5 easy steps

There are many ideas about unschooling and may "schools" of thought. Home Education Magazine has the most obvious site: unschooling.com but may not be the best one.

For me, unschooling is just that: not standard-schooling. Contrast the characteristics of schools:
  1. age segregation
  2. standard location
  3. specific schedule (hours, days of the year, etc.)
  4. universal grading/testing
  5. uniform curriculum
So the more you go against the 5 (for now), the more you are unschooling. What follows are 5 easy steps on how to become an unschooler.

Step 0, taking the plunge: Most parents (those who are completely new to the world of home education) who decided to home educate start with "school done at home" because that's what they are most comfortable with: The two parents went to (public) school and recall having great time during then and probably even have post high school degree or two. However, they don't know too many friends (or family) who home educate. And more likely than not, they have decided to pull their children out of (public) school because of x,y,z. As they get into home education, things go out of kilter.

Step 1, peerless: The first thing that, obviously, goes out the window is age segregation (especially if you have more than one child) since at home, you can't keep them apart. (Even if you have one child:) You start interacting with people outside of home, the elderly, the younger neighbors (since most older children are in school) and eventually other home educated children.

Step 2, homeless: Next to go is probably the standard location: education can take place outside of one "school" room and it's OK to learn, say, math using measuring cups and scales in the kitchen. Or to go to a park to do "social studies" (or a field trip?) by interacting with the homeless. Any place in the whole (wide) world can be a classroom, even if it was all virtual (i.e., internet).

Step 3, time warp: Next depends on the parents: type A ones would toss the universal grading but others would more likely chuck the set schedule. Not everyone studies well at the crack of dawn. And some families may have schedule which prevent it: say, a farming family may have to do their chores before 10AM and so the best study time may be after lunch. As the child get used to home education, one will realize that less time is needed for real studies, so there is no need to keep the nose to the grind 6 or 8 hours a day (this is not a paid, hourly work but education we're talking about).

Step 4, no more grades: Universal grading (testing) is the formula of equating age with grade: 6 year old is 1st grade, 12 is 7th, etc. Every child's learning pace is different such that some may excel in math but be very slow in reading or writing. Or excel in all subjects (congrats: you have a super intelligent child, now, don't waste it by going to college early). It's impossible to peg one's grade level and say "because you're 7 years old, you can't advance beyond this chapter." Or worse yet, say, "you must stay up late every night until you understand it."

Step 5, the final leap: Uniform curriculum maybe the hardest to toss since the materials are not cheap and you want to get the most bang out of your money. However, it doesn't make sense to be uniform because every child learns differently. Until you try out a material, it is hard to say if it will work with that child. The best thing would be to borrow a curriculum (some home educational coop have libraries) and try it on a child for a month or so and if it works, buy it (used!) or else try another. You might end up with different curriculum for each subject (math from one source, grammar from another, etc.) for each child.

Also, note that there are at least three ways of learning: visual, audio and kinesthetic. So don't assume that your child will have the same learning style as you. For example, my sons will hop around when they recite Bible verses, which may not be school-natural (or even Ritalin-deserving) but it is OK with me.

And, most importantly, there are two types of motivations:
  1. extrinsic (study to please parents or get awards or avoid punishments)
  2. intrinsic (study because one is curious and eager to learn for learning's sake)
The goal, for me, is to go from extrinsically motivated students to intrinsically motivated life long learner. OK, enough educational philosophy.

My lovely wife grew up in Japan and while she and I agree on steps 1-4 the last step is where she was uncomfortable going completely unschooled, so she has practiced delayed academics and started our oldest son with phonetics at 8 (3rd grade) -- truly unschooled until then. These days their only required studies are some math problems and some reading of which they spend less than one hour per day.

Penciloid asks how to cram in all kinds of subjects as part of unschooling: We don't. We try to live a life of education, of parents learning new things, especially how to use tools. My favorite tool is Franklin's Speaking Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary since you can type in bad spelling and get best matches which are pretty good guesses, plus they give pronunciations (which I don't know sometimes and I have to get help too). I constantly tell my sons "go look it up" or "please find it for me" (because I have to look up a word)!

We also have our devotionals at (almost every) night and take turns reading from the Bible as well as a devotional book and discussing the meanings of what we read.

Ideal is to let the children run with their interests and stand back and give advice but not everything can be picked by children. I haven't worked out how much to guide and direct and how much to let just their interests run. But we do our best to live by examples not just "do as I say" commands.

With music, our eldest is taking piano and need little or no reminders for him to practice -- which he does throughout the day, few minutes here and a few minutes there. On the other hand, if we let them play video games or watch TV they will go for hours on end (so we limit that by content (only recorded shows) and by time (2 hours total)). They also take Tae Kwon Do (year round) and we just finished their swim team this past weekend (just for the summer). During the school year they take 2 or 3 classes geared for homeschoolers once a week (last year it was botany and physical science).

We also require them to do chores: put away dishes, care for the dog, throw trash, vaccuum, get clothes ready for laundry, fold them away after they are dry, cook meals (breakfast is usually self made and lunch they take turns cooking). We only pay them for non-chore work like mowing the lawn. We also tax them (by force) 40% on their income (which we put into savings account). We don't force but ask about donating 10% of their money. We also have a rule "you break it, you pay for it" so we make them financially responsible for many things including their dental cavities.

With all that, they usually have anywhere from 2 or 3 hours to 10+ hours of "free" time (more likely on the longer side than shorter side). I'm trying to get them to call it "self-directed studies" rather than free time or recess....(grin)...

For those who want examples, there are schools with such a focus: The best one for unschooling, today, is the Sudbury Valley School and their affliated schools and they been at it since the 60's. Close second to me is Waldorf education where there is even Waldorf homeschoolers.