FAQ’s written by John Holt, a person with a lot of experience unschooling.
What is this word, “unschooling”?
Also known as interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning. Lately, the term “unschooling” has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn’t use a fixed curriculum. When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear. The advantage of this method is that it doesn’t require you, the parent, to become someone else—a professional teacher pouring knowledge into child-vessels on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an “on demand” basis, if at all. So, for instance, a young child’s interest in hot rods can lead him to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner. They were not dictated to the learner through curricular mandate to be done at a specific time and place, though parents with a hands-on approach to unschooling certainly can influence and guide their children’s choices. Unschooling does not resemble school learning. Parents and children can learn and grow cooperatively.
Children in public schools are able to meet, and get to know, many children very different from themselves. If they didn’t go to public school, how would this happen?
The idea that schools mix together in happy groups children from widely differing backgrounds is for the most part simply not true.
Except in very small schools, of which there are few, and which tend to be one-class schools anyway, children in public schools, other than a few top athletes, have very little contact with others different from themselves, and less and less as they rise through the grades. In most large schools the children are tracked, i.e., the college track, the business track, the vocational track. Study after study has shown that these tracks correlate perfectly with family income and social status: the richest or most socially prominent kids in the top track, the next richest in the next, and so on down to the poorest kids in the bottom track.
The odds are very good that most elementary school classes have a kind of caste system in action. Even in small and selective private schools, I found that many of my fellow teachers were quick to label some children “good” and others “bad”, often on the basis of appearance, and that children once labeled “bad” found it almost impossible to get that label changed. Even where the schools do not track children by classes, the teachers are almost certain to track them within their classes. From fifth grade on, in their social lives, children are almost completely separated into racial groups, which become more and more hostile as the children grow older. Even in one-race schools, white or nonwhite, there is class separation, class contempt, and class conflict. Few friendships are made across such lines, and the increasing violence in our high schools arises almost entirely from conflicts between such groups.
People who teach their children at home already tend to think of themselves as something of an extended family, and they connect with other groups of children, write each other letters, visit each other when they can, have local meetings, and so on.
If you don’t send your children to school, how are they going to learn to fit into a mass society?
Government compulsory schools may in fact be able to prepare children to fit into the mass society, which means, among other things, believing what most people believe and liking what most people like. Or they may be able to help children find a set of values with which they could resist and reject at least many of the values of the mass society. But they certainly can’t do both.
It seems to be one of the articles of faith of educators that they, and they alone, hold out to the young a vision of higher things. At meetings, they often talk as if they spent much of their time and energy defending children from the corrupt values of the mass media and the television set. Where, but from us, they say, are children going to hear about good books, Shakespeare, culture? We are the only ones who are thinking about what is good for them; everyone else is just trying to exploit them. The fact is, however, that most schools are far more concerned to have children accept the values of mass society than to help them resist them. When school people hear about people teaching their children at home, they almost always say, “But aren’t you afraid that your children are going to grow up to be different, outsiders, misfits, unable to adjust to society?” They take it for granted that in order to live reasonably happily, usefully, and successfully in the world you have to be mostly like most other people.
What about the valuable social life of the school?
In all but a very few of the schools I have taught in, visited, or know anything about, the social life of the children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, snobbish, full of talk about who went to whose birthday party and who got-what Christmas presents and who got how many Valentine cards and who is talking to so-and-so and who is not.
If there were no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough. Even in the first grade, classes soon divide into leaders (energetic and – often deservedly – popular kids), their bands of followers, and other outsiders who are pointedly excluded from these groups.
I remember my sister saying of one of her children, then five, that she never knew her to do anything really mean or silly until she went away to school – a nice school, by the way, in a nice small town.
When I point out to people that the social life of most schools and classrooms is mean-spirited, status-oriented, competitive, and snobbish, I am always astonished by their response. Not one person of the hundreds with whom I’ve discussed this has yet said to me that the social life at school is kindly, generous, supporting, democratic, friendly, loving, or good for children. No, without exception, when I condemn the social life of school, people say, “But that’s what the children are going to meet in Real Life.”
How are we going to prevent children being taught by “unqualified” teachers?
Teaching skills are among the many common sense things about dealing with other people that – unless we are mistaught – we learn just by living. As for the idea that certified teachers teach better than uncertified, or that uncertified teachers cannot teach at all, there is not a shred of evidence to support it, and a great deal of evidence against it.
First of all, to know what is meant by “qualified”, we have to know what is meant by quality. We could hardly agree on who was or was not a good painter if we did not to a large extent agree on what was or was not a good painting. The question asked above assumes that since educators agree on and understand correctly what is meant by good teaching, they are able to make sound judgments about who is or is not a good teacher. But the fact is that educators do not understand or agree about what makes good teaching.
Educators who worry about “unqualified” people teaching their own children almost always define “qualified” to mean teachers trained in schools of education and holding teaching certificates. They assume that to teach children involves a host of mysterious skills that can be learned only in schools of education, and that are in fact taught there; that people who have this training teach much better than those who do not; and indeed that people who have not had this training are not competent to teach at all. None of these assumptions are true.
Human beings have been sharing information and skills, and passing along to their children whatever they knew, for about a million years now. Along the way they have built some very complicated and highly skilled societies. During all those years there were very few teachers in the sense of people whose only work was teaching others what they knew. And until very recently there were no people at all who were trained in teaching, as such. People always understood, sensibly enough, that before you could teach something you had to know it yourself. But only very recently did human beings get the extraordinary notion that in order to be able to teach what you knew you had to spend years being taught how to teach.
For a long, long time, people who were good at sharing what they knew have realized certain things: (1) to help people learn something, you must first understand what they already know; (2) showing people how to do something is better than telling them, and letting them do it themselves is best of all; (3) you mustn’t tell or show too much at once, since people digest new ideas slowly and must feel secure with new skills or knowledge before they are ready for more; (4) you must give people as much time as they want and need to absorb what you have shown or told them; (5) instead of testing their understanding with questions you must let them show how much or how little they understand by the questions they ask you; (6) you must not get impatient or angry when people don’t understand; (7) scaring people only blocks learning, and so on. These are clearly not things that one has to spend three years talking about.
I have since observed where children are allowed to talk to each other and to help each other with schoolwork, that many children were very good at teaching each other. There were many reasons for this. Even though I did my best to convince them that ignorance was no shame, they felt much freer to confess ignorance and confusion to each other than to me. Also, they did not have to fear that their friends might give them a bad grade. I had told them that I did not believe in grades, and I think they believed me.
Learning from each other, they didn’t have to worry about this. A child teaching another is not disappointed if the other does not understand or learn, since teaching is not his main work and he is not worried about whether he is or is not a good teacher. He may be exasperated, may even say, “Come on, dummy, pay attention, what’s the matter with you?” Since children tend to be direct and blunt with each other anyway, this probably won’t bother the learner. If it does, he can say so. Either the other will be more tactful, since he rightly values their friendship more than the effectiveness of his teaching, or the learner will find another helper. And this is another and important reason why children are good at teaching each other. Both child-teacher and child-learner know that this teacher-learner relationship is temporary, much less important than their friendship, in which they meet as equals. This temporary relationship will go on only as long as they are both satisfied with it. The child-teacher doesn’t have to teach the other, and the child-learner doesn’t have to learn from the other. Since they both come to the relationship freely and by their own choice, they are truly equal partners in it. I want to stress very strongly that the fact that their continuing relationship as friends is more important than their temporary relationship as learner and teacher is above all else what makes this temporary relationship work.
How are children going to learn what they need to know?
There seem to be a number of possibilities, all of which people have actually done in one place or another. (1) The parent finds a textbook(s), materials, etc., and parent and child learn the stuff together. (2) The parent gets the above for the child, and the child learns it alone. (3) The parent or the child finds someone else who knows this material, perhaps a friend or neighbor, perhaps a teacher in some school or even college, and learns from them.
About this, a parent wrote:
“. . . During his early years, my wife and I and a couple of friends taught him all he wanted to know, and if we didn’t know it, which usually was the case, it was even better, for we all learned together. Example: at 7, he saw the periodic table of elements, wanted to learn atoms and chemistry and physics. I had forgotten how to balance an equation, but I went out and bought a college textbook on the subject, a history of discovery of the elements, and some model atoms, and in the next month we went off into a tangent of learning in which somehow we both learned college-level science. He has never returned to the subject, but to this day retains every bit of it because it came at a moment in development and fantasy that was meaningful to him”
Of course, a child may not know what he may need to know in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else that we think is more important, the chances are that he won’t learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and—what is worst of all—will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything.
I wonder if I can have the thoroughness, the follow-through demanded, the patience, and the continuing enthusiasm for the diversity of interests they will undoubtedly have.
Well, who in any school would have more, or even as much? I was a good student in the “best” schools, and very few adults there were even slightly concerned with my interests. Beyond that, you may expect too much of yourself. Your children’s learning is not all going to come from you, but from them, and their interaction with the world around them, which of course includes you. You do not have to know everything they want to know, or be interested in everything they are interested in. As for patience, maybe you won’t have enough at first; like many home-teaching parents, you may start by trying to do too much, know too much, control too much. But like the rest, you will learn, from experience mostly, to trust your children.
What if the children want to go to school?
This is a hard question. There is more than one good answer to it, and these often conflict. Parents could argue, and some do, that since they believe that school can and probably will do their children deep and lasting harm, they have as much right to keep them out, even if they want to go, as they would to tell them they could not play on a pile of radioactive waste. This argument seems more weighty in the case of younger children, who could not be expected to understand how school might hurt them. If somewhat older children said determinedly and often, and for good reasons, that they really wanted to go to school, I would tend to say, let them go. How much older? What are good reasons? I don’t know. A bad reason might be, “The other kids tell me that at school lunch you can have chocolate milk.”
I don’t want to feel I’m sheltering my children or running away from adversity.
Why not? It is your right, and your proper business, as parents, to shelter your children and protect them from adversity, at least as much as you can. Many of the world’s children are starved or malnourished, but you would not starve your children so that they would know what this was like. You would not let your children play in the middle of a street full of high-speed traffic. Your business is, as far as you can, to help them realize their human potential, and to that end you put as much as you can of good into their lives, and keep out as much as you can of bad. If you think – as you do – that school is bad, then it is clear what you should do.
Will they have the opportunity to overcome or do things that they think they don’t want to do?
Will unschooled children know what it is to have to do difficult and demanding things in order to reach goals they have set for themselves? Yes, life is full of such requirements. But this is not at all the same thing as doing something, and in the case of school usually something stupid and boring, simply because someone else tells you you’ll be punished if you don’t. Whether children resist such demands or yield to them, it is bad for them. Struggling with the inherent difficulties of a chosen or inescapable task builds character; merely submitting to superior force destroys it.