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Unschooling from an
African-American perspective

What is Unschooling? Page Two

Unschooling often means different things to different people. Depending on whom you ask, you may hear phrases like, "delight-directed" "child-centered" "informal learning" or "learning without a curriculum." In practice, unschooling incorporates all of these. Learning takes place apart from a curriculum, in an informal setting, sparked by subject matter central to the child's interests and often involves a lot of fun.

For me, unschooling is a natural part of parenting. My husband and I are blessed with four children who have never been schooled, neither in the traditional sense nor at home. For some that may sound negligent, and many have asked, "How can learning take place if they are not in a school, or you don't at least bring school home to them?" Well, real learning comes from real living and even if my child had only one interest in life, s/he could pursue that interest and be well educated. How? Children are by nature scientists and artists. They want to explore, understand and create. So, let them! While following their interests they will naturally learn to read, write, add, subtract, do derivatives, and what ever else!

As babies, my children enjoyed being carried in my Maya Wrap(TM), but as they grew, they longed for the freedom to move independently. As a mother I was aware of the value of their new found interest, and lovingly let go and left them to their own devices. At various levels of strength, ability, even interest, our children all learned to walk, all in their own original way. One crawled endlessly, what joy she took in her unique view of the world! Two scooted backwards, then forwards with a cute little hop, before getting it all together and walking upright. Another just launched out on her own, never learning to crawl, but all of a sudden, standing, walking and running in a matter of hours.

Until they got the walking down to a science, none of them looked that graceful, but through my husband's and mine eyes, they were all viewed with great potential for athletic ability and grace. Yet, we were not completely blind, we did see them make false steps, sometimes ending in a gentle tumble that entertained us all. Other missteps left them frightened and bruised, and we lovingly patted and kissed away the pain, restoring their confidence in themselves and letting go again, so that they could tackle it one more time.

Each child was motivated to walk, come what may, and as parents, we trusted the process and their growing abilities to accomplish what they set out to do. Autodidactic is what they are, it is what our children have always been, and unschooling is a natural learning style which builds on their God-given ability to teach themselves.

The Difference between Unschooling and Bringing School Home

Many homeschooling families follow the school model which suggests that parents dictate the style of learning, the material to be covered and the easiest method to transfer that information to the child. Simply put, the parent sets up the system and then plugs in the child. As one homeschool curriculum ad reads, "When its easier for you to teach, its easier for them to learn. XYZ has the curriculum that fits your agenda."

Here is where unschoolers and those who bring the school home, part company. Unschooling parents do not teach according to their own agenda, because what is convenient for the parent may not be the best way for the child to learn and apply new skills.

Unschooling starts with the learner, who has definite interests, learning styles, skills and multiple intelligences, which becomes "the system." Therefore, it fits every time. No child is a square peg, and everything they value is a round hole and an opportunity for real learning. In essence, Unschooling is a continuation of the natural autodidactic style that all children have, at least until they reach the age of compulsory education. At that age, children in the schools or school at home model, are retrained to conform them to didactics, teaching which requires an outside instructor.

Didactics requires that subjects of importance be introduced to the student, for education is too important to trust children to be interested or even qualified to learn what is valuable and important on their own. All that is deemed education is neatly outlined and packaged in a curriculum created by an authoritative outsider who believes that without it, the child would not learn anything of value. An example would be reading. Words are all around us in the real world, and any child allowed to live and explore the world, cannot help but become aware of their importance and meaning. Yet the school model says we can no longer just dive in on our own, we have to have follow long, detailed steps to deconstruct and then reconstruct language into words and meaning. Yes, for some students it may take the joy out of reading, but reading is deemed too important to allow students the luxury of discovering it on their own.

Didactics may be an effective method for one person to manage 30 others but it is not necessarily the best method for the individual to learn. Often it results in rote memorization and the bingeing and purging of information. For some, this is not real learning. As a parent, I want my children to get a real education and be able to apply information in real life situations, and to retain it for future use. Binge and purge is quite effective for maintaining a high proficiency at test taking, and sometimes in the school model, good grades are mistaken for real learning.

Why Unschool?

Our children lead real and valuable lives and while their interests and work may be simple and childlike now, I believe that today's childish hobby may very well be tomorrow's valuable contribution to humanity. It does take patience and trust to allow children to learn by doing. Sometimes there is a big mess afterwards. Something may get broken or become unusable and need to be replaced. Sometimes they may not understand as quickly as you would like. Unschooling, like parenting, is an investment. Small sacrifices now, compounded over time, lead to a large payoff in the future. My goal in parenting is to raise thoughtful, competent, independent contributors to society. By allowing my children to work independently now, within the safety and guidance of family, their confidence and ability improves. I love them and I am willing to let them make mistakes. I tell them that sometimes you can learn the most when things do not turn out as planned. They are learning to face frustration and boredom, and finding ways to change the situation that causes it. In living, learning and working side by side with my children, be it in dirt, dough, paint or wool, there is a lot of time for sharing, as parents are admonished to do in Deuteronomy 6:4-7.

As African Americans, I like to think that we all come from a long line of autodidacts or unschoolers. For hundreds of years in this country, many of our ancestors were forbidden to participate in formal schools because of race and color prejudice. Yet, learning did take place, as many of us know of historical and family figures, who apart from schools and curricula have used their God-given ability to explore, learn and create and make valuable contributions to the world. Unschooling is as much a cultural legacy as it is a spiritual one.

What is Unschooling? Page Two

Copyright 2003 S. Courtney Walton