Going beyond homeschool to unschooling

When kids teach themselves


Deborah Niemann-Boehle


Deborah Niemann-Boehle is a writer who is currently writing a book on newspaper freelancing, as well as another on homeschooling. She lives with her husband, children and many animals in Cornell, about 95 miles southwest of Chicago.

This morning began like every other day. My son was on the Internet checking box office statistics and my youngest daughter sat on the couch reading a horse book. It is not the typical scene most people imagine when they hear we are homeschoolers.

But we are not really homeschoolers—we are unschoolers.

Educator John Holt coined the word “unschooling” in the 1970s to describe student-led learning. Rather than a parent or teacher following a curriculum, the student decides what to study and how.

“Is your mom your teacher?” they ask my daughter when she says she is homeschooled. “No, I teach myself,” she says. It is a comment that confuses most people.

Unschooling may be the most misunderstood homeschooling philosophy. It is difficult to define in a single sentence, even for someone who has been committed to it for a long time.

Children are born wanting to know everything and we parents need to get out of their way and let them learn, pointing them in the right direction, says Dorothy Werner, a Chicago homeschooler of three decades and one of the founders of Illinois HOUSE or Home Oriented Unique Schooling Experience.

Unschoolers don’t tell their children they must study a particular book, they let them know what they need to learn and why they need to learn it. For example, they have to learn algebra to go to college. To accomplish that, we have a high school math program that covers two years of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus. It is up to our children when to tackle the subject.

As an unschooling mother, my job is to provide the right environment and keep my children from being distracted by unproductive activities. At last count, our home library contained more than 1,000 books, most of which we received as gifts, bought at library book sales or at discount book sellers. Before the Internet, we made weekly trips to the library. Now, the computer is on every day and we can get to the whole world.

The minority of a minority

Being unschoolers, my family is in the minority of a minority. Homeschooling has grown to nearly 2 million children nationwide. And it seems to work for many children. In Illinois, a homeschool is considered a private school, and private schools are not required to do standardized testing. In other states that do require testing, homeschoolers consistently score above the average. But most people stick to the idea that children must be taught by someone older and smarter, so unschooling remains uncommon.

When children are unschooled, they follow their passions and spend as much time as they want on a project, whether it is painting, writing or looking at pond water under a microscope. A bell does not ring after an hour to tell them to move on to another subject. Nor does a child have to read a particular book if he or she finds it uninteresting. Unschooling parents realize there are hundreds of books that can teach the same lessons.

Werner estimates there are roughly 35,000 homeschooled students in Illinois. There is no way to determine how many of them are unschooled, though, because many parents drift in and out of educational philosophies.

Most families who end up unschooling start with school at home. They purchase a curriculum and have daily lesson plans. Some even have little desks and a chalkboard. Parents may experiment with curriculums from different companies or create their own. Eventually, they may try unschooling. While some fall in love with the idea, others are convinced their children will never learn anything, and they quickly go back to the structured curriculum.

Werner says unschooling is sometimes confused with permissive parenting. Some people mistakenly believe it means children can watch cartoons all day and do whatever they want. At our house, television watching is not allowed during the day, and it is rare for it to be on for more than two hours in the evening, including educational shows and videos.

Playing is learning

“Living as learning” is a description that Werner uses, because the learning comes out of what people do every day.

Unschoolers recognize that children can learn to add and subtract more easily by playing Monopoly than they can by using worksheets. Sometimes, I’ll ask my youngest to count my money. Then I’ll ask her something such as, “If I need to save $10 to spend at the grocery store, how much can we spend for lunch?”

I never taught my oldest to read, but she has devoured hundreds of books. I never taught my son percentages, but he learned about them by reading about movie profits and losses. I never taught my youngest how to divide, but she recently told me how much each individual cheese stick cost when we ate at a restaurant.

Because my oldest loves to write, she has written and posted 200,000 words of fan fiction, a form of creative writing, on the Internet. She writes original stories using characters and situations from Harry Potter and the TV show “The Gilmore Girls.” That’s the equivalent of three novels.

Because my son loves the movies, he spends hours every day reading books and articles about the industry, past and present. We use movies as a point of entry for so many subjects. We had a lively discussion of World War II after we watched Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film, “The Great Dictator.” He keeps track of how certain movies are doing using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets—a program his sister taught him to use.

Because my youngest loves animals, she watches the mailbox on the 21st of every month, anxiously waiting for Ranger Rick. She devours the monthly animal magazine and spends hours reading her mammal encyclopedia, her horse encyclopedia or one of the other many books we have on animals. A walk in the woods becomes a lesson, because we often find skeletons and examine the teeth, shape of the skull and length of bones to determine what animal it came from.

For most parents, the hardest thing about unschooling is believing that children will learn. When my children were younger, I drew inspiration from Hard Times in Paradise, by David and Micki Colfax, who unschooled in the 1970s and ’80s and sent three sons to Harvard.

A decade later, my family has its own success to draw upon. Although many of our friends and family questioned our sanity when they learned we were unschooling years ago, they now think differently because our daughter received her associate degree of arts from Joliet Junior College three weeks after she turned 16, and her associate of science one semester later.

As an unschooler, though, I measure success by who my children are, rather than their accomplishments. We have three literate children who have a passion for learning, a sense of responsibility for their education and the self-discipline to accomplish their own goals. 



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