Thursday, February 28, 2013

Unschooling Red Flag

I'd rather have dentures than horrible memories of a parent forcing me to brush my teeth. 

I found this quote in an online article, "Beginning Unschooling: Some Ideas"(  I think if I spent any time directly commenting on this, it would be giving the sentiment a certain validation, so I will not.  It stands on its own to illustrate my concerns about adopting the term unschooling. I realize that not all forms of unschooling are so radical, but the unfortunate truth is that people who think such things are out there, and this is the impression many people have of what unschooling is all about. That Sandra Dodd, a leading name in unschooling, allowed this idea onto her page says "red flag" to me.

An underlying part of the unschooling philosophy is that children know what they need. Sometimes they do. We have all heard a child say, "I need to go to the potty." We have also all known a child so tired she could barely stand, who would not admit needing to go to bed. As an adult there have been more times than I want to remember when I didn't know what I needed or how to find what I needed. It would be inexcusable neglect not to directly guide a child toward what he needs, in fact, to insist upon it  (like taking him to the bathroom sink to brush his teeth!--ok, I couldn't resist after all...).

Which brings me to the whole teaching question. I have a book by John Holt called Teach Your Own. Clearly Holt was not against teaching if he used the word "teach" in the title of his book in this way. I may be going out on a limb here, but from the three books by Holt I have read, I do not believe that he would discourage any parent from showing a child how to brush his teeth properly and then following through to make sure it became a good habit, two to three times a day. My husband pointed out that radical unschooling is the flip side of the one-size-fits-all, authoritarian school model. In the case of radical unschooling, all children are still treated exactly the same, as if they were not individuals with varying needs.

What Holt advocated was that adults closely observe children to know them extremely well and therefore be able to determine how best to help them thrive. He emphasized guidance and facilitation as the chief methods of teaching, setting a good example for children to follow, and allowing as much self-directed learning as is reasonably possible. He was not even entirely against using some traditional schooling methods in those cases where they worked well for the child. He did not, however, establish a clear, systematic method of education. He used homeschooling and unschooling interchangeably and did not advocate any particular method, aside from teaching children in a way that corresponds with how they naturally learn. I think we can see the potential problem here. Unlike Montessori and Charlotte Mason, with their clearly formulated philosophies and practices, unschooling based on John Holt can easily result in muddied water.

So if I add the foundation of the Catholic faith to my unschooling, would the water then be clear? Maybe. After reading Suzie Andres' books, I think the water is certainly much less grainy. Still, after getting through the thirteen essays in A Little Way of Homeschooling, I was left with an unsatisfyingly vague impression of how this works. I enjoyed reading the stories of these unschooling families, and perhaps I should read the book again and see if it sinks in a little better. All of these parents were very active in the education of their children and did not strike me as "radical".  Interestingly, the essays of those who employed other methods in tandem with their unschooling did not seem much different in substance from those who were supposedly "pure" unschoolers, leading me to believe that what we really have here in some cases is a form of relaxed homeschooling, which overlaps in some places with unschooling.

What disturbs me is that there are those Catholics who call themselves radical unschoolers, which in my opinion is a contradiction in terms. Radical unschooling is diametrically opposed to the Church's teachings on the education of children, and I certainly do not want to be identified with such parents. I imagine this is Holly Pierlot's concern with Catholics using the label of unschooling as well. For those who like this term and have clearly delineated what it does and does not mean for themselves, it is certainly not my place to say that they should not use it. I think that the purest definition of unschooling, the one that Holt intended, is simply learning in an open source manner, without the traditional school building and the methods employed therein which do not reflect how children naturally learn. Many forms of homeschooling could rightly be called unschooling!

Unfortunately, though, some took unschooling for a ride on a runaway train, and their children are the derailed victims. Because of the seriousness of the implications of the "radical" approach, I have deep misgivings about adopting the word, even with putting Catholic in front of it, and even if I know without confusion what I mean by it. The jury is still out, but it would be irresponsible of me not to seriously consider these red flags. I do believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding me in a new direction, and that some of the tenets attributed to unschooling are useful and inspiring; but perhaps in the end I will be the fish that notices the nice bait, but also the hook, and swims on by to find more enriching fare.


  1. I agree with your view here. Indeed John Holt did advocate getting tailoring the learning to the child...a far cry from 'let 'me be'. There are some things that I, as a one time child did not learn without express instruction. It also requires humility too to recognise when you (or your child) needs direct instruction.
    My mum made me brush my teeth and boy, am I glad...oh and it didn't damage my personhood either!

    1. Exactly! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!!


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