So if you haven't heard the term before, here's how it was explained to me: I'm sure everyone is familiar with homeschooling, which is basically when parents teach an approved curriculum at home. Unschooling is similar in that you don't go to school and your parents are in charge of your education, but there's no curriculum! The idea is that because children are naturally curious, you should just let them follow their interests and watch them learn whatever they want. OK, you don't just watch them learn, you help. Parents are still very involved in guiding their kids' education, but the kids set the content of the studies. If the kid is interested in dinosaurs, it's all dinosaurs for that month. Then if the kid loves the violin it's all about the violin for a while! Then maybe you combine them and write a song on the violin about dinosaurs! Weird example. But you see the point.
My thoughts about whether or not this is a good thing are immediately conflicted. Because part of me says yes! Children are curious on their own. Everyone is curious on their own. I've learned so much more about things I'm interested in just from reading and caring about them on my own than I ever did in school. I'm the kind of person who, if something is assigned, I instantly rebel and refuse to care. I often was extremely bored in school. But if I come to something on my own I become hugely interested!
Unschooling also addresses one of my main beefs with education -- from kindergarten to college -- which is that there was no context. Ever. You'd jump from learning about triangles to the Civil War to the biology of frogs in the course of a few hours. With no reason! And no context! How can you remember it all? And why should you care? It seemed so random to me. Maybe there is some wisdom at work that creates school curricula, but I could never grasp it. I still can't. My oldest child is only three but I think a lot about what it's going to be like when he goes to school. And because there were so many things I disliked (understatement!) about my own school experience, I'm really interested in other ways of doing things for him.
But on the other hand, isn't letting kids set their own curriculum a bad idea? Won't they just learn about superheroes and videogames? Will they ever choose to learn about something that's difficult yet ultimately good for you to know? If I was unschooled I might lack even the basic math* skills I do possess. I would have a blank look on my face whenever anyone talks about Dickens or Austen or Bronte. Actually that happens now, because even though they were assigned I never read them, but at least I'm basically familiar with what those people wrote. And isn't it a bad thing that our society is becoming so compartmentalized? Wouldn't unschoolers miss out on a big chunk of the life everyone else is living? Isn't it a good thing for a society that we all have things in common, such as hating gym class and school lunch and all the nonsense of public school? School also teaches kids (at least in theory) to work as a group, to get along with all different sorts of kids, and to learn social skills (again, in theory). Those points are probably bigger than the content of what you actually learn and I think some unschooling parents might just want to keep their kids out of school because they distrust society at large and want to shield their kids from that. Is that a good thing?
*Oh, and some of the stuff I've read about homeschooling indicates that "what about math?" is a very common question. I'm not the only one :) The answer given is usually along the lines of "Math is fascinating. Kids only get turned off to it by the boring way school approaches it." (I'm still skeptical. *skeptical face*) But I'm certainly interested. I'm interested in all of it! The website unschooling.com opens with a great quote from Anne Sullivan, of whom I am a particular fan.
I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Whereas, if the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less showily. Let him go and come freely, let him touch real things and combine his impressions for himself, instead of sitting indoors at a little round table, while a sweet-voiced teacher suggests that he build a stone wall with his wooden blocks, or make a rainbow out of strips of coloured paper, or plant straw trees in bead flower-pots. Such teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of, before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experience.
I find that very hard to argue with! Yet I'm pretty sure I won't "unschool" my kids, and I'm not sure if I would have benefited from it or if I just think I would have. But it certainly is fascinating to me. And if you want to see some kids who are unschooled, here's the piece that was on Good Morning America. It starts with an annoying commercial and I have an irrational dislike of George Stephanopoulos, although I do like how his name reminds me of George Papadapolis from the TV show "Webster." Anyway, it's fascinating stuff! Thoughts? Unschooling is a good idea? Too good to be true? Worst idea ever? Should I pursue the creation of a song about dinosaurs on the violin?