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No Such Thing As Unschooling Failure
By Wendy Priesnitz

There's No Such Thing As Unschooling Failure

Most people who live in ways that are a bit out of the ordinary have occasional moments of doubt. And life learners are no exception.

When families self-select to live as if school doesn’t exist, there really isn’t a downside. Nevertheless, I often hear from people who have decided that “we’re unschooling failures” or “unschooling doesn’t work for our kids.” And I’ve discovered that what they really mean is that it isn’t working for them – the parents.

Deschooling ourselves is not easy. And if we’ve not done that work, we tend to compare our children to their schooled contemporaries, assuming that school standards have real meaning (or that schooled kids actually meet those standards much or all of the time). For instance, we might decide that our life learning child has a “math problem.”

One mom said to me that her seven-year-old daughter can make change, multiply, divide, and deal with fractions while cooking, but can’t for the life of her say what six times eight is. She blames it on lack of formal math instruction and says they’re “moving back to using curriculum this year.” Not being able to memorize the multiplication table is not a problem that is specific to how or where one learns. I went to school and never did memorize the darn thing. Once I recovered from the frustration of trying, and the damage the process did to my self-esteem and my interest in math, I didn’t miss the ability any more than I miss the ability to perform any other skill I haven’t cared to master.

Another issue has to do with structure. I have no idea why people equate life learning with lack of structure. Self-directed, interest-based, active learning from living in a rich and creative environment can include various degrees of structure. If they live in an environment of trust and respect, kids will create their own way of organizing their lives and their time. A problem can arise when the parent’s need for structure or flexibility differs from that of the child. That’s when the parent has to separate their needs from those of the child. But the conflict is not the fault of life learning.

Another temptation is to think that life learning is an easier or slacking-off form of homeschooling because mom or dad doesn’t have to arrange for curriculum, or teach, or cajole, or motivate. To those on the critic bench – and even some beginning life learners – it can look too simple! It is simple, but it is not necessarily easy. For instance, those who like to play school (or who are professional teachers), who haven’t moved beyond control, or who don’t share their children’s interests will have to work hard to let go. Other parents find it demanding to always model learning and be on the outlook for things that might be of interest to their kids. And, lacking tests (or a window into your child’s brain), being sure that learning is happening can be a challenge for those who like to observe cause and effect. Learning happens best when it’s not the goal but the byproduct of living. Believing that requires trust in ourselves as much as our children, and that’s not easy.

Perhaps the biggest thing that makes some parents feel “unschooling doesn’t work” is that they’ve defined the concept too rigidly and, often, by someone else’s way of doing things. Of course you’ll feel that you are an unschooling failure if you can’t follow the unschooling rules! But what if there are no rules? If we are able to forget about the formulas, the “experts,” the opinions on discussion boards, the principles and rules relating to this or any other way of being with kids – and respect and trust them (and the innate human drive to learn), while tuning in to their needs and interests – we should be able to create a rewarding style of family life and learning. And we should feel free to change what we do in response to our or our children’s needs without feeling that anybody has failed.

Wendy Priesnitz is the founder and editor of Life Learning Magazine, and the author of 13 books, including “School Free: The Homeschooling Handbook,” “Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society,” and "Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn't Exist." She is also the mother of two adult daughters who lived and learned without school in the 1970s and '80s.

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