Catholic homeschool mom and daughter joy

The Organized Unschooler

In our last post about unschooling, we introduced the basic concepts behind the unschooling model of education: “child-led” education that takes places outside of a formal structure, such as a school, program, or curriculum. It is a model of education in which the child’s own interests and natural curiosity provide the direction.

What Unschooling is NOT

We do not want to give the impression, however, that unschooling is disorganized or chaotic. Of course any thing under the sun is liable to abuse, and unschooling is no different. People can use unschooling as an excuse to ignore their children’s education altogether. But people who don’t care about their child’s education aren’t reading articles like this one, so that doesn’t apply to you. You are here because you want to learn and want to do it right.

We are not interested in how unschooling can go wrong, but how it can go right. So the first thing we need to understand is that unschooling does not mean non-schooling. Unschooling does not mean we simply abdicate all responsibility for our children’s education. Perhaps the very word “unschooling” conjures up images of neglected kids, dirty and lice infested, ranging around outside an overgrown yard playing in rusty junk piles while their drunken parents spend the day passed out in a recliner inside a trash-strewn hovel.

If that’s your image of unschooling, we need to clear your mental palette!

What Unschooling IS

Unschooling simply means drawing on the child’s own inherent curiosity to define the contours of their educational experience. It does not mean that education is unorganized. Perhaps you want to adopt a more child-led approach to your homeschooling but are worried about the direction it could go — Here’s some advice on keeping your unschooling experience organized…

Model joy in learning. Learning is meant to be an enjoyable experience; it should never be sheer drudgery. Ultimately, we want children to learn on their own so that they can continue to grow in knowledge after they leave home. The best way to help them find the joy in learning is for you to model that joy yourself. Emotions are contagious; if your children see that you delight in discovering new things, they will pick up on that and follow suit.

Apply learned material to real life. “Why do I need to learn this?” is a frequent refrain of students. It is easier to learn something when you understand its real world application. Make sure your children see how their lessons relate to the world outside of the classroom. Don’t simply “teach to the test”; help them make the connections between what they are learning and preparing for adult life.

Focus on intrinsic motivation. What motivates people to do anything? Motivations can be extrinsic or intrinsic; extrinsic means an external factor (e.g., a deadline, wanting to impress someone, etc.); intrinsic means motivation comes from within (e.g., enjoying the task, wanting to better ourselves, etc.). Education works best when it is intrinsic. This is where unschooling shines. Ask yourself what motivates your child to learn. Perhaps it is studying favorite topics, private reading time, online classes, collaborating on projects with friends, or sharing his progress publicly. Teach to those motivations; if your child thrives on, say, performance, incorporate performative components to her work. This way she is not only “working,” but she is working towards something she loves.

Teach to your child’s learning style. Do you know what your child’s learning style is? Every child has a specific way they learn, even within the same family: some are book worms, while others are more tactile; your son may need to hear verbal instruction while your daughter can read directions and internalize them with ease. If you have special needs children, these sorts of considerations are going to become even more critical. An essential component of child-led education is teaching to your child’s learning style rather than imposing a style that might not come naturally to them.

The classroom extends to the whole world. Homeschooling need not mean education takes place exclusively within the home. If you are unschooling, the whole world is your classroom. Most parents who unschool do so because they want their children to get exposure to “life in the real world.” If that is the case, then remember the words of Gandalf to Biblo: “The world is not in your books and maps. It is out there.” So get out of the house! Discover all the opportunities your community offers, take day trips, embark on educational vacations, go on adventures. Something as simple as a side trip to a construction site can be educational.

Strewing. This is a popular unschooling concept. Strewing simply means leaving material of interest around for children to discover. Strewing may include books, toys, science kits, and more. For example, if you have a reluctant reader who is deeply interested in the Middle Ages, you may leave fun books about the era next to her favorite chair. Or if you have a child who loves science, you may leave interesting rock specimens on the bathroom counter. Change out the strewed items from time to time.

Teach your children how to find their own resources. When a child shows a special interest, show him how to learn more. Make him an integral part of the process. If your child is interested in music, take them to a music store to mess around on different instruments, take them a musical performance, let them talk to someone who plays, introduce them to new music. Show them how they can take their interests, dig around, and enter into a whole fascinating world of creativity.

Promote curiosity. Kids are naturally curious, but parents are capable of either nurturing or stifling that curiosity. Be the type of parent who is a curiosity-enabler. Ask questions of your children—and be patient in answering their questions. If you don’t know an answer, don’t try to lie or flub and pretend that you know; and don’t just shrug and say “I don’t know.” Instead, say, “Let’s look for the answer together,” and then help them find the answer. Let them see that a huge part of education is in searching.

Learn together. In a school setting parents are, for the most part, removed from the learning process. Sometimes we see this in homeschooling too. We may hand over our children to a cooperative or online class; or sometimes, our children are so adept at learning out of books that they disappear with their text for most of the day and learn on their own. These things are not bad, but there is a special joy in learning with your kids that we should not so easily dispense with. This comes back to nurturing curiosity, guiding your children to become self-learners, and building intrinsic motivation.

In conclusion, unschooling calls us to remember that it is okay to have fun with our children’s education. Every child has their own unique interests and learning style. We can utilize these God-given parts of our children’s character to facilitate their education in a manner that is organic, organized, and fun.


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