Unschooling is not “Child-Led Learning”

Moody Blues Concert

I do not refer to unschooling as “child-led learning” and I encourage others not to use that term because I think overuse of it has led to some pretty serious misunderstanding of what unschooling is really like.

The term, “child-led learning,” does emphasize something very important – that the child is the learner! I couldn’t agree more. However, it also disregards the significant role played by the parent in helping and supporting and, yes, quite often taking the lead, in the investigation and exploration of the world that is unschooling.

On an unschooling email list, someone once asked if it was “okay” as an unschooler to ask if her child wanted her to read to him. She expressed concern that that was being overly leading – that she should wait for him to ask her, if he was interested. In other words, she thought unschooling should be entirely “child led.”

Questions like this concern me because it is such a distortion and extreme position and far removed from the reality of the unschooling life that my family has lived.

Unschooling is more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in synch with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others’ little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other.

Asking a child if he wants you to read to him should not be thought about as any different than asking if he wants
to go outside and play pirates or help you bake a cake or wash the dog or play a game.

Unschooling IS very very often comprised of asking if the kids want to do something. That is a HUGE part of unschooling. (Caps for emphasis.)

Unschooling is also strewing – bringing ideas, objects, experiences, opportunities of all kinds into their lives. We don’t force them. We don’t force them. But we certainly offer. And we often recommend, too. And once in a while we say, “I think you should….”.

Unschooling is not child-led learning. Neither is it parent or teacher-led. It is child- focused. It is child-considered. It is child-supporting.

When someone asks if it is okay to ask if their kids want to read with them, I am really worried that they are taking a far far too hands-off approach – a wait-and-see approach – sitting back and waiting for the kids to come up with ideas of what they want to do. Unschooling parents are very involved in offering the world to their child. There is an art to knowing when to back off and when to step up and be actively involved, but even when kids are busily pursuing an interest on their own, unschooling parents are paying attention and readying themselves to offer enhancements or extensions or alternatives, etc.

Calling it “child-led learning” gives the wrong impression. It leads to people thinking unschooling means waiting for a child to tell the parent, “I want to do math.” That’s not at all how it works.


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