Principles of Unschooling

Frank Smith, on page 62 of his book, Insult to Intelligence, offers a “Learner’s Manifesto,” intended to tell schools what they should be doing to support learning. I noticed that it bore a strong resemblance to a list of unschooling principles and I rewrote it into that form. The following is my list of “Unschooling Principles,” and following that is the original “Learner’s Manifesto” by Frank Smith.

Principles of Unschooling by Pam Sorooshian

Learning happens all the time. The brain never stops working and it is not possible to divide time up into “learning periods” versus “non-learning periods.” Everything that goes on around a person, everything they hear, see, touch, smell, and taste, results in learning of some kind.

Learning does not require coercion. In fact, learning cannot really be forced against someone’s will. Coercion feels bad and creates resistance.

Learning feels good. It is satisfying and intrinsically rewarding. Irrelevant rewards can have unintended side effects that do not support learning.

Learning stops when a person is confused. All learning must build on what is already known.

Learning becomes difficult when a person is convinced that learning is difficult. Unfortunately, most teaching methods assume learning is difficult and that lesson is the one that is really “taught” to the students.

Learning must be meaningful. When a person doesn’t see the point, when they don’t know how the information relates or is useful in “the real world,” then the learning is superficial and temporary – not “real” learning.

Learning is often incidental. This means that we learn while engaged in activities that we enjoy for their own sakes and the learning happens as a sort of “side benefit.”

Learning is often a social activity, not something that happens in isolation from others. We learn from other people who have the skills and knowledge we’re interested in and who let us learn from them in a variety of ways.

We don’t have to be tested to find out what we’ve learned. The learning will be demonstrated as we use new skills and talk knowledgeably about a topic.

Feelings and intellect are not in opposition and not even separate things. All learning involves the emotions, as well as the intellect.

Learning requires a sense of safety. Fear blocks learning. Shame and embarrassment, stress and anxiety—these block learning.

Learner’s Manifesto by Frank Smith

  1. The brain is always learning. We learn exactly what is demonstrated by people around us. Schools must stop trying to teach through pointless drills, activities, and tests.
  2. Learning does not require coercion or irrelevant reward. We fail to learn only if we are bored, or confused, of if we have been persuaded that learning will be difficult. Schools must be places were learning can take place naturally.
  3. Learning must be meaningful. If we understand, then we learn. Schools must change themselves, not try to change us, to ensure we understand what we are expected to learn.
  4. Learning is incidental. We learn while doing things that we find useful and interesting. Schools must stop creating environments where we cannot engage in sensible activities.
  5. Learning is collaborative. We learn by apprenticing ourselves to people who practice what they teach. Schools must stop trying to deliver instruction mechanically. If teachers cannot teach, there must be better teachers, not more tests and programmatic instruction.
  6. The consequences of worthwhile learning are obvious. We demonstrate the worthwhile things we learn by engaging in those activities. Schools, teachers, and parents should not have to rely on marks, scores, or tests to discover if we have learned.
  7. Learning always involves feelings. We remember how we feel when we learn and when we fail to learn. Schools must not treat learners like battery hens or like machines.
  8. Learning must be free of risk If we are threatened by learning, then the learning will always threaten. Schools must recognize that continual testing is intellectual harassment.



Training is Tricky

Sue Patterson, who has taken up the Unschooling Blog Carnival along with Cydney Romano, has been bugging me to write a blog post about their next month’s theme, which is “Animals.” I’ve been uninspired in spite of the fact that our family has a new dog, Persie, a small, female mixed terrier we rescued in late December from the city animal shelter. (She is named after Robin Van Persie, the soccer player, by the way.)

I think my lack of inspiration might be because the connection between unschooling and animals is almost too obvious. I mean, animals and unschooling seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Yes, of course, you can have one without the other – but boy, oh boy, are they good together!

Still, I don’t feel very inspired to write about all the great things kids learn from interacting with animals. I thought I could write about Rosie’s years of intense involvement with horses. Or, maybe Roxana’s deep, deep love for all things related to cats would be interesting. I could talk about Roya swimming out in the ocean among the dolphins and where that kind of experience has brought her today. These interests led from one thing to another and resulted in a tremendous wealth of opportunities for learning all kinds of things.

But, right now, we have a new one-year-old dog and we’re taking her to “puppy school.” So I’m immersed in thoughts of “training” and positive reinforcement. And I can’t help considering how this kind of dog training compares to how our children grew up. People sometimes talk about unschooling their dog. I think by that they mean they are kind and generous and give a lot of freedom to their pet and the dog learns without formal training. The instructors at our puppy classes might be a little surprised to discover how sweet a dog can be and how much it can learn if given appropriate and accurate feedback, but not formal behaviorist training. But I think this approach applies to some breeds far more than others. Our instructors are very into positive reinforcement – training dogs to do tricks using treats as rewards. I keep imagining training our children that way, thinking how silly it seems, and then I remember that this IS the way many people think of raising children. Well, many use negative reinforcement (punishment) and the more enlightened use positive rewards instead of negative consequences. This is the reason for gold stars and stickers and free pizza for reading 15 minutes a day and so on.

Of course, dogs DO respond to incentives, and so do people. Our instructors’ dogs are trained to do over 200 tricks. Could I, or would I want to, say the same about my children? If want my dog to sit and stay on command, I can train her to do that. It takes time, but it isn’t at all hard. I just have to keep rewarding successive approximations of what I want her to do and, eventually, she’ll do it when I tell her to do it. This is behavior shaping and it can work on people, too. Why not train our kids like we train dogs?

The answer is that we want more from our children than instant obedience, we want them to learn to use judgment and take initiative and, well, think for themselves. Training them with rewards may seem positive and at least better than using threats and punishments. It may seem easy and may get short-term results. But, good strong human relationships do not develop between parents and children when parents treat children like pets who need to be trained.

And yet, people do respond to incentives and behaviors do have consequences. Sometimes people say they are using “logical” or “natural” consequences to teach their children. These are typically euphemisms for a form of punishment – a way to “negatively reinforce” certain behaviors. This is the flip side of reward training. If a child leaves a toy outdoors and it begins to rain, the parent may call it a natural or logical consequence to leave the toy outdoors to be ruined. I call it mean and that is exactly what the child will think of it.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Relationship-based parenting is living in a household with each person giving and getting what they need, including support and encouragement and information. Parents take responsibility for being kind and generous with their children while their their children are growing into kind and responsible people, themselves. The parents do this by BEING kind and generous and responsible with their children. Children learn what they live with. Parents should also give good, clear, and accurate information to help their kids understand how the world works, but they can do that while being kind and helpful, they don’t have to create opportunities for negative lessons to be learned. “I brought your doll in out of the rain; I dried her off and I think she’ll be okay,” versus “You left your doll out in the rain after I’d told you 10 times to bring her in. It is your responsibility and I warned you so I left her there and now she’s ruined.” The first parent has just helped her child along the road to learning thoughtfulness, care of property, and kindness. The second parent has modeled irritation, impatience, and cold-heartedness. Which will the child learn?

Children are not pets to be trained, but young humans to be loved and guided with compassion and kindness. My dog seems to be enjoying her puppy school training sessions. She’s excited and eager. But my children would have felt manipulated, insulted, and controlled and would NOT have responded well.

Do you remember “Silly Pet Tricks?” I hate to mention it, because someone might take me up on it, but I can easily imagine a tv reality show called, “Silly Kid Tricks,” where parents are taught to use positive reinforcement to shape a child into doing some foolish-looking behavior. Let’s not go there. Let’s love and share and model and live our lives with our children and avoid trying to manipulate them into doing tricks for us.

Love, Love, Love

Parents do all kinds of things in the name of love….not all good for their children.

Love is not enough.

But there is a kind of love that is absolutely necessary for successful unschooling, and that is love of learning.

Unschoolers value learning. We look for it everywhere. We crave it.

But, love it gently. Don’t try to force it – not a good idea for learning OR love!



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.

Turn the Lights Off – Nagging

How knowledgeable are you about how much electricity is really used by different appliances? Because – too many parents nag their children over things that are really quite negligible, while they don’t make other changes that would make much larger differences.

Electricity rates vary a lot – average in California, where I live, is about 16 cents per kwh, but in Washington State the average is under 8 cents per kwh.

Okay – so look at the reality. A 1,000 watt window air condition (a
medium size) uses 1 kwh in an hour. So it costs from 8 to 15 cents to run it for an hour or 80 cents to $1.50 to run it for ten hours.

A 100 watt lightbulb costs 1/10th of that – or .8 to 1.5 cents for an hour.  TEN hours of leaving a 100 watt lightbulb on would cost 8 to 15 cents.

If you use compact fluorescent replacements they will cost about 1/4 of that — so about .2 to .4 cents for an hour or 2 to 4 cents for 10 hours.

So – switch to CF lighting – and figure even if he left lights on for the entire month, it would cost a total of about a dollar and a half up to maybe three dollars for the whole month, 24 hours per day.

Is it worth stressing and messing up your relationship over a light bulb?

Maybe you could go to this website – put in your appliances and figure out where you really could save enough money to make it
worthwhile to worry about it?

I know my husband sometimes gets on us about leaving lights on and I sometimes remind him that if he just turns them off when he notices it, that he might save a penny or two and he can also save a negative moment if he just does it without letting it annoy him (or us).

On the other hand, my husband earns most of the money that lets us live this amazing lifestyle and so I try to honor that by using the money carefully. So I’m not saying to encourage waste, I’m saying that you should know how much money you’re really talking about and decide whether it is really worth having hard feelings over it.

Kahlil Gibran from “The Prophet”

Then said a teacher, “Speak to us of Teaching.”
And he said:
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of our knowledge.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.
And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.

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