Monday, November 21, 2011

When unschooling doesn't work

I know there is a lot out there to suggest that child-led learning can be very good.  Here is how my experience went.

My eldest was an usual kid right from the get go.  I remember trying to get him interested in things, to have a passion like all the other little boys.  I borrowed tons of books on trucks, dinosaurs, building, etc but nothing bought a spark to his eyes.  Around 4 years old I tried to do a lot more hands on stuff with him.  I bought out all sorts of craft materials and worked along side him.  We each made a caterpillar out of an egg carton and decorated it.  His didn't even last an hour.  It wasn't what he wanted it to turn out like so he destroyed it.

He then struggled to learn to read or even remember lessons from one day to the next.  After reading Better Late than Early by the Moores I decided to back off and try unschooling, giving him time to follow his own interests.  By this stage I had a 5 year old and a 2 year old and we moved interstate. 

Again I encouraged lots of conversation about the world around us and yet he still was "numb", not overly interested in anything.  My 2 year old absorbed lots.  I guess there is a bright side. 

Add in 2 more babies, 2 interstate moves, big dramas in our family, unemployment, and still resisting lessons and I turned the television on.  I hate that I turned on the box but it is really hard to teach someone who fights you all the way.  On top of everything else going on in our lives I just couldn't handle those daily battles and feeling so useless when he couldn't/wouldn't learn.

For the last 3 years I have continued to try unschooling principles with my other children.  I can say that I don't think it worked in our family.  I know people say that children are very interested to learn but I feel like I have spent a whole lot of time trying to get a spark going where there was no want for it.

So since then my eldest has been diagnosed as having Asperger's Syndrome.  It explains a lot.  Now he does have a passion, Minecraft, and I use it as "bribery" to get him to do his regular school. 

The other boys are "behind".  I think that time left to themselves to learn in a child-led way has only led to brains that want entertaining, that don't know how to process and think.  Even with access to the library and me to answer questions they have not had as good an education as they could have had.

In my opinion a more structured learning method is better, at least as a foundation or kick off point.  If a parent is not leading, pushing even, it is easy for a child to develop lazy habits and not worry about the effort it takes to learn new things.

We are implementing more structure here, at least for morning lessons, and I will be limiting the television a lot more.  It might be a great source of information when you have the History Channel and National Geographic channels but it is only a resource, much like a book.  I have learned that knowing information is a lot different to using information and making connections between bits of information.  A teacher is needed for that purpose.   Kids, well at least my kids, don't do that on their own.

Am I the only one who failed unschooling? I know others who advocate strongly for it but I think that it takes a certain type of family to be successful at it.  Parents need to be passionate about things in their own lives, to be an example of life long learning; they need to be very involved with their kids and be totally on top of what their interests, strengths and weaknesses are; and they do need to give a little push here and there.  Totally child led can be a mistake in my book.

Well, off my soapbox now,


  1. Interesting post. We have always used a semi-structured method and for the last few years have been registered with a DE school. Much of what you mention has been my observation in totally unschooled families along with a lot of very undisciplined children. But you know, even among unschoolers, most of the families I have met have a mixture of structured work. I think my boys would have been much like your eldest as they are not ignited to learn like my girls were. All are so different and so is every family. Praise God. I think it goes to show that we don't necessarily have to follow one particular educator or method, we should proceed as we feel our child/ family needs and as we can manage with all the miriad of events which occur in a normal family year.

  2. As a relatively new homeschooler, I have been reading lots on different styles of homeschoolin. As an ex-teacher, you would think that I would be really structured, but I feel as if the curriculum from the Board of Studies (we are in NSW) is designed for "the average". There is so much junk mileage in there (to steal a phrase from my running!).

    So, in many ways, I am following my children's interests and skills - we are doing a lot more science and technology and maths. We are reading the classics together. We do (not much) art and craft that we actually enjoy.

    That is probably more "electic" than "unschool", but I like that I can relax more and not stress about "gaps". I'm not freaking that we haven't finished a workbook by the end of the term, because that is what I planned it and it hasn't happened. We work at our own pace.

    It probably helps my kids are working above grade - we can afford to be relaxed. I'm sure if was up to them we'd never do any bookwork - so I get them to do some in the morning, but I have widened my view so much as to what constitutes "education" - we learn so much all the time!!! And that is the bit of unschooling/natural learning that I love so much.

  3. I liked hearing more about your approach Ingi. I had wondered if you did bookwork at all with your kids being so bright. It is nice to know that even with "ahead" kids you still think it is good to do bookwork, to "make them" do some each day despite their feelings.

    Ruby, I think I embraced an idea/philosophy too fully in my lack of confidence in what I was trying. Limiting myself to one idea for all my children just because one child was out of the box didn't help us at all. It is only now that I have more confidence in myself as a mum and teacher that I am able to take only what I need from each philosophy.

    I hope that by sharing this that it helps someone who is new to see that there isn't just one way to do home school.

    I do wish someone had told me at the beginning that you can mix it up. Oh well!

    Best wishes

  4. Thanks for your frank comments Jen. We do a mix of things, eclectic I guess, and try to follow the kids interests. I tend to agree that if I wasn't providing some structure and motivation then at least one of my kids would do very little to initiate learning opportunities. All kids are different, and I think it's great that you have tried different things with your kids and changed them when you feel it's not working.

  5. Hey Jen,

    We do bookwork - but I couldn't say everyday (especially at the moment!).

    I wouldn't call us unschoolers - not in the true sense of the word. But I also think there is a misconception that unschoolers don't do bookwork. What they don't do, is follow someone else's plan or curriculum. And that's the bit I take away from unschooling.

    And I guess the great thing about homeschooling (well, one of the great things) is that we can pick and choose what works for us as a family and for the kids as "learners" and to recognise that learning is not just completing bookwork!

  6. Interesting post! I never attempted unschooling as it wouldn't have fit my personality lol! We do CM and due to short lessons etc this allows a lot of free time which I let my dd use to follow her interests. This has worked very well for us.

  7. We have run into this as well, have been Unschooling for 8 years and we have all had enough. My son has Aspergers as well and now that he is 12 he has confronted me about needing structure.

  8. It's interesting reading the more negative experiences of unschooling. We are a family for whom radical unschooling worked but it evolved naturally for us and I think it can't be forced. There are all kinds of reasons it wouldn't work for everyone and I think it's important not to be judgmental about the different ways parents choose to educate their children. My daughter published her own eBook about her experience of being unschooled. During the years she spent totally following her own interests she developed an unusual set of skills and she is uncompromising in her view that she's had the best education she could have had. She's highly literate and very capable. There are many times I find myself turning to her for help in doing things which I can't do. There's a link here to her eBook if anyone would like to check it out:

  9. Thanks Karen for your comment. My eldest is similar in that he has a wide range of variety of skills and they vary in strength according to his abilities. Sadly they don't always match the world's expectations of skills needed for work or further study. It is so hard to put down some of his skills on a resume so an employer could see how great he could be. :(


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