Monday, 2 November 2020

How Unschooling Young People Learn beyond the Field of Vision of their Parents

One of the worries that is often raised by those who don't know about the respectful and enabling nature of unschooling, is that the unschooled young person will not have a chance to explore the world beyond the world of their parents.   This particular criticism is very hard for unschooling families to take seriously, being so dramatically wrong in the experience of so many of us! 

Unschooling parents know that it is their duty as educators to provide a rich range of learning opportunities for their children, but very often the young person somehow finds their own path entirely, pursuing an interest that their parents had never offered and about which their parents know next to nothing. 

Members of the UK Unschooling Network Group provide fascinating, inspiring, diverse testimony to this effect: 

Over the years I tried a structured approach, semi-structured, I tried lists, charts, everything and my son didn't have any interest in anything. When I learned about unschooling and decided to back off a bit, he heard an old song and decided to play the bass. I listened to the song and could barely hear the bass line, my ears went to the lead guitar and vocals, but he was really in tune with the bass. He bought one with his birthday money and taught himself to play it completely on his own. He just played different notes until he found one that sounded the same as the song, then started to find the next one and so on. He's learned loads of songs this way. He also decided to learn to skateboard.


My daughter's fascination with Korean pop led her to a deep and enduring interest in Korean drama - she doesn't seem to just passively watch them either, it's on a deeper level - she takes a very analytical approach to her viewing and has entire notebooks with thoughts on it. It has also led onto a wider interest in Korean culture. The interest in Korean drama started with Korean pop when a friend played her a song.  

Her other great interest that didn't come from me is in Psychology - she picked up a psychology book she saw in Sainsbury's and became very interested in mental health and also criminology from a psychology perspective.

As for my son, I could mention so many! It's a new interest every couple of months - basketball at the moment - this involves playing it most days currently and he also watches/researches online all the rules, how to improve etc.   My
 son said his recent basketball interest came from a memory of a group we used to go to where they did basketball (among lots of sports) - so I'm thinking that kind of did start with me because I suggested the group when they both wanted to try lots of sports?


Mine wanted to learn Mandarin at age 3 and has maintained that interest in China and learning Mandarin, now 11 years old and has an interest in politics and philosophy (he is working towards this GCSE), taught himself magic tricks and illusions and became interested in psychology and how the brain works and has started two small businesses and now set up his own you tube channel for kids. None of which he would have had access to in a school setting.

Oh to add he also has a keen interest in herbs and healing and bushcraft and survival which came from learning ancient history, again none of which would have been available at primary school. Ah and he has had a long standing fascination with space and physics and was invited to be part of the local adult astronomy club where he is an active member. Again not something available in school.


I know nothing about Minecraft or coding. My son has taught himself by experimenting and researching Youtube. Now he is creating his own games in Scratch and is playing and sharing with other Minecraft fans around the world!


Mine has discovered he's very good on a bike and at gymnastics! Neither are hobbies of mine! Also a serious talent for word games (he likes Wordscapes, which gives you a jumble of letters from which you have to make as many words as possible... he's 7 in January and yesterday's words included 'league' and 'receive' and 'eluded' along others!)

An interest in Spongebob and My Little Pony has led to art projects and imaginative story writing plus map creations.  His love of cars and machinery has led to some amazing lego constructions including a combine harvester with hidden engineering and he can recognise many cars and trucks from the shape or light clusters/grill.


We have unschooled for 4 and a half years - my eldest, Daisy, is now 13 and has taught herself sewing, crochet, gymnastics and aerial skills in the garden (and then started going to groups with proper silks and hoops, and qualified instructors, not made up ones in the garden...although she still does this too!).  None of this is anything I know about or have shown an interest in - it's all off her own back. She is even applying for a local performing arts school because she wants to hone her skills and become a dancer. My younger 2 also do lots of garden gymnastics, and whilst they enjoying doing bits and bobs all the time, haven't found any creative hobbies yet apart from drawing and designing the occasional homemade board games.  (Thanks to Louise Gossage). 


Whilst I have been surprised by many of my son’s interests… working towards building his own tree house (that this year I was told, ‘is really an astronomy tower for star gazing’) and his desire to create his own financially successful business from the age of six rank second and first as the most surprising for me. Third would be, and not technically so surprising, cultural celebrations and festivals. 

In terms of cultural celebrations and festivals, my son is being raised amongst a group of women, who know the value of friendship, family, who work hard at their relationships and who model successful interracial relationships - English, Irish, American, Afro-Caribbean, Polish and Welsh (some of which are long-distance). It really isn’t that surprising our friendships have not only led to a language rich environment but also innumerable ways to celebrate each other in culturally appropriate ways.

More surprising though, is his creation of new family traditions and from such simple experiences like eating home-made mince pies while creating environmentally friendly Christmas decorations and watching seasonal family favourite movies while decorating; experiencing Manchester’s Chinese New Year celebrations and watching Jin Long Culture and Performing Arts New Year extravaganza at The Whitworth with Home Ed friends; visiting family friends for T¢usty Czwartek (aka Fat Thursday/doughnut day) and Smigus-Dyngus (aka Wet Monday) to more demanding experiences like planning, budgeting and creating a Thanksgiving celebration for our American neighbours and catering a breakfast feast for a friend’s weekend getaway.

 As a result my son’s interest in cultural celebrations has moved his attention from buying and owning things to an intention of exploring cultural celebrations at a deeper level - leading to the realisation of the impermanence of human existence, time passing and child appropriate ways of demonstrating that understanding. A perfect example of which would be this year’s creative approach to a calendar, where he rebuilds a Lego calendar every month to show the days of the week, number of days each month and celebrations. This month’s (November) depicts his proposed birthday lockdown celebrations, Dia De Los Muertos (thanks to the movies CoCo and The Book of Life) and Guy Fawkes Night. Last month’s focus was the Pagan celebration of Samhain. 


It is my son’s perception that he is a ‘master builder’ (term coined by Lego), which has in no small way made his interest in a tree house bigger (and when I say bigger, I mean Arecibo observatory sized cum Harry Potter style) and his ability to design and build things from an early age. Meaning my son’s ability to build a tree house is no surprise as it can be tracked back to his early use of Duplo and wooden blocks to build the tallest towers from age two through to… using cardboard boxes to help build a size appropriate castle fort with working drawbridge at age three to… creating the most intricate Lego builds to go with his oral adventure stories from age five to… reading book series and movies like the Captain Underpants series at age six which began the tree house’s adaption of form and function to… the development of a wildlife garden (at the front of our new home) at age seven and its subsequent redesign to increase wildlife friendly plants, habitats and natural materials at age eight where natural materials options were considered for his master build.

 To some degree it is also not so surprising that his tree house idea has repeatedly been improved upon by his everyday life experiences. Like his Forest School experiences out and about discovering the wonders and delights of all that nature has to offer (plus the best trees for his idea); his environmental concerns for the planet from current affairs and a low income family ethos of refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle or repair. Additionally, his growing loving of literature, movies, Lego (e.g. Harry Potter series) and this year’s pandemic lockdown resulting in nightly neighbourhood walks (whilst observing the phrases of the moon and discovering the history behind them) has organically led to the adaptation of his tree house into an astronomy tower. A space, all of his own, for us to watch the sky at night he told me. Just like when he first did at his local astronomy club age seven, where he also got to observe and touch an actual meteor.

What is immensely surprising to me, is not only has his interest in building a tree house never waned despite the passing years (it was 2017 when he planted a tree seed and declared this was the tree he would use to build his tree house) but also, how each new layer of knowledge and understanding gained has been connected to adapt his build to take into consideration the builds impact upon its surrounding environment. 

 Last but by no means least and the most surprising of all, is my son’s determination to build a business. Surprising, as I have never wanted to be a business owner, am old school - I prefer to work my hours, get paid and head home and most importantly, I do not consider myself in any way shape or form entrepreneurial or creative. I am a product of a generation that was raised to keep the status quo and follow traditions. 

 Maybe not such a surprise then, that as my son has had to endure far too many significant changes in his early years (the worst of which was his enrolment in a school’s nursery/reception class that was in no way suitable to my son’s needs or interests), he now is attempting to secure his future needs and interests by exploring business ideas. Not just a pipe dream, as my son is continuously exploring business options. These initially centred on creating an irresistible confectionary. A confectionary that is not only unique but also has an appealing selling factor and price point. A confectionary that has been trialed and market researched amongst family, friends and neighbours and was ready (pre-pandemic) for the next step in bringing to his local makers market. 

 For my son, life is learning and most importantly, life has no limits when it comes to exploring his interests.


Started learning Japanese at age 9 (ish) due to interest in Pokemon. The game Ghost of Tsushima has also led to interest in Japanese history, geography, language and studying samurai and wanting to make own samurai armour. He’s also building video games and animations on Dreams (this is all my 14 yr old) - Home Ed for 9 years, Unschooled for about 6 years. 

Eldest learning violin because of enjoyment of video game music (Last of Us, Assassins Creed).


My child sat and told us all about super novas, what they are and how they form. He then went on to discuss black holes and the big bang theory. (he is 7 and this has never been formally taught). He very often comes up with little gems such as this.

He is learning to play the keyboard and is now composing his own songs and writing down the notes so he can replay the song.

He loves to read for pleasure as he has never been forced. To him it's something he has naturally picked up from time spent together. I believe once they can read, they can learn anything they wish to. He has been reading chapter books from the age of five and has an extensive vocabulary.

Through reading he has naturally picked up homophones, suffixes, prefixes, grammar, punctuation etc. He naturally understands past and present verbs and has good comprehension of the English language, well above his expected level for his age.

His mental maths is amazing and he can work out how much he has spent in a shop and how much change he needs back. He has a love for maths.

He loves making his own comics and stories and will choose to do this for himself. He has also started his own fact book that he fills with anything that interests him. He writes with purpose and demonstrates his abilities.

His spelling is above his years thanks to reading, Minecraft and using WhatsApp. He also plays a game called Scribblenauts.

He completed ks1 and ks2 science over a year ago just through his natural curiosity and life. He has a far better understanding than what would be taught in schools and some of the knowledge he has isn't taught until GCSE age. The same goes for his geography skills.

He loves history thanks to Horrible Histories and the jousting at Warwick castle.

He does far more physical activity every day. He does formal swimming and gymnastic lessons but as he is free to move about during the day he will naturally run, dance and move.

At first I naturally worried as a parent if he was doing enough. I keep a track of the NC and ticked it off as he demonstrated his knowledge. I soon realised that he was learning above and beyond his 'expected' levels and that children naturally learn in an environment that allows them to freely explore.


We feel very positive about our children (ages 13-18) because each feels completely engaged with what they are doing. There's room for change in that of course, but right now they are focused and 'working' long hours without needing prompts from anyone but themselves. If I think about it, I only put equivalent hours into my profession when I felt grounded and completely enthralled by it.

The eldest is a self-taught musician. This was a surprise because he showed no particular interest in music beyond skipping round the kitchen table when we had music playing – which is often! At 14 he asked for a guitar and has not put it down since. He was I am sure inspired by the example of a first cousin, also unschooled, who is a master bass guitar player and much else, including a tutor and music producer – he started with guitar hero and also never looked back. We'd always had instruments lying around the house but I had an idea it was worth learning how to listen to music before learning to read it. I remember being put off music totally by reading classical scores and exam taking.

The other two are ballet dancers. It's a gruelling training, daily dance pilates and classes and unremitting fitness – every muscle is accounted for. It might sound as though we put them up to it, but actually our daughter asked to try it aged 8 and then her older brother thought it looked fun and gave it a go too. In character they are remarkably different, but they have the same physical intuitiveness and love for the music and performance. We have been logistics and on a steep learning curve into a world of dance that we knew nothing about.

A point to note, in our area there are as many male dancers (actually more) in the home educating community as there are female. It is an important point to acknowledge I believe, because elements of discrimination and sexual politics around masculinity would not reveal the same parity in schools. I believe many boys at school are put off dance because they will be laughed at or bullied for it.

It is a source of daily wonder for us that our children are so unremittingly motivated and full of energy for what they do. It is a clear affirmation of the unschooling model. We have let them find their own way, all the way listening, supporting, offering. We never taught them to read and spell and yet their language skills are exceptional - they have spent so much time around interesting adults and also a range of people who have inspired them, both young and old. The speed at which they learn is due to the fact they have not been forced to break their own learning interests to suit an imposed school curriculum. They learn and it sticks, their brains are ready.

If I think about the unschooling families around, there is a huge amount to be celebrated – I am in awe of what they are already doing as young adults – students at college, tutor at college, own IT business, silks artist, physics genius, dog walking business, own vegan food take-away company, musician, choreographer, film maker. That's just the close lot of friends I am thinking of.

I also want to acknowledge the importance of computers in the children's lives. They are tools they use in a very refined way. They found this out by being trusted to do so. I could write for hours of course about what they have learned from them, but also and this is still a massive learning process, how they use them for gaming – huge skills acquired, friends from around the globe, excitement, hilarity and beautiful moments of unwinding from their full-on working days.


Japanese bullet trains - from age 2 - Shinkansen in particular. Actually any bullet trains.We know the names, speeds and countries of all bullet trains at age 5. Oh and he came up with an alternative electric vehicle charging approach during play with his hot wheels. Initially was using my circular knit needles as charge nozzles then built a charging garage where the roof charges parked vehicles out of a shoe box at age 4. All for his hot wheels. 


My son is passionate about football and sport in general. That has led to learning all about mindset, nutrition, tactics and so much more. He reads adult books about the subjects and then finds another book for the counter argument or opinion. Being at home means he can do his own football training during the day and go for a run whenever he likes. He is a very motivated and hardworking individual.


We have really embraced unschooling during lock down and now at the end of our 4th year of home Ed. I've been teetering on the edge but felt lock down needed to be entirely child led and unschooling.

My daughter just turned 12 and has designed and created her own business this last 8 months. Her baking and cooking skills are off the scale easily as good as mine and probably better. She's designed and planned a range of foods and chocolates and has sold loads to friends and neighbours. The shy child who won't talk to anyone enlisted a friend and went round knocking to see if anyone wanted Halloween treats and sold £15 worth, a few people paid her double because they were so impressed with how good they were. (she didn't tell me she was knocking on doors which as we had moved to tier three at the time was rather cringy!) but also amazing because it just showed how capable she is when she's really embracing her natural skills and talents and passions.

She's clearly focused on what she wants as a food related business, has been studying and gained certificates in food hygiene and her project work is easily more detailed and thorough than my food tech gcse and I got a B!

My son is obsessed with lego and has had congratulations from lego about his own designs. His long term dream is to design for them and at the age of 9 has vision and skill I can only imagine. He has now turned that into writing and drawing and his reading has appeared out of nowhere.

My youngest is nearly 6. But through this he has suddenly showed he can read and write really well which just seemed to appear!


We still very new to it, but my 6yo's absolute favourite activity is imaginative play with her stuffed lions. She is a big Lion King fan, but as we are playing up to 3h every single day, the story lines change to incorporate Frozen and every other story she's come into contact with, to fantastical storylines that I am sure could be made into books. As we are playing in my native language, she has also learned so many new words and expressions in it. When she went to school, this type of play was forgotten and we simply would not have time for it.


My 3 year old has a tattoo fascination. It started with watching Moana. She was intrigued by Maui having a body which tells his story. She now uses face paints to make her own stories on her body. It has helped her explore everything from family members and identities to regional customs. She can be shy with strangers but if she sees they have a tattoo she asks them what their story is. It's an incredible ice breaker for her and the adults are all pleasantly surprised to have a meaningful conversation with a 3 year old.


My daughter fell ill and could not move around or do the exercise she loved, so she picked up a guitar...6 years later she has galloped through the grades and is now studying for her Diploma and looking forward to music college. Had she been at school, that would not have happened, as she would have been forced into doing other things with her time. As it was, she dedicated her days to being better skilled at what she loved; her whole timetable (self imposed) was arranged around her one true love of guitar. That is how professionals are made: they self-shape, motivate and dedicate.


Figure skating. My daughters love it. They also do dance, gymnastics and climbing - mostly in order to improve their skating skills. I have the coordination of a confused giraffe.

My 12 yr old son loves maths and science and is studying for his GCSEs, because he wants to 🥰 They are not subjects I excel at, but I love facilitating his learning!


My son is 11 and very recently has become fascinated by reptiles. I think this may partly have come from watching Australia Zoo on YouTube. We have spent the last few weeks researching reptiles, and visited a reptile shop a couple of times to have a look. We talked about nocturnal vs diurnal, ease of handling, whether we really wanted a freezer full of frosted mice (!) and finally decided to buy a blue tongued skink which we went to collect yesterday. We have set up the viviarium, he has prepared food for it, we have looked into the best thermometers to buy and it has settled in happily (if reptiles can be happy.......)


Making kombucha and cooking.


Minecraft led my son (then aged 12) to become fascinated with architecture around the world - different styles and so on. He found iconic buildings from around the world designed in Minecraft, had a go himself, and then this led to him finding these buildings on google maps. He then started looking into various architectural styles across countries and over time, and investigated reasons why those styles were popular/practical etc. He found a fascination with “brutalist architecture” (which tied in with his interest in the Soviet Union and communist era). We found a company online that provides templates for paper models of that style of architecture and he has made quite a few. Discovered which buildings in London were of this style and went to see them, as well as other interesting buildings, looking at their age, purpose, materials used, etc.


Horse riding, space and paleontology.


Spiders - tarantulas to be specific! My youngest now 10, has been fascinated with bugs and spiders since coming out of school at 5 and adores learning about them. About a month ago he got his first Mexican Red Leg tarantula. The guy in the shop was so impressed with all his knowledge about them, husbandry and even knowing their Latin names. I am so not a spider person lol! But, he is absolutely sure he wants to be an arachnologist so I will continue to support his journey - even if that means having a tarantula or two in the house 😉 (He's currently planning his next one for Xmas lol!)


Thanks to home education/unschooling, my son developed his own physio/OT and SALT programme. In school my son was spending time working on things his body and brain were not ready for, he has cerebral palsy and anxiety. Once out of school he began to chose activities which both fired his imagination and provided exactly the kind of repetitive physical movements he needed. Firstly he taught himself guitar from watching his favorite singer playing and singing along for literally hours each day for 18 months. We saw big improvements to his fine motor skills, strength and speech clarity. Next he focused on football, again spending 6 hours a day practicing his skills. He went from frequently tripping to a confident mover after this 6 month passion started to wane.


We've been home educating for 2 years and unschooling for the last 18 months. My 13 year old son was in the middle of setting up a business when lockdown came along. Unable to contact potential customers he announced that he was writing an animation TV series. He hasn't stopped writing since. He can bring in all the subjects he loves, animation, comedy and history. The research he has done for his writing has practically covered every subject even maths. He's just about to do his first GCSE exam this afternoon in business studies.


My eldest (17) is now at college studying Health and Social. When at home over the last few years she appeared to spend a lot of time just watching TV repeats and Youtube Vloggers.

She was actually studying health and social care in depth. She was exploring other people's experiences of family life, and raising a family and all the social issues involved with that.

Rewatching and rewatching shows such as Call the Midwife and House, and following up to know more about medical jargon, different conditions, treatments, and social issues.

My youngest has taught me that an interest is not always what you think it is. She seemed to be interested in lots of things - leaves, rocks, owls, most recently moss etc. But my attempts to follow up fell flat - because she wasn't actually interested in their biology or the science etc. Rather she has an all encompassing passion for visual and textural elements which feed into her art. All the disparate things that have caught her interest weren't actually separate at all.


Reptiles, marine life and birds. Oh my life the birds! Originally nothing interested me less than birds, but my 10 year old can tell you from a great distance what a bird is, whether it's endemic, native or introduced, whether or not it's flightless, nocturnal, diurnal or crepusculer, what it eats, what size it's eggs are, whether it's endangered...even what it sounds like and how it reproduces. She always has her bird watching book in her bag and her binoculars around her neck. Suddenly I don't find birds so uninteresting as you can't ignore the immense passion that flows from her. Although they still all look like pigeons to me. We've spent this year in New Zealand where they have an incredibly rich ecology with a massive amount of unique, endemic bird life and she soaks up any scrap of information about birds (and Tuatara!) everywhere we visit. This in turn feeds her knowledge of ecosystems, Maori language, humans impact on the really is incredible.


Our daughter has been home educated all her life. She has directed and led her own learning with me along her side to help facilitate.  

As a family we offered many resources and learning experiences to all our children, but nothing was compulsory, we did not have any timetables or follow any particular curriculum. Our children were instead encouraged to follow their interests and passions.

Our daughter's dream is to pursue a career in musical theatre and to that end she has and still does spend the majority of her time working towards that goal. That goal does not include meaningless GCSEs or any kind of 'just in case' learning, but rather mastering the skills required to pursue that dream.

Her next step, musical theatre college, where 1000's of young people apply for a handful of places.

The results...

5 auditions at musical theatre colleges across the UK

5 places offered!

Decision made - off to London to study in September.

It has been a privilege to accompany my daughter on her home education journey, I have enjoyed and learnt so much with her along the way. And as that chapter draws to a close I look forward with much excitement to seeing where the next stage of her journey takes her.


Our son has been home educated all his life. He has directed and led his own learning, with me along by his side to help facilitate.  

As a family we offered many resources and learning experiences to all our children, but nothing was compulsory, we did not have any timetables or follow any particular curriculum. Our children were instead encouraged to follow their interests and passions.

As a small child, he appeared to be the least academic of our children and liked to fill his days with Lego, construction kits, K'nex, Roblox, minecraft, marble runs and similar types of play.

He did not learn to read until almost 8 years old and only decided to start getting to grips with writing at 12 years old.  However, he then chose to take GCSE maths, physics and computer science a year early, completed English, History and AS level computing a year later and then went onto to college to further study computing.

Today is results day!

I'm so proud of our boy, that despite a difficult end to the course studies with the outbreak of COVID - he has achieved a ...

*** Triple Distinction Star in his BTEC level 3 Extended Diploma in Computing *** 🤩

As one of the college's 'top students' (their words) - he has also been asked to contribute to their press release.

It has been a privilege to accompany my son on his home education journey, watching him discover, learn and grow, developing his own unique style. 

I have enjoyed and learnt so much with him along the way.  He has taught me so much about how children learn and flourish, if we just trust them to guide us.

I look forward with much excitement to see where he goes on the next stage of his journey.


Thank you to all the members of the UK Unschooling Network who provided the above testimony. 

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Welcome to the UK Unschooling Network Blog

...a blog linked to the Facebook group of the same name.

This blog is for anyone who is interested to know more about Unschooling. 

Unschooling is a word that was coined to describe an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities, whole life experiences and successful family relationships as the best way to learn and thrive.

The Facebook group linked to this blog is for parents who are interested in home educating their children though unschooling.   If you are a parent interested in unschooling and would like to join the Facebook group, please do apply by writing to one of the administrators of the group, explaining why you wish to join.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Challenging the Notion of Arbitrary v. Non-arbitrary Limits

In the UK Unschooling Network, we take the view that if unschooling is to keep up with new developments, eg: in learning theory, epistemology, (and yes, there has been developments in this in the last decade), ethics, neuroscience and lessons learnt from the practice of unschooling, the theory should always be open to the adoption and incorporation of the best possible ideas.

Of course, we won't throw away our current best theories for worse ideas, and indeed our principles haven't changed much since we wrote them in about 2016, (though we have added a bit on childism).

Despite holding on tightly to our best ideas, we will take on board better information, that contains better explanatory power:

As a side note, this concept of explanatory power being about preferring the theory that is hardest to vary, is, to our knowledge, THE latest development in epistemology. How to chose the best explanation out of a bunch of competing explanations is explained here - a great TED talk of huge value for everyone.

Anyhow, this open approach to unschooling theory fits with other good theories of how knowledge grows, and is similar in many regards to the scientific method, though of course, philosophical ideas such as unschooling cannot be falsified as you would test a scientific idea:
So why is this all a pre-amble to the discussion of the validity of arbitrary v. non-arbitrary limits. Well, the thing is, in keeping unschooling theory open to critique, we implicitly acknowledge that even our seemingly best ideas (unschooling theory) may not be right, ie: we can never be sure that our ideas are the best most truth-like ones. This of course, makes sense, given the iron barrier between reality and the representation of it in our brains (and all that quite aside from the truly weird real nature of reality - quantum physics and all that).

So logically given our uncertain grasp of the nature of reality, we must accept that we cannot be sure of the boundary between arbitrary and non-arbitrary limits.

You might be asking, "Really? What is the point of all this?" Well, the danger of assuming that we know the difference between arbitrary and non-arbitrary limits is that it may well mean that in assuming a limit non-arbitrary, we fail to look for ways around it.

Edison had to test thousands and thousands of materials, including over 6,000 types of plant growths, before he found that the best substance for a filament was carbonized cotton thread.
There are times we have to keep going and really work at breaking down the notion of non-arbitrary. It prompts us to be creative about solving problems, even if this involves merely a change of mindset.

So how can we decide if our practice is unschooling or not?

One key characteristic of unschooling that we make in this group is not between eliminating arbitrary limits and acquiescing helplessly in the face of non-arbitrary limits.  Rather we strive to find a way to tackle all limits one way or another, whether this be through solving a problem in a radically new way, or simply through a change of mindset about the problem. 

One other key determining distinction that demarcates the practice of unschooling from not unschooling is that unschoolers strive to be non-coercive. They do this because they recognise that coercion inhibits learning, rationality and creativity. 

Even better, unschooling is not just about that - avoiding coercion is just a baseline. Unschooling is also about building loving connection, respect and trust, and about striving to bring joy to the world.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

UK Network Principles of Unschooling

1. Respect
We focus on understanding and connection. We recognise that a child’s viewpoint, however it is expressed, is to be valued and considered important.

2. Freely Chosen, Supported Learning
We strive to create a safe, nourishing and supportive environment where the child's freely chosen learning can flourish. We are our children’s partners in learning and supporters of their interests and passions. We seek to offer choices that will meet the needs and desires of our children but we understand if a child does not want to take up these opportunities. We recognise that children learn best when they can learn at the pace that suits them.

3. Learning and Unschooling
Individuals learn using a wide range of methods: implicit and explicit, intuitive and rational. Learning happens when information is presented in many different ways: by chance, by the presence of a deliberately created, rich learning environment, by demonstration or by the offer of new information. The key distinguishing features of learning in unschooling are that the learner is self-motivated and that the information is relevant to the learner.

4. A Variety of Learning Settings and Types of Information
We recognise that should the learner be interested, there can be value in all manner of sources of information, from shopping, cooking and eating to video games, to walks in the woods, to a text book. We also recognise that people learn more effectively when they are able to mix with those who interest them, irrespective of age or any other artificially enforced barrier and that learning can be a co-operative as well as a competitive venture. We see the value in real-world, contextualized learning rather than abstracted school-based knowledge. As long as learning is freely chosen by the learner, it is unschooling, whether it be informal, incidental, inferred from inexplicit example, social, private, conversational or responsively structured.

5. Coercion Limits Learning.
We understand that learning does not happen effectively when one person attempts to impose it upon other person against their will. All learning is initiated by the learner since any growth of knowledge will first require activity in the mind of the learner. Information cannot simply be forced into the mind of the other. We define coercion as "being forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind, thereby limiting the capacity for rationality and creativity". For the reason that coercion inhibits learning, we strive to avoid it. Unschooling parents also seek to help their children to resolve any internal conflicts (self coercion) that may arise in the child by seeking creative solutions that will reduce such conflicts.

6. Partnerships
We seek solutions to problems so that family members do not have an outcome imposed upon them against their wishes. In other words, we strive to avoid imposing unwanted limits and instead to try to find solutions that suit everyone.

7. The Balance of Support and Freedom
Respecting the desires and rights of a child involves being attentive to the child’s needs and desires and prepared to answer questions and offer information. It is not laissez-faire parenting, a lack of involvement or neglect. It also does not mean that the adult should sacrifice their freedom and happiness to support the child’s, but rather should be about seeking to maximise freedom and happiness for all. We are also aware that partnering a child in a sensitive and responsive way does not mean being intrusive or overly involved.

8. Humility about our Ideas
We realise we need to be alert for mistakes in our thinking and in particular to be aware of the possibility of false assumptions that we may have acquired from our own childhoods, the prevailing culture or simply as a result of human nature (eg: errors made as a result of confirmation or availability biases). We seek to correct misconceptions by staying open to new ideas and constantly testing the validity of our ideas against reality, as far as we can know it.

9. Love, Trust, Honesty, Optimism and Challenge in the Family
We seek to build honest, trusting, loving relationships in the family through all of the above. Families should be places where ideas can be challenged, mistakes easily admitted and where people do not get disheartened by failure, but rather see it as a useful way forward, and are optimistic about finding solutions.

10. Advocacy on Behalf of Children
We acknowledge that many of the societies that we live in have a very different view of parent-child relationships from the principles expressed above. We seek to promote and normalize within our societies, the idea that children are full, complete and equal human beings, deserving of the same level of respect and as many as possible of the same freedoms that are afforded to adults. Indeed, we see the concept of Adultism as being as important as Feminism.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Unschooling and Boundaries, Limits and Rules

In The UK Unschooling Network Facebook group, we ask that members examine the concepts of boundaries, limits and rules so that they have a good understanding of the issues involved.

A note on terminology:

 The words 'boundaries', 'rules' and 'limits' may mean broadly the same sort of thing and may therefore be used interchangeably. However they may also be used convey subtly different ideas. Rather than getting caught up in an ultimately fruitless discussion about definitions, we urge readers to simply strive to understand what the writer means.

Boundaries, Limits and Rules:

At first glance, it could look complicated and this because boundaries, rules or limits can be both good and bad. Boundaries (limits) are both necessary for all healthy relationships and for people's mental good health and are therefore a necessary element of unschooling, but they can also be completely anathema to unschooling. How to know the difference?

When are boundaries, limits and rules compatible with unschooling?

Unschooling boundaries, limits and rules are those which make sense to all those involved, and all involved are happy to abide by them completely freely. So, if a parent or child suggests a rule, eg: “as this is a shared space, could everyone please put their shoes in the shoe box so we don't fall over them all the time”, if all participants agree that this is transparently sensible and are freely happy to abide by that rule, then it is completely unschooling.

Further, a boundary, limit or rule, being understood by all concerned for the purpose it serves, (eg: to respect the privacy of another), would not be an inflexible rule delivered by diktat, but would rather be something that carries explanatory force, would be up for discussion by both parties and would be mutable if new information came up.

When are boundaries and rules not compatible with unschooling?

Boundaries that would not be compatible with unschooling are those that are imposed against the will of the other person.

Let’s use an example of a parent who is not unschooling who tries to impose a rule that the child only watch an hour of TV a day. Of course this rule is extremely unlikely to arise in an unschooling family but the unschooling nature of the rule is only fully confirmed at the point at which the child does not agree with the parent that this is a sensible rule. A rule is only definitively not unschooling when there someone does not agree with it. Not understanding the rule on some level, either rationally or emotionally or both, means that the child’s learning is inhibited. This is anti-educational and is not unschooling!

To compound the damage to learning, this sort of boundary is likely to prevent the child learning other information that is precluded by the boundary.

Sensible unschooling boundaries and what happens if these are breached:

We each set our own natural boundaries, whether we realise it or not. These can be thought of as the physical space between and around people, but also the emotional space. Both of these natural boundaries usually grow between child and parent as the child gets older and more independent and capable. An unschooling parent will make every effort to respect these boundaries as part of the unschooling process. Respecting these boundaries will mean that the relationship can be trusting and safe and through having experience of a healthy relationship, a child will know should their boundaries be infringed. This will almost certainly be a useful skill in life.

Conversely, parents who fail to recognise their child's boundaries and repeatedly breach them are not only not unschooling, they may also cause damage to the child's mental health and to their relationship. The child can feel unsafe and untrusting, even losing faith in their own ability to set healthy boundaries.

Examples of parental breaching of a child's natural boundaries could be:

 - entering the child's personal space (e.g. bedroom) without the child's permission.
 - reading the child's private journal
 - insisting on a discussion that the child does not want to have.

These sorts of boundaries are therefore worth respecting and are essential components of unschooling.

What to do if there is a disagreement about the merits of a boundary:

In the situation that a boundary is not welcomed and is not understood, there are various ways that an unschooling family can set out to solve this problem. Given that parents bear the responsibility to educate their children, it is their duty to seek out consensual solutions, though any participant may come up with a solution. Family members may have to be very creative - may really need to push themselves to think outside the box in order to come up with a solution with which all are happy. This is sometimes difficult, but this is, at least in part, what the Facebook group The UK Unschooling Network is for: to test unwanted boundaries to see if they really are non-arbitrary or not, and to seek new solutions that would be consensual.

It is amazing what a little bit of creative thinking and the "hive mind" can achieve, so if you are stuck with an apparently non-arbitrary boundary, ask away!

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Unschooling Evolution

The following question has been asked quite a few times in various places, so it might be worth addressing more fully. The question is:

Should unschooling theory be a fixed entity, or should it allow for changes?

In the UK Unschooling Network, we have a set of core principles which describe how we currently define unschooling. (See this post for these). We take these seriously and ask that people strive to understand them. We adopted these principles because had they survived various critiques, and because they seemed to carry the strongest explanatory force and fit.

Whilst these principles bear a considerable resemblance to unschooling as it was originally conceived, it is arguable that they may not be exactly the same, and they may actually diverge more from other variations of unschooling that have arisen since the early days. Is it right that this sort of mutation should happen?

There are arguments to be made for keeping unschooling just the same as it ever was. Firstly, a fixed identity is safe, consoling, stable and comfortable. You know where you’re at with it and you know what you’re doing. A fixed public identity for unschooling was also pretty necessary in the early days. Unschooling was such a revolutionary idea in the 70s, 80s and even the 90s, that it could have been so easily just snuffed out. It had to defend itself against all-comers all the time, and it needed, at least in public, an immutable identity in order to be able to preserve itself at all.

However, there have been some perhaps less honorable reasons why unschooling theory got stuck. A few unschooling activists and theorists started defending their own territory, drawing lines of battle, insisting that their theory was the best and they often did this without giving due thought to the actual value of other ideas. This probably happened because they had skin the game, groups to admin, books to sell, etc. They found it profitable to be the big “I am” about how to unschool a child and they didn’t want their books to end up in a remaindered pile. So new ideas were often not permitted except those that were generated by the so called these “experts” and members were thrown off groups if they dared suggest a tweak to a theory that had been generated by the Big Cheese.

Others wanted to keep the least efficacious version of unschooling theory in place so that they could attack it more easily. It would be easier to denigrate if it hadn’t adapted.

Less venally, there is another seemingly better argument for why unschooling should remain the same. This could be summarised as the precautionary principle. Given that you have a good thing, why mess with it? Let’s all do no harm. However, there are problems with the precautionary principle.

Firstly, pre-existing ideas may not offer the very best solutions to pre-existing problems. Worse, they might not be able to cope when new and different, more challenging problems arise. This may be because with the rapid pace of change in the modern world, new problems will be thrown up all the time: we didn’t have the internet and AI around when unschooling was born, for example, but also new problems may arise because even good solutions like unschooling, even when practiced perfectly will produce a new order of problems. So if you get stuck in the precautionary principle, you won’t find good solutions to these old and new problems.

What’s more, theory that becomes ossified will probably die a death because others will develop better solutions that do work, that spread and thrive. That’s how the market in ideas works. Less good solutions die a death. Better solutions thrive.

To overcome the precautionary principle, you need to weigh the harm you are currently causing by having a less good theory to the harm you might cause if you cock up with experimenting with new ideas. If you can experiment with new ideas so that failures only have trivial effects then the precautionary principle is almost certainly a bad one, since the on-going harm will never be solved if you continue to abide by it.

What with the pace of change, and the issue of potentially not having the best solutions, there are a lot of reasons to think that if unschooling is to thrive, it is essential that it remain capable of adaptation, and indeed a lot of current evolutionary theory would support this hypothesis. Tim Harford in his book “Adapt” is excellent on all of this.

To summarise his argument: the problems we (including unschoolers) face are complex. In fact they are WAY too complex to be solved by so-called experts. Indeed, according to Harford, experts are actually only very marginally better at solving problems than anyone else. Harford then provides loads of examples about what happens to things that can’t adapt, (ie: they die out). eg: Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012 because it missed the digital revolution. Blockbuster managed the DVD to CD revolution but failed to take the hand of Netflix when it was offered, and that eventually killed it. There are loads of similar examples and this because the world is a complex, constantly changing place and we can’t necessarily predict what the next problem will be or be certain that our previous solutions will solve a new problem.

Harford then goes on to explain that the only way to get to good solutions is to try stuff out, see if it works and if it does, to incorporate these effective solutions into the way problems are solved and to keep doing this.

So should evolutionary theory apply to unschooling?

It’s worth recalling that unschooling never started out as an immutable body of knowledge. The term “Unschooling” was adopted in the 70s but it didn’t come out as a fully formed package of fixed ideas, but rather was a hodge-podge of tentative suggestions as to how to solve problems that were mostly about authoritarian schooling and rote learning pedagogy. Sometimes these solutions worked, sometimes they didn’t. The good ones that mostly worked formed the basis of unschooling. So the fact is that evolution is actually already built into the construction of unschooling theory.

Related to this point, in the early days, it was often hard to tell unschooling theory apart from a lot of other practices that were called something else, like autonomy respecting education or child-led education, etc. Writers, theoreticians and activists took good ideas from one another quite happily and often improved their practice in the process.

It’s also worth considering the fact that evolutionary theory is integral to this group’s version of unschooling theory and practice itself. In the principles, we urge unschoolers to “remain open minded and to constantly test the validity of our ideas against reality, as far as we can know it” and also that “families should be places where ideas can be challenged, mistakes easily admitted and where errors are seen as a natural part of learning and a useful way forward.”

The next question might be:

At what point does unschooling become something other than itself?

One response could be: Unschooling started out as an evolving, improving set of theories and this is how it came to be a thing at all. There is merit in returning to this notion. By being open to challenge and evolution, a body of wisdom such as unschooling can refine itself, keep on improving and therefore remain resilient or “antifragile”.

This question is also like asking “how long is a piece of string?” or perhaps “when does a wolf become a dog?” I’ve just read one of those heartwarming stories about the rescue and rehoming of an animal, genetically 75% wolf, 35% cent dog. It behaved like a dog, but looked mostly wolfish. I would have called it a wolf myself but it isn’t a terribly interesting question really. What really mattered was the actual character and nature of the animal. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Those who say “But that is not unschooling” might try to argue that they are worried about preserving the name of unschooling so that things can be properly identified. Honestly this makes little sense. Paypal was originally a cryptography company, for example. Apple, at one point, was making portable CD players. However, the public didn’t become impossibly confused when these companies started doing slightly different things. Their world didn’t fall apart. Rather the public loved the fact that changes these Apple, Paypal etc made unlocked new dimensions of success - heights that would never have been reached if these companies had stayed on the original course. Change didn’t mean that these companies had to change identities. Change was part of their identity.
So what does lie behind the criticism that unschooling cannot evolve in the search for better solutions? It is highly likely that rather than concerning themselves with preserving the identity of unschooling, many of these sorts of critics are either trying to keep their books and groups relevant or else are trying to trap unschooling in its most unfavorable version so that they can criticise it more easily.

When unschooling shouldn't change: 
Of course there will be theories that are so ridiculously contradictory that they really would not be unschooling! Any idea that is less good and does not withstand criticism can be just ignored. But new ideas that carry explanatory force and fit with other good unschooling theories should surely be adopted, as they will solve problems more effectively.

So, in the Network there is the benchmark: we have principles which we ask members to respect. They have been thought and argued about and have stood the test of time. They carry explanatory force and fit and they have worked for many families. We won’t change them for ideas that are less good. Indeed many of these less good ideas will have already been discussed at length, been found wanting and have not been adopted. It is not worth, for example, rehashing the argument about unschooling v. radical unschooling. We have been there, done that, and the response is in the files in the Network under the title "Is this group about unschooling or radical unschooling.

However, we are not immune to thinking that if other good theory comes along that has better explanatory force and fit than a competing theory we currently use, we will adapt! Unschooling theory has and would evolve for the better argument and this because we want the very best version of unschooling that there can possibly be so that we can offer the very best education to young people.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

A Suitable Education

A beautifully presented new blog which aims to pull together

"evidence and information from a wide variety of sources in order to show the bigger picture about how children learn, the factors which are relevant to determining the nature of a ‘suitable education’... and what involvement the state should have in that."

Essential reading for those new to alternative forms of learning.