In our modern lives there is a strong focus on achievements, outcomes and overall success. This starts from a very early age with milestones established from birth. Us humans seem to like knowing what’s next; we like the comfort of reaching for a certain standard and achieving it and we especially seem to like seeing that same example in our children.
Unschooling however, takes quite a departure from this school of thought. An adult comfortable with unschooling knows that individuality is important, and that a special human effect called intrinsic motivation keeps us moving forward and constantly adding to our knowledge and experience. Learning is a life-long endevour. The aspect of unschooling most people find quite confronting is this seemingly laissez-faire approach, and the fact that there seems to be no ‘checks’ to make sure unschooling ‘works’. And what they really mean by that, is that they would like to see unschooling tested and measured so that they can feel comfortable with families pursuing this lifestyle.
Now, I can’t fault them for this. It’s our dominant paradigm of thinking and growing in western culture. Our society expects certain things of people at certain ages and stages, and unschooling often flies in the face of that. However, unschoolers don’t do that to be contradictory; we do it because we don’t believe that that spotlight on achievement is necessarily the best way to understand learning.
Instead of focusing on outcomes, unschoolers focus on progress in the individual. And we know that isn’t always going to look linear. Certain knowledge or skills can be achieved in a very stop-start-roundabout fashion if no one is testing you along the way. Unschoolers take away the standards set by society – and this can be an extremely difficult mindset to move into – as we know life is learning and learning is life.
An individual who has the support of an involved and caring adult, and has access to resources and time in the real world, will learn about the world from daily life. Not at the same speed and time as other children who are engaged in other educational systems for sure, but learning all the same. In addition, they’re actually likely to be further involved in particular topics they love, as they have the time to engage with them. This is an aspect of learning that is often missed by those looking in from the outside, and adds another level to the outcomes discussion. Because how can we test learning acquired that isn’t even on the test?!
Often in unschooling families there is more of a naturally evolving focus on living skills, and sociability within the family and wider community at young ages, compared to their academic knowledge. This is because unschoolers are moving with the pace of life itself. The truth is, unschooling children do choose to challenge themselves and improve their understanding, and therefore actually do reach the academic standards set by society such as learning to read when they are ready.
That is where that spectacular – and often misunderstood – intrinsic motivation comes in. It’s there. The effort to challenge oneself does not need to be forced. We all have that desire. But being individuals, this manifests in different ways for different people. And not one is better than the other. As adults, we understand we need all sorts of people with all sorts of skills and knowledge to make the world go round, and that people present their unique abilities in different ways. So why can’t we accept that of children?
I believe expectations of outcomes and standards can be harmful to children. I truly feel that if we adults focus on supporting and facilitating (when asked) instead, we would see major shifts in how children grow and learn. Expecting the same thing from all children because they have reached a certain age has not been beneficial, we can see that easily. Learning is fun and enjoyable and something we all do, and love to do, from birth. A love of learning doesn’t need to be encouraged – it’s already there – we just need to stop trying to control it.