Radical Unschooling - No Rules, Just Principles

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This article discusses the philosophy of home schooling - but not just any old home schooling - Radical unschooling. What is it? Where did it come from? Does it work? These are all questions I've tried to address in this article.

Submitted: March 16, 2016

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Submitted: March 16, 2016



Radical Unschooling.

No Rules, Just Principles.

Radical unschooling or RU, first came onto my radar whist random channel hopping one afternoon (for research purposes of course.)  The mother in question Kim Constable, described how RU worked for her.  As a parent and all round nosy person, I was intrigued by this concept, so a basic Google search led me to discover more about this controversial subject.

Whilst delving into the realms of John Holt, Dayna Martin and Sandra Dodd, to name a few of America’s RU advocates, I discovered that there are two terms being used and there is a slight, but significant, difference between the two.  Dayna Martin; an activist, educator and author on RU, explains the difference between them; unschooling is essentially allowing and trusting your child to learn what they need to by playing and following their interests, this is supported and encouraged by a parent who is engaged and involved.  Radical unschooling, however, extends this child-led philosophy to all areas of a child’s life; bedtimes, food, screen time – anything that is usually controlled by the parent.

The term ‘unschooling’ is linked to American educator – John Holt in the 1970s.  As a teacher, he had first-hand experience of what he believed to be, the failings of the school system and began to advocate home schooling.  This then progressed onto unschooling, whereby Holt felt that children did not need to be forced into learning; they would learn naturally if allowed the freedom to follow their own interests with resources in place when they need them.  This way of thinking amassed supporters from North America and now has around two million followers’ although this number does include traditional homeschooling. 

But what about Radical Unschooling?  Again this is big in the US, but not quite so well known in the UK.  A reason for this could be because the parents supporting and using RU don’t shout about it because of the potential backlash.  In fact, there are a number of ‘closed group’ (meaning you have to request to join) Facebook sites for RU advocates that just adds to the secrecy.  One group that has over 3500 members, makes clear in its description that it is a network for unschooler’s and it suggests  that anyone  looking for information should try elsewhere.  Fair enough.  So the RU community is quite defensive of their philosophy, perhaps because it is quite controversial?

RU believes that children learn naturally by playing and having life experiences, and there are no set schedules or routines. So how does that work in real life?  It is literally what it says on the tin – children do whatever takes their fancy, whether that’s spending time watching the TV or playing computer games, or going to bed at midnight – they chose.  But let’s not forget the parents’ involvement; it is expected that the parent will participate in their child’s chosen activity; so if they want to bake a cake it’s down to the parent to facilitate that.  Likewise, if they want to play Minecraft with you … well you get the picture.  There are perceptions that it is lazy parenting, however it is argued that punishments and rules are easier then working together and compromise.  And what about the law?  The Department for Education states parents must ensure that their child receives a full time education from the age of five.  But they can be educated at home and parents do not need to follow a curriculum – National or otherwise.  The Local Authority can make an ‘informal enquiry’ to ensure the child is receiving a suitable education, but it does not have a statutory duty in relation to monitoring the quality of home education.  It does, however, have the power to intervene if it appears that the parents are not providing a suitable education.  So the long and the short of it, is that it is fully within the law of the UK to radically unschool your child.

So what do you do when your little one decides to sit and eat peanut butter in his underpants watching The Simpsons’ for hours on end?  Advocates say that when a child is removed from school they go through a process of de-schooling, this can take months, but persevere and eventually the child will lose interest and want to do other things, and start making more acceptable choices.And the children that have never attended traditional schools?  Parents tell of their children teaching themselves to read, write and solve maths problems just by doing everyday things, like going to the shops or playing computer games. They may learn these basics a little later than others (anywhere from three to 13 from what I’ve read), but many say that because their children can explore any topic they like, they are more advanced in areas such as history and geography than their traditionally schooled peers.

 Supporters report idyllic scenes of painting and creating, cooking, walks in the woods, and that their children are thriving when given total autonomy over their lives. 

And it does paint a pretty picture.  But just a quick glance at a Radical Unschooling Facebook site that allows non-members to read posts, throws up some difficult questions which are attempted to be addressed within the unschooling philosophy.  One mother wrote about her 11 year old son not being able to sign his name when required, he felt embarrassed from this awkward social situation and the mum felt that she had gone wrong with the whole RU philosophy somewhere along the line.  Unfortunately some of the responses, I felt, were rather negative and unhelpful; one suggested that ‘she had done her son a disservice by not researching what was required before hand’.  Hmm, blaming the parent – not good.  I think this mother was just looking for reassurance that she was doing a good job (and we all need reminding once in while), and perhaps a little bit of guidance – sending her on a guilt trip was the only thing that came out of that thread.

On further digging in the murky realms of the internet, I discovered parenting websites (in America again), where parents wrote how upset they were of choosing the radical unschooling route.  There are many stories of parents and children saying how they feel they have missed out on vital education and are now having to play catch up.  The children say how demoralising it is and the parents talk about the guilt they carry for not preparing their offspring for a life outside the home.  Of course, as already discussed, there are many families in which unschooling works beautifully and the children grow up to be well rounded intellectual adults.  But it’s difficult to measure how many families benefit from this lifestyle as there are limited studies.  However, one small survey by Peter Gray of Boston College in 2011, questioned adults on how their unschooled upbringing had impacted their lives.  The study had 75 participants – so cannot be a representative of the unschooling community, but it does give a brief insight into its effects.  On the whole, most respondents were happy with their unschooling – only three out of the 75 gave negative feedback and 83% had gone on to pursue some form of higher education.  But 11% did feel they were behind academically, this leads back to the parents and children who had a negative experience of unschooling, their main concern was that they were not at the same standard educationally, as their peers.  But a lot does depend on both the child and parent; if the parent subscribes to the philosophy wholeheartedly and the child is the receptive ‘sponge’ they are assumed to be – then it has shown it works.  Further studies on a much larger scale would need to be carried out to compare the unschooled to the mainstream and how they fare as adults – do they have the same opportunities?  Do they make similar lifestyle choices?

Perhaps parents of children with additional needs seek the radical unschooling root If they feel their child is not going to receive the most appropriate schooling and care, or are already in the system and see the lack or curricular flexibility as a hindrance.  I also think it takes a certain type of person to undertake RU, I know I wouldn’t be able to entertain it even if I wanted to do – I like structure and routine and get quite twitchy when things aren’t just so.  And then of course, there’s the financial implications.  One parent needs to stay at home to facilitate the unschooling, and many families just cannot afford to do this. 

But, like all parenting – there are no hard and fast rules.  We all have to discover through a certain degree of trial and error what works for us, and if the child and the family as a unit has not just its needs met – but is positively flourishing, then who are we to judge?

© Copyright 2018 Nicola Macbeth. All rights reserved.

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