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Home Education Magazine

January-February 2000 - Articles

Five Steps to Unschooling - Joyce Kurtak Fetteroll

Some people understand unschooling as soon as they hear about it. Others wander about in a fog of confusion, wondering how unschoolers can be so certain about something that seems so counterintuitive to everything we've picked up about how kids need to learn. Maybe a few, well-defined steps in the unschooling direction could lead out of at least the very pea-soupiest part of the fog.

Step One

To unschool, you begin with your child's interests. If she's interested in birds, you read - or browse, toss aside, just look at the pictures in - books on birds, watch videos on birds, talk about birds, research and build (or buy) bird feeders and birdhouses, keep a journal on birds, record and ponder their behavior, search the web for items about birds, go to bird sanctuaries, draw birds, color a few pictures in the Dover Birds of Prey coloring book, play around with feathers, study Leonardo DaVinci's drawings of flying machines that he based on birds, watch Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."

But DON'T go whole hog on this. Gauge how much to do and when by your child's reactions. Let her say no thanks. Let her choose. Let her interest set the pace. If it takes years, let it take years. If it lasts an hour, let it last an hour.

Step Two

Second, you need to make sure your child has opportunities to expand her interests. Have books, videos, kits, games, puzzles, music tapes, puppets, nature collections, and other cool things available for her to pick up when she chooses. (Think library, yard sales, and attic treasures.) Take her places as a way to spark an interest. Wander about museums and just look at the cool stuff that interests either of you. (And resist the urge to force an interest in the things you think would be good for her.) Read a book or do a kit even if you're certain it won't lead anywhere. Let her say no thanks if she's not interested in pursuing something right now, or in pursuing something to the degree you think she "should."

Step Three

Get interested in things yourself. Not interested in your child getting educated, but in learning for yourself. Pursue an interest you've always wanted to but never had time for. Be curious about life around you. Look things up to satisfy your own curiosity. Or just ponder the wonder of it all. Ask questions you don't know the answers to. "Why are there beautiful colors beneath the green in leaves?" "Why did they build the bridge here rather than over there?" "Why is there suddenly more traffic on my road than there used to be?"

Let your child know that all the questions haven't been answered yet and it's not her job to just keep absorbing answers until she's got them all.

Step Four

Start noticing the learning available all around you. There are fractions in time and cooking and in the relationships between objects. (There are one third as many blue M&M's as there are brown.) Tax is a percentage of the total, some items offer 20% more free, and stores having a sale will knock a percentage off the regular price.

There's oodles of science in cooking. Why does heat make the white of an egg turn from clear liquid to solid white? What process turns liquid cake into poofy air-filled solid cake? Don't worry if you don't know the answers. Anyone can look up the answers. Few can ask the questions.

As a real-life example, by watching Xena and reading Little Town on the Prairie, my daughter was exposed to three references to Julius Caesar, Brutus, and Marc Antony. She doesn't "know" Roman history now, but she's got a hook or point of reference to build from tomorrow, next week, three years from now: "You remember Julius Caesar. The guy Xena hates."

Unfortunately we learned in school that learning is locked up in books and reading is the only way to get to it. It's not. It's free. We're surrounded by it. We just need to relearn how to recognize it in its wild state.

Step Five

And, finally, forget the linear approach to learning we grew up with. For instance, we learned that the way to learn is to read "all the important" stuff about a subject gathered and packaged for our convenience in a textbook and then move on in line to the next package of information.

Sure, sometimes an interest will cause kids to gather up a huge chunk of learning all at once. This is easy to see. And easy to overvalue as the "best" way to learn.

More often kids will slowly gather interesting tidbits, making connections as things occur to them to create a foundation. They'll add pieces here and there over the years to build on that foundation. This is not so easy to see going on. And very easy to undervalue.

So, if we can train ourselves to see that process we can help it along by valuing the times when they see Thomas Jefferson on the Animaniacs and then later on the nickel and then still later on Mount Rushmore. Those moments will establish a feeling of recognition and familiarity. Then the more tidbits they gather about Jefferson, the more interesting he becomes. And the more interesting he becomes, the more they want to know about him.

It took at least two years and a lot of posts by very patient unschoolers (and a lot of questions by other newbies who were equally confused) for me to finally "get" unschooling. Hopefully, these five steps will make your transition to unschooling easier than mine was!

2000, Joyce Kurtak Fetteroll

January-February 2000

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