Paradoxes of Unschooling

It is not unusual to see descriptions of various methods of homeschooling oppose two extremes. At one extreme are “school at home” folks who use a structured curriculum, have a classroom at home, and may stand in front of the blackboard teaching their children. At the other is the radical unschooler who basically lets kids lead the whole learning process, is very unstructured, and probably does nothing that resembles school at all. Most of us recognize that both of these extremes are straw homeschoolers meant to illustrate the wide variation and that most of us fit somewhere along this continuum.

I am on the unschooling end of the continuum. Tigger spends a lot of time sewing, knitting, spinnning, reading and generally leading her own learning. Despite some attempts at structure and ensuring that a few topics (like math) get covered in some formal way, we have been pretty inconsistent in these attempts. But twice this week I have been standing in front of a blackboard “teaching” math.

Yep, you read that right. We have a little cabinet above the phone in the kitchen with a blackboard on the front. And I was writing math problems (from a workbook) on it and asking questions and teaching the material. Paradoxically, that is still unschooling.

I think I have mentioned the Doll School before. Tigger is really interested in dolls (baby dolls, no particular brand, many of them either gifts or inexpensive generic ones). She has 7 of them. 5 go to school. Despite her desire to be unschooled the dolls like structure and need structure (as she told her Dad when he asked). So they have desks and sit in rows and have a schedule of subjects that they do over the week. Because of the blackboard, this school has moved into the kitchen. It is often going on behind me as I do my work (and read my blogs) at the computer.

The other day, Tigger was having difficulty with the math. She asked me to help and suggested that she sit with the dolls and I be the teacher at the front (usually her job). So I did. We went through the lesson and she helped the dolls put up their hands and answer questions. She really enjoyed it because she got to do this. And they all got the concept (probability, if you are interested). A couple of days later she asked me to teach math again. So I did. We all had a lot of fun. And the learning was obvious too.

I suspect that some folks would be tempted to overinterpret this development as an indication that she wants more structure and that I should reorient our homeschool. But I don’t think this is the case. I did, with her permission, write out that guide for the history component of the doll school, but no one has done any history the last couple of days. And there doesn’t seem to be any doll school at all today (much spinning and sewing of bonnets is going on).

I think that the doll school enables her to introduce the structure she wants into her learning. It gives her a way to ask me to “teach” her when she thinks she needs it. It gives her a fun way to do math using a workbook that she likes (it isn’t one designed for homeschoolers, but one designed as a supplement for schooled kids). And it is a game. So when she isn’t interested in it anymore, there is no pressure to keep doing it. It is still child led. Crucial for her independent personality, it is under her control. I only get asked to teach. (Though I was also able to convince her that the dolls should be working at her level.)

The irony of standing in front of a blackboard “teaching” math was quite humourous though. Particularly in a week where I was the “unstructured” parent on a library panel about homeschooling. Folks got a good laugh out of that example of how those straw homeschoolers don’t represent anyone’s reality.


7 thoughts on “Paradoxes of Unschooling

  1. I love the way is learning math through her creation of the Doll School. I agree, this is definitely unschooling. Although, I had to giggle at the thought of Tigger tolerating you at a blackboard to teach her directly~ She is a clever little mouse!


  2. Woo! Three cheers for what works for you and Tigger! It always shocks me when homeschoolers have hard opinions about how it should be done. To me one of the great benefits of free-range learning is flexibility.


  3. That is funny. It is also another indicator of how flexible a parent can be with one or a few children, catering to their needs and helping them learn in a way that is comfortable and appropriate for them. Call it unschooling or structured, doesn’t matter as long as everyone gets what they need.


  4. For me the definition of unschooling is that the learner is able to make free choices about what they are doing, and that they are actively engaged in the process of learning. Is this what you mean, or is this a British thing?

    Of course the above does mean that a child could technically be in school and still be unschooled!

    ie: it is not about structure v. lack of structure. It is about learner consent and active mental process on the part of the learner.


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