Former School Teacher Turns To Unschooling

by Saira Siddiqui

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For some time now my family has followed a ‘relaxed’ approach to homeschooling, also know as unschooling. There’s been a lot of curiosity about what that term means, and what actually happens in our home.   Mostly, though, people that I meet are curious about what made me, a former school teacher, turn away from methods I’d studied and practiced for years, and why I felt it wasn’t ‘good enough’ for my own kids.

“Unschooling” simply refers to the absence of a traditional curriculum.  What is a curriculum?  Curriculum is something tells you what to learn, and when to learn it.  (Actually, your state standards really tell you what to learn, but this is a moot point.)   Most schools and traditional homeschoolers pick one or more curricula and ‘teach’ from them.  This could come in the form of a textbook or a kit.  But essentially, a set sequence is followed.  You teach/learn this, followed by this, then this, etc.

In our house, we follow a learning path that’s more in accordance with what our kids want and where their natural curiosity leads.  They steer the ship.  And while I might provide them with a general direction, for the most part, they decide where their education leads.

So how did I end up following such an untraditional path?  A path different from the majority of schools (and even homeschools)?  The truth is, I didn’t begin this way.  When my children were young I had visions of turning them into little Einsteins and spent time and money on the ever popular ‘teach your baby to read’ type programs.  I completely subscribed to the idea of ‘bigger, better, faster,’ and was hoping to accelerate their ‘learning’ as much as I could.  It didn’t take long, though, for me to figure out that this just didn’t feel right.  There was something unnatural about it.  I soon put these gimmicks aside in favor of playing with my children, reading together, and talking about the world around us.

When my kids were young, I had planned to enroll them in school like everyone else around me.  But when I walked onto the campus, I started to get emotional.  I had created a warm, fuzzy den of learning at home where the kids were read to frequently and were encouraged to ask questions and wonder about the world around.  Walking into the stark classroom, desks arranged in isolated rows, worksheets with perfect penmanship on the walls, I felt as though the ‘wonder’ was missing.  I wasn’t ready for my kids to get a dose of ‘learning in the real world’ just yet.  I didn’t want them to lose their natural curiosities.  And so we began homeschooling.

Like many teachers-turned-homeschoolers, I began by trying to replicate the classroom I had just shunned, at home.  I decided what we would learn, and when.  Over time, though, I noticed that the kids were curious about a lot of things on their own.  So I did what I could to facilitate their learning.  I bought books, showed them videos, took them on field trips, etc.   I soon realized that I didn’t really have to do much to help them learn.  I didn’t need to sit down and do lessons.  When my kids were interested in something, I just needed to stay out of their way.  THEY were doing all the work!  Learning was not something I needed to force them (or tell them how) to do.  It was something I had to learn to keep up with!

And, now pay attention because this is the real clincher, when they took the lead about something and wanted to learn about it, they learned more and retained more than when I initiated lessons with them.

Now, I know that’s kind of common sense.  I mean, the same is true for adults.  When we WANT to learn something, when something is interesting to us, we really learn it.   But when we really don’t have any personal interest (I can think of many college classes like this), we really don’t retain anything we ‘learned’.  If we KNOW this about ourselves, why do we expect our kids to be any different?

This was a major lightbulb moment for me:  My kids have to learn what they WANT to learn.  Alright, this I could accept.  But how do I make sure they learn EVERYthing they’re going to need to know?

This was the issue that I struggled with for a long time until I realized:  when they need to know something, they’ll learn it.  Just like adults do.  I read countless stories of other ‘unschooled’ kids who didn’t take traditional high school classes, but when they learned the requirements they needed to enter a college they had chosen, they started ‘teaching themselves’ calculus and chemistry.  When they ‘needed’ to know it, they learned it.

The question I asked myself next was, ‘What about all the subjects taught in high school?’  Would they learn all that content using this philosophy?  The answer, I know, was ‘probably not’.   But I began to wonder, does it matter?  If I look back at my high school career I can think of several classes where I retained nothing.  NOTHING.  Not much was really learned.  So did I NEED to take those classes?  Were they pivotal to my success as an adult?

At the end of the day I want my kids to go to college, to do well there, and to do great things with their lives.  But if I look around at all the people that surround me who fit that exact definition, I can’t think of any two that share the exact same knowledge bank.  Different people know different things.  People have different skills, different assets, etc.

When I really reflect on THAT it makes me realize that perhaps I need to start shedding this notion that all children must know the SAME set of facts or information.   Perhaps their time would be better spent developing their skill sets – problem solving, being able to draw inferences and make conclusions, making observations, being able to communicate effectively in oral and written form, knowing how to effectively work and interact with different personalities, etc.

My philosophy regarding my kids education is something that has evolved quite a bit, and no doubt it will continue to change over time.  For me, the hardest part has been shedding the ‘way things have always been’.  Just because we’ve always done things one way doesn’t mean it’s the best way.

“We need a curriculum of big questions, examinations where children can talk, share and use the Internet, and new, peer assessment systems.  We need a pedagogy free from fear and focused on the magic of children’s innate quest for information and understanding.”  -Sugata Mitra

Saira Siddiqui is a freelance writer/life coach who holds a Master’s in Education.  Previously she taught for several years in the public and private sector.  She currently lives in Texas with her husband and three never-been-schooled, unschooled children. When she is not writing for others she enjoys writing for her own blog, Confessions of a Muslim Mommaholic.