Back To School Week: We’re A Family Of Unschoolers

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unschoolingLisa Cottrell-Bentley and her husband Greg Bentley practice unschooling. The Arizona-based mother first came across the term after researching various educational options not long after her daughter Zoe Bentley was born. The strong-willed little girl started speaking in complete sentences by 1-year-old and reading full-length books by the age of three. Even though the parents were certain that she would indefinitely wind up in public school, they began to intuit that such an education would not be right for her.

Lisa began researching both alternative schools and curriculum-based homeschooling, but ultimately decided that neither would be a good fit for their daughter due to the amount of structured learned.

“I questioned, ‘Why do we need to start doing what someone else says we should be doing when it’s obvious that Zoe is learning a lot based off of her own interests?'” Lisa tells Mommyish. “That’s when we found unschooling and it has been a perfect fit for our family. We’ve been calling ourselves unschoolers since Zoe was school-age.”

Lisa admits that she had not heard of unschooling prior to becoming a parent. She confesses that she would have probably thought unschoolers “were weird,” explaining that she was once very naive about how people learn.

“Unschooling,” which is considered by some to be a subset of homeschooling, was first deemed a term and learning practice by classroom teacher John Holt in 1977. Holt is considered one of the founders of the homeschooling movement, advocating that children are capable of learning not necessarily in a school format, but also beyond the home as well. The central credo of unschooling, according to the Growing Without Schooling magazine, also founded by Holt, defines the education tactic as the following:

“…unschooling is also known as interest-driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning. Lately, the term “unschooling” has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn’t use a fixed curriculum. When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear. The advantage of this method is that it doesn’t require you, the parent, to become someone else, i.e. a professional teacher pouring knowledge into child-vessels on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an on-demand basis, if at all. This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work…Unschooling, for lack of a better term (until people start to accept living as part and parcel of learning), is the natural way to learn.”

Growing Without Schooling explains that a child’s love of hot rod cars, for example, can then organically lead to understanding certain scientific concepts, as well as history and business principals and then eventually the biography of who designed the car. While unschooling abstains from structured learning and even comprehending the world through individual subjects, children’s interests can absolutely lead them to studying certain books, taking classes, or doing their own projects. What distinguishes unschooling is the child’s volition to engage in such learning.

Because the child is free to engage in a variety of activities, Lisa tells Mommyish that there is no “typical” unschooling day for her daughter Zoe, as well as her younger daughter Teagan Bentley. But there does tend to be three typical days in her family. “Stay-at-home days” means that the girls learn at home which allows for uninterrupted focus on a topic as well as down time. “Out and about days” consist of household errands, but also going to local places of interests or parks with other homeschoolers. And “trip days,” which consist of family travel.

Unschooling is a subtype of homeschooling, which means that Lisa and her husband aren’t breaking any laws by keeping their kids out of regimented school. When I ask Lisa what her daughters’ favorite subjects are, she responds that “subjects” aren’t the point.

“We don’t do subjects–ever,” says the mother of two. “The real world isn’t split into neat little subject areas; you always get a mix. With that said, my older daughter does have a deep interest in exogeology, which she runs a website on, and my younger daughter loves dance and fashion. Their primary interests lead them to both explore a wide range of topics.”

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