November 21, 2016

Sophie Miller

Homeschoolers in the Spotlight: Part 2

Topics: Learning at Home



One of the most common concerns for prospective homeschooling parents is their own qualifications as a teacher. Amongst the worries about childhood socialization and time spent away from full-time employment is the insecurity that, however educated you may be, you don’t have an education in teaching. While studies show no correlation between teacher certification and student achievement, parents still worry that without teaching accreditation, they will not be in the best position to provide their children with a solid education (Goldhaber and Brewer, 90).

Ivonne, mother to son Amaury, 7, and daughter Josayra, 4, found a solution to this concern in a branch of homeschooling called 'unschooling.' This term was pioneered by educational reformer John Holt in the early 1980’s which was defined as “interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning.” Unschooling does away with all attempts to mimic a traditional school curriculum and allows the students themselves to decide what they want to learn (Pat Farenga, Teach Your Own, 2003). When parents and children encounter a topic about which neither one of them knows much, they “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” (Farenga, 2003). In this way, children develop learning techniques that unschooling parents feel match the natural way you learn in the real world: through self-driven research, inquiry, and hands-on experience.

What Does Unschooling Look Like?

On paper, the idea seems excellent: children’s enthusiasm for learning will flourish in an environment driven by their natural curiosity and inquisitiveness. But what does unschooling look like in reality? Will children really crave learning or will they defer to an excess of play and slacking off? Ivonne says that she has no trouble getting her kids to treat everyday activities, such as “watching tv, playing games, going out places and asking lots of questions,” as opportunities for learning. By prompting Amaury and Josayra to ask questions about programs they see on television or places they go during everyday errands, Ivonne and her kids discover topics of interest to them that they can research further at home or at the local library. Games, especially, help Ivonne teach her kids skills even when she doesn’t intend them to.  “I believe games teach kids better than doing worksheets,” Ivonne says, because, instead of working with concepts, the children apply abstract ideas to solving problems they can understand. John Sutton and Alice Krueger emphasize the importance of this applied learning in their journal EDThoughts, in which they explain how “the more avenues there are to receive data through the senses, the more connections the brain can make” (Sutton and Krueger, 90). By allowing Amaury and Josayra to learn, not just through reading or lectures but through exploring the world through activities and games, Ivonne allows their sensory memory and understanding to drive their ability to conceptualize abstract educational ideas in mathematics and other areas.

Of course, reading does play a part in Amaury and Josayra’s education, and when it does, Ivonne attempts to pull opportunities for further learning out of the literary content. On one recent occasion, Ivonne and her children “read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory then we toured a local chocolate museum and the kids were able to taste chocolate from around the world and see sculptures made completely out of chocolate.  They learned where chocolate originated.” Outings like the visit to the chocolate factory provide sensory experiences and information for the children that merely reading books might not be able to provide them. And, Ivonne is quick to mention, Amaury and Josayra “still talk about it to this day.” The outing was memorable enough that, hopefully, the information that the children learned there will stick with them for longer than it would have had they simply read a book or watched a video on chocolate production.

Why Unschool?

Like many parents who choose to educate their children themselves, Ivonne cites several reasons for unschooling Amaury and Josayra. One of her main reasons for keeping her children at home to be educated lay in her desire to spend time with them. “Public school kids are gone all day and when they come home, they have homework or extra curricular activities.” Ivonne didn’t want to have to sacrifice time with her son and daughter in order to give them a good education, and with unschooling, she found that she wouldn’t have to.

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Another reason for unschooling Amaury and Josayra emerged after Ivonne had spent a few years homeschooling Amaury. During the time that their homeschooling followed a standard school curriculum, Ivonne realized that her son had “lost his love of learning.” Ivonne explains that “Before we became unschoolers, my son would give me a hard time about sitting down to learn things.  He never liked to write and he tolerated reading.” What was more troubling was the fact that Amaury’s feelings towards school were rubbing off on his sister. Ivonne worried that her children would never share her love of learning, and tried every different method of homeschooling on which she could find information, with no success – until she discovered unschooling. The freedom of unschooling and its focus on individual students’ interests worked perfectly for Amaury’s learning style, and once Josayra grew old enough to begin learning at home, she loved unschooling as well.

Parent Involvement

During her time homeschooling and eventually unschooling Amaury and Josayra, Ivonne got her Associates Degree in Early Childhood Education. But when she began teaching her kids, she did not have this official qualification. To prepare for teaching her kids herself, she “read all I could about the benefits of homeschooling, the different styles of homeschooling, and then customized my children’s educational experience based on what would work for us.” Ivonne believes this to be an important part of parents’ obligation to their children if they choose to teach at home: adapting an educational experience to give a child the best education possible for them as an individual learner.

Unschooling in particular requires a great deal of parental involvement and investment, beyond designing a lesson plan and executing a curriculum. What your children want to learn about may vary from day to day, so parents need to be adaptable in order to keep up with a child’s curiosity. “If I don’t know the answer, we look it up,” Ivonne says of her unschooling experience. Oftentimes, Amaury and Josayra propose topics that Ivonne has never studied or sometimes even thought about before. It is her job as parent and teacher to help her children learn to research and then to learn along with them on these topics, so she can guide them through any material that they might not understand. In this way, unschooling requires more flexibility of the parent than homeschooling does.

Learning Benefits and Drawbacks

Ivonne cites few drawbacks to unschooling her kids. Despite a long day with Amaury and Josayra, the family is not trapped indoors: “as unschoolers now, the kids learn from everything around them,” a pursuit that takes them out into the world and far from being bored. Many parents who teach their children at home worry about cutting their children off from the social world of other kids their own age. While this might be a concern for some children, Ivonne has not found it to be a problem with the social Amaury and Josayra. “The kids make friends wherever we go, even the play area at Chick-fil-a!”

Of the benefits of unschooling, on the other hand, Ivonne has much to say. One of her greatest joys as a parent and as an unschooler lies in the firsthand educational experiences she gets with her children. “I was there when they first learned to read and write.  I get to see their faces light up when discovering new things, especially when we’re doing fun science experiments.” Ivonne loves getting to share her love of learning with her kids, and thanks to the free curriculum of unschooling, her kids love learning more than ever.


To aspiring homeschoolers, Ivonne asks that parents recognize the value of unschooling’s differences from a formal educational environment. “Don’t try to recreate school at home but instead find what works for your family and your children’s learning styles.” By being cognizant of each child’s individual needs as a learner, unschooling allows children to learn about the things in which they are truly interested, giving them an education in what they feel to be the things they need to know the most, in addition to cultivating a rich love of learning, hopefully for the rest of their lives.

This post is the second installment in a series on homeschooling families. Over the coming weeks we will be writing several more stories on other homeschoolers and how they educate their children. To read more of Homeschoolers in the Spotlight, subscribe to our blog or follow ThinkFun on social media.


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