On John Holt and Homeschooling

This is the last in a three-part series, where I respond to John Holt’s Teach Your Own. If you’d like, click on the following links for part I (on parenting) and part II (on teaching).

Initially, what I thought of unschooling was that it was the lazy way to homeschool. I apologize. My limited, internet-based foray brought up sample schedules like this, which don’t make homeschooling seem as if it has any extra benefit to keeping kids at home. Things like handiwork, chores, and reading should be done with children regardless of their education type. I also saw evidence of parents who made it sound as if unschooling meant zero curriculum and full-fledged acceptance of a video game addiction (if that was what the child so desired).

However, the unschooling anecdotes in Holt’s work, received from unschooling parents far and wide, reflected rich experiences full of life skills and practical teachings. Furthermore, unschooling in the anecdotes he shared showed that the approach is not mutually exclusive from curricula. Indeed, I am convinced that unschooling can be combined with a classical education, though it will be more than a few years before I can report on this front at all.

In this post, then, I discuss what unschooling is and how it fosters initiative, and then I briefly examine the more general appeal of unschooling.

Unschooling is a Misnomer

The term “unschooling” reflects Holt’s (at times) extreme distaste for school. It is not school, or what we understand to be modern school. It is not prescribed learning outcomes within the rigid structure of a school year. It is not children being asked to learn regardless of their readiness, or children being over-tested. It is not about the production line that our schools are. But negative definitions are poor definitions, if at all.

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash.

Unschooling, rather is understanding that all life is learning, and that learning is as natural to life as breathing. It embodies a patient kindness towards children that waits for them to be ready and willing. It places great faith in the innate curiosity of children and seeks to nurture, nurture, nurture. And it involves finding or creating opportunity for rich and practical experience. If the mind is a field then the job of the parent is to till the soil, plant seeds of all sorts, and water well, according to the climate and environment’s needs. But the child does all the growing, and what blooms will be a delightful mystery.

Holt, for all his harsh talk against adults and the evils of school (some a little extreme, in my opinion), does advocate kindness for children consistently, and it is this spirit that most appeals to me when I consider how to raise my own. If my child is into video games, will I let her play? Yes, but I’m sure she will have other interests, too, and I will be doing my best to point her in as many directions as possible to nurture those interests as well. In time, she will find a balance, and of this, I’m confident. Different interests feed different parts of our fun in life. I’m sure you can relate.

Unschooling to Foster Initiative

One of the benefits that I think make unschooling stand out is supported by an anecdote from a homeschooling mother with another part-time job outside:

When I abdicate the responsibility for structuring my own time, a certain moral strength seems to be lost as well… I am beginning to think the greatest harm is not in the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ of this structuring, but in the very fact that five days out of seven, nine months out of twelve, six hours out of the center of those days, we remove from children the responsibility for their time… Once I change from active to passive participant in structuring my time, a certain numbing takes place so that it is much easier to stay passive, “killing time” until the next prescribed activity (108 – 109).

Holt, J and Farenga, P. (2003). Teach your own: The John Holt book of home schooling. Holt Associates.

(Ironically, the same blog post I thought lacklustre in its “learning activities” also mentions this benefit of unschooling, that children are more likely to structure their time productively when they have had years of practice.)

Now to be fair, education type (homeschooling or public education) is obviously not the be-all and end-all of fostering self-initiative. Some children are naturally driven. Others still are taught to structure their time outside of scheduled activities. I fall into the latter category, but even with being taught, I have killed plenty of time (especially once I had a fancy smartphone), and it’s taken a continued effort to get out of the habit of killing time and make all my time useful.

Photo by Shane on Unsplash

The time I had without a 9 to 5 job was telling, too. When I was expecting and unemployed, I didn’t do much with my time. I tried to structure my free time but it didn’t happen. It took having another job (i.e. the toddler) to force me into making every part of my non-toddler time count. Perhaps I lack discipline. Or perhaps, I lack practice.

But the toddler? She has ideas for how she wants to spend every waking hour. My hope is that, given an ever-growing range of ability and activities, and by allowing her to pursue what interests her, my child(ren) will realize that what they enjoy is valuable (and not just what schools say are important), and that they will have ample opportunity to practice structuring their time to meet their own goals.

Unschooling and re: Homeschooling

At the end of all this, I am much more open to unschooling, as described above. It can include curricula (evidenced by many anecdotes in Holt’s book) but I understand learning and its goals to be more of a conversation between the parent and child than of a command from teacher to student. I am in favour of unschooling not only for the kindness and student-driven learning, but also because the parents of this approach generally seemed to have a different definition of success. That is, they understood life to not just be about making the most money, prestige, stability, or even security, and there’s something about that, that speaks to me as I try to pursue Christ, who gives us a life defying the world’s standards.

Granted, a good teacher in a classroom strives to converse with their students, show kindness, and encourage student initiative. All the teachers I know want this for their students. But admittedly it is a difficult thing to ask of a teacher, to keep this up for every child, when the teacher may see a hundred students a day. If I am able, I will take on my own children to give the teachers out there the room to give their good attention to other students who must be in the classroom.

Feature photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash


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