Classical vs. Unschooling

At first glance, these two approaches to homeschooling seem at opposite ends of a spectrum. My understanding of each approach in brief:

Classical – Academically rigorous and comprehensive in nature, but demanding on both student and parent. Suitable for children and parents who prefer structure and a feeling of comprehensive learning.

Unschooling – Requiring great flexibility on the parent as they encourage and facilitate learning in the directions their child wants to go. Suitable for families that have time so children are not rushed in their discovery.

Susan Wise Bauer suggests that parents can offer an enriched education at home without the negative impacts of grades, early testing, and so on.
Arnall emphasizes the parent-child relationship as the foundation to nurturing healthy children and self-driven learners.

Despite my initial beliefs, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not really complete opposites. Both approaches aim to preserve the child’s love of learning and present to the child a feast of knowledge. Both require the parent as a facilitator and both allow choice for a child. To be sure, someone who follows the classical approach is more likely to direct their child to understand how an item of learning is situated in history, geography, and literature, but unschooling parents would be remiss if they did not encourage their child to make connections between interests and other subject areas as well. Both are about holistic learning, after all.

The classical tradition does encourage facts first, understanding why later, and then creating in the later years, when a child has a foundation in facts and reason. Yet this is not strictly enforced. Even in The Well-Trained Mind (most oft-quoted resource for classically-inclined parents), Bauer reminds parents that following the child’s cues are important and that if the child wants to rationalize they should be encouraged to do so. Observe, observe, observe. And then encourage and nurture. Either approach taken to the extreme is not beneficial. You could become a militant dictator pushing an encyclopedia (that’s not the point of classical!) or you could become an angry anti-schooler (note: for unschooling literature, I’d start with Judy Arnall’s Unschooling to University, and not Kerry McDonald’s Unschooled. But more on that in another post).

I don’t see why I can’t combine the two approaches. Already the toddler is demonstrating that she enjoys memorizing things. She sings nursery rhymes to herself and asks me to sing or recite what we’ve heard to her daily. Thanks to a friend sharing their Spotify account, we get to hear different versions of songs (all of which she wants me to re-sing at bedtime). She is happy to restate every day that “two people singing is a duet,” and she’s learning the difference between a bridge and an interlude. She knows blue and yellow make green because we play with food colouring, but she also likes to recite this fact when she sees that the yellow liquid of her multivitamin looks green against the blue of the vitamin syringe. So I am encouraging fact, fact, fact… but only in connection with what her interests are. And most times I try not to teach much at all because I do so enjoy listening to her talk.

We made cake pops recently and she stuck in all the rods by herself. She was very happy about eating them afterwards, too.

When she’s in her elementary years, there’s no reason that I can’t introduce her to bits of world history at a time (leaning towards the classical tradition), let her ask questions where she will, and then dig dig dig into things when she’s interested (back to the unschooling approach). But whether I will push the need to learn the history of civilization (literally the classical part of classical education) or avoid it if she digs her heels in against it (here is perhaps the greatest unschooling difference, that a parent will let the child determine depth of learning)… well, that remains to be seen. I have no classical training but will be remedying this soon (hint hint at another upcoming direction in reading). How much can a parent/teacher push a student before self-directed education isn’t self-directed any more?

Featured photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash


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