Saturday, May 1, 2010

Unschooling and the Honest Critique

Dragonstar and I are getting ready to leave for ARGH, and I wasn't planning to write a post until we got back, but then Dave emailed me with a link to Sharon's unschooling post, which led me to her previous unschooling post, and to the comments on both posts, and after crafting a reply to Dave, I thought, well, maybe I'll put something on the blog after all.

So let's blame Dave, shall we, for sending me to the keyboard when I really should be packing.  


It's been a tumultuous couple of weeks in unschooler-ville, in case you hadn't heard.   And in the aftermath of the original GMA story that got so many people riled up, Sharon Astyk's post on unschooling was one of the more measured, thoughtful, and articulate critiques I've read.  

Sharon is the author of several books, including Depletion & Abundance, and A Nation of Farmers (with Aaron Newton), and a blogger at The Chatelaine's Keys.  If you want the full thrust of her unschooling critique, please go there to read it. I'm mainly interested in exploring the latter half of her post, where she ponders the limits (as in, are there any?) of autodidactic learning.  

Keeping in mind that she isn't comparing unschooling to school, but to other methods of homeschooling, these are a few of the questions that came to mind as I read:  

What is the role of the adult in the lives of autodidact children?  The answer that springs most readily to mind is that of "facilitator" -- but what are we facilitating, exactly?  And how are we doing it, specifically?  

What about intellectual rigor and discipline?  Is it important?  How is it instilled?  How does an unschooler gain this rigor in the absence of pressure?  What process is involved?  

When does guidance become interference?  When does gentle encouragement -- or the intentional push -- become a coercive shove?  Are imposed structures and routines necessarily coercive?

It's been my experience throughout my family's unschooling years that the answers to these and other questions change depending on the age and circumstances and inclinations of our kids.  But in a larger sense, I think the answers are less important than the act of asking the questions and allowing new understanding to surface.  The longer I can stay with the questions, the more I learn. 

The worst critiques of unschooling -- or anything I hold dear, for that matter -- make me defensive, and I don't learn much when I'm defensive.  The best critiques -- those that, like Sharon's, probe beneath the surface and raise honest questions -- make me want to go deeper and come to know more fully what it is I'm doing and why, and how can I do it better and more richly and to greater satisfaction.  I would love to know your thoughts.


  1. I'm on the beginning of the unschooling venture really. I've made some mistakes, big and small. Rather than running down each one of those, suffice it to say that altogether they represent a good deal (sometimes a great deal) of deschooling.

    Even so, I never wanted to do any other kind of unschooling. I find it hard to respond to or critique or rebut the critique of Sharon. I figure my biggest motive for unschooling has nothing to do with school or my own schooling. It has to do with the quickly changing viewpoint I came into unschooling with, which has only changed faster and faster as I go. I find it hard to relate to objections about unschooling because I can't find much common ground.

    I like the way one person put it (Dena Brehm, another unschooler): Fear and love, there isn't much in between those two and everyone leans more strongly one way or the other. (That's a paraphrase)


  2. I think I know what you're talking about here, Katherine. My experience w/unschooling has moved me so far along the continuum that finding a place of common ground with non-unschoolers -- many of whom do come from a fear-based perspective -- in order to facilitate discussion is a real challenge. That said, I admire Sharon A and even tho I don't share her concerns over, for example, guidance and intellectual rigor, I wanted to acknowledge her thoughtful post in large part because it WAS so thoughtful, not the blanket, ignorant condemnation we saw so much of in response to the GMA story.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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