Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Dog Days

We're having an interesting challenge in our house these days.

It has to do with my dog.

He's a great dog, for sure.
We got him almost by accident- we were at the shelter looking for a cat, and this puppy looked at me and let me know he was my dog, and ready to come home with us.
At the time, we were not "dog people."

I mean, I liked dogs and all, and had had a dog a time or two as a kid (although never for long, for a variety of reasons), but we were firmly and sincerely cat people.

Then my dog came along and taught us how to be dog people, too.

For one thing, he's a very smart dog. I didn't know such a thing existed.

He's a dog.
He thinks like a dog.
He acts like a dog.
And he has dog priorities.

When he was a puppy, we took him to a series of puppy training classes at the nearest pet store.
Fortunately, the person teaching the class was kind of awesome, and their focus was on positive reinforcement.
We were told not to use the word "no!" in an attempt to discipline the dog.
We were also told not to ever use the dog's name in a negative way, not to yell it at him to try to get him to stop doing something.
Instead, we were told to always use his name in a loving way, along with rewards of attention or treats, so that he would associate his name with positive things, and therefore, be happy to come to us when we call him by name.

Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. 
If, some of the time, his name is yelled at him and followed by disapproval, any sort of punishment (and to a dog, who is very sensitive to the emotions of his people,  anger and disapproval and lack of touch ARE punishments), and then, other times, you call his name and expect him to come running… it makes no sense at all.
Just like little kids who can easily learn that being called by their full name means they are in trouble… dogs figure that out, too.

So, in our household, where we were being told to treat our dog pretty much like we try to treat each other, with love and respect, things moved right along in a happy, comfortable way. It took a little bit of learning about dogs, and how their minds work ("if you don't eat all the food right away, and leave some on the stove or table, clearly, it must be the dog's share, right?"), but for the most part, has been awesome and trouble free.

He's kind of an old dog now. He's a larger dog- a shepherd/rottweiler mix, as best as we can guess. He loves EVERYONE and everything. People, other dogs, cats, toys, everything.

Over the past several months, he developed a habit which makes perfect sense to a dog, but is kind of annoying for people.
He likes to steal cat food cans out of the recycling bin.
And chew them.

This is not a good thing.

Besides the obvious "chewing a metal can is not the best choice for healthy teeth," issue, he ALSO often knocks the bins over, spilling all the recycling, and THAT is something I get tired of cleaning back up fairly quickly.
And then, with the bins "out of the way," he can jump up and steal not a cat food can, but the cats' food, itself. Bonanza!

He's a dog.
From his perspective, there's no problem.
From my perspective, I'd rather not have to put recycling in the bin more than a couple of times, you know?
I'm sure the cats would prefer not losing their dinner to the dog, and having him do so is expensive!  It adds up!

So we've been trying to find the best solution for this.

We've tried changing where the cats are fed, but that hasn't been a complete solution.
We've tried feeding them less at a time, so they finish everything before moving away from the bowl, meaning nothing to steal.
We've tried moving other things around to make it more difficult to get to the food, to no avail. Big dog has no trouble "rearranging" things.
We're working on taking the recycling away more frequently, but haven't been so great at that. Not the dog's fault, for sure.
We've even gone as far as gating the kitchen at night, to keep him out of there, but it made him so SAD, and feels uncomfortably restrictive to me, so don't intend to keep that.

We're still working on it.

And now, we have a new situation.
One I hadn't anticipated in quite this way.

We have a new, part time, pack member.

My daughter has a boyfriend.

He's a great guy, seems like, don't get me wrong.
I enjoy having him around, and appreciate how well he treats her.
I love how he brings out her playful side.

He grew up in a household that was very different from ours.

As have most people, to be fair.
We're not exactly mainstream here.

He has started doing something that none of us have ever done, and it is both startling, and an interesting challenge to figure out.

He yells at my dog.
Yells his name, and "no!" and "Bad dog!"
Tries to shame the dog for his behavior, in an attempt to make him stop.
Things we never do.
Things the dog has zero context for.
He doesn't understand "no."

The dog understands being a dog. Doing dog things. Having dog thoughts. Playing dog games.

He doesn't understand being yelled at.
He doesn't understand having a whole lot of intense, negative emotional energy directed at him.

The first, most noticeable thing that has changed, is that my dog- who loves everyone- doesn't want to be around the person who yells at him. He has started to spend time elsewhere in the house. Where before, he'd want to be right in the middle of what folks were doing, now, he'll come find me when I'm in a different room, and stay with me. If I'm in the same room, he'll often choose to go outside, to get away. This behavior change happened nearly immediately.

The challenge for me, now, is what to do about this.

It isn't as simple as telling the person not to yell at the dog.
I know that he isn't doing it to be "mean," he's doing it because he DOESN'T KNOW ANY OTHER WAY.

In his world, he has only seen this sort of "discipline."
He has no concept of any sort of positive discipline, of helping someone change their behavior by understanding it and supporting them in the change, rather than by trying to force it from the outside.

He only has an authoritarian model.
Top down.
The person with power decides and enforces.

So… as a family, we're choosing to model this sort of approach, not only with the dog, but with the person.
We're focusing on calm, loving interactions.
On being proactive, rather than in a rush to stop something after it happens.
On solving the problem, rather than asserting control.

And we're working on doing our part of getting the recycling out of the house, so the dog isn't tempted. :-)

Hopefully, this will be enough to shift everything, in a process of discovering a new way of interacting with a dog, or anyone perceived as having less power.
If not, I may need to have a discussion about the concept of positive reinforcement.
We'll see.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

But How Will They Graduate?

One of the things I see, especially with people who are frustrated with their child's school situation, and who are wanting to start unschooling at a later age- maybe the end of middle school, or beginning of high school- is that although they want to change the METHOD they are using, they don't want to change the GOAL.

In other words, they are hoping to get the same outcome from unschooling that they had originally hoped to get from schooling.
Schooling, for whatever reason, "isn't working" for them, so they are looking for something that WILL WORK.

Often, the first thing they want to know is how their child will "graduate" and get a diploma.
The next, associated thing, is how their child will get into college, and be able to go right back into the formal education model that CURRENTLY ISN'T WORKING.

I'd like to share some thoughts with these people.

First, unschooling does not "produce" the same results as schooling.
If we wanted our kids to have the same experiences, do the same things, and have the same "results" and life goals as they would if they went to school- we'd send them to school.

What this means, for some people, is that if your goal, your plan, is to "unschool the last couple of years of high school, until graduation," and you want to know how to do that in such a way that your child learns precisely what they are "supposed to learn" in school, and does precisely the same thing afterwards, that you (not they) have already planned on, I'm going to say something that may be fairly unpopular, that unschooling is NOT FOR YOU.

It is not a last ditch, "kinder, gentler" method to shape kids into the same "product" that schools are trying to create, only without the stress of school.
ESPECIALLY if your child is unhappy in school.
It will TAKE TIME for them to adjust to a TOTALLY DIFFERENT way of being in the world.
The same time that you HAD been expecting to be their last couple of years of school, run-up to college, complete with tests, college applications, etc.
If you take them out of school NOW, they will still be in that deschooling phase, right when you were expecting to send them off somewhere else.

This is not to say that it's "too late" to take them out of school, or to begin unschooling.
It means that if you do so, you will NEED TO ADJUST YOUR GOALS.
You will need to change your way of thinking about what education means, and how to help your child get what they want and need in their lives.

The first thing that needs to change, and may help you, is to stop thinking that there is such a thing as "graduation" for unschoolers.
Learning doesn't end at a specific age, or after a certain length of time, or once some specific body of knowledge is gained. It is a lifelong endeavor.
When you see unschooling not as a "teaching method," but as a life where you do the things you want to do, and learn whatever you need, in order to do those things, as you live a full and interesting life, it's easier to see that it doesn't have an end point.

The next thing is to let go of the idea that college is the only, or even best, goal for a young person.
MANY kids go off to college right after graduating high school not because they have a specific goal that requires it, but because it's simply what they are expected, and expect, to do.

In my parents' generation, the focus was on being a high school graduate, as THE way to guarantee a "good job."
By the time I was that age, it had begun to shift to a college education being THE way that guaranteed a good job, and something that proved a person was intelligent and of value. Someone who did not finish college was a "failure" and doomed to "flipping burgers."

Never mind that many people had no interest in further formal education, being much more interested in hands-on skills than "bookwork."
Social status became more and more dependent on going to a "good school," rather than on anything a person might or might not DO. Academia gained status in some social groups, while working with your hands lost status, with all the associated assumptions about someone's intelligence, or even what intelligence means.

Now, for kids the ages of my kids, an undergraduate degree is not enough to guarantee ANYTHING. Many find themselves compelled to go on for a masters degree, or a PhD- and THEN, to a post-doc position, because there STILL aren't jobs available for them.

But the public school system is still focused on "go to college" as the goal.

YOU, and your child, don't have to have that goal.
College MIGHT be something they are interested in, IF their interests are in something that college is best for.
Or, it might not be.
Or, it might not be right now, while they explore other things, and it might be something they choose to do later in life.

And, even if they go to college… it may not be that they "leave home" at the age of 18, as used to be expected.
It is not so easy for a young person to go off and support themselves in a world where the minimum wage buys approximately 20% of what it did when I was a teen. No joke.
People who say the minimum wage should be $15/hour aren't making that number up out of nowhere. That is what it would have to be in order to support someone the same way minimum wage did when I graduated high school.
Not only is it not, but entry level jobs in MANY things don't pay that well, either. If there even ARE entry level jobs.


My point here is this:
Unschooling isn't going to work well for people who still feel bound up by the cultural expectations of college preparation, with a goal of college entry, at the age of 18, after "graduating."
If your kids are in school all the way up to high school, they have been in that system for most of their lives.
If you want a different way of living, it comes with changing everything: your thought patterns, your goals, your expectations.
It is not just a substitution of one method for another.

It's like this:
If you spend all day making bread dough, and letting it rise, and putting it in the pan, then in the oven to bake, it isn't going to help you to decide at that last part that you want to put it in the freezer instead of the oven- but you still want freshly baked bread in an hour.

Starting unschooling is a whole new adventure.
A new plan.
A new way of thinking.

Worth doing, even if you are starting in the teen years?

But it changes EVERYTHING.

That should be what you are looking for.
Not the educational equivalent of trying to hide broccoli in the meatloaf.
You can't get where you are going without leaving where you are.

Monday, February 23, 2015


Just a quick post to share a moment in my evening a couple of nights ago.

I was in the kitchen, making dinner, and could hear (and see) much loud happiness from the living room, where my three "kids" (all now adults) and two of their partners, were involved in playing or watching a videogame together.

Four of them were actively playing.
One was doing something online while watching the others, and joining in some of the hilarious commentary.

It struck me that this was not unlike when they were very young, and played together.

My point is this:
At the ages of 27, 25, and 21, my kids still play together, with each other, and each other's friends.
And me.
In our house.
I'm not into that particular game (and we only have 4 controllers, which I think is the max?), so my participation was to join in the raucous conversation, good natured ribbing, and laughter, while going about what I was doing.

I have to say, I'm good with this.

(One note: it is far more difficult now to fit everyone on the couch!!)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sometimes, it's Not About the Kids

A few nights ago, after a delightful evening with my son, listening to beautiful music (an interest we definitely share!), we stopped by the house of a friend, to say Happy Birthday.

The friend's housemate, who we had barely met before, was there, hanging out on the couch.

Somehow, during the conversation, we ended up talking about unschooling.

I spend a fair amount of time writing about unschooling in various online forums, and have done so for well over 20 years. But to be honest, I don't tend to talk about it much in person, with the average person, especially now that my kids are adults.  it doesn't often come up in conversation.

But the other night, I had mentioned an article I saw earlier in the day, about training young children to sit still, and how developmentally inappropriate that is. The conversation moved from there into things about respecting children, and to making unconventional choices.

Then I was asked if I could give an example of an unconventional choice my family had made.

I told them that my kids, now aged 27, 25 and 21, never went to school, and, in addition, we didn't "do school" at home, either.

Stunned silence, for a moment.
And then… the questions.

Most of you reading this will know what questions I mean.

But what did you DO all day?
How did they learn to read?
You mean you didn't ever teach them things like, say, history?
What about math?

The interesting part about this particular conversation started out being that one of my now-adult kids was there with me, and before this point, the friend we were visiting (and the housemate) did not know that he had not gone to school. Ever. But they DID know that he is a charming, interesting, well educated person. So although their minds were full of "How can this possibly ever work out?" questions, there they were, face to face with someone they both like and respect.

We talked much longer than I had intended, delaying our return home, making for a very late dinner at 1am.

It turned out to be one of the more important conversations I've ever had.

We talked about learning. How learning happens inside the person, not because they are "taught" but because they make an emotional connection to the material and through that connection, find it interesting and compelling, worth learning and retaining.
We talked about how most people do NOT recall what they were "taught" in high school, which strongly suggests that they did not learn it, at all.
We talked about following interests, and balancing the needs of family members.
We talked about a variety of fascinating interests that we had enjoyed over the years.
We talked about how each individual has their own personal view of the world, and their own way of interacting and communicating, and how, in a school, a teacher must deal with a large number of students, so finds the "common denominator," but in a home, with far fewer people, it is not a difficult task to do things in a variety of ways, and to know how kids are doing, because you're there, with them, interacting constantly.
We talked about different learning styles.

This went on for a while.
A beautiful thing.

And then it happened.
It all started to sink in.
The questions became less about how kids learn, about the mechanics of unschooling, and turned to the sharing of their own school-based experiences. Their own hurts and emotional trauma. Ways in which they had been belittled, outcast, made fun of, for being different. One shared an experience of having changed schools, and with things different at the new school (because all schools ARE different, something most people don't know), were "behind" in some things, and instead of being welcomed and assisted in making the change, or in "catching up," were treated horribly, by not only the students and teachers at the new school, but as a result, by their own family, unknowingly perpetuating the unkindness. Not fitting in, as a child in a new school, is a well known experience. Being "not good enough" there is bad enough, but when a person's own family starts to push them to be "better," it can be traumatic, and have far reaching consequences to that person's self-image.

It became clear this had happened.
Instead of questions about unschooling, I started hearing shared experiences of having felt, all their lives, like something was WRONG with them. About growing up feeling "less." Feeling stupid. Feeling left out. Feeling unvalued. Misunderstood.
About how they had managed to hide some of their differences- like a need to move while learning. How they had learned to avoid large movements, and subjugated it all into a small twitching of the fingers of one hand, held hidden, under the cover of the other hand, ashamed.

My heart broke.
I wept.

Not only for this friend, these people, but for all the other people who have ever been in this position, put there by a culture that does not understand learning, does not respect children, and by extension, doesn't really treat ANY people with respect for their being.

I was astounded and honored to have been trusted with these very personal revelations.
To have been able to offer a moment of appreciation, of understanding, and of validation.

There is nothing wrong with you.
There is everything wrong with the system.
I could go on, at length, about what real learning is, how it works, what schools typically do, and why.
But the important part isn't even that.

It is how the pressure to conform has hurt so many people.
Especially those who have the soul of an artist, never meant to conform, but to illuminate.
That would be all of us, in some way.

I had never before seen our role as unschooling advocates as having this dual nature.
Not just to promote the respect and joy of an unschooling lifestyle for kids and families, but to reach back and begin to heal those who never had that chance.

Unschooling parents often find this happening to themselves, as they process their own baggage, and go through paradigm shifts.

Perhaps we should be talking about unschooling with more people than just prospective unschoolers, with young children.
It isn't just about the kids.

Friday, February 20, 2015

On My Pressure, Disengage

It is interesting how the "separate" parts of my life aren't really separate.

I tend to keep my writing focused on one part or another, because the people who would be interested, tend to share one or two of my interests, but not all of them.

One of my primary interests- in fact, my profession- is something most people have absolutely no awareness of.
They can't be interested in something they don't know about.
To top it off, because of some changes in the past few decades, everything most people THINK they know about my profession is completely wrong.

That's not their fault.
Again, they can only learn from their experiences, and most people believe what is shown to them, by people who claim to be experts, without having a real way to evaluate whether that person is, in fact, an expert.
Happens all the time.


Today, some of my interests are dancing together. :-)

This will take a little background before it makes sense.

By profession, I am a Fencing Master.
That is, a classically trained, apprenticed to a classically trained, Fencing Master.
One of VERY few in the world.
This has been a journey of a significant number of years.

There are quite a few people out there using the title of "Fencing Master," but they are actually fencing COACHES, which is a very different thing.
I could provide information and history on how this came to be, to anyone actually interested, but won't write it all out here.
Just know and understand that just because someone claims to be a thing, does not make them that thing.

A Fencing Master is a professional teacher of fencing.
Fencing, itself, is for the most part, no longer understood or valued, since people no longer actually depend on the use of a sword.
What remains of fencing, in the public eye, is a sport that began as fencing, but has changed over the past few decades into something that no longer resembles the actual use of a sword. It is a high speed game of tag, with no priority placed on defense, at all.

This is unfortunate.
What can be learned from the serious study of the sword is so rich, so connected to life, and so beneficial in understanding people and how they behave, that it is a shame that all that has been stripped from it, in the name of winning competitions.

Again, I could go on at great length about how and why this is so, and how what I do is NOT that, but most people probably didn't come to THIS blog, to read about that part of my life. :-)

So why am I talking about it?

Because there is something critically important that I have learned from the study of the sword, that applies so broadly to nearly everything and everyone I encounter, that I can't help but see it wherever I look.

It starts with this:
Fencing is fighting.
Fighting is combat.
Combat is a form of conflict.
Life is FULL of conflicts, both large and small, physical, mental and emotional.

The thing is, combat follows rules.
These are unbreakable rules. Like gravity.
It is important, in life, to know what rules should be followed, which should be broken, which can be bent- and which CAN'T be bent or broken.
In order to know that, you first must know what the rules ARE.
The more you understand about how conflict works, the better you will be at managing and even avoiding it.

My Fencing Master tells an entertaining story about how, when he was a young man, he and his friends had various troubles with their romantic lives. One or the other of them would go to THEIR fencing master, and describe what problems they were having in their relationships. What conflicts.
Their master would listen, and then "translate" what was happening into fencing terminology, as if he was describing a fencing bout.
Once that translation was made, it was OBVIOUS both why things were playing out the way they were, and what must be done to change them.
That didn't always mean it was easy to make that change, but it was, absolutely, easy to see what change needed to be made.

I thought that story was funny, until it started happening to me.
Time after time, examining relationship problems in fencing terms has made it clear to me what needed to change.

When I teach people to fence, I give them the opportunity to experience for themselves, the truth of the rules of combat.
They feel it in their bodies, physically.
They know it in their minds, cognitively.
And they understand it, in their hearts.

Not because I tell them so.
But because they have direct experience of it, time after time after time.

I'm going to share one of the simplest rules with you.
This being the internet, and this particularly communication being in writing, I cannot, unfortunately, provide you with the same physical experience my students have the benefit of.
You are, in a sense, going to have to take my word for it.
I think it will make enough sense to you, from some experiences you have already had, and will continue to have, that you will believe me.

A person's response to pressure is predictable.

In fencing, when you put pressure on your opponent's blade, they will, nearly every time, disengage.
The most common response to pressure is to move away from it, in some way.

In everyday life, what this typically translates to is this: if you are having a discussion with someone, and you say something that they interpret as pressure, they will disengage from the topic. They might change the subject. They might avoid it. They might even walk away.

Interestingly, you can use this knowledge to determine if what you have said to someone WAS interpreted as pressure.

Try it.
Pay attention during conversations, and especially arguments.
When someone abruptly changes the subject, interjects a different topic, needs to leave, suddenly remembers something else they mean to say… what did you say JUST PRIOR to that happening?
Chances are, whatever that was, triggered them somehow. Whether they are aware of it or not.

Likewise, if you find yourself doing that, look to find the trigger.

Besides communicating with others, have you ever had the experience of being so stressed about something that you literally could not think straight about it?
That's the same thing. Your own mind disengages to pressure. It is attempting to defend itself.

The other response to pressure it to return the pressure.
You press, they press back.
You can see this type of response in arguments that devolve from actually trying to come to an agreement, or from trying to prove a point, to one where whatever one person says, the other makes a direct attempt to be hurtful. They know where the other person's buttons are, and push them, intentionally.
You can also see it in various "rebellious" things, commonly considered to be "behavior problems." In response to pressure, people will do something that they know you don't like, or want them to do. It is an attempt to get YOU to disengage, or drop the subject or demand.


Let's take this information, and look at learning.
Specifically, at how schools attempt to teach.

Is there pressure in school?
A test?
Perhaps a high stakes test?
Maybe the fear of embarrassment at not knowing an answer in front of classmates, or the potential of being "held back" if you aren't "keeping up"?
Concern about bullies?
About getting into a good college?
About satisfying parents or teachers?

I'd have to say that yes, school is often full of pressure.

And what do people DO, when they feel pressured?

They disengage.
Or they push back.

Does either of those things further the goal of learning?


THIS is a big part of how and why unschooling works.

No pressure.
No expectations.
No fear of embarrassment.
No being held back.
No tests.
No pushing.

Instead, in fencing terms, what is necessary is an INVITATION. An OPENING.
That, I believe, needs no "translation."

When there is NOT pressure, the learner is able to CHOOSE TO BECOME AND STAY ENGAGED. (Notice that the very language used is IDENTICAL to fencing terminology. This is not accidental.)
Able to freely make choices.
Able to stay focused on what they are doing, rather than trying to get away from it.

Facilitating is great.
Helping is great.
As long as it really IS encouraging, facilitating, and helping. The moment it is interpreted as pressure (whether or not you intended to press), you'll know.

Remove the pressure.

It is that simple.

(The title of this post is a phrase often used while giving a fencing lesson, to let the student know what they will be working on next.)

Saturday, February 7, 2015

I Didn't Unschool My Children

One of the most challenging things about helping people who are new to, or interested in, unschooling, is that at times, it feels like we aren't speaking the same language.  Because there are several paradigm shifts, or complete changes in ways of thinking about things, between us, the questions people ask often aren't phrased well, and they focus on things that seem the most important to them, but are not necessarily what is really going on, because they simply don't know enough to know what to ask.

It isn't a problem that they ask those things. We were all beginners once. It's part of the process.

The problem is that the answers are often incomprehensible to them.
Any attempt to clarify terminology may cause an emotional reaction, because people get defensive and start calling things "semantics" "nit picking" or say that they are being jumped on. Once someone is emotionally triggered, they can't listen.

But sometimes, a shift in language is an important part of understanding.
We are what and how we think.
Intentionally changing how you think about something can make a HUGE difference, especially for rooting out and eliminating ingrained habits of thought and perception.

One of the ones that frustrates me the most is when people ask anything about how (or if) you "unschool your child."
How long did you unschool your child?
Is it possible to work and unschool your child?
Why did you decide to unschool your kids?

It's a little bit like asking someone if they've stopped beating their wife.
Or like asking a vegan how they cook steak.
There is an erroneous assumption built into the question.

I DIDN'T "unschool my child."

Unschooling is a thing someone does in their own life, not something that can be done TO them.
It is an active process, a way of being in the world, not something that can be externally imposed or controlled.
Goals are set from within, by the individual (whether they are stated or not), and not something a parent is trying to reach.
I can create and encourage an environment in which unschooling thrives, but I can't unschool anyone.

Here's the problem:

If I answer their question by pointing out that I didn't unschool my child, that it's not possible to do that, that my kids live their own lives, with my partnership, companionship, and at times, assistance, but not with my control, I'm not answering the question they really meant to ask. 

It comes across as telling them they are SO wrong they don't even know how to ask their question- and even though that is, in a way , true, it isn't a value judgment, it's simply the condition of most people brand new to a subject. This is part of why most unschooling forums ask that people read a while before asking anything- hopefully, that will help them get in a better place to know what to ask. It might help them "learn the language" and start to see how things differ from their assumptions. Instead of doing so, many people start asking questions the moment they join, and then, they get upset and leave in a huff when they don't get the answers they expect (that reinforce their current beliefs). In a word, they get butthurt if they came looking for VALIDATION, not information.

But if I DON'T point that out, I'm allowing them to continue to think of unschooling as just another way of schooling, really, but perhaps kinder and gentler, or more fun, but still something arranged and controlled by the parents. They'll continue to see the world through a schooled perspective, looking for "better" ways to cover school subjects, and THAT is not going to help them become unschoolers AT ALL. 

I've long since lost track of the number of times I've seen someone's question and wanted to tell them to stop, back up, start over, and change their perspective before asking questions, because the questions they are asking don't really fit into an unschooling paradigm. They need to have a better understanding of some basics, before the answer to their question will have meaning to them.

Everyone starts a new thing at the beginning.
Everyone has questions.
All change starts somewhere, with some act.
Considering starting with some reading and thinking and observing before doing much specific asking.
The first thoughts and questions that come to your mind are most likely the SAME first thoughts and questions that come to most people's minds, and have been asked and answered countless times before. Look through some of that, so you have a better foundation when you ask about the parts that you still don't understand.
Most unschooling websites have a FAQ, and most unschooling related facebook groups have pinned posts or a files section. Respect people's time, and help yourself get a good start, before expecting everyone to start over with basic definitions, just for you.

Maybe the next time someone joins a group and immediately, without having done any research, asks some form of "What is the difference between unschooling and homeschooling?" I'll answer with "It's the difference between someone who is willing and able and interested in finding information and resources for what they want to know, using a wide variety of tools, and someone who has been taught to expect someone else to condense and feed it to them."

Is that too unkind?
Maybe that should be another blog post. :-)

Not An Unschooling Article

Once again, there is an article making the rounds that uses the term "unschooling" to describe a way of homeschooling that is not in line with how most experienced unschoolers would define it. That's not a surprise, since most people really don't understand unschooling, and it is HIGHLY unlikely that anyone writing an article is going to "get it" in the amount of time and research that is done to write an article. It is so very different from how most people grew up, from how they think about and experience the world, that misconceptions are common. Understanding unschooling is a process, rather than an event. It comes from a period of thought and observation, not from a conversation, or the answer to a question or two.

Let's start with a little about homeschooling in general.

There are a wide variety of ways to homeschool, as many as there are people doing so. There are also as many reasons for homeschooling as there are people homeschooling.

It is simplest to imagine homeschooling as being a set of two or three different "methods," and a couple of different reasons, but this isn't accurate, at all. 

Some people attempt to replicate school at home, only to do so better than the schools do, because they have a much better student-to-teacher ratio, and the ability to give more time and attention to each student. They tend to be very focused on academics, with a goal of academic excellence, and perhaps early entry to college. Or, they may simply live where the schools are not so good, and they believe they can do better. Either way, the methods and goals and tools of evaluation are typically very similar to those used in schools, from curriculum to lesson planning to writing assignments to testing.  The difference is that it is a parent who is "in charge" and assigning those things, as well as making sure their child "keeps up." This type of homeschooling is the easiest to explain to other people, since it uses many of the same concepts and school subjects with which most are familiar.

Some people take this in a slightly different direction, and acknowledge that one of the greatest advantages of homeschooling is not having to keep to a school's schedule or methods. They keep the concept of school subjects, but choose to use a wider variety of methods and materials to accomplish that. For some things, they might use a text book, or an online class, or sign up for classes at a homeschool co-op, while for others they may use a tutor, or look stuff up on the internet, or they may take field trips, play educational games, or visit museums. They keep an eye out for the "best" educational materials, the most interesting and innovative ways to study different topics. They may not follow the scope and sequence of a public school precisely, but they do make sure to "cover" the school subjects. They may or may not use tests to evaluate the students. They may choose to use "alternative" methods of evaluation, such as oral exams or keeping a portfolio of work.

Some people- probably most, I would guess- pick and choose somewhat, using very school like methods for some subjects, while being more relaxed and experimental with others. How much of which depends on the parents' comfort level with each subject, and likely with what they find available and affordable to use. There is an infinite variety of combinations.

This is still in the realm of the easily described and explained, because most people can get excited about the idea of doing all sorts of exciting and fun things instead of "seatwork" for learning. Many, many parents start homeschooling with this very image in their heads, that they will provide all of these incredible opportunities and exciting tools for their kids, much better than any school could provide. They will use this resource for their math, another for their science, and will find opportunities like immersion classes for the child to learn a second language. It is impressive, and makes the parents feel like they are accomplishing great things, and, indeed, some are.

Many people first trip on the idea of unschooling at right about this point, when the school-at-home method or the find-exciting-things-and-other-ways-to-teach method crash and burn. They are exhausted, the kids are resistant, and things aren't working out AT ALL like they had planned, expected, and/or hoped. The kids don't want to focus on that math class, or that chemistry book, or go on that field trip or write that paper, and every day is more and more stressful. The parents reach out for help, or do some research, or have heard about someone who is doing something different, and they grab at the desperate hope that it doesn't have to be this way.

They decide they will unschool their kids, instead.

And right there is the first misconception: that unschooling is just another method, that it is something done to kids by their parents.

To start, they will simply STOP whatever else they were doing.
They see unschooling as "no curriculum."
As "child led."
As NOT what they were doing before.

So they stop the teaching, stop the planning, and they wait.
They wait for their child to lead.
A child who has no experience whatsoever in such a thing.
They watch their kid, wanting and expecting to see the child suddenly "take charge of their learning" and start doing all those educational things on their own, without the parent telling them to.

When this doesn't happen, they get confused.
They don't understand that they are "looking for love in all the wrong places," so to speak.

Unschooling doesn't look like schooling. It isn't about a school-based concept of education, only the child is in charge.

So what IS it?

And here is where it gets tricky to explain.

We have to start with learning, itself.
Humans learn. It's what they do. All the time.
WHAT they learn depends on what they need, what is in their environment, and what obstacles they must overcome.

In a culture that places a high value on public education, people are trained to conceive of learning as what happens in school, but it isn't.
Not even in great schools.
All the "teaching" in the world doesn't guarantee that the material is learned, because learning takes place within the person. Learning happens when the individual makes a personal, emotional, connection to the material. When it has meaning for them.
Don't get me wrong- some teachers are exceptionally good at helping a student make those connections, but the learning still takes place within the student. It can't be pushed on them. Rote memorization can be, but it is temporary, without the emotional "glue" that creates retention.

Not all people who have the title "teacher" are actually good teachers. Not all understand how learning happens, since their own "education" in such things often focuses on pretty much everything else they will be required to do. Lesson planning, classroom control, testing, record keeping, etc. They do, typically, have SOME education in the learning domains, but typically undervalue the affective domain, which is sort of tagged on after the cognitive and psychomotor domains, almost as an afterthought, partly because it is more difficult to understand at a cognitive level. It's funny, really, that all three domains are taught using only the first, the cognitive one, but I digress.

Learning IN school is very much focused on the cognitive domain, learning by being told, or by thinking about something.
Learning in the real world is very much focused on the affective domain: learning by feeling, by wanting to know, by finding something interesting and intriguing and exciting and fascinating or simply by it being useful, by needing to know it to DO something of value. It is driven by desire, by intrinsic motivation.

THIS is where unschooling "lives" and is also why many people have the somewhat inaccurate perception that it is "child led."

It is… and it isn't, exactly.
It is "child led" in the sense that it is driven by intrinsic motivation. 
But children do not exist in a vacuum.
Unschooling parents are connected to their child, to their interests and ways of seeing the world, to what they enjoy, what fits, what gets them excited, and that creates a partnership where children and parents actively reinforce and encourage each other's learning. There is sharing, rather than waiting for someone to "express an interest."

Which brings us to the next misconception many people have.

Okay, I get that it's intrinsically motivated.
I get that it's a partnership.

What if?

What if my child doesn't show an interest in math?
What if they don't learn to read on their own?
What if they just want to play videogames all day, and never do anything else?
What if they don't want to go out and do all the interesting things that other families are doing?

How do I know?

How do I know they are learning if I don't test them?
How do we meet state requirements?
How do they get a diploma, go to college, get a job, learn to stand in line, to do things they don't want to do?

There is a huge morass of concerns that people fall into because they still don't quite get it, they still can't let go of how they grew up and were literally trained to think about education, and they aren't yet able to see any other path than the one schools promote.

In short, they still want schooled results, as far as expectations of learning specific subjects, by a certain age, in order to go to college and join the rat race, just as if they would have had they gone to school.
But they ALSO want what they see as the results of unschooling, with bright, interested and interesting adultlings, with great family relationships, a love of learning, and perhaps some precocious excellence in whatever subject the child is "passionate" about, because they were able to focus on that interest and run with it in a way they would not have been able to do with so much of their time taken up by schools.

It is wanting the best of both worlds that ends up tangling up or outright preventing the best of either.

Instead, sit down, take a breath, relax for a minute, and look at what is really happening.
Focus on the important part: a life well-lived.

It is in the beginnings of understanding how people learn, and how everything is connected, that true understanding of unschooling begins.

Everything is connected to everything. Look far enough into one thing, and you can't help but explore and discover a wide web of interrelated and interconnected things. Life IS NOT, most emphatically is not, broken up into school subjects. It isn't. School does that because it is easier to keep track of large numbers of people that way. It is easier to test and evaluate and grade and compare that way: NONE of which are actually important in the learning process. The kind of evaluation that is actually important is the ongoing, interactive, give-and-take, discussion, sharing, demonstration based DOING that people do on their own, with perhaps a knowledgeable guide to help them make good choices. Test scores and grades are easy to calculate and record, but they don't mean much. Most written tests don't measure what they claim because things are rarely that simple, and the easiest test to grade- multiple choice- is the LEAST meaningful.

One of the most important parts of understanding unschooling is really, truly, honestly, from the heart, understanding that all things lead to learning, all learning is valuable, and it all adds up to create and support the mental and emotional environment, the backbone, from where each person approaches their lives. An unschooling parent's responsibility is to provide the resources necessary to have an actively learning, interesting, full life. Some of those resources are material things, like books or videos, but the most important one is role modeling, of how a person finds out what they want and need to know, that learning never stops, that the world is endlessly fascinating. It is the learning environment that is critical: the physical environment, but also the mental environment and the emotional one. Back to those three learning domains. They are all important.

If a family lives the way many do, where learning is something that happens in school, and outside of that, never read for pleasure, never look something up just to know, and where an interest in education is ridiculed, unschooling isn't going to happen. If the parents restrict access to certain kinds of activities, because they aren't "educational," while promoting others, as if that type of learning is "better," unschooling isn't going to happen. A child cannot learn to trust their own perceptions, to be active and proactive in finding out what they need to know, in following their interests happily, if they are not trusted to do so. Period.

The "basics" that people worry so much about are called basics because they ARE the foundation of everything else. Because they are necessary to so much else, to everything people want to know, want to be able to do, and enjoy doing, there is no need to separate them out to be sure they are learned. People will do amazing things in order to be able to do what they love, given a chance. Give them that chance.

Within a family, unschooling is inspiration-driven. Living and learning with a group of people, all with their own interests, preferences, and needs, requires cooperation, facilitation, communication, compromise, innovation, experimentation, etc. Most of it can't be seen from the outside, and certainly not without context. Most happens in tiny bits, moments here or there, that add up to a wealth of knowledge over time, all connected, and therefore more easily remembered and recalled. Unschooling is an active way of being, a learning lifestyle, not simply the absence of school. It is not about getting schooled results without school, and it is not about sitting back and expecting kids to learn everything "on their own." It is about facilitating what they need, whether that leads to college, opening their own business, grand traveling adventures, or simply to someone who grows up prioritizing being a good person, one who is conscientious, honest, caring and kind, and who makes choices in their life based on supporting their community and doing no harm, whether they end up with a prestigious career, or not. It is about honoring who they want to be, not what anyone else expects them to be.

If they want to go to college, help them go.
If they want a 9-to-5 job, help them prepare for it.
If they want time to explore options, provide it.
If they ask for help, help them.
If you find something they might find interesting, share it.
Hang out with your kids.
Be a good person, a good role model, and connect with others who are living lives they love.

But at the very beginning, remember this: it is a journey. You don't yet know what you don't know, or understand what you don't understand.
Don't expect to "get it" in one fell swoop.
Spend some time thinking about learning.
Be very observant.
Watch people.
Watch what they do, how they behave, how they feel, when they are doing something they aren't interested in, and/or don't want to do.
Listen to what they say about their lives.
Watch what people do, how they do it, how they talk and feel about it, when they are doing what they LOVE. Find those people. Notice what they have in common.
Think about your own experiences, of both pressure and joy. Of things that have made you miserable, and of those that have made your heart sing.

THEN choose.
What life do you want?
What life do you want for your kids?
What are your priorities, really?
What really matters?
How can you live in a way that honors those priorities?
Do the best you can to do that, no matter what other people tell you, no matter how many naysayers try to influence you.
People have a very hard time seeing others succeed at what they'd love to do, but are too fearful to attempt.
Understand that- and move on.