Unschooling is the ultimate form of individualised learning

Photo by Freya Dawson

Unschooling is a brilliant way to support your child’s unique learning style.

Child-led learning, interest-led learning, unschooling or self-directed learning are all different ways of describing the same thing: they all describe an approach to education in which the child is in the driving seat rather than a teacher or parent.

If you are a home educating parent you’ll be wondering

“How can I best support my child’s learning?”

The beauty of an unschooling approach is that your child will let you know how you can best support them. You simply have to observe and listen.

If you combine unschooling with conscious parenting that emphasises respect, freedom and an open-minded attitude then you create the sort of relationship where your child knows that they can tell you what they want. They won’t hold back out of fear of punishment, consequences or love withdrawal.

When children are given the freedom to choose how they play and learn it’s amazing to observe how different they can be in their learning styles and how much things can change as they grow up.

We each have our own learning style

I observed and supported my two sons in their unschooling journey for over 15 years and they couldn’t have been more different in their learning style.

My eldest son always wanted to do everything in his own way and in his own time. He was very clear about what he was interested in and what he wasn’t. If he wasn’t interested in something I suggested he was assertive in his “No”. He always explored his interests in a LOT of depth. For example, when he was around 4 years old, he became so immersed in David Attenborough’s natural history documentaries that it felt like David had become a member of our family. My son even gave him a “special” name. For some reason he always referred to him as “David John Attenborough” (I have no idea where the “John” came from). The main support he wanted while he pursued this passion was someone to watch with him. It’s a good thing I loved those documentaries too.

Later, this same child discovered video games and quickly developed a new passion. This passion developed into a 10-year-long love affair with learning through online games. This included teaching himself to read and write while gaming, even as someone with severe dyslexia. Throughout this period he wanted practical help with many of the games, someone to read text for him, a lot of tech support and a parent who was willing to listen to him talk about Minecraft, Skyrim or World of Warcraft AT LENGTH without glazing over.

I would describe his learning style as “very independent” with an emphasis on visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning. He hardly ever wanted to be taught, in the sense of having a sit down “lesson” about something, but he was willing to tolerate short bursts of instruction if the topic was of particular relevance to him. For example, when he decided that he wanted to go to high school at age 17 he asked for some short “lessons” in maths as preparation. He was also happy to have music lessons when he decided that he wanted to learn the clarinet at age 15.

By contrast, his younger brother developed a very different learning style. The difference wasn’t obvious when he was young, as he also wanted to do most of his learning through playing video games and watching movies and YouTube. He mostly played or watched alongside his brother and they “taught” each other through their shared experiences.

The big difference in learning style emerged when my youngest son turned 12. He abruptly announced that he wanted to be taught how to read. His reading up to this point had been at a very basic level, as it hadn’t been relevant to him to focus on this skill and he hadn’t been developmentally ready. Now, suddenly, he was ready and raring to go and he wanted me to teach him! He was very explicit in his request for instruction: he told me exactly how this was going to work. He wanted me to sit on the couch with him and to get out the most basic of the “early reader” books that we had. He wanted me to read them with him. I would read aloud, and he would memorise, decode and read little bits himself. He was occasionally open to my suggestions as to other resources we could use in our daily “lessons” but he took the lead most of the time.

This experience of “teaching” him how to read gradually grew and developed into a structured program of learning that drew on many textbooks and workbooks and covered the whole breadth of the school curriculum. He directed this process on a daily basis, letting me know when he wanted his lessons to begin and end and what content he wanted to cover. He also let me know very clearly when he was stressed or frustrated and wanted to stop. When he wanted to practice spelling he decided the type of drills we would do. We recited the times tables together while we were out walking around the neighbourhood each afternoon. His style of unschooling looked a lot like structured homeschooling during this period but it was always child-led and interest-led.

I would describe his learning style as “very determined” with an emphasis on wanting explicit instruction, lots of repetition and self-direction. He pursued his self-designed and self-managed learning program to the point where he was confident that he could tackle entering the high school system. He started school at age 15 and has thrived in that learning environment. It probably helped that in Year 9 you can choose a number of electives, so he could do subjects that interested him.

These sons of mine have very different personalities and very different learning styles and I could only figure out how best to support their learning by listening to each of them very attentively and giving them the time and space to figure out what suited themselves. I didn’t attempt to impose a learning program onto them and I never forced them to do anything they didn’t want to do. I never assumed that I knew what was best for their learning process. How can a parent or teacher ever know the best way for a child to learn?

Letting your child guide and direct their own learning process doesn’t mean that you stand back and neglect them. They will still need lots of support, encouragement and a range of learning resources. Unschooling is often a very intense journey that involves a great deal of parents’ time and energy but it’s also the ultimate in individually personalised education. I don’t think there is a more effective way of supporting children to learn in the way that suits themselves best.

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I’m a parenting, unschooling and spiritual mentor and writer. I help parents live with their children without stress or struggle.

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Freya Dawson

Freya Dawson

I’m a parenting, unschooling and spiritual mentor and writer. I help parents live with their children without stress or struggle.

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