The Unschooling Iceberg: What’s Beneath the Surface?

By Courtney Barker

I have a confession. Our life is not how it appears. I have been thinking about this a lot and I want to clear up any confusion. If you check out my Instagram or any of the ‘Unschooling on Tuesday’ posts I write showing you a glimpse of what we get up to in a day, I think it is painting an inaccurate picture. There is a LOT that is left out. And I think it is the most important work.

You see, I truly believe that in a supportive environment, the learning takes care of itself. It is also simple to capture. A child reading a book or doing a science experiment or creating. Obviously, a lot is missed here too, but it is easy to get a quick picture and write a few sentences of your child excavating a fossil and for everyone to feel all warm and fuzzy and think, “Oh when they are unschooling they do LEARN. They are MOTIVATED.”

But confession time. I feel like my involvement in this – reading to my kids, answering questions, facilitating research, finding activities and exhibitions and groups I think my children would enjoy, is only about 20% of my time. It could be a bit more or a bit less on any given day, but it is a minority percentage. Always. My kids are interested and motivated and curious and they cover a lot of academic learning themselves. Sometimes I think my role in this can appear to be a lot more online.

So where does this leave the bulk? It isn’t where your mind typically goes when you think of ‘unschooling’. When we talk about our fears and concerns around child led learning, they are almost entirely centred around measurable academic learning. Will they hit the milestones of reading and writing? Will they be able to access higher education if they choose? What about maths?? I know these are questions I have asked myself at one point or another. But to be honest, in our home, as we travel further down this path, I can see that this is the easy part. It really does happen. And quite effortlessly. I realise that I find myself in this position where the vast bulk of my time guiding, listening, modelling, discussing, is spent on emotional development and connection. And this is hard to capture in words and photos.

I am very much involved with my children and what they are up to in every part of my day, and sometimes this feels all consuming. Yet, how much of this time is spent connecting with and supporting my children emotionally has also been a big surprise for me, particularly with my older children. It is something we don’t even really think about when we think about school. And that is scary. With unschooling we think about the loss of formal academic direction and either celebrate or fear that. But what about everything that is gained with emotional direction?

With unschooling we think about the loss of formal academic direction and either celebrate or fear that. But what about everything that is gained with emotional direction?

This morning, I watched my son discover a new game recommended by a friend. It is called Prodigy. It is a maths game online where you battle wizards with equations. He loved it and played solidly for a few hours. He started at first grade level. After he logged off and moved on to something else, I had a quick look to see where he was up to because the maths seemed quite difficult even though he seemed to be figuring it out. My seven year old had breezed through three grade levels in a couple of hours and was doing fourth grade maths.

We seem SO concerned with academics. THERE IS NO BOAT TO MISS HERE. At any time we can learn what we need, when we need to. But can the same be said about emotional regulation? If your child misses out on the guidance they need in early development, in my opinion, the opportunity cost is much greater. It is something we are not talking about enough. This morning my son did the entire curriculum for a subject area in about an hour. He would have spent a year in school doing the same, no doubt a million different ways. What is lost and what is gained with formal instruction, five days a week? My son isn’t doing sit down math each day, but he is doing a lot of emotional ground work. There is no way that the lessons he has learned in the last year about himself, about his emotions and the tools he prefers for emotional regulation or the deep connections he has made in his relationships could be condensed into an hour revision. There is no way that this kind of supported self work could have occurred as comprehensively in a school setting. There is no way that he could have done this in isolation at seven years old, on someone else’s timetable or squished in to a couple of hours in the afternoon. The loss of academic direction is not equal to the loss of emotional direction. The two cannot be interchanged. You can miss out on maths or chemistry or literature studies now and learn it whenever you please later. The same cannot be said as readily for the building blocks of emotional literacy.

When I think about the many, many, many hours spent supporting his development this past year, providing a safe place for him to explore his emotions, allowing this development to occur without shame when his exploration oversteps boundaries, helping him navigate his relationship with himself and others, connecting with him and his interests, it dominates the experience of our time together. It is complex and beautiful to nurture this growth. When something big comes up for us, it can take an hour, an entire morning, a day or even weeks to explore properly. It requires a lot of thought, discussion, reflection and modelling. I think of how this could possibly happen if he were spending his days with twenty other children his age, all navigating their own emotional growth, and one adult focused almost entirely on academic learning. It isn’t possible. And that is very, very concerning.

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