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What is Deschooling and Why It Is Important

I often receive emails like the following:

We have been homeschooling for X time and it is just not working. I read about unschooling and it really sounded like the way I would like my children to learn. We started unschooling X weeks ago and I feel like we are not doing anything. My X year old has not done anything I can call learning. His/her day consists of cartoons, movies, video games, riding bikes, trampoline, roaming our wood, board games, reading fluff novels, comic books, playing on his/her guitar, playing Pokemon (you fill in what you consider to be an inappropriate activity for a “school day”). I have been trying to see learning in what my child does. Can you help? What did your unschooling look like? Are these things really learning?

This is an amalgam of those emails, of course, but you get the idea. And before I go into unschooling with them and what unschooling can look like (because it looks different for every family and even for every child), I take the time to explain about deschooling, a necessary process for those who have spent any amount of time in any formalized school-type setting.

Deschooling is the time given and the process where children who have been in a formal school setting (such as public school) unlearn what the system taught them (often unintentional lessons), recover emotionally from any damage inflicted upon their souls, and essentially rediscover who they are, what they like, and what they are capable of. This process can take quite some time, depending upon the number of years that your child was in the school system and how traumatic/damaging his/her time there was. If you went directly from the formal (public) school setting to “school-at-home,” then your child did not go through this deschooling process. You replaced the structure of the (public) school with the structure of school at home, so your child did not have to think for himself about what he liked, what he wanted to do, and what he wanted to learn. He simply had to follow the routine and schedule provided for him.

The general rule of thumb for deschooling is that it will take one month for every year in the public school system, but this process can take a much longer time if those years in the public school system were particularly traumatic or if your child really lost herself within the (public) school schedule and way of doing things.

When we first began to homeschool, we went directly to school-at-home, which lasted about four months before I burnt out. Then I learned about unschooling and deschooling. Our two younger children had only been in the system for a short time and never really gave themselves up to it (fought it at every turn) and they didn’t require much, if any, deschooling. But our eldest had a rough time the last year of school, had spent six years in the system, and had really lost herself. She took a full six months of deschooling time – time when she did nothing but sleep, read “fluff” books, watch television and sleep some more. I really became quite concerned … but, with the support of some unschooling friends, I held on and let her deschool till *she* was done. And I knew she was done with deschooling one morning announced she needed to go to the library to look up something that she was curious about. She was ready to go, full of ideas and plans and needing this resource and that resource.

Be forewarned, though! When your child renews his/her interest in learning, it may not be in the direction or mode that you would wish him/her to learn or are familiar with. For many years our daughter wanted nothing to do with a textbook, workbook, or any type of formal learning. It wasn’t until she was sixteen and decided to take a college class in Spanish that she was willing to do any type of “regular” or “formal” academic type work. She would learn things, but in her own way and her own time … sometimes through Internet searches, sometimes by reading, sometimes just by trial and error and questions. I could not lead her in any direction whatsoever – in fact, the mere suggestion by me of something she might be interested in would send her quickly in the complete opposite direction. I learned that if there was an idea I wanted to present to her, I had to come to it in a roundabout manner, simply making general observations about a subject, or even just reading about it on my own, leaving my resources lying around, and eventually, usually, she’d pick them up and have a look.

And it is not only our children who must deschool. Because we parents were not homeschooled and we spent years in a formal school system, it will take us much longer to deschool. Until we deschool, though, it will be more difficult to recognize the learning occurring in our children as they continue on their unschooling journey. I found myself panicking many times during our unschooling years, sure that no learning was occurring, trying to implement some sort of schedule or maybe try a new curriculum. My children were very good at humoring me, knowing that within a few days the panic would subside and we could go back into our unschooling routines. Deschooling took years for me, but gradually those panicky times were fewer and further between.

So do yourself a favor and give your children (and yourself) the time to deschool. Once you do, you will be able to see learning occurring at times and places where you never would have thought it possible.

12 comments to What is Deschooling and Why It Is Important

  • Sue

    Thank you for such a true and clear explanation. I have just started unschooling my 16 year old son, and thought a week or so would be sufficient to “deschool” him. Your explanation has made me realize that he will need whatever time HE needs. So you’ve helped resolve my concerns weeks before they arose, and what you wrote makes perfect sense to me. I too will need more time than I probably expected to deschool. Thanks so much for such a helpful article.

  • psam ordener

    My older son had been in school through 4th grade. He took over a year to truly deschool. The younger finished first grade, and it took him nearly two years to deschool. School was much more traumatic for him.

    I worried about what they were learning, but gradually came to understand that they were learning even if I wasn’t measuring it by some standardized test. I came to trust them and let them live with me and learn whatever and however they wanted. That involved a lot of internet and video games and a lot of time outside climbing and running and scooting and skating and playing with the cats. And, of course, a lot of housework and yardwork, because Mom won’t have time to drive you everywhere you want to go if she has to do all the work. Still, I was amazed when my firstborn decided to try high school and ended up with an A+ average for the one semester he completed, with three AP classes, a foreign language (Latin) and a math that was completely new to him (geometry). I was even more amazed the next semester, when he took two classes at the community college, one of which required five research papers, and he had never done a research paper – yet he figured it out and got As on those, too. The prof had no idea he’d never done one; his were some of the best in the class.

    His experiences allowed me to trust his five-years-younger brother completely with his learning. He may not know everything they teach in high school, but most of the high schoolers I know forget all those memorized facts as soon as they take the final test too. But he is confident, he can read and write and follow directions, and we his parents see him as a well-rounded, interesting and capable young man.

    Let them deschool as long as it takes, and then let them run! Learning is hardwired into their brains. It takes a lot of structure, a lot of mindless drill and worksheets, and a determined system to take it away from them.

  • Thank you for this article.

    I have finally surrendered and I am truly unschooling my children. No more curriculum or schedules. Some days are filled with games, internet and trampoline. Some days are filled with books, DVDs and Tv. Some days are filled with cooking, going places, karate and ballet. Some days we clean, play and cuddle! Some days, we just are!! Hey, that sounds like life. 🙂

  • Kristit

    Thank you for this! My son is still in school but as soon as we move, we’re not re-enrolling him. He’s 6 and will probably need a few months to deschool and with a baby on the way, he’ll get just that. But I will need much longer. I went to public school, college, and am a certified teacher who has taught for years. I’m thinking things will be much harder for me than him. I’ll just have to guide and trust in him. The poor guy will the the guinea pig for the next two. LOL

  • Isn’t that what the eldest child is for, Kristi? To be the guinea pig? 🙂

  • It does sound like life, Tereza! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  • I am glad you found it helpful, Sue. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  • I’m so glad I found your site. We are using your daily log sheets. It’s hard to write down all you are learning each day when you are truly living a learning life style!

    I’m passing on The Versatile Blogger Award to you. If you’d like to participate you can visit my blog for details.

    Blessings, Lori

  • So glad you are finding the log sheets useful! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  • I am so glad to have found this article! We pulled our oldest out of public schools almost 4 years ago, after the school refused to deal with a bully issue that left our oldest with scrapes, cuts, nightmares and who knows what else! We went from the public school to school-at-home, without even a blink of an eye. Since then we have tried about 4 different programs for home school only to be met with crying, balking, and every imaginable excuse not to do them. Just in the last week, as I was getting their school year set up for this year, I found some articles about unschooling/natural learning. I have watched our oldest go from the whining about our curriculm to his room to watch the History channel, Natural Geographic and even Criminal Minds…only to come out talking about something on those shows and he’s looking it up online. Not a single lesson we’ve worked on in 3 years drives him like these others do. I believe we will be making one last switch for both our children. We will be learning naturally, as life throws new and entertaining ideas our way. Thank you for such an eye opening article!

  • Glad you found it helpful, Salli! Please check out the unschool articles on my website. And good luck!

  • Rachael

    I’m not unschool age, but I have used this way of thinking to help improve my”I’m a terrible student” mentallity. It has helped me move out of a failed college mode into life mode without missing they things seem to be with school in life. I have taught myself more than school ever has and have increased my reading which seemed to die in school, and I was at a Christain university.Where that school had said no,I said yes. My life has been mostly unschooled because I had medical problems(phsyical), but we thought that was just being lazy. Wish we had known about unschool. We might of kept out of school. This is a great form of education for sick kids with schools that won’t let them in.

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