EU341: Unschooling “Rules”: Don’t Use Curriculum
This week on the podcast, we’re sharing our second episode in the Unschooling “Rules” series!
We use the word “rules,” in quotes, to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing as an unschooling rule! It can feel easier to reach for a set of rules to follow, especially when we’re learning something new, but we want to offer you space to look within, to find what makes sense to you and what makes sense to the individual members of your family. There are no unschooling police. Nobody is going to drop by your house and give you a failing grade—or an A+. Our goal with this series is to explore these apparent “rules” and cultivate an environment for self-discovery, for inquiry, for agency, and for growth.
In this episode, we’re diving into the “rule” that unschoolers should never use curriculum. It can be really helpful when you’re starting out unschooling to steer away from curriculum and adult-led activities, because, when we first come to unschooling, our vision of how learning works is so often tightly wrapped up in what it looks like in school. But eventually, our focus on what they’re learning shifts to focusing on cultivating connected and trusting relationships with them and the choices they make about what activities they want to do and how they want to follow their interests just flow naturally from that connected place.
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We invite you to join us in The Living Joyfully Network, a wonderful online community for parents to connect and engage in candid conversations about living and learning through the lens of unschooling. Our theme this month is Learning About Our Family, and we’re exploring it through the lenses of beginner’s mind and trust.
So much of what we talk about on this podcast and in the Living Joyfully Network isn’t actually about unschooling. It’s about life. On The Living Joyfully Podcast, Anna Brown and Pam Laricchia talk about life, relationships, and parenting through the lenses of connection and curiosity. Check out The Living Joyfully Podcast here or find it in your your favorite podcast player.
PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m joined by Anna Brown and Erika Ellis. Hi to you both.
ANNA AND ERIKA: Hello.
PAM: Now, before we get started proper, we want to remind everyone that, with this Unschooling “Rules” series, we use the word rules in quotes to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing. It can sometimes feel easier to reach for a set of rules to follow, especially when we’re learning something new. But we want to offer you space to look within, to find what makes sense to you and what makes sense to the individual members of your family. There are no unschooling police. Nobody is going to drop by your house and give you a failing grade or even an A+. So, our goal with this series is to explore these apparent rules and cultivate an environment for self-discovery, for inquiry, for agency, and for growth.
So, in this episode, we’re diving into the “rule” that says unschoolers don’t use curriculum. And I think this is going to be so interesting to explore.
Now, when I started thinking about it, it is very similar to the first rule we explored, “Always Say Yes,” in that it makes sense as a guide for people new to unschooling. It can be really helpful when you’re starting out to steer away from not only curriculum, but also more formal adult-led programs for a while, like local rec classes or online classes, things like that. And that’s because, when we first come to unschooling, our vision of how learning works is so often tightly wrapped up in what it looks like in school. There’s an adult teacher who knows the subject and the order in which it’s best to learn it, and students who soak up the knowledge as directed.
Sure we have likely chosen unschooling because something in that process didn’t make sense to us. So, maybe our child didn’t mesh with the classroom environment of sit quietly and listen. Or maybe the high student-teacher ratio makes us uncomfortable. Or maybe we buck at the amount of seemingly arbitrary rules needed to manage a classroom of 30-odd kids. Yet, and this was definitely the case for me, I didn’t know what I didn’t yet know about how learning happens. I thought I knew how learning happens. I’ve been learning for so many years in my life.
So, the encouragement to steer clear of curriculum when we were starting out was helpful for me. Without that curriculum-based structure to fall back on, I had a little choice but to ask myself, “Well, how would my kids learn instead? So, I ended up more intentionally watching them in action, playing with them, chatting with them, hanging out together. And over time, I came to see how much they were learning as they went about their day following their interests.
Because, with unschooling, instead of following curriculum, our kids are following their interests. And if we don’t first take curriculum off the table, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll just naturally jump to that style of learning whenever our kid expresses an interest in something. “Dance? Okay. I’ll sign you up for ballet lessons.” “Soccer? Oh yeah. Let’s join the local soccer league and get you on a team. It’ll be so fun.” “Science? The Science Center has a six-week summer program. I just signed you up. Yay!” And that’s because we still think these more formal adult-led settings are the best way to learn.
But really, they are just another way to engage with an interest, not objectively better than dancing around the family room or kicking the ball around the yard or making slime at home. And the more we sink into that, peeling back those layers, the more we discover about how human beings are wired to learn, how they will naturally play around with things to figure out how they work, how human beings are just so curious.
And eventually, our focus on what they’re learning shifts to focusing on cultivating connected and trusting relationships with them. Because we know in our bones now that learning happens all the time and in the bigger picture, we can better support their efforts when our relationship is strong. And it is here that this role can start to rub. It can start to feel a bit restrictive.
If we continue to stick with the story that people like us, unschoolers, don’t use curriculum, we are apt to take interesting possibilities off the table, just because they’re curriculum-based. Instead, now that we no longer feel that learning directed by an adult or teacher is any better than learning that they pursue themselves, we can now add those bits to the big smorgasbord of learning possibilities to choose from. None is better than another except to the individual who’s interested in learning about something.
How do they like to learn? What are they looking to learn? Where might they find that kind of information? Where might they find other people who are as interested in the topic as they are? Maybe they’ve loved dancing around the house and now they want to try a class with others who also love to dance. Maybe an online class that dives into a book series they love looks interesting to them, or joining a sports team to up their game, or chemistry class, or whatever strikes their fancy.
At this point, the fundamental difference is that they are choosing the more formal environment or curriculum because they’re interested in the information that they’ll find there. It’s not about the grades. It’s about what they want to learn. And if they find the environment isn’t a good fit after all, they know they’re free to leave and try another way to dive into their interest, without any judgment. And at this point, we know and we feel how this applies to our whole family. We are a family of people who pursue our interests and aspirations in whatever ways we’re curious to explore, no matter our age. Now, we’re really unschooling! So, Anna, what are your thoughts around this?
ANNA: Oh my goodness. First, I really do love this series, because I feel like picking apart this idea that there are these hard and fast rules is so valuable, because it gets us to our “why” and all this thinking that I like to do and pick apart and see the nuances, because it really is just so unique to each family. And if we keep connection at the forefront, it makes it so much easier to navigate all these things as they come along.
So, in our family, my girls never went to school, but I did. So, I had certainly soaked up what learning was supposed to look like in a school setting. I am also a scanner though, and so I just love learning new things, and so I had that going for me. I knew that I could learn whatever I wanted to and dig to whatever depths I wanted to, so I had that experience that I think helped me along the way.
In some of the very early days, I was really attracted to the nature-based curricula and new school supplies were super fun for me at school. That was probably my favorite part. And I definitely enjoyed getting the art cabinet fully-stocked and having all these tools at our disposal.
But what I learned pretty quickly was, I was drawn to the nature based curriculum because it was what I liked. And interestingly, my girls also enjoyed nature when they were very young, but they didn’t like a book telling them what they were going to do each day. So, we had a really cool backyard with the creek and all kinds of nature and flora and fauna, and they just really preferred that exploration, being led by what was in front of us and what was happening in their lives and where their interest was drawn throughout the yard.
And then I think about the flip side, we also learned so much about bugs and fish through Animal Crossing, which is a video game that we all enjoyed as a family. We each had our own. And I found cool ideas from all kinds of different sources over the years. When I used them in a way that flowed with our days and our organic interests, everyone enjoyed it.
So, for me, it’s never been that that curriculum doesn’t have a place. It’s more about who’s driving it and how it’s used. I want to look carefully at why I felt it would be helpful. And oftentimes, when I dug in there, it was because of maybe how it would look or I can say, we’re using this. Or it would take some of the responsibility off of me, because then I’m not having to plan activities or think or follow their interests as much. We can just sit down and do the thing.
But, in the end, I found, even when I tried to find curriculum-type resources, they felt so short of what my children actually wanted to learn. It was very surface level. And what I found with mine is that they like to dive deep and learn all the things about whatever their interest was in that moment.
And so, in the end, it just really didn’t add much for us. But I do think every family is unique and every child unique, and so, it is worth exploring.
I guess I do want to add, too, this is just a personal aside, that I don’t believe that kids need worksheets to learn. I think humans like to know how information is used and how it fits in the world, and I think worksheets tend to dissociate from that. So, that was actually something we didn’t have around. We had tons of books and games and watched shows and found resources that enhanced the things that we were interested in. Our halls were lined with posters from snakes to a giant timeline of the presidents. They liked logic games and different computer games, and Raelin went through a geography phase and we found all sorts of resources for that.
There are just so many amazing resources out there, and I think probably even more now than there was when our kids were growing up. For me, it’s just really about staying connected and in tune with what might help them along their chosen path. And I think that’s the important piece for me is, they’re really seeing that path and I’m right there with them facilitating and learning alongside of them, but I’m not carving the path for them. Erika, what are you thinking about?
ERIKA: So, I thought this was a really interesting one, too, and like with that “Always Say Yes” rule, I’ve definitely seen this idea cause issues in both directions. So, on one side of the pendulum swing, parents might actively reject anything that reminds them of anything that anyone has ever done in school, which potentially limits what their children have access to. And then, on the other side, parents might value curriculum or learning that looks more schoolish and subconsciously, or even purposefully, encourage their children to make those kinds of choices.
And really, in either case, it’s not as much about what the kids are drawn to or what feels the best to them, and more about judgments of the parents and what the parents want their life to look like from the outside. So, I think for this rules episode, it’s fun to just consider where you are on that pendulum swing and what kinds of reactions you have to the types of interests that your children have.
I remember at the beginning of my unschooling journey, I was drawn to the idea of curriculum, because it seems fun to have a plan and to have activities to do, and it’s appealing to me to check off boxes. I also love school supplies, and I do think curriculum is also appealing in that same way that Anna was describing, that handing off responsibility piece, because if we’re following a plan that someone else has created, we are less responsible for the outcomes. And if we’re on that prescribed path, there can be a feeling of security that’s tied to that.
And, depending on our children’s personalities, there will be more or less push-back about doing adult-led activities. And in the case of my kids, there was just no way to direct them to do activities of my choosing. They are very focused on the things they’re interested in. And so, I recognized that very early on and focused on supporting their explorations rather than trying to direct them.
And every once in a while, we would try out a nature program or a story time or an art activity at the park. And really my experience with my kids, with all adult-directed activities is that they don’t like the feeling of being directed. And I know my kids are not the only ones that feel like that.
But some kids do like their Outschool classes or their co-op classes and their reading practice books. And some kids, we hear, oh, they love doing math worksheets. And so, I guess in those cases, I would just want to dig into a couple of questions for myself. Am I giving my kids any indication that choosing those adult-led activities is better than something else they might be interested in doing? Or am I suggesting classes and curriculum ideas, like Pam was saying, as the first thing that pops into my head when they express a new interest? And if that’s the case, maybe it would be worthwhile to expand the possibilities, give things a little more space to blossom, and get curious about what that particular child really would want to do if they were free to make a choice.
There’s definitely not a right way when it comes to learning, and so, I’m just grateful for space and the chance to give things time and for my kids to truly be able to choose what makes sense as the right next step for them as they’re following their interests.
ANNA: I think that’s such a core piece though, right? Is when it happens that, okay, they like this. They like that. Great. We’re supporting that. We’re supporting their interest in the class or the worksheet or the whatever. But I think those questions are important, because we’ve seen it. I mean, I feel like we’ve just seen it recently with some friends, too, that are just so excited about the classes that are starting up! And kids sense that, right? They see that, okay, this is really valued. And we’ve been hearing, oh, we’re just sitting around all day and oh, we’re just doing this. And so, what is that energy, and what is our body language, and what are our words conveying about learning? I think it’s just interesting to kind of explore.
ERIKA: And if it’s a certain kind of kid, the kid will see that excitement and want to do it. And then if it’s my kind of kid, they’ll see that excitement and never want to do it. And in either case, they’re not really listening to themselves.
ANNA: Right. To themselves.
PAM: Yeah. And I think it that is so interesting for us to dig into, too, because I feel there may be occasions when we get super excited about how a class or something sounds. It can be, why? Let’s dig into that. Is it because it’s something that’s interesting to us. That’s cool. And maybe we could take the class, then. But also, most of us have grown up going to school and we have that school experience and when that’s still what we reach for as learning, but now it’s in like maybe a more open environment, it’s less restrictive than the experience we had. So, that’s another piece that can be exciting for us, because it feels more open to us. It’s more open. It’s something they’re interested in. This is awesome! Yay!
But we won’t notice until we kind of dig in, because it’s just something we haven’t had much experience with until we give ourselves the ability and the choice and the space to just think, ooh, what am interested in? It could be really interesting just to think, what is something that I’d like to learn about? What am I curious about? And then, whatever pops to mind, how would I like to learn about that? And it would just be so curious to write down 10 ways that you might learn about the thing that you’re curious about learning and just look at them. It could give you a really cool snapshot of where your mind is and how we learn things, how human beings learn things.
And maybe you’ll go, you know what? I’m going to try out number seven on the list, because that might be a little bit outside of my comfort zone, but that could be cool to experience. Because that’s the thing is, when we don’t have judgment, when we’re not worried about grades, when it’s really just about us and our learning and the way we want to learn things and the things that we’re interested in learning, we can try it out. We can try it out for a couple of weeks. It’s like, oh, this doesn’t feel good, but when we have these experiences about ways to learn, we can bring that to our conversations with our kids. It helps us release some of the judgment. It helps us see the value in, “Oh, they’re ‘just’ playing.” That was in quotes, right? It is fascinating when we can start playing with it for ourselves, because now we have more experiences and we can see new things in our kids that we might not have when we had a little bit more of a tunnel vision around how human beings learn.
ANNA: Right. And I feel like we don’t even know that we have that though. So, I think the exercise you’re talking about is really important, because when you just realize, oh, I need a class, I need an expert to tell me how to do that. Oh, I need to go do it this way. It’s just so ingrained in us. It’s just so hard to even begin to question that.
But I think when we turn our eyes to our children, actually, we see all the learning that takes place in a given day as they’re physically moving objects, as they’re asking questions, as they’re exploring the world.
And so, I feel like, for me, that’s what really opened that up was just seeing how much they were learning just organically living their day. When I was trained and taught that that’s how you learn is to sit there and listen to the expert telling you. And while there were pieces of me that bucked against that, I didn’t know that we really could do it another way. And so, I think it is more ingrained in us than we think. And it’s really fun to let it go, I’ll just say, now, 20 years down the road. Oh my gosh. The power that we have to just learn anything that we want in so many different ways is such a unique time in history I think as well. So, it’s really fun.
ERIKA: Yeah. It’s exactly that. I feel like when we have the tunnel vision about the one way to learn and we’re directing them into this kind of chute of, here’s the next step, then we’re missing what we talk about so much, which is like what they actually like about the thing, too. And so, the more they get sucked into, this is the way everyone learns about this thing that you’re interested in, the less chance there is for them to take the offshoots of what they actually really are curious about.
And so, I think it’s such a special environment for a person to be able to actually be following the little threads of their own interest. I think there’s a better chance for finding new things or finding something that just so perfectly matches with who they are. That’s really exciting to think about, actually.
ANNA: I love that, because I think, like you’re talking about, it’s these different webs and there’s backtracks. So, I’m interested in dance. But I like the music. Oh, but I’m going to come back here. And, oh, I like the costumes. And, oh, I’m going to come back here. But it’s like the ballet class for the five-year-old is just going to be the ballet class for the five-year-old. You’re going to be learning these few feet positions and put a tutu on, but we have the ability to provide a richer environment where all those aspects can be explored to the depths that maybe just a quick shallow or a very deep dive that’s so unique and so much more, I think, how humans learn.
PAM: Yeah. I love that so much. That’s such an interesting thing to think about, because you’re right. When we get a topic and we want to be helpful and supportive, it’s like, okay, let’s go! Let’s sign up for the lessons, let’s do this. But when you start doing that, you’re guiding them, because in that environment, they’re told what the important part of the thing is, right. So, it’s like, oh, okay. So, I don’t get to wear a costume until maybe the end of the year when we have our performance, right?
So, they just absorb the message that, oh, that’s not really an important part of it, even though, for me, when I watched some ballet or I see a ballet, that was what I loved. And I love ballet! And, “Okay, let’s go to class.” And that gets lost and it gets pushed down. Not even anyone saying anything, but those messages come through.
So, giving the space for a little while, just to like dance with them, to see what they’re drawn to. Put ballet dance videos and all those things on and see what they do with it. See where they take it. That can give us so much more information than quickly setting them in an environment that is presupposing what their love of the thing is all about.
ANNA: Right, and I’m going to take it back to the topic, just really quick to even wrap it up. Once we’ve cultivated this environment where we’re able to explore and go and come back and do and create the web, then a curriculum doesn’t have any power. It may have use. So, then you bring in that more conventional tool that maybe is an expert or maybe is a written curriculum or is maybe some type of class and they know it’s just one option among many. They don’t weigh it any more. They get what they want to from it. They don’t feel bad about themselves if it doesn’t fit them or it doesn’t feel good.
And so, I think that’s the beauty of creating this environment. It’s not about no curriculum, no classes. It’s about the whole environment. Is everything valued and is our own unique learning path valued?
PAM: Oh yeah. I love that. I love that. When you get to that point, then everything’s an option.
Life is just so much bigger and beautiful. Oh, thank you so much to both of you for joining me. That’s a really fun discussion and I am really, really loving this series.
ERIKA: Me too!
PAM: Yay! I hope everyone else listening is as well. And remember, you can come and comment on the episode on the website where we’re sharing it on the YouTube video, on Instagram, all the different places. We would love to hear your thoughts as well. Have a great day, everyone. Bye!