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Photo by Kristin Jillson

Unschooling and Democratic Education: A dysfunctional marriage?
One parent’s experience of having moved from unschooling to democratic education, the differences and similarities.

I am an ex-unschooling parent. Six years of not going to school, and now my children attend a democratic (Sudbury model) school in Paris.

Unschooling and democratic education have somewhat of an uneasy relationship. The Alliance for Self Directed Education attempts to bring the two together, but some unschoolers say that this marriage does not include them because their children aren’t self-directed, but are facilitated in their learning by their parent. Likewise, some democratic educators say that unschooling has nothing to do with them.

I personally consider my children to have been self-directed learners from the start. This doesn’t mean I think that they are now unschoolers at school, nor that I am still an unschooling parent.

The two have important similarities and there are also crucial differences. The context of a democratic school is very different to an unschooling home, and that, in my opinion, affects how the people in that community behave – and by extension, what the children learn.

children climbing a wall
Photo by Kristin Jillson

Learning is context dependent

For self-directed learning is never context-free. Our environment will affect what we learn and the opportunities which are open to us. In an environment with no text and print, it is entirely possible for children to grow up without learning to read. We create our own learning environments, depending on our interests (and our genetic code) but we can only work with what we have.

My daughter, for example, has learnt to speak French in the year since we moved to Paris. She’s surrounded with French and was highly motivated to do so, since the other children at school speak French. Had we stayed in England, she would not speak French. She was entirely self-directed, but the environment was crucial in providing both the opportunity and the motivation.

What do they actually do?

Much of what the children do at a Sudbury school looks a lot like unschooling. My son takes his iPad to school with him and spends his days playing Minecraft, watching shows on Nickelodeon, playing board games and messaging me and other friends. My daughter spends her days jumping on sofas, making dens, pretending that she’s a cat, drawing pictures of cats, making models of cats, and going to the park.

It’s easy to see why unschooling parents might ask why they should pay for that if their kids can do the same at home. Well yes, they can; but there are important differences in the context and priorities.

A difference in priorities

An unschooling family will prioritise connections and family relationships, and their individual children. A democratic school prioritises community (beyond the family), democracy, and the wellbeing of the school as a whole.

Unschooling prioritises parents creating a personalised and rich learning environment for each individual child whilst a democratic school prioritises responsibility, self-direction and motivation on the part of the child.

In both situations the children can and will learn in a self-directed way, but the way that they influence their environment is different. For unschoolers, their parent is nearly always the key to them being able to pursue their passions – and this, I think, is what led to Pat Farenga’s often quoted line about unschooling being giving your children as much freedom as you can comfortably bear. For if an unschooling parent refuses to let their child spend their entire day on a computer, for example, or refuses to drive them to see a particular friend, they can prevent those things from happening. That is a control that they will give up when their child enters a democratic school, and many parents find that transition extremely hard. At a democratic school, the whole community can choose to prevent something from happening – some democratic schools have screen-free days, for example, but no one individual has that power over someone else.

children playing a large chessboard
Photo by Kristin Jillson

The differing role of the parent

The role of an unschooling parent, and of a parent of a child at a democratic school are distinctly different. Parents making the change may often not appreciate that their role has changed – and perhaps we don’t talk enough about this transition. Certainly I personally found it a hard one. There’s a loss of identity when you are no longer an unschooling parent, ironically a loss of control over your children’s lives. In addition, the degree of trust you need to have in your children and the process of self-directed learning is significantly higher at a democratic school, in my experience, than when unschooling.

Democratic schools (at least the Sudbury-model schools I am most familiar with) do not report back to parents on what their children do, and do not tell parents if the children are having trouble or conflicts with other people. It is up to the child to tell their parent, if they so wish. This is entirely different to unschooling. For unschooling parents ‘partner’ their child, which means that they are deeply involved in their children’s lives and choices.

Up to our move to Paris my children were used to doing everything as a family, they were used to having me always available to supply food, drinks, iPad chargers and plasters [bandages]. If something went wrong with another child, they were used to me intervening or at least being available to intervene. They also looked to me to solve problems for them – if they were bored, they asked me for suggestions (which they often turned down). If they were hungry, they asked me what I thought they could eat. If they were having a fight, they would shout for me to come and sort it out. Most of what happened in their lives was in some way facilitated by me. I planned for success, in a way which they often did not notice at all, but which was time consuming for me. I scaffolded their lives and created an ‘unschooling nest’. I did not put them into situations which I did not think they would enjoy.

Staff members in many democratic schools do not take on this role. For a start, the ratio of staff to children doesn’t allow for that intensity of interaction. In Sudbury-model schools, for example, there is no staff member who takes responsibility for overseeing the child’s learning or looking out to see if they are hungry or need a nap. This responsibility rests with the child – sometimes my children just don’t eat for the whole day, and then come out ravenous and grumpy. As an unschooling parent I would have been offering snacks and meals, at school it is up to them and only them to think about eating.

A different sense of responsibility

When unschooling, I did not require the children to do jobs, and mostly they did not do them. I cooked and cleaned, tidied and washed clothes, and they played. Sometimes I asked them to help, and mostly they said no. I took on the responsibility for keeping our environment clean.

At their school things are very different. Jobs are assigned each term, the children are shown how to clean and are expected to do their job each day. I was somewhat surprised at the end of my son’s trial period when he came home saying he was now trained to clean the toilet and was doing it every day at 2 pm. My daughter started off by opening all the windows for her job but soon decided this was too easy and changed to cleaning the main playroom. This is completely removed from the parent-child dynamic. If they don’t do their job, then it’s dealt with by the judicial system, just as with any other rule breaking. No one nags or reminds them.

Suddenly my children are aware of the work that goes into keeping a school or home tidy and clean. Even when they aren’t doing the work themselves, they can see everyone else taking part in it. At the end of each day the whole school focuses on cleaning up, when I arrive to pick them up I am usually greeted by an 8-year-old doing the vacuum cleaning.

What the children think

I asked my children what they thought about going to a democratic school and how they saw the comparison with unschooling.

My son told me that being at school was less pressured than being at home.

(I should add that our house is not at all pressured, at least in my opinion).

He explained what he meant. At school, he said, if he says no, then no one will try to persuade him otherwise. If he doesn’t want to go out, then he doesn’t go out – and he doesn’t prevent anyone else from going out, because they can go without him. Whereas at home, if his sister and I want to go out and he doesn’t, then I try to persuade him, because he can’t yet legally stay at home alone (and also because he does not want to stay at home alone, he wants us to stay with him).

It’s hard for me to hear, because I put a lot of time and energy into trying to provide a pressure-free environment at home. But ultimately this is what I wanted and why we made the change. I wanted him to feel freer to learn, free of the restrictions which being with the family brought for him.

He added that at a democratic school the people are just there, so if you feel like doing something you can do it, whilst with unschooling if you want to play with other people you have to organise it and they are often busy.

My daughter has said similar things, “Mummy,” she said, “it is much freer at school, because you’re not around all the time.”

It’s what I wanted for them and why we personally made the change. It wasn’t because unschooling wasn’t working. They needed more space to be themselves, away from their role in the family. Space to grow and learn.

In conclusion

Unschooling and democratic schools share an educational methodology – Self- Directed Education. However, they are quite different in context, and the values and priorities of these environments are dissimilar. In particular, the roles of parents are divergent.

This will mean that the experiences of unschooled children and children in democratic schools are distinctly different, and some children and families will be better suited to one approach.

However we would do well to remember that in the eyes of the rest of the world, we are all identically weird in choosing not to impose a curriculum on our children. Using our differences to define us will only weaken the cause of Self-Directed Education, and hamper our attempts to show the rest of the world that an education can be far wider and more exciting than anything they ever imagined.