If we give kids the foundation to dream, they will figure out the grammar and the history the minute it helps them to reach their goals and make a difference.
~Seth Godin from ‘Stop Stealing Dreams’
My son is guiding his own education led by his interests. Radical idea, right?
This paradigm of learning is known as ‘unschooling‘. Unschooling is considered by most, a radical departure from ‘education’, and many criticize it’s merits and validity. In reply, my question is:
Are ‘education’ and ‘learning’ the same things?
Within the current schooling paradigm, unschooling simply doesn’t match the criteria of ‘education’, because there are no tests, no set curriculums, no standardized forms of measuring accomplishments. But do those elements define learning?
I’d argue NO.
In our experience, unschooling focuses more on learning than formalized education does.
No formalized structures?
You mean we have trust that interest will lead and learning will happen?
If you are new to this idea, this may sound like a radical approach. Even irresponsible. I would have likely had the same reaction just three short years ago. But that was before I experienced unschooling first hand. I speak from personal experience, as I am not an educator, an academic of any sort, nor an expert. But I am the parent of an unschooling child. And a believer of the merits of unschooling through our personal experiences. And here is what I have discovered:
- Learning is completely different than education.
- Passion drives learning.
- Empowerment translates into leadership.
Learning is DIFFERENT than education
“I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like being taught.”
At one point, I believed school equated education and through education, a person actually learned.
Now, I see this is faulty reasoning, but I had never questioned this baseline belief surrounding education before. But now, I have experienced a paradigm shift in regards to the concept of learning and my understanding of education has blown wide open.
Within my son’s (limited) formalized schooling experience, independent investigation or discovery was not encouraged. He had to adhere to the lesson plan and use only pre-approved materials. Miro went to Montessori school from pre- to second grade, then moved into the public school system for third and fourth grades. This is where I began to see the system not working for us.
Miro has a quick mind. In the public school system, he often finished his class work quickly as the lessons were not challenging to him at all. Miro often found himself bored. Miro’s biggest complaint during third and fourth grades were that the work was too easy. Read this story, answer the questions based on what you just read. Basic reading comprehension. Something a veracious reader has no problems with. Or, teacher demonstrating how something is done (a math problem, a counting system, a segment of measure, etc.) Now, fill in the blanks and prove that you understood what was just told to you. Follow directions, color between the lines, conform and recite.
The topics changed, but the format did not.
I often spoke with his teachers, but their response was, there was a classroom full of children who were challenged by the ‘lessons’, there was no possibility they could move any quicker. So with their blessings, Miro dove into the other worlds within his books and waited patiently for his classmates to finish.
Then, during the middle of fourth grade things changed. Miro was tasked with helping his classmates, and no longer permitted to read on his own. My son perceived this as a punishment, and did not want to be responsible for tutoring his fellow students. He was teased during recess and began to loathe everything about school.
I am aware that our limited experiences in public school does not qualify us to criticize the entire system, nor is it my intention. I am looking at the paradigm of education and see it did not work for us. Miro wasn’t learning, and the system had not encouraged him to peruse his own interests.
As a parent, I question why ‘institutions of learning’ (schools) demand that children obediently follow the provided curriculum and conform without engagement? Why couldn’t Miro progress based on his own learning style, levels and interests? Wouldn’t that create a more engaging environment for learning?
Passion drives learning.
What your child is passionate about, your child will learn.
The nature of unschooling is to allow your child to determine what interests him (or her) to create the a roadmap for learning. But since it’s not framed as learning, and there are no set structures to follow, passion becomes the driving force. And passions do change, but nothing is lost if your child became engaged during the process and discovered, pursued and tried something new.
Since we’ve been traveling, my son has intentionally perused his interests in mythology, zombies, cryptozology, gardening, cooking, pirates, video games, tae kwon do, acting and sword play, just to name a few. This does not even include the things we’ve exposed to by virtue of traveling, like language, cultures and arts. But in terms of my son’s interests, I assisted and supported him in finding the materials he needed to purse his interests. Without judgment, supporting my son’s passions became my role as an unschooling parent.
If you were ever interested in hearing an excited and enthusiastic young man describe how Prometheus gave the power of fire to man, I would say he’s learned something.
And passion drove that.
A critical look at my son’s interests would reveal learning has happened within the following formal subjects: history, geography, economy & consumerism, agriculture, sustainable farming, cooking, mining and geology (Minecraft), politics, religions, language, story telling, literature, art and humanities. But since we never called it lessons, I suspect my son might argue that he wasn’t being ‘schooled’. However, as a parent, I am witnessing a process of natural learning.
An empowered child learns leadership & innovation.
You treat a child like a sheep in the herd, you will breed a sheep in the herd.
I’ve witnessed passion driving learning. But what makes unschooling work, is total empowerment. My son is empowered to determine what he is interested in, encouraged to explore his passions.
But I must also accept his laziness.
Why? Because if my son chooses to be lazy and not engage in any of his passions for a day, for a week, for a month, that’s his choice. I can hear your thoughts bubbling up inside of you as you read these words. Maybe it sounds along the lines of “You are the parent, you must put your foot down, make the rules.” Trust me, I had a battle with my own inner dialogue when I committed to unschooling that sounded very similar to that. But then I realized, if I only empowered my son some of the time and not other times, that’s not really empowerment, is it?
This is really about problem solving.
Discover what your interests are. Pursue that interest. If you can’t find it, ask for help. Not sure what to do today? Explore something different. Try something new. Do nothing. Solve the problem. Even doing nothing is a solution. An empowered solution, I might add. Empowered because if that’s what my son chooses.
It is his solution.
These problem solving lessons are life lessons. This opportunity teaches leadership. Most of all, leadership for his own life. Empowerment to make decisions creates resourcefulness, a skill my son would not be likely to learn in a traditional school.
Leaders are not, as we are often led to think, people who go along with huge crowds following them. Leaders are people who go their own way without caring, or even looking to see, whether anyone is following them. “Leadership qualities” are not the qualities that enable people to attract followers, but those that enable them to do without them. They include, at the very least, courage, endurance, patience, humor, flexibility, resourcefulness, stubbornness, a keen sense of reality, and the ability to keep a cool and clear head, even when things are going badly. True leaders, in short, do not make people into followers, but into other leaders.”
~John Holt, Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of Homeschooling
In my option, learning is not something imposed upon a person, it’s something that happens naturally.
Learning is said to be an ongoing process. An individual is always learning, from his birth till his death.
A version of this article was originally published at Family on bikes Education series here.
Lainie — excellent article. You laid out some excellent observations and arguments about taking the path to un-schooling. I really like the line you quoted stating “You treat a child like a sheep in the herd, you will breed a sheep in the herd” — and that is EXACTLY what our school system (and politicians, corporations etc) want to do to us. Treat us like sheep so that we can succumb to being told what to do, what to think, what to buy, how to be the perfect ‘consumer’ … Sheeple… wage slaves…. We are trained to follow, not lead. Don’t question authority. How can that empower us? How does that promote individuality? Making us sheep is just wrong. Therefore, I commend you for raising Miro the way you are doing. Raise him outside of the “norms”. You’re giving him the incredible opportunity for him to explore, think, touch, smell and see the things that most of our school books and classrooms are neglecting to do, or are doing a piss poor job at doing. I could go on writing many more words…suffice it to say that I think what you are accomplishing with Miro is wonderful. I say keep it up, and to all the naysayers out there, I say “you’re just sheeple, baaaah!”
thank you so much for this article. Until last year, i had never heard of un-schooling. But more and more i think it’s an excellent idea. One of my sons is what you might call a day dreamer. He was failing in school because he was not turning in homework but would usually ace tests. ODD. He’s not a savant, he just has this abilitiy to retain information just not turn things in.
Anyways, he does not learn like other children but when he is interested in something he excels.
I wanted to ask you, does Miro plan to go to university. I would like to incorporate unschooling in my kids education but how can i do it while also giving them the opportunity to go to college. I don’t want to burn that bridge i guess.
Do you keep notes and make transcripts every year month? If you have already written about this then point me to that link as i’m very interested.
This was such a wonderful insight into your approach to unschooling. I love it. Being on a quest to find a lifestyle of my own making, and to make a living doing what I love, I got so much from the originality, courage and open-mindedness of this post. Your son is one lucky guy to have such a loving parent committed to nurturing his true spirit. What a gift you give to each other!
I love this! We have been travelling for a year already and our baby plans overlap our travel plans.
I simply hated school as a child, same problem as Annie’s comments above. I would skip the course work (and much of the attendance) and ace the tests.
I dropped out of high school at 16 and never looked back. Our new life as travelling bloggers, doco makers seems to fit us perfectly and I have no idea what we will do with our kids once they come along, but blogs like this give me hope!