PAM: A bit about me and my unschooling journey.
When I was growing up I bought into the conventional path to success hook, line, and sinker. I got good grades in public school, was awarded a university entrance scholarship, completed a five year program that combined an engineering and a business degree, majoring in engineering physics with a nuclear engineering focus, and graduated on the Dean’s List. Then I went straight to a 9-5 job at a nuclear power plant, having worked there the previous two summers. I did it all to a T, right?
So what challenged me to rethink it all?
First and foremost, my children. I had been observing them since they were born and I had seen them learn so many things. I knew the depths of concentration and perseverance they would reach when engrossed in something. I knew their dispositions and their personalities. And over the first few years of school I saw these things change, and not for the better. I left my job to support them with this school thing, and finally, in my research I came across homeschooling.
Before that time I had never heard of homeschooling, but once I discovered it, my husband and I talked about it for only a handful of weeks before we decided to try it out. So during March Break I asked the kids if they’d rather stay home to learn. They were thrilled at the idea, so they just didn’t go back. We’ve been unschooling since March 2002, when my kids were 9, 7, and 4, so almost 14 years, as I record this in January of 2016.
They are now 23, 21, and 18, and all beyond the compulsory school age where we live in Ontario, Canada. So now we can officially call it living, even though that’s really what we’ve been doing all along. Here’s a quick snapshot of their lives to give you an idea of what we’ve been up to.
Joseph is 23 and has always loved stories. Growing up he immersed himself in them through video games. The last couple of years he has shifted to learning about storytelling, diving into fiction and craft through audiobooks, while his keen interest in character has grown into a deep interest in sociology. He loves home and has been actively learning around-the-house skills, from painting to cooking to hot tub repair. He planted his first veggie garden this past summer. He happily looks after our property and the doggies when the rest of us are out and about or on vacation.
Lissy is 21 and was around 13 when she developed a passionate interest in photography. Over the next few years she learned a ton on her own, connecting with other photographers online. At 17 she became eager to connect with her tribe in person and decided she wanted to explore NYC. She left a few weeks after turning 18 with plans to stay for two months, and ended up staying the full 6 months allowed. She LOVED it—and even that feels like an understatement. She came home just long enough to apply for a US artist’s visa, and I drove her back the day it arrived. Her fine art and commercial images have been in gallery shows, and used on book covers, album covers, and in magazines. In the fall of 2014 she was selected as one of Flickr’s Top 20 Under 20 photographers.
Michael is 18. He was 8 or 9 when he decided he wanted to try karate. His interest steadily grew, from one class a week, to two, to three. Eventually he decided to try out tournaments. Then he joined the demo team. A few years ago, after a couple of seminars, he became interested in extreme performance martial arts. Back in 2012 he applied for and filmed an episode of Splatalot to see what it was like in front of a camera. He enjoyed it and soon began training privately with a working stunt performer he had met at one of the seminars. He added trampoline to the mix. In the summer of 2014, after an intense seven hour grading, he was awarded his black belt. Nowadays he’s at the dojo five nights a week, training and teaching, and regularly attends open gyms at nearby gymnastic clubs and at the parkour gym in the city. He just finished putting together his first stunt demo reel and is now starting to actively look for film work. And in between all that, he enjoys programming, and anything to do with space.
For all my kids, unschooling has been a step by step by step exploration of what interests them. And along the way they continue to learn tons about the world, and themselves.
So that’s a bit of background on myself and my unschooled children. Now let’s tackle my working definition of unschooling. Of course, my definition has evolved over time, as my experience has grown.
Here’s where I started. We took the kids out of school and began unschooling back in 2002. That Christmas I decided send a newsletter to friends and family along with their Christmas card because NOBODY in our lives had even heard of homeschooling before and I thought I’d ease their minds by sharing an overview of what we’d been up to since the kids left school. Luckily, I have my binder with all the Christmas newsletters handy, so here’s something I shared, back in 2002: “Our philosophy is that learning does not happen only in a school building, at a desk, dispensed by a teacher. Learning happens anytime a person is engaged in thought or activity—that is to say, not sleeping!—and tons of learning happens by living life every day.”
So now, let’s jump forward ten years, and here’s what I wrote in the introduction to Free to Learn, my first book:
Unschooling is, at its most basic, about learning without a curriculum, without a teacher-centred environment, but sometimes the concept is easier to define by what it’s not. It’s not school-at-home, a re-creation of the school environment with a low student-teacher ratio around the kitchen table. And it’s not about leaving your kids to fend for themselves, far from it. It is about creating a different kind of learning environment for your children. An environment based on the understanding that humans learn best when they are interested and engaged, and when they are personally involved and motivated.
That’s interesting, but the next question is, what does that look like in practice? So I thought I’d share a blog post I wrote later that year, in Oct 2012. It’s titled, “Unschooling Doesn’t Look Like School At All.”
Unschooling looks like life.
Like an endlessly unfolding summer vacation, minus the warm weather (unless you live a lot closer to the equator than I do!), but with one big difference: the kids don’t spend it decompressing, burning off steam from months of strict schedules and the stress to perform. And they don’t end up complaining they are bored because someone isn’t telling them what to do. Instead, they are busily pursuing the things that interest them.
In contrast, what does learning look like at school? The vast majority of us parents went to school, so we understand that process quite well: there’s a curriculum that dictates what we learn; a teacher that tries to help us understand it; and a test that determines if we remember it. Repeat that loop over different subjects and many years. It is an exacting process designed to meet its goal: teaching large numbers of students a defined collection of information and skills, within a set number of years.
The big question is: how does pretty picture number one accomplish the learning that so many of us have been taught to think has to look like picture number two?
To answer that, let’s dig into some of the ways unschooling differs from school and why.
(1) No curriculum
Unschoolers don’t buy into the idea that everyone needs to know a generalized (and sometimes out-dated) set of skills and information by a certain age. Understanding that people are unique and will end up doing different things as adults, unschooling parents see it as more effective for their children to focus on learning the things that interest them. Those interesting things have a better chance than a generic curriculum of leading to the skills and information that will support their personal work and life as an adult. It’s what they like to do now, and is likely a step on the path to what they will choose to do in the future. They follow their interests, their curiosity, instead of a curriculum.
What about that certain set of skills and knowledge that is needed to get along in society? Since unschooling kids are living and learning in the real world, interacting with people in their society as they grow up, they will encounter occasions where those basic skills and knowledge come in handy, and they will pick them up then.
(2) Supportive atmosphere
But not following a curriculum doesn’t mean that unschooling parents are doing nothing. Instead, you’ll be replacing it with a supportive learning environment. One based not on an outline, but on your child’s interests. Instead of a teacher dispensing information and directing the children’s activities, unschooling parents are actively supporting their children as they follow their interests. The children’s goal isn’t learning, but doing what’s appealing to them. The really fascinating thing is that when living is the goal, learning is an incidental, yet wonderful and intense, process that happens along the way. *You* are the one who will see the learning, because you are the one looking for it—they are having fun and happen to be learning along the way. And in my experience, they are learning a lot!
Another way the atmosphere differs is that unschooling parents don’t believe children will actively avoid learning unless forced. My experience shows just the opposite! Children are interested in exploring the world around them. Just watch a toddler who has recently learned to walk! That doesn’t change as they get older, unless the adults in their lives take the enjoyment out of it by directing or forcing it.
(3) Focus on aspirations
Schools focus on teaching skills they believe students will need in the future. With unschooling, we pursue our interests and pick up the skills we need to accomplish our goals along the way—both kids and parents! The value isn’t in the skill; it’s in what you can do with it.
And the learning is much better from that perspective as well. Remember how often a teacher told you “you’ll need to know this when you’re older”? At least for me, that wasn’t compelling motivation to invest my time and energy. But what about when you have something you want to accomplish now? That’s when the skill or piece of information has significant meaning. There is a reason to do the work to understand the information or master the skill—you want to learn it so you can continue in pursuit of your goal. There’s also a much better chance you will remember it because it was of value and made a strong connection to your existing knowledge. That’s real learning—learning that is understood and remembered.
(4) Interact with people of all ages
Schools group students together by age—it’s the easiest way to deliver the curriculum sequentially. One downside is that the large number of students per teacher means there aren’t a lot of role models nearby; students learn a lot of their social skills from their age peers, who know as little as they do.
Instead of having their pool of potential friends and acquaintances limited to kids their own age that live in close proximity, unschooling children often have friends with a wide range of ages. But without that ready pool, how do unschoolers find friends? Through their interests. Karate. Building robots. Sports. Art. Video games. A shared interest is a much better basis for a developing friendship than age.
Having friends with a range of ages also gives children opportunities to nurture those that are younger or less experienced, actively play with those with similar interests and skill levels, and learn from those with more experience. Age is just not a defining factor outside the classroom, so neither is it a concern for unschoolers growing up day-to-day in the world.
(5) No vacation from learning
The learning is found in the living. Once your family is enmeshed in unschooling, it’s life. And there’s no need to take a vacation from life. Vacations are about exploring new places and experiencing fresh surroundings; not about escaping from obligations.
Those are just five of the many ways that unschooling looks different than school. It’s an entirely different way to live and learn! And it’s a lifestyle that not only supports real learning, but also the development of strong family relationships that will last far beyond the kids’ compulsory school years.
So, I hope that’s given you an idea of my background and experience and a glimpse at how I see unschooling. And I hope you’ll join me and my guests as we dive into unschooling in future episodes! As I mentioned earlier, if you’d like to submit a question for a Q&A episodes, just go to livingjoyfully dot ca forward slash podcast.
And while you’re there, you’re welcome to look around! There are curated pages with information and links gathered around deschooling, unschooling, and parenting, as well as many blog posts that dive deep into the unschooling lifestyle. You can also get your free introductory ebook at livingjoyfully dot ca. If you’d like to connect, you can also find me on Facebook at living joyfully.
Until next time, have fun living and learning with your family!