PAM: Hi everyone, I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today (and tomorrow) I’m here with Jo Isaac. Hi, Jo!
JO: Hi Pam!
PAM: You can tell by the accent that Jo is over in Australia right now, so that is why my lame tomorrow joke…[laughs]
By way of introduction, I’ve really enjoyed reading Jo’s unschooling perspective over the years, and I was really excited that she agreed to chat with me about how unschooling’s take on how we define success can differ widely from the conventional one. I’ve got a few questions for you, so let’s get started.
First, can you share with us a bit about your family and how you came to unschooling.
JO: Sure, absolutely. So there’s just the three of us, there’s me, my husband Brett, and our son Kai who is ten now. He has been always unschooled. At the moment we live near Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. Since Kai was born we’ve lived all over the place. He was born in Queensland, we moved to California, Colorado, Tasmania, Adelaide and now we live in Melbourne. I’ve decided we’re not moving again for a really long time!
We really like Melbourne, I don’t love the winters, but on the whole it’s a really cool place…there’s lots of unschoolers here, we’re pretty happy.
Brett and I met while we were doing out PhDs in Queensland, we’re both zoologists, he was working on lizards, I was working on possums…and unschooling! Yes, how I came to unschooling…I guess it’s a long story, it’s probably a long story for everybody but…I grew up in working class England and I wasn’t very good at school, I didn’t do school very well. I didn’t learn the way that school taught, I was always behind and it was a struggle.
I left school at 16, I failed all my GCSEs, and when I was around 20 I saw an interview with Caitlin Moran. She’s a well-known British comic and writer, she was about 16 at that point and in the interview she said she was homeschooled. I had never, ever heard of such a thing and didn’t know anyone who was homeschooled. I got really mad at my mum and said she should have homeschooled me. At that point I swore that if I had any children in the future I would homeschool them.
So that was when I first heard about homeschooling. Twenty or so years later, I was a new mum and I was living in Queensland doing a post-doc. Kai was in daycare and…I still dreamed of homeschooling and I still had that in my head but it was really difficult, feeling like I would give up the career that I’d worked for, you know, ten years in academia to get to.
But as time went on, I wasn’t really enjoying academia and Brett got a post-doc in America for two years, and that was when I started homeschooling Kai. A little bit before that I was doing a nature writing online course and one of the other participants mentioned unschooling and I went off and read all I could about it and thought that that sounded like something that I would like to do.
When we moved to Boulder—it was all part of the post-doc that Brett was doing—I found a large group of unschoolers there, and the rest was history. So that was how I found unschooling. It was really cool at that point when Kai was only three to find a big group of unschoolers with older kids that we could learn from and that I could just see how amazing all these kids were. So that was really great and I was very lucky to find that group.
PAM: Yeah, that’s really cool, and all your travels too…wow, to end up in that spot there!
JO: Yeah, well, I don’t know [laughs] Kai doesn’t really agree with the whole travelling thing, he says “When I’m grown up, I’m not travelling anywhere.” But yeah, we’ve had lots of very cool experiences and seen lots of places so it’s been really awesome.
But I certainly credit Boulder and Colorado for getting us off on the right foot with unschooling.
PAM: That’s really great that you happened upon—you know—at a great age for Kai too, and you’ve got a big group with older kids and everything for yourself too.
JO: Yeah, it was very cool and…I wish everybody could get that, but I know it’s not possible everywhere. We were very blessed to find that group.
PAM: That’s awesome.
I would love to hear a little bit more about Kai. What he’s up to, what he’s interested in right now and how he’s pursuing it, that kind of stuff?
JO: Yep, as I said, Kai is 10, he’s in that cocoon phase that everyone talks about. I don’t really like that term, I’ve been trying to think of something new to call it, because it makes it sound like we’re all putting up with the cocoon waiting for him to turn in to this beautiful butterfly, but he’s a beautiful cocoon!
PAM: I know, it’s hard to find a term that kind of describes it without having any expectations on it, right?
JO: Yes, and I read an article on it the other day, but it was from a conventional point of view and they said “Wait patiently and they’ll turn in to a butterfly!” and I thought, but what about now?
So that’s where we are right now, and we’re enjoying this phase and letting him cocoon away. His favourite place is home, and that’s awesome. He is a really big gamer, he’s playing a lot of Overwatch at the moment, which is a very cool game. He plays with his friends, he skypes with his friends in Canada every day—with Jody Lilley’s son, Jody has been a podcast guest with you a while ago—and some other Canadian friends, so we are well versed on the time differences between here and Canada.
He’s met some of these friends face-to-face, he was lucky enough to meet Jodie’s son when they came to Australia last year, which was really cool. Some of the friends he only knows online, those friends are so so important to him every day and they are definitely his real friends. Online friends are real friends and very important to him at the moment.
And yeah, it’s really cool, we listen to him solving problems and working as a team to beat other teams, and they’re just doing so much, they’re so busy. Even though he’s cocooning, he’s busy busy busy in there. And the fact that he can game in real-time and Skype with people from another hemisphere is really cool.
So that’s mostly what he’s doing, that’s most of his day. We also see local friends pretty regularly. As I said before we are lucky enough to have a few radical unschooling families around Melbourne and they’re all the same kind of ‘tween’ age, which is very cool. We have a weekly park day that we go to, and we go to the zoo and the wildlife park and museums. What else is Kai doing … oh, he’s reading some Harry Potter, he just started The Chamber of Secrets. He likes dinosaurs and paleontology and anime, especially Naruto. Oh, and recently he started a dog walking service and we’re quite busy with that, we were astounded at the level of interest that we had in our dog walking service and I had to quickly take the advert down, otherwise we would have had no free time at all.
So we’ve got two dogs at the moment and altogether we walk them five times a week, so we actually only get the Mondays off from dog walking at the moment. I go with him, he’s really enjoying that, spending time with the dogs, he wants a dog but we’re not really in the position to get one at the moment. And he’s earning quite a lot of money, so it’s a win/win all around. The dogs are always really pleased to see us, their owners are out all day and I guess they feel guilty so we go and do something good for the dogs and the owners.
So that’s what Kai’s up to.
PAM: You mentioned that he would like to have a dog, and this is a way that he can get that within the constraints that you have right now, that you can’t actually own one but what a cool way to hang out with a bunch of dogs.
JO: Yeah! And we live in a rental and part of the rental agreement is no pets, so that’s why we can’t have a dog at the moment. In the beginning he thought it might be a little bit too sad to look after a dog and not have his own dog but he’s finding that that’s not actually true for him at the moment. He really does like hanging out with the dogs. Sunday we did get to bring one of the dogs home for a few hours, so that was very cool. She slept on his bed, and…yeah. Having a dog’s a big responsibility, so it’s good practice as well.
Today we’ve got two dog walks, Thursday is two dog walks.
PAM: And good exercise too.
JO: Yeah, I’m getting a lot more exercise than normal.
What was the definition of success that you grew up with, and where have you taken the idea of success since then?
JO: Right yes, we chatted a little bit about this before, and my background is probably a little bit different to a lot of people’s idea of success. In Britain, where I grew up in the 70s and 80s in a working class family, I didn’t know anyone who had been to college. Certainly no-one from my school was expected to go to college.
So the idea of success for me, I guess my parents just hoped I’d get a good job in an office, get married and eventually we might be able to afford a house. That’s pretty much what most of my school friends have done. So no-one ever expected me to go to college, which was a good job because I did dismally at school.
So yeah, that idea, that standard of success was quite different to what most people have got in their heads. School and college and career…
So I left school at 16 and I did actually kind of head off in that direction. I worked in offices for a while, but I knew early on that wasn’t really for me. I didn’t thrive in that atmosphere either. And in my head, even though I was really young, the idea of staying around my hometown for my whole life was just not something that I wanted to do.
So I worked as a typist when I was 16 and 17, one day when my mum was on holidays so she wasn’t there to stop me, I just walked out and didn’t go back to work. And in the meantime, I’d always wanted to work with animals, but because I wasn’t very good at school I quit biology at 13 and school had pretty much just told me that I was not smart enough to do anything in the sciences. But I managed to get a job at the local RSPCA working in the kennels. I worked there on and off for about five years, and my passion for animals was always something that was underlying all my choices all along.
I also really wanted to travel and get away from that hometown. So I went to New Zealand when I was 18 for three months, and I stopped in Australia on the way back and fell in love with Australia. I spent the next year earning money back at the RSPCA so I could come back on a Working Holiday visa. I did come back for a year, and I spent the next six years travelling and working backwards and forwards, all over the place.
Travelling was probably the very start of my deschooling, although of course I wouldn’t have called it that, because I wasn’t doing it intentionally. When I was travelling I met lots of people on a gap year. So people who were probably more middle class than I was, and on the typical success trajectory, taking a year off uni before going back to get their degree.
I met these people and I thought well, if these people are smart enough to go to uni, maybe I am as well. I guess when I left school I had a very low idea of my own intellect and what I could achieve academically, because I didn’t achieve anything academically at school. But after years of travelling and doing most of it on my own and meeting people who were going to uni, I started to question that idea.
When I was around 25 I decided I was going to go and study zoology. My love of animals had always been something that swayed my choices in what I wanted to do. I’d written to Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund and asked if I could go and work for them and save the whales and the pandas, and they said “You need a degree in zoology.” so I thought, “Right then! I’m going to get a degree in zoology.”
So I did. I enrolled in an adult education course back in my hometown, I was willing to go there by then. I did that for a year and that would allow me to get into university, they said. So I did that course, and I really really enjoyed it, it was a great experience much to everyone’s amazement, especially my dad at the time. I kind of aced that course and came out top of the class.
I got into the university of my choice, which was Aberdeen, which was as far away in Britain from my hometown as I could possibly get. I went to the top of Scotland to do a degree in zoology, and I got a grant which was really great. So yeah, back to success, I guess for most people then for the next ten years I looked more like I was on the typical success trajectory. I did really well in my college course, I got first class honours from Aberdeen, I worked as a research assistant for a few months, and then I got a scholarship to do a PhD in Australia that I was really lucky to get. I got to study possums on a tropical island for three and a half years. So my PhD wasn’t too arduous. [laughs] Especially after four years in Scotland, a tropical island was a very nice change.
I finally got my PhD when I was 35. And then a year later I had Kai. I had Kai just before my 36th birthday, and just after I had Kai I was offered a two-year post-doc back in Queensland. So those two years of doing the post-doc I looked like your typical model of success I guess. Had a PhD, one child, a happy marriage, a good job. My academic career looked pretty fancy, I had lots of publications, I was schmoozing with the right people and all that kind of thing. So on the outside I looked like a success. But those two years were really stressful. I felt it destroyed a part of my soul. I’d always wanted to save the animals and save the whales and all that kind of thing, and I realised that being in academia that wasn’t going to happen. Grant applications and writing papers and jumping through hoops—your dreams of saving the animals kind of get pushed to the side out of sight really.
I was working on climate change animal extinctions, but it all seemed very esoteric. [It didn’t] have a tangible result in helping animals at that point. I also really struggled with having Kai in daycare and having to juggle being the mother I wanted to be and keep hold of my career.
So towards the end of the two years I started looking at other options and wondered whether, this whole homeschooling thing, I could do that. I started freelance writing, a science nature course, and that was where I found out about unschooling, and around that time Brett got the position in America and my two years were up. So I quit academia I guess, at that point, and I was happy to do so—for Brett to take up the academic mantle at that point. I’ve worked from home since then, writing. Brett’s had two post-docs since then and obviously we’ve moved a lot. We don’t have a lot of money, we’ve never owned our own house. We’ve never really been in a position to stay anywhere long enough to buy a house. And Brett’s looking for a science job in Melbourne at the moment.
So yeah, despite us both being highly educated, we’re pretty poor. I guess we don’t look much of a success at the moment either. But I don’t think either one of us would change anything. I think that our experiences and all the places we’ve lived have just been amazing, and I’ve never regretted giving up my academic career. I know that our family is definitely happier now than if I was still trying to juggle a career and Kai was in school and everyone was short on time and patience.
PAM: I’m just going to let you keep talking, because that is just such a fascinating story!
JO: I’ve been on all sides of the success and the non-success spectrum! From leaving school and being the person no-one would expect to succeed to leaving university and being the person everyone thought would succeed, it’s a pretty weird position to be in. I think I have a fairly unique view of success.
PAM: Yeah, I know, that’s why I loved when you gave me a little bit of a heads-up ahead of time, and I thought, “Wow, this is awesome!” because it’s fascinating. In each situation you were working against what you were being told, right? When you were in your teens there were no expectations on you to be able even to get into a college or a university or whatever.
JO: I can’t imagine what my teachers would say if I told them I had a PhD! They’d just fall over.
PAM: That’s so fascinating. And then you end up doing that, and you know, going through that whole process, doing very well at that, enjoying that piece at the time. And then, when you came out of it, re-evaluating again the path that was laid out for you. So every time you’re really looking at the path that’s kind of expected of you and saying “does that work for me right now?”
JO: When I was writing about it I was like, wow, I’ve made all these choices. But I think that was it, all the choices that I made were, “Am I happy right now?” And if I’m not, what do I need to do to change that. Without thinking too far in the future. Yeah I quit my job and we didn’t have as much money, but I was miserable in academia. I’d way rather be poor than miserable.
I think they were just all choices at the time to do something at the time that would make all of our lives better. And that—that making our lives better—that’s success to me. Or a version of it—a more important version of it.
PAM: Speaking of choices a bit, my next question I wanted to …
Let’s focus a bit on the shift to seeing college and university as a choice, rather than a fixed landmark on the conventional path to success, and how that shift can be challenging for people. It can almost feel neglectful at first. Like, “I am going to fail my kids if I let them not hit that landmark,” because that landmark is so engrained for a lot of people. Have you found that? That neglectful piece? Because I know at first it felt like a pressure release, but then it’s like oh, am I neglecting their future?
JO: One of the first things people ask when they meet you unschooling, or they come on a group, and they’ve got a three-year-old and they’re, “Oh but will he be able to go to college?” They’re three! People do, and it’s a really huge thing that people see, it’s set up there that there’s no success without that path. And with unschooling, how are they going to go along with that path?
I do think that my background has been a really good thing for both Brett and I to not worry about that. We both went back to university as mature age students, so we know that there are many paths into college. Not necessarily straight through school, straight to college. I was 25 when I went back to college. Brett was 21. So in terms of success being tied up to that idea of education being through school and then straight into college, I think that we as a family have got a pretty unique perspective on that. I left school with no qualifications, and Brett finished—it’s the HSC here in Australia—Brett did get his HSC but he really found high school hard and found that he struggled and didn’t do well.
He is an interesting story as well. For as long as he can remember, he’s been running around catching lizards and snakes, since he was around eight. Most of the snakes here in Australia are venomous, so that’s a funny thing to do. His poor mother. When he was around Kai’s age, around nine or ten, his mother was worried that he wasn’t reading the books that she thought he should be reading and she went and spoke to his English teacher and she said “Oh all he’s reading are these books about lizards, he’s not reading anything proper.” War and Peace or something. But the teacher sounded like she was a very wise teacher and told his mum, “Don’t worry about that, let him read the reptile books. If he’s reading about what he loves, he’s going to be learning.” So that was really cool.
He wanted to work with reptiles, and his parents were pretty working class as well. His dad was a plumber, and they told him he probably couldn’t really get a job working with reptiles, because they didn’t know anybody who worked with lizards. They said that [he needed] to get a trade, so that was what he was expected to do. It was back in the era when women worked in offices and men got a trade.
When he left school he kind of floundered because he didn’t really know what he wanted to do. He wanted to work with lizards, but he didn’t know how to go about that. He went back to do a night course in being an animal technician, and that was where he met a guy who said he was going to leave the course and study zoology and do a degree. So Brett ended up doing a degree. He was 21 then. So he certainly went on a different road to university as well.
So, the idea of getting into college, I guess because I did so badly at school—I shouldn’t say that, I should say school did badly by me—I just didn’t learn the way people are supposed to at school, that linear way. My thoughts are all over the place. So I’ve never really thought that school was the best way to college. It wasn’t for me. It took me many years out of school for me to recover from the idea that I wasn’t smart enough to go to university and college. All that travelling and independence. It took a decade nearly for me to feel like I could go back to university and to recover from all that.
But getting back to your feeling neglectful, yeah, even with our background, being around academics you get sucked into that and we both still need to deschool and move past that worry that we are letting Kai down or totally screwing him up in the future and he won’t be able to go to college and do what he wants to do, even though we know that that’s not true. It’s still there.
I think that worry really only fades with experience, and as you see your kid do amazing things in unschooling and learn all these things and you’re like, “Wow, how did he learn that?” In the beginning you read all about everyone else’s kids and I read about your kids! And Sandra’s kids and Joyce and Pam Sorooshian, you just keep reading those stories and thinking, “Wow, I hope they’re not just special cases. Maybe I’m really going to screw my kid up!” But yeah, I mean he’s still only ten, but over the time but over the years I’ve watched him learn to read, learn to tell the time, make decisions—he’s an amazing kind, generous person. He’s always the peacekeeper in his friends, he’s very good at handling other people. So yeah, I know that he can do anything he wants to do.
And I think what’s more important to me, because I came out of school so damaged, that he knows he can do whatever he wants to do. I mean, wow, he learnt to read without being taught. He won’t need ten years to recover from the idea that he’s stupid. He knows that he can learn. And I think that that self-confidence and self-awareness—I think that’s more important than anything.
PAM: I think you’re right. You have to give it the time, the experience, as in participating in unschooling, seeing your child, being with your child, spending time with them, because that is what’s going to help you see that they don’t need school or college to learn. You just see them soaking up knowledge and understanding like a sponge. Just being curious! Isn’t it the curiosity? That’s a huge piece for me, seeing that, “You know what? They’re asking questions and figuring things out, they don’t need to be told.”
JO: When he was younger, obviously I was more a part of bringing things into the house, and books, and we’d go on those knowledge trails when one thing led to something completely unrelated, “How did we end up learning about this?” But now he does that, he’s on YouTube and one YouTube leads to another YouTube, and that YouTube leads to a new game, can I get this game, and then that game will lead to something else. It’s still happening. It’s just the curiosity is still there, “Wow, look at this!” and “What about that?” It really is, it’s amazing to see the things he gets interested in, and where that stems from.
I guess that’s the kind of thinking that doesn’t serve schools very well. Maybe that’s why I did so badly at school, I was all over the place. They were trying to teach me something about geography in India, and I was sitting there thinking about eating curry or making curry or something.
PAM: That’s a great point—exactly.
JO: My mind was in a whole different part of India than they wanted me to learn about. I did travel around India eventually!
PAM: Oh awesome! Surprise!
One of the things that I find really interesting is how the conventional focus on pursuing success, and the unschooling perspective of pursuing our personal goals, play out so differently. I’m wondering if that’s been your experience as well, and how is that different now that the conventional measures of pursuing success on it’s own terms no longer play a key role?
JO: This was a really interesting question and I’ve been thinking about it a lot actually. I was thinking it was really hard to answer, but then it wasn’t. I think that—and you would obviously know as well—unschooling is not just about Kai. When you fully embrace Radical Unschooling it affects everyone in the family. It even ripples out to family members who are in school. I’ve seen our choices have influenced family members to make different choices for their kids as well. It’s just pervaded all of our lives.
Brett and I have deschooled and watched Kai flourish in unschooling and following his passions. While we were both working in academia, you get fixated on this fictional idea of success which seems to mostly involve—in academia at least—getting more grant money and making more publications, and eventually you’ll get the tenured position! And that’s it! Success! Everything in your life is fantastic once you get that tenured position. Because that’s going to lead to financial security, you’ll get the house, you’ll be able to have a nice holiday somewhere exotic once or twice a year. In the future, your ideal successful future.
But as I’ve touched on before, that idea of success didn’t really turn out to be that great for us and over the years we’ve watched other people really get bogged down in the academic idea of success and friends burn out and get depression and get divorced. It’s just a really stressful environment. It’s very competitive, and I don’t just think that’s academia, I think it’s a lot of those kinds of careers. You just end up working lots and lots of hours, and there’s no time for anything else; to focus on anything else. So it was a kind of a relief when I decided I didn’t want to pursue academia anymore and Brett decided later after another four-year post doc in Adelaide, and we both still love and are passionate about science and animals and we always will be, but we know we can pursue that in a different way outside academia where you’re sucked into the stressful environment.
Back to unschooling permeating all of our lives, Brett is really passionate about fly fishing. Very passionate. Little bit OCD you might say. And he practices his fly casting every day, he comes back from work, goes to the school oval and he practices his casting. I feel like that before unschooling I would have thought that at best it was an annoying hobby, because it takes up a lot of his time, he’s very focused on it, there are about three fishing rods at least under the bed. But I feel like learning to support Kai in his passions has meant that I’m getting better—I’m not perfect—I’m getting better at supporting Brett in his passions in fly fishing too. And I guess it’s getting away from that idea of success, Brett’s fly fishing is never going to bring in much money, probably the opposite, looking at those 20 fly fishing rods. But as a family we’re trying to support him as much as we can to be successful, and it’s successful in the way that he wants to be successful in that he wants to be really good at it. He’s going to take his certified casting instructor test in a few weeks in Sydney, so we’re all going as a family to cheer him on. Hopefully he’ll pass that, I’m pretty sure he will.
So I do think that, going back to your question “How is life different now that conventional measures of success no longer play a key role?” I think that life is way less stressful. Now that we’re not bogged down in worrying about this future that is supposedly so important. We manage with less money, I mean, we’re still luckier than a lot of people. We have a house and stuff and food. We’re not rich, but we’re certainly not terribly poor either. And I think that now we don’t worry about conventional measures of success you’re so much more grateful for everything you’ve got right now in this moment. You’re not always thinking, “In the future…” I think that’s probably one of the most different things now.
PAM: That’s a great point, how it shifted where your focus is, from that pursuit, that carrot that’s always out there in the future to actually being in the moment, looking at today.
JO: Yeah, exactly, we only rent a little house, but it’s big enough for the three of us, there’s only three of us, and we live in a very cool little town with lots of awesome coffee shops. And maybe we’ll never own our own house, I don’t know, but that has meant for us that we’ve been free to travel around and move whenever we wanted to without the added stresses of buying and selling the house. So that’s been a positive too.
I think I’ve been really lucky since I left academia that I’ve worked from home writing about science and climate change mostly. Now Kai’s a little bit older I recently took a temporary job doing some field work which has been interesting as a 46-year-old! So I’ve been putting out wildlife cameras for a local endangered species, the Leadbeater’s Possum, and so that’s been really cool. It’s more back doing what I really wanted to do when I first got into zoology. I’m not saving whales, but maybe I’m saving some Leadbeater’s Possums.
Kai, I don’t know what he’ll choose to do. He has expressed an interest in zoology—I can’t believe we haven’t put him off. Poor child’s been out catching lizards on field trips since he was two. So yeah, he might go to college, he might not. He might choose to pursue that in a different way. And I guess as we were saying, the conventional idea of success is so focused on an ideal future, “One day, if you work hard at school, and you work hard at college, you’ll have a good job and money and a house.” But it means you miss this living in the moment and appreciating everything you’ve got right now because you’re always focused on this end point, that may or may not come. You just don’t know.
And when I was thinking about this question I was thinking that it related back to why I don’t like calling Kai’s current moment a cocoon phase, because again, the problem with thinking of it as cocoon phase implies we’re all putting up with this cocoon phase and waiting for him to come out as a butterfly and everything is going to be okay then at some point in the future. I feel like that’s the same as what’s wrong with the conventional idea of success: you’re always looking down the road waiting for some kind of ideal in the future and missing what’s happening right now. So that’s what I thought about it when I thought about it a lot.
PAM: I think that is such a great point because and you mention a little earlier the gratitude for the moment, because so much of what you think you’re looking for down the road, actually is right in front of you in the moment if you look at it with a little bit wider perspective. There’s so much good stuff here now if you look for it rather than wishing you had something else.
JO: And I think that people even miss—you know, you rush through school, and most people are rushed into college at 18 or whatever, and all those kids are focused on at 18 is finishing college. They’re not even enjoying being there at that time. I mean, some of my family, they kind of got pushed into college, they’re in their 20s now, they ended up choosing a major that they’re not even really that interested in. A rare few people know what they want to do for the rest of their lives when they’re 18. Forcing a kid to choose what they want to study at college at 18 is, I don’t know, that’s one of the crazier things in life.
PAM: And it’s forcing them to try and look down the road again, just keep your eyes on the future!
JO: You’ve just come out of being spoon fed in school and you’re expected to know what you want to do with the rest of your life, and go to college for three or four years and study that. It’s kind of whacky when you think about it.
PAM: Yeah a little bit!
JO: And those kids are always focused on the future, wishing away those college years, “Oh god, I’m here for another three or four years, then I get my degree, then life can start then, and I’ll be a success!”
I guess it goes back to the mature age student, and university being a choice for me, rather than being herded into it. I had a very different experience and I really loved going to university and I loved all my lectures, well, except chemistry. I’m not good at chemistry. You’re probably much better at chemistry Pam. And my PhD, lots of people were in PhDs and didn’t really want to be doing them. They were doing them because their parents said, “Yep, you have to get a doctorate, and then you’ll be a success.” So they were kind of slogging through three years of their PhDs and I was having a blast! Out running around on a tropical island, possums on my head. It just seemed like I had a very different experience, going through college and doing my PhD as a choice rather than feeling like it was something I had to do to get to a point of success.
PAM: That’s really interesting, it seems like that’s actually kind of led us right to the next question which is just kind of a shift from there.
The conventional path and school has trained people to believe that work—and when kids go to school that’s presented as their work, “You have to go to school, that’s your job. My job is that job over there, and you’re a kid so your job is school.”—is not fun, it’s just something they have to do. You were talking about the other kids not enjoying themselves, they were there for their work “I’ve got to do this for three years.” Your only fun is your weekends. I remember a point where I looked in the dictionary and I saw work and fun were listed as antonyms, they were opposites of each other. I think unschooling turns that totally on it’s head, so I was just wondering if you can speak to that, if that’s been your experience as well?
JO: Absolutely, yeah, in everything, and I think the big thing with work and fun being opposites is the lack of choice, I guess. I think that getting back to what I was saying earlier, I made the choice to go to university, I was already doing cool fun stuff, I was travelling all over the world! And I made the choice to stop doing that because I really wanted to be a zoologist and that was my choice. And so it never felt—I mean it was work, of course it was, I worked really hard, but I never felt like it was the opposite of fun. I mean, catching possums on a tropical island was pretty fun! It was more work when there were mosquitos … I think that that idea almost comes down to feeling like you have a choice, kids at school don’t have a choice, whether they go, they don’t even have the choice of what time they get up in the morning and go to school, they certainly don’t have the choice of what they get taught at any given moment.
And that makes you feel really powerless. Everything feels like work and definitely the opposite of fun, if you’re in school at ten in the morning and you’ve got a maths lesson well, you’ve got to learn maths whether you like it or not. And at 11 o’clock if you move on to art, well that’s what you’ve got to learn at 11 o’clock, and it didn’t matter if you loved maths and wanted to carry on with that, and it didn’t matter if you wished you’d been doing art for the whole two hours, you don’t have a choice. So yep, that’s not fun.
I remember school not being fun. It’s not fun to do something that you haven’t really chosen to do, I guess. So in unschooling it just doesn’t happen. I watch Kai and his friends Skyping, actually I listen to it, and they’re learning from following their passions and it’s completely different. It’s a completely different experience than watching a child trudge through school miserably. Or even kids who kind of like school for the most part, there are still times when they’re being taught things they don’t have any interest in, and that’s got to feel like work for sure.
So I guess in unschooling that doesn’t happen. Because there’s choice. Learning is a side effect of fun, I guess. And I was thinking, is that learning work? I was trying to decide what I thought about that. I mean yeah, sometimes it does look like Kai’s working really hard, he’s researching something, he wants to master one of the games he’s playing and he does a lot of research. He goes looking for walkthroughs and tips, YouTube and gaming sites. He and his friends discuss their strategy and how they can work best as a team, and who’s going to play which character, because they’re all better at different characters in Overwatch. So I guess that kind of is work, but it’s really play. And it’s definitely fun.
PAM: That’s something I see, from comments and stuff, people think that if they’re choosing what they’re doing so they get to play all the time, they think well then they’re just going to take the easy way out. They don’t realize the fun of the determination for pursuing things. Like, how much energy and effort that—when it’s your choice—you will put into getting to whatever goal you set for yourself, or whatever you’re trying to do. They don’t realize that they will put all that work into it because you’re pursuing something that you want to do. You’re concentrating and you’re working hard, but our definition of work is so negative—the opposite of play—it’s just amazing, I think that’s something that people don’t see, don’t understand, until they actually see some unschooling in action. Because of course kids at school are going to choose not to do the hard stuff when they can.
JO: Because they’ve been forced to do hard stuff for things they’re not interested in.
PAM: That’s why it’s hard!
JO: There’s been times when—I guess I don’t want to call it work—that determination to research something and follow a pathway where you’re really trying to become good at something or find out about something. That part of unschooling when parents aren’t fully deschooled or they’re not completely on board, I think they miss that part, because it might be something they’re not valuing like video games for example. They’re missing that, they’re going “Oh all he’s doing is watching YouTubes on video games.” But there’s some hard work that goes on there, you know?
And Kai has actually started games from the beginning again, Terraria comes to mind, it was about a year ago. He said, “Can you reinstall Terraria on the iPad?” and I said, “But you’ll lose all your stuff, you’re going to lose everything you’ve got.” And he said, “Oh but most of that was given to me by my friends and I don’t feel like I earnt it. I want to go back and do it all by myself.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s crazy!” And yeah, I guess he felt like he cheated somehow and he really wanted to go back and do it all by himself. I thought that was really incredible.
I often have had those questions, like “How will they learn to follow through if they can always take the easy way out?” But they don’t always take the easy way out. If something’s really important to them, they’ll put in the hard yards to find out all about it and do all that research.
PAM: It’s really fun to watch them isn’t it?
JO: And back to your question about work, I was thinking about our dog walking business, so Kai is actually legitimately working, he tells his friends on Skype, “I’ve got to go out now and walk a dog for my dog walking business.” But yeah, it’s still fun. He’s not thinking of it as work—even I don’t and I’m not getting the money. It’s super fun, we get to walk around, and yesterday, it’s spring here obviously, and everything’s blossoming, beautiful flowers everywhere, we spotted some carnivorous plants, the dogs are always really happy to see us. So even that work, it doesn’t seem like work to us.
And he’s learning so much from doing it. And he’s starting to be able to see, you know, being around dogs, and you can read their behaviour, so he’s learning about behaviour, animal behaviour. He’s very on top of managing his cash from it, and yeah, it’s been interesting because he plays on Steam a lot, so when you want to buy a game on Steam it’s in US dollars and so he’s been going off into google and working out the exchange rate and comes in and pays me the right amount of cash in Australian dollars because the Steam money comes off my credit card. So yeah, that’s super fun.
PAM: And there’s so much learning in there.
JO: Walking around in the sunshine with dogs!
PAM: Speaking of it being spring there, as the trees are changing colour here for Fall …
I was wondering if you could share with us a quick overview of what it’s like to unschool in Australia? Maybe a little bit about the legalities, and if there’s local communities.
JO: So yeah, in Australia we have States and Territories; we’ve only got two territories, the rest are states, it’s very confusing. Each state and territory, in terms of homeschooling legalities, they differ, like in Canada and North America. We live in the state of Victoria right now, that’s where Melbourne is. Victoria is the easiest state to homeschool in. It’s very easy, you just sign a statutory declaration each year and you’re done, that’s it.
PAM: That’s what it is here too.
JO: The other states have variations on a yearly report. Some states you get a home visit. When we lived in Adelaide we got a home visit every year from someone from the education department. I wrote a report and they would come and talk about that. It was never really … it wasn’t terrible. Other states you have to send in work samples, which is a bit of a hoop to jump through for unschoolers, but people manage. Yeah, so it’s possible certainly to unschool in every state and territory in Australia. There are different hoops to jump through but it’s definitely possible.
So, communities? In Melbourne here we have got quite a few unschoolers, which is really awesome. We can meet face to face, we go to park day. I’m also incredibly grateful that all our kids are around the same age, which is really great. They’re all 10, 11, 12 which is super fun. Elsewhere, I guess because we’ve travelled around so much, I’ve kind of taken it upon myself to meet as many unschoolers as possible in real life if I can. There are small groups of unschoolers in Sydney and Brisbane, so mostly the bigger cities, the cities that people will have heard about.
Because Australia is so huge and spread-out, lots of people do live in isolated areas, and there are also lots of conventional homeschoolers too here. Especially out in the bush, less by choice I think, people homeschool out there, and more because there are just no schools out there. I’m sure there are places like that in Canada as well. But yeah, we are all spread out. Melbourne’s definitely got the biggest number of unschoolers, I guess, but we have a very active online community, which is super cool. So we all kind of know each other from that.
Sandra Dodd came in 2014 to do the Always Learning Live symposium, so I organized one in Adelaide and we also drove Sandra on a road trip to Melbourne and we came to the Melbourne one as well. And that was really cool because all of the people we knew online most of them came to see Sandra, so we got to meet in real life which, you know, I love online, but it is super cool to meet people in real life as well. And our kids got to hang out, which was really cool.
So that’s, I guess in a nutshell, unschooling in Australia. Not as many of us as there are in North America. One thing we are definitely lacking is conferences, so I’m always very jealous when I see all of the conferences going on in Canada and America. And people keep telling me I should just organize one, but…maybe.
PAM: Soon, soon, yeah, get in touch.
Well that was awesome, thanks for the picture there, I always find it interesting to see how it goes there. Definitely some similarities, and I mean, here too, my connections were mostly online for many years before, well, I decided to host a conference so I could find local people.
JO: Yeah, we need to all get together, we should do it, maybe. When Kai’s a bit older and I’ve got a bit more time.
PAM: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me Jo, that was so much fun! Thank you.
JO: Thank you, Pam, it’s been super fun. I can’t believe an hour’s gone away already.
PAM: I know; it just went zooming by! And before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online?
JO: On Facebook, I’m just Jo Isaac. And at the moment I write mostly on a new Facebook group called Unschooling Q&A. It’s a super fun group that I just started with some online friends from America. So that’s where I’m writing and answering questions most of the time. I do have a blog, but it’s much neglected and best not to go there.
PAM: Great, well, I’ll make sure I get the right links and I’ll share them in the show notes for everybody. Thanks again, say good morning to Kai and have a wonderful day!
JO: I will, thanks!