Today, I want to talk with you about learning.
With unschooling, learning often looks very different than what we’ve been taught to expect, so it can take a while to recognize it in action.
And then it takes time to figure out how, as unschooling parents, we can actively support it.
First, we’ll take a look at the conventional approach to learning so we can compare it to unschooling and better understand the differences.
Then we’ll talk about three ways we can support and encourage our children’s learning through unschooling, namely by:
- being open
- being patient, and
- being unafraid.
Compulsory schooling laws migrated across North America starting in the 1850s until about the 1920s.
The assembly line was the efficient business model at the time, so it’s not surprising how well the factory analogy aligns with the conventional schooling process.
Its evolution since hasn’t strayed much from its roots, with students—sorted by age—marching grade by grade through the system, the process gradually becoming more formalized with increasingly standardized curriculum and testing.
It seems efficient, right? Yet more and more we’re understanding the real consequences of this path. Many students graduate with a similar mindset:
- they dislike learning, often intensely
- they believe the only way to learn is to be taught
- they are so fearful of being wrong they look to others for direction
- they have a hard time thinking creatively
- they believe that all actions should be weighed and measured, and
- that busyness is synonymous with accomplishment.
This mindset doesn’t serve them very well as adults.
Another consequence of learning through curriculum is that it leaves students with the impression that the subjects they cover stand alone.
Math doesn’t relate to history. English is independent of social studies. Science has little to do with geography. But we know that isn’t true.
For example, an interest in baseball can lead a person to dive into learning about many topics such as:
- health, as they challenge themselves to sprint the bases as quickly as possible
- physics, as they try to hit the ball as far as possible
- math, as they analyze the batting and fielding statistics of their favourite players
- history, as they learn about the ways the game has changed over the years
- geography, as they investigate the home countries of professional players
And so on.
Unschooling envisions learning as a web of connections, where topics weave together, like they do in the real world.
Want to see it in action?
Back in 2006 I made a couple of connection maps as I thought about the many learning connections my children made as they dove into their passions. I loved seeing that even diving deeply into a singular passion allowed them incredible access to so much of the world.
Lissy’s passion for Harry Potter not only led her to a love of reading, it also sparked learning about religions, mythology, story analysis, writing, music, Latin, computer programming, and a fascination with names.
I encourage you to create your own connections maps for your children’s interests and passions. Put the interest in the middle and write down the different places they’ve gone and things they’ve learned all around, connecting them with lines.
I’ll put links to my connection maps in the show notes if you’re curious.
The way children learn through unschooling aligns much more closely with how information exists out in the world: connected.
Now let’s talk about the ways we can support learning in an unschooling environment.
One way is through being open and receptive to our children’s wonder.
That means metaphorically, and sometimes physically, walking beside them as they follow their curiosity.
“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”Eleanor Roosevelt
Curiosity—asking questions of ourselves and of others—naturally leads to learning. And through being open and responsive to our children’s questions we can actively cultivate their curiosity.
Why do I use the word cultivate? Because we’re not trying to “teach.”
You can’t really teach someone to be curious, yes? Or to love learning.
Rather, children are born curious—just watch babies and toddlers in action! We want to cultivate that.
In other words, we don’t want to dampen their innate curiosity.
Yet think of a day in the life of the average toddler. What do they hear?
- No, don’t touch that.
- No, we don’t have time to do that.
- No, stop, you might hurt yourself.
- No, put that down, you might break it.
- No, not now, you’ll make a mess.
That can definitely wear a child down.
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”Albert Einstein
But what if it’s not all about the “no”? How does us being open cultivate our children’s curiosity?
Being open means not presuming where things will go. Kinda the opposite of curriculum, where the next step is not only already defined but so is the next one, and the next. Being march-stepped down a pre-determined path leaves little room for wonder, for exploration, for the joy of an unexpected discovery. Soon students come to believe that to learn, they must be taught by someone who already knows the path.
With unschooling, the idea is that each person is busily constructing their own web of learning connections. Instead of spending our time trying to nudge our children back on a linear path, we delight in the unforeseen places that curiosity leads them. What’s around the corner? What if I try this? When they experience over and over the surprising and interesting places that following the connections take them, they learn to trust their instincts. To stay curious.
Exploring the world and learning becomes something enjoyable in its own right, something they want to do throughout their lifetime. They also come to learn that even if things don’t pan out as hoped, it’s not the end of the world. They’ve learned a little something, gained a bit more experience. They are still curious. What’s around the next corner? They aren’t waiting to finally be able to stop thinking about things, to stop learning.
Curiosity replaces curriculum as the path of learning. And it lasts a lifetime.
And bonus, this process is personal. Instead of trying to change students to fit the mold of school, unschooling children are also exploring their own levels of comfort and how they personally mesh with the world.
We cannot know where things may go.
Here’s a fun example of connections.
In 2004, when Lissy branched from Harry Potter into reading Harry Potter fan fiction online, there was an author who opened her chapters with song lyrics.
That led her to music.
She found small, alternative bands she really enjoyed and wanted to see them live. We went to lots of shows.
Her favourite band became The Academy Is and we saw them live many times and chatted with them before shows.
They’ve played her song request during a set, and they’ve dedicated a song to the moms in the crowd—there were a handful of us.
They eventually broke up and the singer, William Beckett, began a solo career.
On his spring 2012 Walk the Talk tour, Cara Salimando opened for him.
This was the first time we’d heard her. At the show we loved her set. And her. She played a ukulele and sang beautiful and haunting songs she’d written.
At one point she mentioned that she lived in New York City.
Lissy was leaving for NYC a few weeks later to spend two months there—which grew into six months.
I encouraged her to send Cara a quick note. Maybe they could connect while she was there. She did.
Turns out they really hit it off and they are close friends now. Lissy moved to New York and shot Cara’s album cover. Cara wrote and sang her a birthday song on her Brooklyn rooftop last year.
A couple of times Lissy and I have marveled at how if any one of those little things hadn’t happened, then she probably would never have met Cara.
And they might not have happened if, back when she first expressed an interest in going to shows, I said, you’re too young. Later I could have reasonably said, not so many shows. Or not so many shows for the same band. I could have not bothered to encourage her to contact Cara when she first went to NYC.
It’s great that she has a wonderful friend, though again, not the end of the world if it didn’t turn out that way. It’s not about saying yes or no, or about being right or wrong.
It’s about being open to the possibilities, giving opportunities the potential to bloom.
And a quick update for 2022. Cara moved to Los Angeles a few years ago and they continued to visit each other once or twice a year. Lissy moved to LA a few months ago and, as a photographer, now works almost exclusively with musicians.
If we decide on our boundaries ahead of time and hold on to them tightly, our lives might not be as magical as they could be.
And it may be harder for our children to discover the joy and learning that being curious can bring them over their lifetime.
Be open to the ripples, the connections. You never know where they may lead.
Another way we can support our children’s learning is through being patient. Patience is important for unschooling because it reminds us to move at our child’s pace.
In school, one of the big challenges teachers face is that there is really only one pace at which they can move their class: the one defined by the curriculum they have to cover, in the days allotted.
And that average speed will only mesh with a handful of students at any given time—and that handful will vary according to the subject.
So, more often than not, from the perspective of the individual student, the pace of the class is either too fast or too slow for their learning.
Either way, it can be frustrating.
“A smile and patience are two things that can never be over applied.”Gary Rudz
With unschooling, our children are free to learn at their own pace.
Sometimes connections happen quickly, like dominoes falling, one after another after another.
Other times persistence is the name of the game.
Either way, the beauty of unschooling is that the only pace that matters is their own, and our patience gives them the time to stay engaged in their activity as long as they like, and to sink into the unique flow of their learning.
For example, it’s about having the patience to let them keep going until they are ready to move on.
I have a few memories from our first year of unschooling when I was beginning to feel impatient and chose to do the work to move to through it without putting it on my kids. One was the bobsled ride at the Ontario Science Centre.
It was very cool: in front of the bobsled there was a movie of a ride down an Olympic bobsled track playing. The bobsled itself tilted and moved along with the movie.
One of the many advantages of not going to school is that the Science Centre is practically empty in September! So, they rode it over and over. The odd time someone came up, they let them ride and then they got back in.
When I realized I was getting frustrated, I started thinking about it—why? What was so frustrating? Well, I was kinda bored. But obviously they weren’t. And the trip was really about them, not me. We were there to enjoy ourselves, and they were definitely enjoying themselves!
I realized that we weren’t racing the clock. We had no time constraints other than closing time. And asking them to move on in no way meant they would find the next exhibit as interesting. They were deeply engaged in riding the bobsled—and that meant learning.
So, I stopped looking at my watch. And instead of stewing in my boredom, I chose to sink myself into their obvious joy. I think I started counting how many times they rode it.
This shift to patience, to allowing time for the unschooling process to unfold before me with my own children, was a great learning moment for me.
“Patience is not passive waiting. Patience is active acceptance of the process.”Ray Davis
It’s also patience for when your family room looks messy to you. So often, their exploration is more important than a tidy room.
Or the kitchen table.
Sometimes a picnic in the backyard or the family room is just the ticket when the kitchen table projects aren’t quite finished.
Patience is a visible display of respect for, and understanding of, the child.
Support their exploration as much as you can.
Give them the space and support to play and learn at their own pace.
Patience is a wonderful tool to have in your unschooling toolbox.
A third way we can support our children’s learning is by being brave in the face of judgment—others and our own.
That feeling of being judged, or that our children are being judged, can strike fear deep inside.
Yet if we work to move through these fears, we can cultivate our children’s creativity and help them develop trust in themselves.
Notice how I used the word cultivate again.
Children are born creative—they aren’t frightened of being wrong. Ken Robinson puts it well:
“Kids aren’t frightened of being wrong. Now, I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.”Ken Robinson
So, let’s talk about how the fear of judgment leads to lost creativity.
This culture of judgment is how I imagine many of us were raised. Answers to questions are either right or wrong. The way we do things is either right or wrong. The way we behave is either right or wrong. We received good marks and praise for being right; and were shamed for being wrong.
Shame is powerful. It’s an effective training tool—if training is your goal. Conventional schooling and parenting use it to their advantage. The result? As Ken puts it, most kids have been judged and shamed enough times throughout their childhood that as an adult, they actively avoid suggesting anything new, anything out-of-the-box, in both their work and personal lives.
How many of us are now, as adults, trying to unearth our buried creativity? And that’s only those of us who have come to realize that there is value in being creative.
But what if training isn’t your goal? With unschooling, we aren’t looking to ingrain a fear of being wrong in our children—we want to cultivate a sense of exploration, a joy in learning and discovering new-to-them things. Kids ooze creativity—just watch a toddler play with a new toy or try to reach something they want on the counter. And embedded in that exploration will be times when things go unexpectedly—a much better descriptor most times than “wrong.” Learning instead of fear.
Back to the impact of judgment.
The challenge comes when we see our children in action and our first thought is, “they’re doing it wrong.” Our instinct is to show them the “right” way to do it. But that tends to shine the focus on the often-artificial dichotomy of right and wrong.
Instead, with unschooling it helps to try catch ourselves and give our children the space to figure things out. And by that I don’t mean being uninvolved. I mean don’t direct. Give them the time and space to explore things for themselves without always being given “the answer.” That’s real learning.
When I saw Joseph building a tower with the base 10 blocks I’d bought, I could have said, even nicely, “That’s not what those blocks are for. They’re special math blocks.” I could have laid them out on the table and used them as the visual-spatial arithmetic aids they were designed to be.
But I caught myself. Just imagine the learning he soaked up as he built his tower, about forces and gravity, not to mention gaining familiarity with relational math concepts just by using blocks whose size and scale is explicitly indicated.
Still, you might be wondering why it’s such a big deal to pay attention to when you step in.
And really, the answer is situational, as is so often the case with unschooling. One could argue the child may be interested in knowing how something is conventionally used or done. And yes, that is great information to share with them. But not until they have satisfied they own curiosity and freely followed the questions that came to mind.
If we jump in before that, we are more likely to shut down their thinking, their curiosity, and their creativity—in short, their learning.
Notice how I said, if we jump in. If they ask for your input or help, by all means, do that! If they ask, they’re open and ready to move on, so give them a hand.
If we do jump in while they are still actively engaged in the puzzle, they will likely feel silly for not yet having thought of our more experienced idea. And they’ll likely feel even worse if we tease or shame them about it. And after that happens enough times, they won’t feel capable of figuring things out for themselves. They’ll just want to be shown things, to be given the answer. And while there is learning in that—or at least memorizing—there is often little understanding. They won’t know why something is that way, they’ll just know that it is. Their exploration will dwindle. Their creativity will atrophy.
Now. The really interesting thing is how this comes full circle. Creativity back to learning and building connections.
In an interview in 1996, Steve Jobs, the creative visionary behind Apple Computer and the mobile computer revolution, shared this insight about creativity:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something, It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity.”Steve Jobs
“Creativity is just connecting things.”
Well. Unschoolers are experienced with connecting things. We do it all the time!
He said, “The reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
Let’s look at what we’ve been talking about today. Unschooling children have lots of experiences: not only do they avoid being secluded inside a classroom for 30 plus hours a week, their parents work to be open to expanding their children’s experiences through their interests and passions.
We also choose to be patient so our children can move through those experiences at the pace that works best for them.
And we are brave, working to not let our fears get in the way of giving our children the time and space to explore things in their own creative ways, and room to think about what they are experiencing and learning, making new connections all the while.
And he’s right, that’s rare. Unschooling IS rare. But it’s a beautiful and creative lifestyle where living and learning weave together and connect in spectacular ways.
I realized I was creating for my children a lifestyle that would persist into adulthood.
Weaving it all Together
With unschooling, we don’t see the huge conventional split between childhood and adulthood.
Imagining my children’s adult lives it hit me, like a wonderfully clear voice in my head: Don’t just imagine the “better” life you want your children to have when they grow up; live that life yourself starting TODAY.
Huh. Unschooling isn’t just about my children’s lives, it’s about ALL of us.
If that’s the life you want for your children, then want it for yourself too.
Practice what you preach.
Show don’t tell.
If you want them to grow up and be curious about the world?
If you want them to grow up and love learning new things?
BE AN ADULT WHO LOVES LEARNING.
If you want them to grow up to be self-aware and understanding?
DO THE WORK FOR YOURSELF TOO.
If you want them to grow up and trust their choices and intuition?
For me, this was a huge mind-shift that brought me more directly into each moment WITH my children.
It was no longer us and them.
Parents and children.
It was us.
WE are curious.
WE jump in and learn things.
WE are aware of our patterns and our environment.
WE try things out.
WE help each other.
What each of those things look like is different for each of us because we are individuals with our own unique blend of talents and challenges and personality.
But we’re all rooted in that same foundation.
Live the adult life you wish for your children, ALONGSIDE your children. TODAY.
Let them see it in action.