I first heard of unschooling, I think, when I was pregnant with my now-four-year-old son, Mikko, and it was immediately familiar to me. How was this possible? I had grown up attending traditional U.S. public schools through high school, and then went on to a private college. So, no, the concept of self-directed learning had become familiar to me later: in my adult education classes.
When my husband, Sam, and I moved to Seattle in our mid-20s, we were intrigued by the catalogs that came in the mail offering classes in everything from jiujitsu to photography to conversational Spanish to car maintenance. They were all non-credit courses, taught by experts or enthusiasts in the field. Some classes were for a single evening, and some ran for 8-week terms. They were affordable, and we started snapping them up as if we could collect the set if we tried hard enough.
Sam went off to try West African drumming and draw cartoons. I took a hatmaking course where I blocked four hats in the traditional style and spent way too much on watercolor supplies for my painting class. Every quarter, a new catalog would come, and we would dog-ear the pages, marking up what looked interesting and trying to prioritize based on the time and money we had available.
I had been considering continuing on to grad school, but it was almost as if these new classes helped convince me not to go. I had been a very good student throughout my traditional-schooling years — teacher's pet, straight As, the whole deal — and what I loved about my adult education classes was that all the rules had changed. In fact, there was no game at all anymore, no rules to keep or break. It was just learning, for its own sake. I was not going to become a hatmaker, a painter, a ballerina, or an actress. But I could go to the classes and learn and absorb, research more on my own, and enter into that new world for as long as I wished.
The idea of going back into a classroom, learning at a teacher's set pace, taking the courses that contributed best to my degree path and ignoring the ones that didn't, reading the books that were assigned and not having time for the ones that were just for fun — and most of all, trying to please a teacher and produce the desired grade rather than learn — it just didn't appeal to me at all anymore.
So when unschooling came up on a parenting forum, I had an almost instant analogy. "It's just the way I learn!" I thought. It was the way I had learned to learn — or unlearned to learn — as an adult.
Sometimes when parents try to imagine how they might unschool, they experience a little bit of panic, induced by memories of their own schooldays and how they will replicate either that experience or the results at home. I think it's more helpful to consider how you as an adult naturally learn.
Because even if you're not into adult-education classes, you are teaching yourself, or being taught by others, every day.
For instance, let's say you're reading some blogs you like and they mention a form of gentle discipline you're unfamiliar with. You read their posts about it and perhaps leave a comment asking for clarification. You note the name of a book someone recommends and put it on hold at your library. You type the term into a search engine and find some more resources to read about the subject. That night, a situation comes up where you're able to put the theory into practice and test it to see if it works for your family. This is all a form of learning — of research, consulting experts, trial and error — and all of it just flowed naturally out of your own curiosity and inner drive to know.
To take another hypothetical, let's say it's spring and you've just moved into a house with a yard that's begging for a garden, but you have no idea how to garden. You ask around and find a friend who loves to garden who will share some expertise and tools with you, and even go shopping with you for supplies. You find some new friends online who direct you to forums all about gardening in your region, and you gobble up all the information you can, taking notes about what sounds intriguing to you. You find out about a series of classes put on by a local gardening center and eagerly sign up. And then you have months of hands-on experimentation as you put all your new gardening know-how to work in your yard.
For you personally, the subjects and exact paths of learning might be different, but your learning trajectory is similar.
- You're learning what you want to learn. You've chosen what sounds interesting and important to you at that time. You're not following a set schedule of "At age 29, I learn about knitting, but at age 30, I have to take my required yoga class." You can just pursue whatever is on your heart or mind at the time.
- You're learning at your own pace. There's no deadline. There's no minimum or maximum time to spend on a subject. If you want to write poetry till the cows come home, you can. Conversely, if you read one book of poetry and are sated, you can stop there. No one's telling you otherwise.
- You're learning for your own purposes. You're learning so that you know what you want or need to know. You're not learning to please someone else. Even in a classroom setting as an adult, you're there because you want to be there and because you're paying the money (if applicable). You're not there to make your parents happy, and you're not doing the classwork to impress your teacher or earn an A. You either do it, or you don't, and it's all your own choice and responsibility.
Now think of how unschooling kids might learn just the same way.
- Your kids could pick what they want to learn. There's no harm in suggesting, but you can listen to their cues. Does your son love to boogie? Sign him up for a dance class, check out a jazz DVD, or buy tickets to the ballet. Does your daughter keep asking about all the trees you pass? Check a book out about plants in your region, and have lunch together with that friend who's an arborist.
- Your kids could learn in their own time. There's no set deadline to learn even the skills our culture has elevated as Most Important. If your child wants to wait till 7 to start learning to read, there's no rush. If, on the other hand, your 2-year-old is really interested in subtraction, you could go with it then rather than waiting till it's "the right time." There's no wrong time to learn something.
- Your kids could learn because they want to. There's no reason to make extrinsic rewards the point of learning. Letter grades, stickers, prizes — even unthinking praise — can distract your children from learning because they want to know the subject, to instead learning because they want to please you, pass a test, or earn a reward (or avoid a punishment). Let them keep their natural joy of learning intact. In the same way they learned to sit up, walk, and talk when they were motivated to and were developmentally able to, they will learn all the other things they need to or want to know.
Obviously, this is more of a philosophical article about how you might start thinking about unschooling rather than a detailed approach to the nitty-gritty of daily unschooling life. I hope, though, that if you're considering unschooling but don't know how to wrap your mind around it, this approach might ease your panic when you come to the realization that you don't need to learn unschooling at all: You just need to model joyous learning in your own life (the way you're choosing to read this blog post right now!), and then pass on that love and freedom of learning to your kids.