writer, listener


on January 3, 2014

I’m still new to it all, but I’m exploring unschooling with my youngest child. I’m doing this mostly because I’ve grown to believe that, with few exceptions, school and learning have nothing to do with each other. At best, they’re fourth cousins, twice removed. It breaks their grandparents’ hearts, but they don’t even stop by the family reunion anymore (not even just for the potato salad) because they have so little in common.

If you’re reading this, we were probably born within fifty years of each other. Which means we were probably brought up with similar ideas about compulsory education. For one thing, YOU GO TO SCHOOL. You just do. It’s good for you. School is where you get inspired and learn from qualified people who know all the important learning stuff. If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not learning. Never mind the fact that we retain almost nothing long-term that we encountered in school at a time when it wasn’t relevant to us, no matter how late into the night we stayed up studying for the test.

If you’re having a bad time at school, just adjust or tough it out or something. Better yet, internalize it, feel like a shitty person, and figure out how to seem like a classroom success because ultimately, you won’t learn anything or go anywhere in life without school. FACT: School is where all the happy, successful people start. The sooner you start and the longer you stay in school, the happier, more successful, and better adjusted you’ll be as an adult. Everybody knows.

So get your ass up and don’t miss the bus because kids in third-world countries wish they could be you, learning all the amazing learny things in your common core classroom instead of sitting around in mud huts all day, smelling like goats, wearing some nasty T-shirt you donated to charity five years ago, swatting flies away from their gaping mouths and crusty eyes, not learning a damn thing about real life.

But what if almost none of this is true? What if, say, humans growing up in a literate world (like most of us here in the land of the free), naturally and enthusiastically pick up important things at the time it’s relevant for us to do so? What if, between the ages of 3ish and 9ish, people begin reading and counting and generally being creative, useful, happy human problem solvers, with very little outside intervention?

What if any meaningful learning we experience happens despite our formal schooling and not because of it? What happens if a human child learns to read for pleasure in a lifelong kind of way at age 8 instead of under duress and with great resentment at age 5? Will the world explode? Or worse, will Tufts catch wind of it? WHY ARE WE SO BROKEN THIS WAY? WHY DO WE SACRIFICE LONG-TERM GOOD TO PASS SHORT-TERM, SHORT-SIGHTED MEASUREMENTS IMPOSED BY ALL THE WRONG PEOPLE FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS?

Ahem. Sorry for yelling. It’s just, the future of the planet and everything.

Some part of me (likely the part that spent 12 years in Catholic school) wants to resist my gut feelings and trust that other people, politicians and doctors of education and such, know what’s best. I read my own words here and fight the urge to call myself some kind of hippie zealot. I mean, next thing you know I’ll be wearing a burlap sundress and selling flowers with my kids on Duval Street.

But what I know in my heart of hearts and in my simple burlap brain, is that school as we know it is actually a very recent (and mostly failing) invention. It’s a completely unnatural way to learn anything for real, especially while we’re very young. And it’s only getting worse as we sink deeper into failure and watch educrats, in their well-intentioned panic, bury our children deeper and deeper into a system that is moving from just not-very-helpful to harmful.

I’m not saying I’m sure unschooling is the cure for public education or that our current system doesn’t work for anybody at all. I’m saying unschooling is the answer for one of my children at this point in his life and that I think it’s worth exploring, even if it only strengthens your resolve to make our current system meet your child’s needs better (I don’t know, maybe push for a system in which teachers are valued and allowed to teach, for starters).

Anyway, I’m preaching and I hate that. But if you’re curious about unschooling, here are a few books I found some value in (each in different ways):

LEARNING ALL THE TIME (John Holt). A good foundational overview of unschooling. Dry at times, but valuable for help with understanding how children quite naturally investigate the world without being formally taught to do so.

FREE TO LEARN and FREE TO LIVE (Pam Laricchia). Both quick reads with insights from a corporate mom who quit her paying job to unschool her kids. Real-life examples.

UNSCHOOLING RULES (Clark Aldrich). Fifty-five ways to unlearn what we know about schools and rediscover education. The writing is a little hokey, but overall it’s the most helpful of the books I’ve read so far on the topic.

Do you unschool (or homeschool)? Were you raised as an unschooler? I have lots to learn and I’d love to hear about your experiences and opinions. My email address is rlsaundersbooks@gmail.com.

11 responses to “Unschool

  1. Marie says:

    You are excellent at preaching–in fact, that’s how I found your blog! I say you do whatever you need to for your kids. In our oldest son’s case, it was putting him in private high school so he could have class sizes of 6 to 8 and excellent teachers without exception. It’s been a big sacrifice financially, but it’s worth it.

    I wish you luck in your “unschooling”!

    • Thanks, Marie. I agree–it’s about really knowing who our kids are. My daughter is burning to go to an arts high school next year and I’m behind her a thousand percent, especially if I win the lottery.

  2. YES, YES, and YESSSSSSSS again. Thank God for parents who are willing to unschool! My mother never allowed me to go quite that far–self-paced learning from textbooks was all I could talk her into–but even there, just being out of the school environment and breathing sweet freedom seven days a week was a lifesaver for a kid like me who absolutely adored learning but reviled school. Cheers to you for being brave and going with your gut instead of the opinions of the establishment!

  3. Richard J. Niedzwiecki says:

    My hats off to you, and I know, you have all the necessary credentials, qualifications, and most important, the patience to do a fantastic job with him. I hope he brings you many well deserved apples over the years ahead

  4. Dave says:

    I think that one of the most harmful aspects of present educational systems is that idea that teaching the same thing at the same rate to 25 (or so) students in one classroom is a good thing. With the assistance of computers; in a short time, we will start seeing education become completely individualized. Each student will learn at his/her own rate in ways that motivate them individually. With the computer being so central to this idea, much of a person’s education will take place at home; but some (like authentic evaluation) will still need to take place at school.

    This will be the next great revolution in education and it can’t come soon enough.

  5. Rick Boettger says:

    A really provocative piece, Rhonda. While I am very critical of cattle-call education, and think college is often a waste of time and money, you’ve made me examine how my education worked on me. High school was easy, then I flunked out of college the first time, and never used my 3 years of MIT nuclear physics. But I went back to school with the simple goal of getting paid–by the GI Bill–to read and chat about books, also called majoring in English. I learned to write term papers in two-night overnighters, on stuff I loved. This skill, learning from a fire hose and writing like I’m possessed, is largely why I became successful in the workaday world. I don’t know if I would have developed that crucial skill working at my own pace. Sadly, in my dotage I still cannot write my memoir or two fantastic novels, because all I can write are my humble columns, which I write in an hour just before deadllne. Blessed deadline.

    This is thinking out loud, not really even making a coherent point. Keep us posted on how your unschooling goes. I’ll check the references. Thanks!

    • You got really good at it at the exact time it meant something to you (for whatever reason). I’m not saying I plan to discourage college for this kid. I’m saying I plan to encourage him to know himself well enough to pick a path in life that will mean the most to him. I think a lot of kids get to college and have no idea why they’re there or what they want to study because it’s the first real semi-unscripted experience they’ve had. That’s pathetic, to me.

      Thanks, Rick. I’m nervous, but no more nervous than I would be about leaving him in a traditional classroom. The benefits no longer outweighed the damage, and he was at the best school on the island with a very experienced, kind teacher.

      • Dominique says:

        I’m a recent college drop-out and “deschooler.” While I’m not sure how permanent my leave of absence is, I do know one thing — right now, I do NOT have an idea of why I’m there or what to study. I love education, but that’s a big field and I don’t want to just slip into an English major because it seems… somewhat applicable. I don’t really want a license. I don’t even want to teach in a traditional classroom.

        And I definitely don’t want to be “pathetic,” and I think that’s exactly the right word to describe auto-pilot college students — pathetic and scared. I’m proud of my decision to start learning for myself, and hope to grow as an educator while I do it.

        Thanks for this post. It’s nice to know there are responsible adults out there who understand that college ISN’T always the right choice.

  6. redheadmom8 says:

    After five years of homeschooling, we emerged from Christmas break as unschoolers. Learning All the Time, by John Holt, was probably the most integral part of my decision. Great book. I just got How Children Learn in the mail, so I’m excited to read that, too.

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