January 6, 2019
I have to admit that I was not a huge fan of the term “unschooling” when I first heard it. It sounded excessively anti-establishment and like the term itself was purposely designed to evoke a strong emotional reaction. The more that we’ve experimented with it, however, to more I’ve come to see the potential of unschooling. Another issue I have with “unschooling” as a term is that it defines itself as “not something” as opposed to describing what it actually is, which is non-traditional education that takes place almost wholly outside normal educational institutions.
But that is quite a mouthful, so until we have a better term, unschooling will have to do.
I excelled in school, and I’ve always really highly valued the systematic aspect of organized education. I love dividing the world up into categories and methodically working my way through things. Initially, the idea of unschooling repelled me.
As it’s come time to actually educate my children, though, I’ve come to see a lot of wisdom in the unschooling way. First of all, kids have a tremendous amount of innate curiosity. This is repeated all the time by proponents of unschooling, but I think it’s important enough to repeat again. Kid’s default mental mode is curiosity, but from the moment they can crawl, we start training them to be less curious.
We pull them away from outlets, cupboards, stairs, cutlery, bath tubs, hard surfaces, sharp corners, expensive things, fragile things, open containers filled with basically anything spillable, etc. We do this for their safety (and for our net worth), but the result is that they learn from a very young age that it is Bad to touch a huge number of things in the world.
Shortly after the first word comes the first question, and shortly after that comes the millionth question. Pretty soon we get tired of their inane questions and we start coming up with ways to divert their questions or start giving them passive non-answers so that we don’t have to spare so much mental bandwidth all the time. Either way, the result is that our kids get the message, and stop asking us so many questions. Since they can’t yet read, they can’t ask Google either, so they just get into the habit of not asking questions.
Screen time is the bane of many parent’s existence, no phones or tablets or computers. Somehow, the ban doesn’t extend to TV’s though, which seem to default to always on in many households, whether it’s for the adults or the kids.
Even when kids get to school, curiosity isn’t particularly rewarded. Unless kids are curious about the topic at hand, they are actively discouraged from asking questions, and if they persist, they will be disciplined, the same as if they were shouting nonsense in class.
At this point I want to say that I don’t blame anyone for this state of affairs. Parenting is hard and we all have lots of responsibilities and in school it would be impossible to educate 30 kids at once without rules against jumping from topic to topic, even if the questions are good ones.
But the result is that kids learn not to ask questions. And this is before they even get to the point in their life where it becomes uncool to really care about stuff. At some point in every child’s life, they will have peers who make fun of them for liking things that they genuinely like and they will learn to be circumspect about the interests they pursue. It’s possible that they won’t go down every rabbit hole that seems interesting. Instead they will only go down the rabbit holes that seem interesting and are socially permissible, which is a much smaller set of rabbit holes, especially if their peers are close-minded.
Kids have an enormous amount of time to learn stuff, if only they have the desire to learn. I wrote this post about how most of the time spent in school isn’t actually spent learning and how I think a lot of the gap between high achieving students and not achieving students can probably be attributed to learning that happens outside the school environment. I think if kids are dragged kicking and screaming through school, it does take something like 15 years to get to a high school education. But if kids are really, truly interested in what they’re learning, they can get to that same level in just a few years.
Unschooling, then, in my estimation, is all about cultivating the innate curiosity that children have. That means not just answering, but encouraging the inane questions, and going beyond the scope of the questions to find teachable moments. It means letting the kids experiment with things that could hurt them (though obviously not too bad). It means giving them real, good reasons for blocking off sections of the world to them (better reasons than our own personal convenience).
Basically everything in the world requires reading. Why don’t we just teach kids to read in the course of their trying to navigate the world? Why do we think that it needs to happen in a setting like a classroom?
Math is the same way. Arithmetic is everywhere. Literally every game that our kids play on the computer requires arithmetic (and they are not math games). The kids don’t even seem to need to drill addition and subtraction because they get so many reps in the course of their games, mostly adding and subtracting the cost of various things relative to the gold they possess. Multiplication will also be deployed as a useful thing as soon as they start to learn it (turns out it’s a natural outgrowth of wanting to add things faster).
I don’t expect this to remain the case forever. Naturally kids aren’t going to run into calculus in the wild the same way they run into arithmetic. But there’s no reason that the kids can’t discover it on their own via trying to figure out how to calculate something related to a hobby, whether they get interested in basically any science, or finance, or something like plumbing where they might need to know the changing rate of flow through a pipe (or something…).
And that for something as arcane as calculus. Lots of other things are way more available in daily life. History is everywhere. Almost all fiction is set in some historical period, and a lot of it is very accurate except for the main plot points. There are articles every day about interesting happenings in space.
Every time a child comments on an interesting taste or texture or sight or sound is an opportunity to explain the science behind the thing, where it came from, how it got here, what the people are like where it came from, what the job is like that produced it.
Kids are capable of knowing so much! Young kids can tell you the name and characteristics of hundreds of Pokemon, unschooling is about making zoology interesting enough that they would rather learn the names and characteristics of hundreds of real animals (though Pokemon are fun too.) They can tell you about a dozen fictional planets and their inhabitants, unschooling is about making our solar system interesting enough that they can go into that level of detail about real planets.
We limit kids’ screen time, but they still manage to learn more about totally fictional things than they know about the real world. We hold the real world back from them, worried that it’s too complicated, and we give it to them in school, one little nerfed piece at a time, and then wonder why they’re not more interested?
I think it is true that the truth is stranger than fiction, but for whatever reason, we’re doing a bad job communicating to children that the real world is really interesting and that useful information can be gleaned from everywhere.
I think this is the reason unschooling is important. It’s a way to help children learn things where ever they are, whatever context they’re in. It mirrors the real world a lot more closely as well. When you get out into the real world and get a job, your success is directly correlate with your ability to figure out for yourself what’s important and figure out for yourself the best way to do it. Ideally you’ll have people around you to guide you and teach you, but that’s not always the case. Even if it is the case, the people who succeed the most will still be the people who can figure everything out for themselves.
Those people are people who have figured out that there is something to learn everywhere if only you know how to find it.
We're sharing what we've learned in the course of doing some unconventional things in the hope that we can help others do better and get more out of life.