Unschooling: The Fear, The Struggle, The Payoff!

Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick

I am doing the impossible.  I am doing what I never in one million years would have seen myself doing. I am listening to my mom!  What? What?  It’s true.  Years ago, when I was in college she was adamant that I’d be the best teacher in the world.  I disagreed.  I was heading to law school, I was going to be a politician, a lobbyist.  Teaching wasn’t even my back-up plan, as I see it, teaching is a calling, like being a Priest or a Nun and I assure you, God was NOT calling me to teach children!

Here we are 20 years later (Goodness, how is that possible?) and I’m here to say I’m not a politician or a lobbyist.  Fortunately, I didn’t get past a Bachelors degree as a life amongst a bunch of lying, stinking, conniving, manipulating, pork-barreling hacks would not have suited me. I have a problem keeping my mouth shut and I’d have been blacklisted the first day!

And so, today I am doing the one thing I never saw coming.  I am a teacher.  In a one-room schoolhouse.  I have 11 students of varying ages and grades.  They all have different learning styles, different interests and different needs.  But they are mine.  I received the call from God about 5 years ago and never looked back.  My children are exactly where they need to be.  In a classroom where they are adored and understood and encouraged and free.  My biggest regret is that I didn’t do it the first day our oldest daughter stepped into a preschool classroom.

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Instead she went from Pre-K to 12th grade in Private Catholic Schools and Public Schools.  I regret that in the deepest recesses of my soul.  But I remedied the situation before any of my other children walked into high school.  Five of my kids will never be schooled outside of the home!  That’s astounding to me really because it’s as hard as I ever imagined.  But for different reasons.  Today, I’m directing my children’s education and that is a lot of pressure because there is no-one in the world who wants them to be successful, happy, joyous, generous, kind, faith-filled individuals as me.  If I screw this up, I potentially screw them up.  I take this responsibility so seriously that nothing is good enough.  No curriculum has been adequate, no philosophy, no amount of time spent … nothing is good enough.

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Until I discovered unschooling.  This philosophy spoke to me, to both my heart and my mind.  The freedom, the lack of pressure, the potential for greatness and individuality … nothing in the past 5 years has posed such promise.

 Enter my struggle with unschooling.  OMGsh, as if deciding to homeschool wasn’t enough, now my heart really grabs onto unschooling as the ideal freedom of thought, the ideal learning crusade where I facilitate that which the individual child is interested!  I’ve gone back and forth so many times my kids probably have whiplash!  I’ve worried so aggressively that I’m unable to sleep and have chest pains from anxiety!  Unschooling sounds fantastic.  It’s sounds like freedom to learn, freedom to discover and explore and endless learning opportunities.  Be it animals or hydraulics or history, it doesn’t matter, their interests propel them to learn, heightening their presence in the world, giving the power to the student to shape their own brains, no pressure, no tests, no homework, just real progressive learning.

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But what if everything I believe is wrong?  What if the simple truth is that kids absolutely must be forced to learn to diagram sentences and take dictation and know how to dissect a frog and memorize multiplication tables and …  WHAT IF?  I mean we have decades worth of data showing that our kids are consistently average when compared to the rest of the modern world.  And average is better than less than average, right?  Right?

 Wrong! No-one strives to be average at anything.  No-one goes to football practice and says I’ll be content with average.  No-one starts a business with a mission statement that declares their intent to be an average company.  No. No-one would start any new endeavor if they were guaranteed to be average.  And so, I have to wonder why average is good enough for our students.

We should aim for BEST.  Great is best and it’s what we all strive for in all we do.   I know I strive for great when I think of how I want to raise my children.  I don’t want average kids.  My goal is not to raise kids who are ok, who are moderately happy, somewhat generous, kind of self-supporting, pretty much productive, occasionally prayerful and live in the mainstream.

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NO!  That’s just not us.  We go big all the time, take huge calculated risks in search of unprecedented returns!   We are raising extraordinary kids who are confident, self-assured, joyous, giving and who follow their own exceptional dreams.  And once I clarified this in my mind I was able (for the most part) to let go of the last remaining stronghold that society had on me and truly pursue the educational experience that I felt would compliment.  I could go the tried and true way with consistently average results, or I could go for broke, and facilitate the learning that most interested each child.  I think we know which way I chose …

 And from there I vowed to give this unschooling philosophy 1 full year of my undivided commitment.  No going back and forth, no freaking out and breaking out the books because my 7 year old can’t read Shakespeare.  I chose to understand that the pressure from the outside world could penetrate our quiet, our serenity, our peace, but that we wouldn’t let it change our course.  I promised myself that I would not allow the pressure to bring with it the nagging worry, the indecision and the second guessing that it always did.

So today as I write, my boys are outside building a quarter pipe for BMX bikes and snowboarding.  They are drawing up blueprints, they are digging up the land, carrying massive boulders, they are discussing and planning the next steps.

My little girls are playing house and tending to their babies.  They are dressing up to go to the store, they are teaching themselves dance moves and practicing the splits.  You might say this is less remarkable, but why?  They are following their hearts today.  I hope they will always follow their hearts and be exactly who they really are, regardless of what anyone thinks.  It’s a tough life when you start being who someone else wants you to be, or who you think you should be, rather than just being you.

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This may very well be the most important aspect of unschooling, freedom to be you.

 But that’s not what society tells you is ok.  Society tells you that you have to start saving for your kids’ college education before they are born!  Society tells you that your children will not be successful without a college education.  Society claims that ALL students must go to college.  All.  Irregardless of their interests or where those interests take them, the first step must be college.  Just like ALL students must learn the exact same things in grads K-12.

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We’ve all been taught through our own educational experiences that being educated means being well rounded.  And that being well rounded means knowing the subjects of math, history, english, science and one foreign languages.  It means learning the basics of these pre-ordained subjects, plus one elective in the high school years. We are creating knowledge clones with zero diversity, zero room for individualism. Someone somewhere at some point in time decided that social studies was more important than investments and that history was more important than sales and so now our children are being encouraged to spend four years and thousands and thousands of dollars to discover their interests!

What about the hundreds of other interests that are not on the list of school subjects, but are creating actual employment and could possibly reignite the love of learning?   There must be intrinsic value in these things because there is intrinsic value in each individual person.  Our brains are so incredibly different, and as such our interests are so varied.  They are indeed relative and significant and far-reaching.

Can you imagine if we had a nation of free-thinking individuals?  Can you imagine if our schools were places where our children could go to read and delve into whatever it was their mind was inquiring about?  I dare-say we’d have our alternate power, we’d have our answer to immigration and China would be a technological dinosaur compared to the US!

But that’s not how it is.  Of course every child in our school system learns the exact same thing, it is designed that way.  There is no diversity, there is no room for rogue learners – it’s in the design!  It’s true they claim to groom our students to be well rounded, but only in 5 core subjects.  What if you are knowledgeable in auto mechanics, electrical work, hydropower, or web development?  What about missionary work, survival skills, cartology, geography, travel, and alternate power sources?

Why are you not considered well rounded if you are interested and study these 10 things?  Why is a well rounded education English, Math, Science, History and one Foreign Language?  Who decided this was it, that this was the box in which our kids would learn and why, in this day and age, are we still focusing on these things?  Shouldn’t we be taking advantage of the inherent love of learning our children have from birth and teaching them to trust themselves in this pursuit of education as they grow?

My husband is one of these rogue learners. In 2nd grade he was an author.  He wrote an entire book that his teachers were blown away by.  He was also a cartoonist and an illustrator.  But by high school, he had lost the drive because all the mundane work took too much of his time.  So, he did the bare minimum in school as a kid to maintain an A/B Grade Average.   He wasn’t interested in anything his high school was teaching.

When he graduated he had no clue what his skills were, let alone his interests.  He was a jack of all trades.  He could do anything and he did do everything.  Eventually he found his footing and was able to zero in on computer programming as something that came super easy to him.  But imagine if he hadn’t zoned out somewhere between 2nd grade and graduating high school.  Imagine if the educational system allowed him to continue to write stories and cartoons and illustrate?  Orintroduced him to computer programming?

Being a Software Engineer, Dan knows all the buzzwords in the technology arena and one of the hottest words today is the word AGILE.

Agile, when spoken in terms of software development it means exactly as it sounds … having agility.  Agile development is having the agility to very quickly adapt your target to meet the current demands of a client.  And this is of utmost importance bc the tech world changes so fast.  In traditional software development you might have a 2-3 year plan, but before you meet the target things have inevitably changed and so you must be able to adapt and to change your target on a dime.

It occurred to me that unschooling is agile learning.  It’s current, it’s constantly adapting to the most relevant information and it’s meaningful and vital to the individual!  It’s a living education, like RAW food but RAW Education.  Your body is able to digest and utilize the nutrients in RAW foods quickly and efficiently.  Likewise, when following the unschooling philosophy the student stays involved in his education.  His brain is constantly engaged as it actively soaks up the information because it is exactly what it was yearning.

When education is catered specifically to the student, it becomes important to them.

So, you are now asking, what if the student is never interested in math or writing or history? What if all they want to do is sleep and play MineCraft?  Great question!  And definitely all questions I had and agonized over.  And despite how many “expert” unschoolers I barraged with questions I was never satisfied until I put unschooling into action. Suddenly it all makes sense.  The responses that said “trust your kids” were spot on.  Mine aren’t lazy, electronics addicts, they are outdoor kids who have a penchant for learning when it is of interest to them.  And, you know what?  I think we’d all be surprised to know that even the most lackadaisical, indifferent kids want to learn … it’s just that they are so bogged down by pressure and stress and boredom and disinterest that TV and video games are a way to escape it all.

For my kids, it didn’t take but a few days before they were exploring the outer reaches of their brains – they started getting inquisitive about everything!  But it’s really in the past few weeks that I’ve really seen a difference and finally, I understand how  invigorating and liberating unschooling is for all our minds.

Truth be told, I was most worried about math, everything else is incorporated into our lives in one fashion or another.  But math was concerning considering the battles we were having over multiplication tables.  So, to set you mind at ease let me indulge in a couple examples to prove how even math is of interest to kids when it shows itself in an organic way!

The boys, as stated above, are building a quarter pipe, this takes some advanced math, the likes of which Kenny and Dally have never been presented with.  They are learning geometry and calculus in a real world application.  Kady too.  Over the past 3 months or so she has become extremely interested in photography.  She is scouring the Internet in search of as much information as she possibly can about all the settings on her camera.  In doing so, she is having to utilize math in many ways, such as shutter speed, aperture, focal lengths and so on.  Another example of learning the math needed in a real world situation.

It’s not lost on me that this sort of learning, this free, uninhibited learning that unschooling promotes is absolutely best suited to this ever-changing world we live in.  That kids who have learned to follow their interests as well as their instincts will lead the charge.  For they are already responsibility clad in guiding their own schooling and will therefore be products of a cutting-edge education. Their textbooks won’t be 15 years old, rather their information will live stream itself right into their sponge-like brains.  They won’t be accustomed to learning what they are told to learn, rather they will be the governing factor over everything they choose to learn.  They won’t be subjected to an education dictated by what is on the standardized tests, rather prescribed by their own interests and desires.

The confidence to learn what needs to be learned to get a job done, the knowledge of how to learn, the wisdom to continue the learning process throughout their lifetime, and the ability to adapt will be theirs and theirs alone.  They will be job creators and entrepreneurs.  They will be the pilot of their own lives in the future, just as they are in the present.  This is the new wave of the future folks!  This is true education!

Happy Thanksgiving, ya’ll.  And feel free to comment, I love to hear everyone’s different perspectives. Oh, and, if you are interested, solar is a great subject to discuss.  Our kids are super intrigued by alternate power sources ever since we started utilizing solar in the RV.  Check out our Goal Zero giveaway here:  http://woobox.com/4enuy3   And be sure to check our facebook page often as we’ll be starting new giveaways all through the holidays!!  🙂  Good luck!

28 Comments

  • I think how you are approaching the education of your children is fantastic. It is something I wish I had been brave enough to try. Having witnessed my girls being square pegs in a round hole. I am an Early Childhood Educator and my philosophy is heavy weighted in the Reggio Emilia approach.
    I am sure your children will florish and so will you.

    • Hi Chris!! Thanks so much!! Bravery is such a huge part of it. for the longest time I kept telling myself, I just didn’t have the patience, I was just sooooo scared! I am going to google the reggio emilia approach ASAP! Thanks again!!

  • Powerful persuasive piece, I’ve been the obstacle to our family following this train of thought and now, I must say, you offer a very compelling argument. Mediocrity isn’t something to aspire to, I agree. As long as we can keep our children’s brains being challenged, this might just be the freedom trail of our generation. Blessings to you and yours. Mark Ellsberg

  • Figures teabaggers and commis like yous would hate education. Nothin like throwing yurs in the face of the people who taught you.

  • Well stated. We are going on year 7 of home education and we do “force” some book learning because I’m scared too, but they get to do their school in the back yard, at a park, near the lake and in the jammies.

  • I can’t help but think while reading this that the public education you refer to isn’t like any my children are receiving. They have the core subjects, but also once a week have music and art and PE. They go outside for lunch when the weather is warm, they put on little skits for parents, etc. You can’t really lump all public education together. My children’s teachers love them like they are their own. They are devoted and caring and have values similar to ours. Even if I didn’t work, I would make the decision to send our kids to their current schools. But, if homeschooling works for you, then by all means go for it. The unschooling sounds so unstructured. How do you determine how much your child knows and if they are learning at all?

  • I’m a school teacher. I am offended. We are limited in what we can do because the government limits our power. I can’t cater to one or two students because education is a group program. Homeshooling is a religious fanatics and/or abusers dream situation. In fact, I’d go so far as to say homeschooling is abusive. It keeps children under a false sense of security. In the real world, where children will live after they leave the protective shelter of their parents home, there will be conflicts with bosses and neighbors and many others. They will have to do tasks that they find boring and uninteresting. Should they just quit their job? Should they just move because they don’t like what their neighbor does? It’s absurd. But that is what you are teaching your homeschooled children to do. Quit. Walk away from difficulty.

    • Great argument FOR homeschooling! Teachers are limited. We’re already in the real world dealing with real conflict, not jr high drama. We deal with difficulty with our kids so they don’t have to walk away. Isn’t that what you teach about bullying in schools. Thanks teacher for arguing against your school!

  • Just reposted on my facebook and tagged my entire family, extended included. This is exactly why I have decided not to pursue my teaching certificate and instead stay home to educate my kids. Unschooling is scary, but to look at it from your perspective is so EXCITING! Thank you so much!! Have a great Thanksgiving!

  • You have just written a carbon of my thoughts and fears about unschooling! I have been battling it in my brain for the past year and a half! Thanks so much for taking the time to write this!!

    • I’m betting that this is the most common obstacle to unschooling. We are all so ingrained with the way we were taught. I mean, what if our kids need this or that … in reality this is the best educational platform I can think of. If one of my kids must know shakespeare for their employment, they’ll know how to learn it FAST!! 🙂 But, yes, it’s sooooo flippin scary!!

  • I am also a teacher and I have two very small children. Because I am a teacher in a public middle school, I will NEVER send my children to public school. I try my best everyday, but the ridiculous laws and focus on education as a business have made reaching each student almost impossible. I know that several of my fellow teachers agree and send their kids to private or have them doing virtual school. Any teacher that can be so against alternative teaching methods really must have their head in the clouds or teach at a very unique and rare kind of school. I have taught in two different states and at both extremes of poverty and wealth. Calling this abusive is ignorant and close minded. Good for you for making your children and their futures a serious priority. Most people are too lazy to truly get involved and not just do what they are told by mainstream!

  • Oh my goodness, I have so much to say on response to your compelling argument for unschooling and also to those who commented against it. I have homeschooled my 6 children since 2006. When I started, I had an 8 th grader, a 5th grade, and a kindergartener. I also had 6 month old twins, and another baby by the end of the following year. Homeschooling then was very hard. I had such strict ideas and expectations I had placed on myself and my children. I finally settled on Robinson Curriculum, which is more of an ideology than a curriculum. Art Robinson’s wide passed very suddenly and he wad left with 6 young children and a full time job. He found over the years that children learn better when they take ownership of their education. His children completed 2 hours of Saxon math, 2 hours of reading from the home library, and 1 hour (or 1 page) of writing per day, and all are very successful. I decided to model my teaching after his style. Unfortunately, I was somewhat lacking in organization and very exhausted from just doing day to day work, but I had noticed that the kids’ behavior, attitude, hearts were so much. ..better. … that I didn’t want to return them to school. Very long story short(er)… my oldest is 22. She is an incredibly hard worker and has her own place. My son is 18. I confess that I didn’t grade his work consistently. I just asked that he do it. At age 14, he was writing essays on aerodynamics of flight, on music and sound, and fictional stories. Sometimes I read them. Usually I didn’t. I never gave tests. No math, no spelling. His first test was his driver permit test. Then he took the psat as a sophomore. He qualified at the national merit scholar level (but too young to apply, of course). He scored very well on the act and the sat. He receives college info from very prestigious apa add a result of these scores. He tells people he is unschooled because of a relative lack of oversight on my part. I gave him access to the materials and he chose what to do each day (except I did ask him to do math. .. next child doesn’t choose to do math very often though, so I ask her to bake double recipes, etc) Most don’t understand what that means, and when he explains, they think he’s crazy, I’m abusive, or both. I think he had time to become an accomplished musician, an amazing writer, and a deep thinker (of his own thoughts. .. not brainwashed or indoctrinated like so many believe). It’s impossible that he would have become the confident, intelligent, accomplished young man he is today if he had been forced to think traditional workbook fill-in-the-blank style. .. or if he had gone to school and the environment that is there. I wouldn’t change a thing. He learned what he needed. His dad and I were on a trip last year, and the car broke down. He called us, frustrated because he wanted to go somewhere. I asked him to fix it. He googled the symptoms, watched a couple of youtube videos, went to the parts store and bought a part, and fixed the car perfectly. No previous mechanic experience whatsoever. Unschooling teaches kids how to learn and to love to learn. I know this is ridiculously long, sorry for that.

  • Your article spoke to me. My children go to an award winning progressive common core school that fellow PTA moms often refer to as the best in the state if not the nation. Test schools are off the charts. Club sports and competitive programs for any activity you can dream of is within a few miles of our home if you have the money to join. Our children run from activity to activity because if you don’t start early you lose out ,on what ,I am not sure but it is common knowledge.
    Our house goes on the market in 6 weeks , an unexpected relocation, a God thing, I believe, came at a time when we all have had enough of surviving and not living. Many eyes are judging as we prepare for a new adventure on a dirt road and move forward. To finally embrace the change and go with it.
    Just this week all doubt left as clarity slapped me in the face. It is spring break. We are unschooling, it seems, although I had never heard the term. The girls have been choosing their own activities without judgment or steering from me because of convenience. I have watched our 12 year old daughter melt down out of nowhere declaring the stress of having only 15 minutes to herself some nights after homework and activities was all she could handle. The past few months of tossing and turning and waking up at 6:30 because of her nerves have been erased this week. She did a cheer yesterday, not knowing I was listening from the kitchen, “I never want to go back there.” Her own words as she was doing flips on the trampoline. Ironically, on paper she thrives. She has an innate drive. She is up for a distinguished scholar award this year and was recently chosen to be a student ambassador. I am proud of her as any mother but reality check….inside my baby is another story. My youngest daughter is in kindergarten . She woke up at 6:30 and I asked why she was up so early. earlier than school days. She said “I want to go color and play with my dolls. I can’t do that at school.”
    I certainly do not blame teachers or the school district. Their principals and teachers are truly caring and dedicated. They have a very difficult job! They are under pressure. The school district is doing what studies indicate is the best for the child. Some children may not be affected, but mine are affected. Yes, they are learning to cope with it but at what cost as they are still developmentally growing.
    So as parents we are mixing it up a bit and try to bring living intentionally back on our radar. My kids are crying out for help really. It is just too intense. It is time I listen and make sure when we move to the dirt road we can find a personal balance.
    Thank you for your inspirational blog!

    • Wow, thank you so much, you speak the truth!! Society’s kids live intense lives, with stress and pressure taking such a toll!!! Enjoy your dirt road, your peaceful life, let your kids live the wild childhoods of old and they will continue to thrive, but this time without the side effects of societal grief!!! xxxxx

  • My husband and I began homeschooling our 4 children a few months ago and it feels amazing! Thank you for this post! Seeing you and your husband do this with all of your children gives me hope and a lot of encouragement. 🙂

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