Aly crouches on a windswept beach, carefully steadying a digital camera. Below her, a family of river otters chuckles and pipes to each other as they swim past. She adjusts her headphones, listening as an otter dives near the hydrophone she has suspended in the water. Aly is unschooling; the world is her classroom, and school is always in session.
Unschooling, developed by educator John Holt and advocated by Grace Llewellyn, particularly in her The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education (available through your local bookstore) is the most common sense approach to education we’ve encountered. Unschooling recognizes that humans are self-teaching creatures, perfectly capable of learning anything they need to know without institutionalized education. In fact, our education system often depresses the natural ability to self-teach, and discourages a love of learning! Unschooling advocates unstructured, self-directed learning through experience, personal inquiry, and exploration.
We began home schooling when we moved to our homestead. Initially, Aly’s years of institutional learning shaped her expectations of education. She learned to be passive, to wait to be told what to learn and when, and how to proceed. It taught her that homework is drudgery, and that grades are the only way to assess progress. Institutionally educated ourselves, Michelle and I were little better: much of the transition from schooling to unschooling involved breaking free of our perception of “the right way” to teach and learn, and open our minds to a better path to education.
Now in her fourth year of unschooling, Aly takes the initiative. She knows that no one else will do it for her. She’s moved beyond institutionalization and has achieved self-direction, becoming skilled in seeking answers to her questions.
Michelle and I have had to suppress our pedantic tendencies. Holt warns against trying to teach your children, stressing that any subject, no matter how interesting, immediately seems less alluring if a parent suggests it! Taking a hands-off approach, allowing Aly to pursue her own interests has been very difficult.
We’ve devised strategies for sharing knowledge in subtler ways. We’ve become adept at initiating conversations on specific topics, addressing each other rather than her. If there’s a book I want her to read, I’ll read it and talk enthusiastically about it at the dinner table, discussing why I liked it, rather than why I think she might. If it interests her, she’ll pick it up. The times I forget and make a recommendation, or bring something to her attention, she often won’t follow up. On rare occasions, if I think she’ll benefit particularly, I’ll break the rules and assign work. We will always teach her to a certain extent. That’s our privilege and responsibility as parents. We’re always ready to answer any questions she cares to ask. We’ll explore topics with her. Mostly, we go about our business, and hope that she takes an interest in what we’re doing. Thankfully, she often does!
Unschooling works best when parents are engaged—facilitating, not leading. Children raised to have self-discipline, a spirit of inquiry, and an ambition achieve their goals will succeed in unschooling. One must be self-directed in life to successfully direct one’s learning!
We’re all engaging in self-directed learning here on the Zeiger homestead. The learning curve is steep, and new challenges must be faced as they arise, often without the luxury of researching them beforehand.
You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in the ebook, Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger. The ebook version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.