A Travel Family's Journey to Unschooling

Yeah, I don't have homework tonight! Or ever!
Unschooling is a term that John Holt coined in the 70’s, after years of extensive research regarding how children learn and what was causing them to fail. What he discovered was that school pushes many children to fail via a fear inducing sub society and actually seemed to slow the learning process in most.

One of Holt's strongest beliefs was that children did not need to be forced into learning and anything that resembled school at all was counterproductive to their success. Unschooling, child led life learning, was born.

When I first heard about unschooling 8 years ago I thought it seemed crazy. I thought all the things that some of you are thinking right now. What about socialization, grades, college? My children need to go to school to be “on track” with everyone else. I thought it seemed lazy and neglectful and couldn’t imagine going against the grain in such an “extreme” way.

Flash forward to today and you see a very different philosophy in my home. I have spent the past 6 years homeschooling my oldest son. I have since had 2 more children, traveled with them extensively, moved to a foreign countries, and experimented with almost every type of homeschooling you can imagine. Then I discovered the mind opening experience that is unschooling and now I can’t imagine living my life in anything but this “extreme” way.

My oldest son started out life in a mainstream fashion. He attended 2 years of preschool and then went on to half-day Kindergarten. We lived in a wonderful small town with an excellent school system and were lucky enough to get an award-winning teacher for his Kindergarten experience. She was fantastic but through her own admission she could not provide the experience that she felt all the students deserved. It wasn’t a bad experience but we wanted more for our son. What more did we want? That is easy; room for independent thought, creativity, an ability to question things without being in “trouble” - and the freedom to run our household without the demands of the school system intruding.

The nagging question that remained was what could I, as a parent, do? After talking to that very same teacher and a lot of soul searching I decided to withdraw my son from school. She not only encouraged this, she was almost as enthusiastic as I was about the idea. I found that there were many philosophies to choose from within the realm of homeschooling. Since I was still caught up in the “school” mentality, we started by doing a canned curriculum at home. We tried this in many different ways for 3 years until I realized that we solved some of the issues but not all of them. Simply put, we were not enjoying it as much as we thought we should.

At this point I opened up my mind to the thoughts of unschooling and started reading book after book about it. I realized that I needed to throw away conventional thinking and open my mind up to the possibility that what I thought of as learning may not be the only path to knowledge. My discovery took place because of pioneers that came before me, Holt, Gatto, Kohn, and Sandra Dodd. They all showed me, through their writings, a new reality that I will forever be grateful for.

Reading books and opening my mind were the first steps in the process of de-schooling that Wikipedia defines as “the mental process a person goes through after being removed from a formal schooling environment, where the school mindset is eroded over time”. This step is vital for the entire family but for the parent it can be very difficult. We have far more baggage in regards to school and the added feeling and stress that we are responsible for our childrens’ education and, ultimately, their future. I struggled with what seemed like an ingrained need to follow the norm.

I did go to public school after all, and in his book Dumbing Us Down, John Taylor Gatto says “we are schooling children to merely obey orders…” Although I was a bit rebellious in school, I was still conditioned by societal norms and allowing myself to beak out of the box is where I struggled most on my journey to unschooling.

Ivan Illich first coined the term de-schooling in a controversial book called Deschooling Society, published in 1971. In this book he enlightens his readers to the fact that “universal education through schooling is not feasible”. He goes on to explain that the institutionalization of education means an institutionalization of society as a whole. And that it isn’t until we change the way we view education that we can change the way all institutions function. There is a corrupting impact at the institutional level but it is particularly damaging to society when this happens in schools, and it is happening in schools as we speak.

Another big hurdle for me was in understanding that authentic learning happens all the time. I realized over the past few years that you really can’t stop someone from learning no matter what you do or don’t do. My middle child has never been to school or even attempted anything remotely resembling school, yet at 7 he can read because he wanted to. Through simply living our lives he has learned numbers, adding, subtracting, percentage, fractions etc. How? We play war, poker, exchange money, let him do some shopping and all of those things are necessary for him so he has learned it. School puts our children in a box and real life cannot be found within it. I would prefer my children spend their time outside of that box, learning in the real world.

Everything my kids do shares an equal value because they are always learning, whether it is a walk in the jungle, playing video games, or reading a book. I love that my children have a say in what they want to discover. We offer them ideas and show them various paths to knowledge and support their enthusiasm, but ultimately it is what interests them that's most important to us.  And don’t we all learn better when it is something pertinent in our lives? I know I do and I know my kids do as well.

De-schooling is an ongoing process and something I will be actively doing for many years to come. It has profoundly changed me as a person and there is no going back ever. It reaches beyond schooling and into our lives on every level. There is a new intensity of respect, equality and unconditional love for all members of the family. We all know now what authentic learning is, it looks nothing like school and we are all happier for it.

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  1. Great article! De-schooling IS an ongoing process. But living the benefits of unschooling first hand, I wouldn't make any other choice!

  2. I am homeschooling four of five boys! And it sure is a lot of "Life Learning" but yet we still have books for them to do!
    The unschooling process is something that I am looking into and exploring. Some days we do more of "children led learning" and other days we let them do nothing..yet they are still learning.
    I reckon that us parents need to learn how to "Unschool"!
    Great read

  3. Wonderful article!! I home schooled my daughter
    who is very successful and I know that is totally because I home schooled her. I am often astounded at how intense and ambitious she is in her chosen profession. She has never ever given up, she knows where there is a will there is a way. And that she can figure it all out and make it happen as long as she hangs in there. We would often work on projects together and do whatever reading, research, field trips and contacting of experts as we went along. She has accelerated this process she now plans, researches, contacts whomever she needs to and then goes full out. If she has to stay up until 5am reading and doing research and then contact 50 people to make the her plans a reality then so be it, her intensity is amazing even to me. If that isn't a can do attitude I don't know what is. I personally think that if she had been placed in public school they would of ruined her,as she is independent,creative, smart, and plans to make a difference in the world and asks no ones permission to enjoy her freedom to pursue the happiness guaranteed by our Constitution. And yes I taught the Constitution and Bill of Rights to her when she was very young and continued to incorporate it again and again as the years went on. I think the home and unschooled kids are the future of this country there are over 3 million of us !

  4. I am so happy I found your blog! I am new to homeschooling and am beginning to lean to unschooling. I am having a hard time kicking out our Math & Reading 'schoolwork' so I am reading up on De-Schooling...the issue lies within me.
    You are the inspiration that I needed during a time of inner turmoil...thank you!

  5. Mary, I truly admire your commitment to your children's education through world travel and other unconventional means. But I am concerned that unschooling is not appropriate for older children. Higher level material, especially math and science, requires dedication and a knowledgeable instructor. (Most parents are not qualified to teach these subjects - I passed my parents in math in the eighth grade!)

    How can unschooling produce engineers and scientists? Are you going to teach your children calculus by playing poker? And what a shock they will receive in college, having never seen homework, deadlines, exams, or grades. Of course there are a few liberal arts universities that have "de-schooled," but you won't find that approach in any technical field.

    At a time when the US is lagging behind the rest of the world in the realm of science and math, it is especially important to cultivate these talents in our children. That's not to say that creativity is not important. As an engineer myself, I know that innovation is extremely important for problem solving.

    But when it comes to gaining the basic knowledge required of an engineer, there is no substitute for years of hard work. I would not want to drive over a bridge designed by someone who learned about bridges by climbing on them.

  6. Thanks for the comment Britta. While I understand your trepidation about higher levels of education I simply do not share in your concern. We cover many different fields of study in unconventional ways. My older child knows that to do something at a higher level like become a doctor, engineer, or chemist (as examples) he will need higher education. I have full confidence in his ability to handle college if and when that becomes HIS choice. If engineering is his choice then he will tackle all he needs to when he is ready. I simply have faith in it and know many children that have been unschooled and gone on college.

    There is no guarantee at all that going to public high school will prepare anyone for college or becoming an engineer or doctor. Most kids that come from conventional schooling are very overwhelmed by college. I would not expect nor would my sons expect to be building bridges without the proper technical training!