We Are All Unschoolers Now

A Message to Parents

by Dr. Kathleen Kesson

Families who unschool, or home school (at least 2 million kids in the U.S.) usually reach this decision after much deliberation, and after weighing innumerable factors: available time and energy, capacity, desire, and finances. Now, overnight — thanks to a global pandemic — hundreds of thousands of young people in many countries have no school to go to. We now have compulsory unschooling.

First of all, some definitions: Home schooling merely suggests that kids are being educated outside the formal school setting. The curriculum of the home school may be every bit as structured as that of the public school. In fact, many schools are making efforts to provide continuity by shifting familiar educational processes from face to face instruction to online learning.

Unschoolers, on the other hand, tend to reject the entire apparatus of school, and the paradigm on which it is based. Unschooling implies an embrace of the idea that children are naturally curious, meaning-seeking creatures with interests and concerns that should be allowed to guide their learning. It’s been interesting to read the blogosphere and see how many parents began this adventure with strict home schooling schedules and regimens, then slid into unschooling as the demands of real life took over and they discovered that just possibly, young people can decide for themselves how they wish to occupy their time.

Because of the class divide in this country, some families will manage to cope with the new educational expectations (those with resources for alternative childcare, those who can work from home, those with good internet access and lots of available books and materials), though even such privileged parents will experience difficult adjustments. Many more parents are making painful choices. Do I leave the kids home alone? How will they keep up with their schoolwork? Will they graduate? And sadly, others are dealing with even more grave issues. How will I pay my rent? How will my child get their meals? How can I keep them safe?

Everyone has questions: What will this mean for my child’s academic future? How will they learn what they are supposed to learn? And what in the world am I to do all day with the kids? If you are a parent of a suddenly unschooled young person and do have the opportunity to stay at home with them, I offer here some words of hope, some rays of possibility gleaned from the experiences of our family when we chose to unschool.

We were far from privileged when we embarked on our five-year unschooling adventure. Our house was a 984-square foot, Depression-era shack that we relocated onto 20 acres of land in rural Oklahoma. Our income stream was uncertain and often slowed to a trickle, and we had no health insurance for our family of six. There was little cash to spend on fancy educational resources, but we did the best we could with what we had. Actually, duct tape might have been our largest single expenditure (that was the year that my eight-year-old spent constructing cardboard and duct tape swords and shields to re-enact his favorite myths with his younger brothers). Despite these very real challenges, those five years were some of the best in our lives. With no lesson plans, no tests, no grades, no textbooks, and no “do-nows,” our four boys managed to learn a whole lot about the world. But I think I learned even more than they did.

Ten Things I Learned from Unschooling

1) Personalize learning. For the most part, conventionally schooled children and teenagers follow structured curricula with predetermined (often by testing companies) learning goals and anticipated outcomes. Their physical movement is limited, and there is an emphasis on “accountable” behavior (raising hands, lining up, staying on task, not talking out of turn, etc.). They are monitored, judged, and assessed on every aspect of their experience – their academic achievement, their habits of mind, their behavior, etc. In Vermont, where I live, we have legislation guaranteeing that every child has the right to a personalized education, which has been a very promising development. The current enforced unschooling, which is challenging in so many ways, offers an opportunity to interrupt practices that “de-personalize” learning, and give your child a jump start on discovering the interests and curiosities that may encourage them to design their unique and amazing personalized learning plan.

2) If your child seems to crave the structure of completing their internet assignments or packets that their teachers have laboriously put together (bless their collective hearts for caring), by all means encourage them. Whatever gives young people a sense of security and continuity. But as unschoolers have learned, the work required in most classrooms can be done in much less time than it generally takes to get an entire class rolling. They are likely to have time on their hands, even if they meet all their structured requirements.

3) Don’t panic if your child complains that “I’m bored.” Boredom can be productive. Children are by nature curious about the world and eager to learn new things. Schooling, with its curriculum mandates, lesson plans, pacing calendars, Carnegie units, and assignments tends to eradicate these healthy natural instincts. John Holt, the renowned scholar and educator who wrote the pivotal book on unschooling (Teach Your Own) suggested that children only become self-directed learners after they “de-toxify” from the demands of schooling for a period of time. (If you want to learn more about self-directed learning, see the Alliance for Self-Directed Education – ASDE – at https://www.self-directed.org/)

4) Get outside. In our unschooling experience, the most profound moments of learning happened outdoors. Indigenous scholars and educators teach us that the land itself is the best teacher. If you have any access at all to the surrounding countryside or a body of water, go there. Right now. Listen for the birds, watch for signs of spring, feel the wind brush against your face, smell the forest floor. Learn to listen to the trees, and think about the amazing underground “Wood-wide Web” through which these upright relations of ours communicate with each other. The world is facing multiple ecological crises, of which COVID-19 is only the most apparent at the moment. To survive and thrive, young people will need to become attuned to the deep interconnectedness of all species and the wisdom that the land has to offer us.

5) Play is not just for preschoolers. Play is freely chosen. Play is pleasurable. Play is engaging, engrossing, spontaneous, imaginative, self-directed, experimental, improvisational, purposeful, absorbing and transformative. It is a negotiation between the inner world of the child and the environment. In play, we try on the world and see how it fits. Isn’t this what learning should be all about? Notice your children at play, how they use language, how they call upon their imaginations, how they invent strategies for coping and how they express what they are feeling about life. Play with them — but only when invited, and on their terms.

6) Tell stories. Unhook everyone from the screen for as much time each day as you can bear. Tell your children stories – stories of their grandparents and their great grandparents, how they lived, the challenges they met. Tell them about your life before kids. What were your visions and your dreams? What do you care deeply about? Look at family pictures, laugh and remember. Relationship is probably the most significant aspect of learning.

7) DO things together. Peel vegetables, start a compost pile, make a cake, plant seeds in pots and put them in a sunny window (spring IS coming), play board games, make board games. Our kids learned many of their basic math skills playing Yahtzee. Fold laundry. Teach your kids to sew on buttons. If you are alert to it, there’s a lot of learning that can happen in everyday tasks. Vermont’s esteemed philosopher John Dewey taught us that real life experiences should be at the heart of learning. It is only through the “doing” and the “making” that a kid’s brain can easily connect to and retain more abstract knowledge. Dig deep and find those connections between life and academics.

8) Take things apart. Have an old alarm clock or typewriter? A broken toaster? Hopefully you have a few basic tools around – hammer, screwdrivers, etc. There’s a lot to learn from looking at the innards of objects. Of course, you need to remove hazards like used batteries. Build stuff. Those toilet paper rolls are even more valuable than you thought. Make wind socks, castles, trains. Combined with other items you usually recycle or throw away, your kid can make amazing junk sculpture. Some of our greatest, most ecologically conscious artists nowadays are those using recyclable materials in novel and creative ways.

9) Read aloud. Our whole family once read Hamlet over a couple of weeks. Even the two-year old was captivated by it. Read alone – take some time to enjoy your own novel, or catch up on that non-fiction you’ve been meaning to read. Seeing an adult enjoy reading is how young people become readers.

10) Value the learning process over the products. We are obsessed with the “results” of learning. But it is in the doing, the making, the questions, the exploration, the mistakes – that learning actually happens. Let go of caring about the end result and focus on the learning itself. Observe your child as they go about exploring and making – you will be surprised at what you learn about who they are and how they think.

Take a deep breath and engage in the moment as mindfully as you can. Your child will be learning major life lessons from how you live into and through this crisis. What’s the worst that might happen if your young person leaves behind the race to the top for a time? If they were to spend much of their days outdoors? Breathing fresh air. Looking at the sky, noticing the clouds. Spending unlimited amounts of time simply reading books of their choice. Daydreaming. And OK, watching a few choice documentaries on TV. Young people are amazingly resilient.

It is way too early to reflect on what we grown-ups might learn from this tragedy, but I am hopeful that the resolution of the current crisis will cause us to reflect on what is truly important and perhaps reevaluate our priorities. One of the biggest mistakes we could make from the educational situation is being convinced by corporate interests that online learning is preferable to schools. These folks, and their conservative allies, have been engaged in the struggle to privatize our public schools for decades now, and the pervasiveness of online learning programs and their utility in the present crisis will give that movement a boost. Schools have an important role to play in our future, even though I believe we need to rethink many things about how they are organized, what is taught, how we value young people, and how they connect with the larger community.

I often return to the prophetic vision of Ivan Illich, the 20th century philosopher and prophet of a “deschooled society.” Bureaucratic schools in a capitalist society, said Illich, are a form of social control that undermine human freedom, choice, and dignity. Illich envisioned a society in which the knowledge and skills we need to live well in a radically democratic and ecological society would be shared through informal, voluntary networks. Instead of conventional schooling, he said, we needed to cultivate the “tools for conviviality” that might enable us to live well together. His vision was articulated prior to the emergence of the Internet; we now have the tools we need to map the assets of our communities and link people who want to learn with people who have knowledge and skill to share.

Schools, in this model, could become true community hubs, places of creativity and invention, where young people as well as adults could connect to mentors who can teach them what they will need to know for an uncertain and increasingly precarious future: organic farming, agro-forestry, mutual aid, tiny house-building, invention, solar engineering, ecological restoration, and of course, those non-commodified aspects of life that bring pleasure and bind communities together: singing, dancing, music-making, story-telling, art, craft, theater, sports, ceremony. We need community centers more than ever, to engage in the social rejuvenation and healing that will be necessary in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future. Perhaps this moment where we have all become unschoolers might reveal the “crack in the cosmic egg” that Joseph Chilton Pearce spoke about, a rupture that might burst open the shell of our current construct of reality and enable a leap in human evolution by sparking our collective imagination towards new ways of thinking, new ways of living, and new ways of learning.