Monthly Archives: September 2014

Addressing the Myth That Unschoolers Aren’t Involved in Their Communities

protestOne of the criticisms of life learning / unschooling that riles me the most is the myth that unschoolers are sheltered from the life of their communities, and/or don’t associate with others of different backgrounds or cultures. Public school systems, these critics say, form the foundation of a caring, tolerant, and democratic society. And, by extension, unschoolers are not part of that.

That generalization is wrong, of course. And it is based on a misunderstanding, even ignorance, of both schooling and unschooling! As I wrote in my 2000 book Challenging Assumptions in Education, “Scratch the surface of most public school systems and you will find something quite different from justice and democracy, in spite of good intentions. You will find an archaic institution that … perpetuates social hierarchies, disempowers people and forces them to do things against their will – supposedly for their own good – and encourages a destructive level of consumerism and consumption. If a democratic society is one in which people are collectively in control of their lives and the lives of their communities, then our present-day school systems are anti- democratic.”

In Life Learning Magazine, we often publish articles that elaborate on the criticism about non-participation and others put forth by otherwise progressive thinkers. For instance, here are two, another one, and a third.

Right now, we’re working on a feature about life learning / unschooling families and their direct participation in the democratic life of their communities. Have you and/or your kids have been involved in civil society – activism or volunteering in the form of such activities as helping at a food bank, raising money for a cause, public education about an important issue, participating in government meetings or at public protests, to name just a few possibilities? If you or they are willing to write about it, or answer some questions via email, or share a photo or two, I’d love to hear from you within the next month for inclusion in the article.

Life learners/ unschoolers are not sheltered. They live and learn in the real world, not the “pseudo world” that can be school. We think it is important to share our experiences with each other and the broader world.

When We Won’t Have to Label People as Grown Unschoolers

When we won't have to label people as grown unschoolersMany of the articles that we publish in Life Learning Magazine are by and about unschooled teens and those we’ve come to call “grown unschoolers” – people who have learned without school as children and teens and who are now adults. I’m not fond of the term and always want to ask, “Oh, when did you grow out of it, and why on earth did you do that?” I think the label demonstrates a link to the school way of thinking, which says that learning stops and starts based on one’s proximity to school or on one’s age. Please let us not forget that we are always, by definition, life learners (or grown unschoolers, if you will).

Of course, we all inevitably reflect our pasts and the way we were educated…or how we educated ourselves. Most of us who went to school for any length of time are victims of that; in spite of the unprecedented ease and importance of continuing to educate ourselves as adults (and the impossibility of not learning!), we still often to forget that learning never ends.

Fortunately, once we’ve truly deschooled ourselves, we take it for granted that an education is a naturally occurring, continuous process of taking in and processing information and ideas from our lives – and that we never grow out of learning. Even when someone who previously learned without school chooses to attend school, they retain the autodidactic mindset.

That’s why I think it is so important that we are building up a body of public knowledge – via articles like the ones we publish in Life Learning Magazine and other places, and the research done by those few academics who “get” life learning – that demonstrates the ongoing benefits of living and learning without school.

One of the important benefits is the fact that those who grow up having independence of thought and action have no need to rebel against their parents when they become adolescents. For the most part, and to some degree or other, grown unschoolers have been trusted with other life decisions beyond academic ones. Whatever terminology you use, as a parent, to identify your family as living school-free, once you have learned to respect and trust children and young people with their own educations, it just seems natural to expand that thinking to some other aspects of parenting. And because trust and respect have a hard time coexisting with the artificial separation of ages and stages that is so common in our society, these young people, as this article by a teenaged radical unschooler puts it, are “not driven to radical behaviors for the sake of tasting freedom.” Or, as my eldest daughter and now one of those grown unschoolers remarked when she was seventeen and listening to her conventionally parented peers complain, “There’s nothing to rebel against in my family!”

I look forward to the day when respect for both children and self-education are the norm. Perhaps then there will no longer be a reason to label people as “grown unschoolers” any more than there is now to call someone a “grown public schooler.” As grown unschooler Peter Kowalke has pointed out, labels can render us two-dimensional.


Doing Our Unschooling Best

Doing our unschooling bestI have had a number of conversations lately with newish unschooling parents who wonder if they are doing the right thing. There is quite a lot of angst in these sharings, and I try to help soothe their fears as best I can. But the message they are getting from skeptical or cautious friends and family is difficult enough for them to deal with, without the input they receive from people in online forums and discussion groups who are sure they know the “right” way to unschool.

In her book Guerilla Learning, Grace Llewellyn wrote, “When you get down to it, unschooling is really just a fancy term for ‘life’ or ‘growing up uninstitutionalized’.” Ah, yes indeed. Then how did it get so complicated? Why are there so many people with pet definitions and methods to defend and argue over? And beyond that, why do so many unschooling parents sometimes feel unsure, insecure, confused, or just plain terrified about living as if school doesn’t exist?

I think the answer to those questions is rooted in two things:

  1. We are a product of our own schooling, which taught us that education = school. As products of our own highly directed and restricted childhoods, we can become easily confused, fearful, defensive, and either wanting to be an expert or wanting to consult one because we’re not used to freedom.
  2. We all want the best for the children and young people in our care. We parents want to do our job well, if not perfectly (whatever that means), and we feel guilty when things turn out differently than we expected.

Well, from my perch as the mother of two forty-something unschooled daughters, I can tell you that things will turn out differently than you expected, so just do your best (and try to lose your expectations along with your fear).

When we are stymied by the realization that there is no one right way to do unschooling, we look for people to tell us there is, to give us at least an illusion of control over the situation and its outcomes.

But here’s the thing: The future – both near and far – is uncertain. And I can’t think of a better way to prepare our kids for that future than through unschooling / life learning. The world is changing so quickly that there simply is no one body of knowledge, one set of life instructions that won’t go obsolete. The best gift we can give our children is to nurture their innate learning abilities so they can be ready to adapt to anything at any time in the future.

Life is a journey, each person’s journey is different, and the way unschooling looks in each family is different. We don’t start our journey knowing all the answers about anything (although we likely know more than we give ourselves credit for, as do our kids). But our children do start out knowing how to learn. In fact, as Grace wrote, learning is life. And we’re always learning, un-learning, and re-learning.

In the same way that our kids learn naturally, we parents can learn how to help them.

We can let go of our need for unschooling definitions and methods, as well as our fear…and trust and enjoy the journey in the same way we aim to trust and enjoy our children. Life learning is part of a new/old way of living, learning, working, and being in our families and our communities.

(I hope that being part of the Life Learning Magazine community will help you find not only the courage but the joy in the school-free life.)