Unschooling: Decentralized Education for a Changing World

Unschooling: Decentralized Education for a Changing World

Unschooling is a decentralized style of education for a decentralized economy and will prepare our children and young people for future jobs and lives better than the old, industrialized mode of schooling.

By Wendy Priesnitz

Recently, “unschooling” (which I prefer to call “life learning”) has had its more than fifteen minutes of fame as a few brave families have allowed the mainstream media a peek at their life learning experiences. Cue the naysayers and doom-mongers! The main concern is – understandably – that kids from a life learning / unschooling background be ready and able to function in the “real world.” Even people who accept many of the criticisms of our school systems question that. They worry that young people who have learned without school won’t be competitive enough; won’t understand boundaries; won’t know enough calculus, botany, history, grammar, or Shakespeare, or other subjects they’re “supposed to know;” won’t be well enough socialized; will grow up slovenly and unmotivated from playing video games all day…. And then there’s the worry articulated by someone writing in the comments section of the MSNBC website after some coverage of unschooling, that children who direct their own educations generally grow up to be leaders, not followers, and find it more difficult to take direction from others. Too bad, that.

Of course, anyone with a passing acquaintance with a life learner will know that those concerns are unfounded, so I won’t bother to argue with them here. They are all based on the faulty assumptions that kids are naturally lazy and uninterested in the world and therefore have to be forced to learn, and that both the facts and attitudes taught in school are actually learned. And they assume that success (in life or in any endeavor) is defined by society rather than by self…and generally involves money and/or status. Unschooling people know otherwise. But that’s not my point.

A New “Real World”

I think the problem is with the critics’ understanding of the “real world.” Author and former teacher John Taylor Gatto has described at length how schools were designed to churn out obedient workers and consumers who would fit nicely into the cogs of a competitive, capitalist market economy. And I find myself agreeing with the critics that life learners aren’t all that well suited to the sausage factory. However, that particular “real world” is changing, if not disappearing, and young people who have grown up in charge of their own learning and their own lives are, I think, very well prepared to thrive in (and help create) its replacement.

The fast-paced, high stress, competitive, long hours, and highly paid lifestyle that the critics fear unschooled young people won’t be prepared for is, according to many, soon to be history. It is not sustainable on a large scale. It is part of a quickly departing era of expanding profitability, corporate greed and fraud, stable markets, cheap goods, and abundant natural resources. In a new era when currency systems and markets are volatile, climatic conditions are uncertain, and environmental costs will be accounted for in the costing of goods and services, smaller scale, sufficiency-based economics flourishes. As we begin to reinvent production and consumption systems to be more ecologically sustainable and convivial, a whole new set of skills and attitudes is called upon.

In her book Plenitude, author (and sociologist/economist) Juliet Schor describes both this new model and the skills required to flourish in it. She writes about the need for people to become “self-provisioning” as a way to thrive in the twenty-first century. Self-provisioning is, simply, producing for oneself, making items that may be used to live, or sold or bartered for other things, in a way that contributes to one’s standard of living. She writes that it “represents a return to more widespread capacity among the population to feed, clothe, shelter, and provide for itself.” This capacity, of course, has been eroded among the middle and upper classes that have been working ever harder and longer in that “real world” and have, therefore, been spending money on clothing, convenience food, leisure activities, and so on, rather than making their own.

But even before the current economic downturn began, some of these “homemaking” skills – such as gardening, sewing, knitting, and canning have been enjoying a return to popularity. You may be familiar with the blog Boing Boing. Its founder and co-editor Mark Frauenfelder (who is also the editor of Make magazine) believes that this do-it-yourself ethic is only partly about the things we produce. He says it’s also – at least for those of us who went to school – about learning how to learn (another important skill in the new economy), and about connecting with others who share our interests.

There is already an informal education network in place to help people learn skills like permaculture, methods of home construction like cob and strawbale, and renewable energy technologies like solar and biofuels. Much of the learning happens during short-term workshops, online courses, and internships or apprenticeships. A lot of it is hands-on, actually using the skills being learned to help each other create real-life projects. And – not insignificantly – learners come from all backgrounds and are of all ages.

None of the world’s problems will have a solution until the world’s individuals become thoroughly self-educated.
~ Buckminster Fuller

If the plenitude model holds true, we’ll be seeing a lot more of that sort of learning. More than conventional, specialized job market skills, people will need a diversification of skills and attitudes that will help them meet their needs outside of our current market economy as that economy transitions – either intentionally or by default – to a new, more sustainable way.

Different Skills

As Schor isn’t the only one to point out, declining labor markets (with fewer jobs or more jobs with shortened hours, and underemployment of various other sorts) will give us all more time to develop those new attitudes and skills. What are those skills? Aside from life skills, they’ll include flexibility, adaptability, creative thinking and problem-solving, networking, research ability, motivation, time management, adaptability to numerous types of learning modes, strong family and community ties, entrepreneurial thinking (if not outright business ownership), and a mix of independence and interdependence. Sound like an unschooling person you know?!

Business thinkers agree these skills and attitudes will be indispensable as we transition to a new economy. Business writer Seth Godin’s book Linchpin is all about how the industrial model for work design is no longer of much use. Godin says that the work that people will be paid for in the future is the difficult, innovative, one-of-a-kind, creative stuff.

Richard Florida, the urban theorist and best-selling author who also runs the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s management school, agrees. He believes that our recent recession is a “great reset” that will fundamentally change the work we do and the way we do it. The change, he writes, marks the end of the consumer-driven postwar economy and the rise of one built on knowledge work and the service sector.

What About College?

Although some students pick up some needed skills and attitudes in college and university, those things, like all learning, are best gained – as unschooling people know – as part of daily life. And that realization has led a growing number of academics and economists to question the current idea that everyone needs a formal post-secondary education.

Robert I. Lerman, an economist at American University advocates an investment in on-the-job apprenticeship training. That would, he believes, help young people develop problem-solving, decision-making, conflict resolution, and negotiation abilities. Those are the traits that a 2008 survey of more than 2,000 businesses in Washington State found entry-level workers to be lacking.

Even government statistics confirm the idea that the “real world” is changing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, has found that most job growth in the next decade will be in labor markets where a bachelor’s degree is not even necessary. Many of those jobs will be highly skilled in nature, but in fields like the trades and service industries, as pointed out in this article from Forbes. Add to that the spiraling cost of attending post-secondary institutions and a number of studies (including Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life) showing that parental affluence is the main guarantor of a “good” job, and one has to question the urgency to write a check or go into debt just to get a job.

But beyond that, memorizing certain bodies of knowledge or mastering specific skill sets in order to do well on exams is not what will be most important for success in a sustainable economy. Entrepreneurial-style attitudes – risk taking, curiosity, persistence, intrinsic motivation, innovation, non-conformity, leadership, strategic thinking – are not what leads to success in school! In fact, they can get in the way, which is likely why many well-known (and rich, if we are to believe that indication of “success”) entrepreneurs didn’t attend or complete college. Think Apple’s Steve Jobs, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Twitter’s Biz Stone, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Richard Branson of Virgin; Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Oracle’s Larry Ellison….

Recently, a few pioneering corporations are realizing that those skills are just as important than a university degree for success in the workplace and for a healthy company. For instance, earlier in 2016, the audit division of corporate accounting firm KPMG broke a hundred-year tradition and hired forty-two people who didn’t have business or accounting degrees in an attempt to enhance soft-skills and diversity in the division. I believe we will see more of this.

Needing Someplace To Go

Whether they’re an entrepreneur or employee, in this new, volatile, sustainability-based economy, more people will be working decentrally. Here’s Seth Godin again, this time from a blog post entitled Goodbye to the Office:

“If we were starting this whole office thing today, it’s inconceivable we’d pay the rent/time/commuting cost to get what we get…When you need to have a meeting, have a meeting. When you need to collaborate, collaborate. The rest of the time, do the work, wherever you like…The gain in speed, productivity and happiness is massive. What’s missing is…someplace to go. Once someone figures that part out, the office is dead.”

Unschoolers have figured that part out. They are used to learning on a wherever/whenever basis, so they know that there is no need to go anywhere to get things done – or to learn.

Also among the recent crop of businessmen writing favorably about the life learning approach is a consultant named Clark Aldrich. On his blog Unschooling Rules, he writes that change starts from the bottom up with people focused on what’s best for them and their families:

“A multi-national corporation would never ‘discover’ the need for organic, minimally processed, locally grown food on their own, no matter how many scientists and academics they had on their payroll. It is only through independently minded and passionate people, taking control of the input into their own bodies, could this ‘new’ idea of healthy food be developed, propagated, and ultimately mainstreamed.”

In the same way, unschooling and life learning families – rather than school authorities – are making fundamental changes to education. And, at the same time, we’re preparing our kids to function well in the new, more sustainable, “real world.”

The old economy is dying…and with it will die our traditional education system and business-as-usual. RIP.

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning Magazine, where an earlier version of this article was published, and the author of a number of books on self-directed learning and unschooling, including Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn’t Exist (The Alternate Press, 2012). She is also the mother of two unschooled adult daughters who are now living successfully in the real world.

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