Unschooling is How Adults Naturally Learn

Pottery Class

I first heard of unschooling, I think, when I was pregnant with my now-three-year-old son, Mikko, and it was immediately familiar to me. How was this possible? I had grown up attending traditional U.S. public schools through high school, and then went on to a private college. So, no, the concept of self-directed learning had become familiar to me later: in my adult education classes.

When my husband, Sam, and I moved to Seattle in our mid-20s, we were intrigued by the catalogs that came in the mail offering classes in everything from jiujitsu to photography to conversational Spanish to car maintenance. They were all non-credit courses, taught by experts or enthusiasts in the field. Some classes were for a single evening, and some ran for 8-week terms. They were affordable, and we started snapping them up as if we could collect the set if we tried hard enough.

Sam went off to try West African drumming and draw cartoons. I took a hatmaking course where I blocked four hats in the traditional style and spent way too much on watercolor supplies for my painting class. Every quarter, a new catalog would come, and we would dog-ear the pages, marking up what looked interesting and trying to prioritize based on the time and money we had available.

I had been considering continuing on to grad school, but it was almost as if these new classes helped convince me not to go. I had been a very good student throughout my traditional-schooling years — teacher’s pet, straight As, the whole deal — and what I loved about my adult education classes was that all the rules had changed. In fact, there was no game at all anymore, no rules to keep or break. It was just learning, for its own sake. I was not going to become a hatmaker, a painter, a ballerina, or an actress. But I could go to the classes and learn and absorb, research more on my own, and enter into that new world for as long as I wished.

The idea of going back into a classroom, learning at a teacher’s set pace, taking the courses that contributed best to my degree path and ignoring the ones that didn’t, reading the books that were assigned and not having time for the ones that were just for fun — and most of all, trying to please a teacher and produce the desired grade rather than learn — it just didn’t appeal to me at all anymore.

So when unschooling came up on a parenting forum, I had an almost instant analogy. “It’s just the way I learn!” I thought. It was the way I had learned to learn — or unlearned to learn — as an adult.

Sometimes when parents try to imagine how they might unschool, they experience a little bit of panic, induced by memories of their own schooldays and how they will replicate either that experience or the results at home. I think it’s more helpful to consider how you as an adult naturally learn.

Because even if you’re not into adult-education classes, you are teaching yourself, or being taught by others, every day.

For instance, let’s say you’re reading some blogs you like and they mention a form of gentle discipline you’re unfamiliar with. You read their posts about it and perhaps leave a comment asking for clarification. You note the name of a book someone recommends and put it on hold at your library. You type the term into a search engine and find some more resources to read about the subject. That night, a situation comes up where you’re able to put the theory into practice and test it to see if it works for your family. This is all a form of learning — of research, consulting experts, trial and error — and all of it just flowed naturally out of your own curiosity and inner drive to know.

To take another hypothetical, let’s say it’s spring and you’ve just moved into a house with a yard that’s begging for a garden, but you have no idea how to garden. You ask around and find a friend who loves to garden who will share some expertise and tools with you, and even go shopping with you for supplies. You find some new friends online who direct you to forums all about gardening in your region, and you gobble up all the information you can, taking notes about what sounds intriguing to you. You find out about a series of classes put on by a local gardening center and eagerly sign up. And then you have months of hands-on experimentation as you put all your new gardening know-how to work in your yard.

For you personally, the subjects and exact paths of learning might be different, but your learning trajectory is similar.

  • You’re learning what you want to learn. You’ve chosen what sounds interesting and important to you at that time. You’re not following a set schedule of “At age 29, I learn about knitting, but at age 30, I have to take my required yoga class.” You can just pursue whatever is on your heart or mind at the time.
  • You’re learning at your own pace. There’s no deadline. There’s no minimum or maximum time to spend on a subject. If you want to write poetry till the cows come home, you can. Conversely, if you read one book of poetry and are sated, you can stop there. No one’s telling you otherwise.
  • You’re learning for your own purposes. You’re learning so that you know what you want or need to know. You’re not learning to please someone else. Even in a classroom setting as an adult, you’re there because you want to be there and because you’re paying the money (if applicable). You’re not there to make your parents happy, and you’re not doing the classwork to impress your teacher or earn an A. You either do it, or you don’t, and it’s all your own choice and responsibility.

Now think of how unschooling kids might learn just the same way.

  • Your kids could pick what they want to learn. There’s no harm in suggesting, but you can listen to their cues. Does your son love to boogie? Sign him up for a dance class, check out a jazz DVD, or buy tickets to the ballet. Does your daughter keep asking about all the trees you pass? Check a book out about plants in your region, and have lunch together with that friend who’s an arborist.
  • Your kids could learn in their own time. There’s no set deadline to learn even the skills our culture has elevated as Most Important. If your child wants to wait till 7 to start learning to read, there’s no rush. If, on the other hand, your 2-year-old is really interested in subtraction, you could go with it then rather than waiting till it’s “the right time.” There’s no wrong time to learn something.
  • Your kids could learn because they want to. There’s no reason to make extrinsic rewards the point of learning. Letter grades, stickers, prizes — even unthinking praise — can distract your children from learning because they want to know the subject, to instead learning because they want to please you, pass a test, or earn a reward (or avoid a punishment). Let them keep their natural joy of learning intact. In the same way they learned to sit up, walk, and talk when they were motivated to and were developmentally able to, they will learn all the other things they need to or want to know.

Obviously, this is more of a philosophical article about how you might start thinking about unschooling rather than a detailed approach to the nitty-gritty of daily unschooling life. I hope, though, that if you’re considering unschooling but don’t know how to wrap your mind around it, this approach might ease your panic when you come to the realization that you don’t need to learn unschooling at all: You just need to model joyous learning in your own life (the way you’re choosing to read this blog post right now!), and then pass on that love and freedom of learning to your kids.

Photo courtesy simplifies on flickr (cc)

You can usually find Lauren over at Hobo Mama, where she blogs about natural and attachment parenting, breastfeeding, babywearing, cloth diapering, green living, and more. Lauren lives and writes in Seattle with her husband, three-year-old son, and a baby on the way, and she looks forward to more unschooling adventures with her children and herself.

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11 thoughts on “Unschooling is How Adults Naturally Learn

  1. Basically, this post just made me think, "Oh, so THAT'S what unschooling is, I get it!" and I like it…it's certainly something to think about as Ella gets older. We know we don't want traditional schooling for her, but are not sure exactly what that means to our family yet.

  2. @Stephanie: Exactly — you probably already are! I think the unschooling philosophy can come much more naturally to parents of babies and toddlers, and then the school expectations often take over. I say "can come," because I found when I had a baby that I was already being encouraged to coach him to do things like sit up, roll over, stand, talk, etc. — as if he needed external motivation! :)@a: I hope it is a way to explain it to people who are interested in/concerned about your children's (lack of) education, that maybe they'll find it relates to their own experience. Of course, those people have to be willing to listen first, which isn't always the case!@melissa joanne: Exactly! We sound a lot alike. :)@Reggie: So glad to "meet" you! What struck me is hearing your own willingness to revise your perspective on your kids' experience with schooling, and now to support Darcel in her new path. Thank you!

  3. Hi, I'm Reggie, dad to Darcel. This post really hits home for me because I look back and remember the struggles both of my children had in school. For my lack of knowledge, they were dealt a losing hand.Unschooling is the most easy and natural way for teaching…as Lauren states, no pressures…learning at your own pace.Very nice post Lauren.

  4. This is such a great way to look at the topic! I, too, was a model student, but what I remember from school is so little in comparison to the things I remember from my own independent searching and study of different subjects. This is a great reminder that no one needs prodding to learn!

  5. I am so inspired by you as always and what you write and how you write it! I'm fairly new to the unschooling idea and concepts and so this was a fantastic way to be introduced to it. I look forward to trying to begin practicing it (or appreciate that maybe I already am) with my 14 month old son.

  6. Thanks again for letting me guest post, Darcel! It's such a joy and honor to be on your blog.@Smell Goods Lady: Thank you! :)@Kelly: I would love to read more from Life Learning Magazine. I've enjoyed what I have read there. I love the idea of really observing our children and deschooling our top-down mentalities. I'll have the privilege and hard work of doing more deschooling as our kids continue to grow and my old, schooling habits try to kick back in.@Darcel: It was interesting for me to allow myself the freedom to be a "bad" student as an adult — taking what classes I wanted, not showing up if I didn't feel like it, not going for a specific goal, not choosing only those classes I knew I could excel at, and especially, not caring so much what the teacher thought. I used to be such a teacher-pleaser that it was a challenge — and so rewarding once I'd gotten there. I love now how many things I can learn on my own. I'll continue to soak up inspiration from your own unschooling adventures as we continue to see what that path looks like in our family.

  7. Love this, Lauren. What a great way to explain to others who might be hearing about the term unschooling for the first time. We are loving the whole life learning journey with our two girls so far and look forward to reading more about your journey over at Hobo Mama. And I am looking forward to poking around your blog a bit more too, Darcel!

  8. I love this post. Lauren, thank you again so much for sharing it with us.Since leaving high school I have found a love for learning again.It took me years of deschooling myself, but now I'm at a place where I don't wonder or worry about how someone else may learn a certain thing.I'm feeling more accomplished and confident in my day to day life.I can learn what I want, when I want in a way that is best for me.Blogging, birth, unschooling….this year I'm going to teach myself how to sew and crochet.The possibilities are endless!

  9. Lauren (and anyone else reading here who's interested), I recommend Life Learning Magazine for more in-depth explorations of how kids and grownups learn as well as more of the "nitty gritty" of what it actually looks like. It's a great resource. Full disclosure, I write for the magazine. But I get no compensation for shilling for them!Bringing unschooling / life learning into our life has been humbling. My partner and I have gone from the top-down "how can we get our kids to learn/be educated?" mentality to observing their minds and bodies are more elastic, less encumbered, and more authentic than ours and most grownups I know. Living as whole-life unschoolers has been life-changing for my husband and I and has shed light on how performance-based and compulsory schooling did us little favors – meanwhile the kids are simply living as nature intended.Thanks for this piece!

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