“What do you do about the boys’ education?”

I get asked that question all the time.  Granted, given the fact that John and I are long-time teachers most people assume we know what the boys need to learn and know how to teach it.  But the reality is we mostly allow Mother Nature to be their teacher.

One might think two classroom teachers would favor a structured approach to education and that we would set aside time on a daily basis for the kids’ lessons.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  One of the things John and I have learned from our years in the classroom is that kids have a natural propensity for learning and an inborn desire to make sense of the world they live in.  They want to learn, and will learn unless that curiosity is driven away.

I’ve learned a lot about homeschooling in the last couple of years, and I’ve learned there are a whole lot of approaches.  Some parents basically do school at home.  They have a set series of lessons for the kids, and their children “attend school” roughly the same hours they did in public school.  Other parents mix and match – pulling ideas and activities from a variety of places.  And other parents allow their child’s curiosity and desires to drive their education.  This approach is called unschooling.

Although I can’t stand the term unschooling, I love the concept.  I think whoever coined that term did major harm to a wonderful educational movement, and it frustrates me each and every time I say the word.  While I can’t proudly call myself an unschooler (actually I cringe each time the word leaves my mouth), I will proudly announce that I wholeheartedly embrace the ideas of unschooling, and know that my boys will learn way more by using that approach than they would with a more structured approach.

OK – so what is unschooling? has this to say:

Have you ever described ‘red’ to a person who is color blind? Sometimes, trying to define unschooling is like trying to define red. Ask 30 unschoolers to define the word and you’ll get thirty shades of red. They’ll all be red, but they’ll all be different. Generally, unschoolers are concerned with learning or becoming educated, not with ‘doing school.’ The focus is upon the choices made by each individual learner, and those choices can vary according to learning style and personality type. There is no one way to unschool.

Unschooling is primarily about process not content. The process of learning, the process of knowing yourself, openness, confidence, self-determination, independent thinking, critical thinking….none of which one gets when following other people’s agenda. Making one’s own agenda is what it is all about. Again this is done not in isolation but in the context of ones family and community. -Joel Hawthorne

Unschooling isn’t a method of instruction, it’s a different way of looking at learning. -Linda Wyatt

Unschooling is following your children’s lead. Allowing them to learn from a wide variety of experiences and resources. Start right from where you are and enjoy. -Sandy

An unschooling moment of realization (one of those things that you know, but have a moment of knowing it even more): Learning is learning whether or not it’s planned or recorded or officially on the menu. Calories are calories whether or not the eating is planned or recorded or officially on the menu.- Pam Sorooshian

Unschooling is like the old Open Classroom research and theories. If kids are given an interesting and rich environment they will learn. (All kids learn anyway, all the time.) -Sandra Dodd

Unschooling doesn’t mean not learning – it means learning without the trappings of school. Its not unlearning or uneducating. Its only unschooling – it points out a contrast in approaches to learning. My unschooled kids are learning as much or more than their schooled friends (and that includes home schooled or institution schooled).- Pam Sorooshian

What does all this mean for us as we travel southward?  It means that our daily lives will be filled with learning – although that learning will be far from predictable.  As we pedal alongside the Alaska pipeline, we will learn about oil production and the permafrost.  When we see wildlife on the side of the road, we will learn about bears and moose.  Our boys will see Aztec and Incan cultural relics and gain an understanding of how people in those cultures lived.  They’ll experience various political and economic environments.  All those sights, sounds, smells, and tastes will be their teacher.

We will continue on in the same vein as we did last year when we take off in June.  The kids have some math workbooks they’ll use on occasion.  Last year we tried to find time two or three times each week for the boys to do a couple pages in their math workbooks.  We will write in journals on a regular basis – a couple times a week at least.  And we always tried to have novels for all four of us to read each evening before bed.  Surprisingly, this proved to be our biggest challenge last year – I had no idea it would be so hard to find children’s book in small towns!

But the bulk of our boys’ education came from the various educational opportunities we found scattered around.  We took advantage of state and national parks and learned tons there.  We read roadside historical signs.  And we talked – a lot.  As we cycled, the boys didn’t have anything to distract them – no TV’s, gameboys, or toys – so we talked.  They asked some great questions and we had time for wonderful discussions of everything from the idea of the checks and balances in the US government to the intricacies of nuclear power to the subtle differences between various types of cactus.

I honestly feel my boys got a far superior education last year than they ever could have received here in Boise.  And I believe they will learn far more on our upcoming journey than I can even imagine.  And I’m excited about learning right along with them!

-edited March 24, 2011 to add-

We’ve now finished our journey – after nearly 3 years on the road!  It’s been a phenomenal experience for all four of us and a tremendous learning opportunity for our sons.  Throughout the journey, I’ve written a series of articles about their education as our experiences taught us more and more.  I’ve linked to most of those articles in our page on Roadschooling.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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16 Responses to Roadschooling

  1. renee - 21st century parenting April 13, 2008 at 4:21 pm #

    WOW! what an amazing lifestyle!!! i have always considered myself a wanderlust. but wow!!!!

    i, too, love the IDEA of unschooling. but i agree that the name TOTALLY misconstrues what it is about.

    happy biking!

  2. nancy April 13, 2008 at 5:29 pm #

    Thanks Renee!! We are really looking forward to our new lifestyle – life on the road is absolutely unparalleled!! And yeah – I can’t help but think that whoever coined the term unschooling did major harm to the movement.

  3. Mike May 12, 2008 at 6:22 am #

    What a thrilling idea! It sounds like your kids (and you as well) will be getting quite an education.

  4. Makita May 12, 2008 at 6:33 am #

    I have to say it too… “What an amazing lifestyle!” I’m jealous! ;D

  5. Alex May 21, 2008 at 3:15 pm #

    Awesome site! I too am a former teacher, plan to unschool my baby, and dislike the word. I generally think of it as “organic learning.” If someone asked at this point I would just say “interest-based homeschooling.” I know many people use that term who do a lot more “schooly” stuff, but unschooling is all about following your interests–even minute by minute!– so I think that’s still accurate.

  6. nancy May 21, 2008 at 8:09 pm #

    Yeah – that word is a real turnoff to a wonderful concept. I really, really, REALLY wish whoever coined the term had thought about the consequences of his actions.

  7. Carol June 25, 2008 at 7:21 pm #

    I’m fascinated by the idea of unschooling and how it challenges all our assumptions about how learning takes place: coersion, rewards and consequences, silence, hierarchy, extrinsically motivated, etc.

    I’m also a public school teacher who constantly struggles with not being like the other teachers. Some students like my approach because to them it’s a breath of fresh air, others hate it because it’s so out there for them. I try to strike a balance, but the two extremes are hard to reconcile.

    I have three children ages 4, 6 and 8. We do a lot of unschooling at home because dh and I are very well-educated and have a lot of natural curiousity.

    I think it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Being a teacher, I have the opportunity to homeschool them when we’re all off for the summer, but I need to keep it fun.

    I understand your frustration in explaining it all as I encounter the same when I try to explain that as long as the kids are using French whenever they are in my classroom that they will eventually learn everything they need to know. Most don’t get it because they are stuck on the idea of following the book.

  8. Charlie September 23, 2009 at 5:01 am #

    Am I the only one who sees problems with road schooling? It raises issues that nobody seems to be paying any attention to.

    1/Socialisation, studies in the USA show that home schooled kids tend to have less developed wider social skills. Yes their family bonds are generally stronger, but their ability to interact with those outside the family unit is significantly weaker to the extent it causes them problems which need never have existed. I know road schooling is not home schooling exactly, but it can be described as more extreme version of it. I haven’t even mentioned the reduced ability to deal with life when it gets hard, and make a little effort is required to get through the tough times.

    2/What about the reduction in opportunities for the child in later life? I know this is going to be unpopular to say that qualifications matter, but they do. I’m not talking about this from a monetary point of view, though yes it does have an effect. I’m talking about this from the point of view of future opportunities. It seems that most of the people on here are teachers, an opportunity you may deny your children by them not receiving the necessary education to achieve this. That’s not to mention those children who want to be doctors, nurses, veterinarians or similar jobs. What is the cost to the child if they can never be who they want to be, and experience the joys of helping others through the short sightedness of their parents?

    3/People grow best when they have a firm foundation from which to grow. Road schooling removes a vital part of that stability. Children don’t need friends who they see irregularly, they need friends, who they see daily, and no Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites are not an adequate alternative to real face to face time with people. What kind of stability does an itinerant lifestyle give for the development of your child? As teachers, you should be intelligent enough to know your own limitations. If you teach History, is your English ability good enough, how about Mathematics, IT, or Chemistry? You may say what use is inorganic chemistry in later life, it may have no use for yourself but what about your child?

    I thought the whole point of being a parent is to encourage your child to be the best and happiest they can be, not to limit them by our own preconceptions whether they are square and straight-laced or radical and far left field.

    As an aside the people who I know who have taken a time out, to see the world, as young adults are the among most rounded and well balanced people I know. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for those who took time out before they reached the necessary maturity to understand what they were doing.

    I know I have made generalisations here, and the school system is not perfect, but it is the best that we have got, and it is up to us as parents to fill in the gaps as best we can.

    Sorry about the ramble, but i feel very strongly about giving children the best that life has to offer, as I am sure we all do.

  9. Linda September 25, 2009 at 4:30 pm #

    It is true that there is a loss of mainstream socialization when you start thinking of ways to incredibly enhance the education of your children.

    My parents tossed their TV in the 1950’s when I was born. If it could be visited or experienced within their limited but creative budgeting we went. It is true that I didn’t know many cartoon characters or commercial jingles but they accomplished their goal, I was an avid reader. I was the only child in my area or in neighboring school districts to be selected for an area wide gifted program. I wasn’t “normal”. I knew things other children didn’t know. I had skills that other children didn’t have. Eventually because of this and many other progressive educational supports from my family I ended up on a full scholarship to an Ivy League school. Very few children from my working class city left home to go to college let alone an elite college. I did, because my parents didn’t think that cookie cutter socialization and “normative” education were necessary requisites for success in life. I am deeply grateful to them and want such a gift for my child. Thank you to all who set the bar high for broad and rich educational experience instead of popular culture pablum that promotes a lack of creativity and critical thinking, a lack of historical knowlege, an addicition to uniformity and “sameness, and handicaps our next generation.

  10. David January 22, 2010 at 2:14 pm #

    Amen Linda!

  11. Michelle October 19, 2010 at 10:32 am #

    I know this is an older post but that comment “Socialisation, studies in the USA show that home schooled kids tend to have less developed wider social skills.” is so false. I want to see these studies.

    I have seen recent studies that were conducted over time (since the 80’s) which show that not only do the homeschool kids have more socialization skills, but as adults they’re more social and more socialized and do more in the way of community.

    Just my 2 cents.

  12. nancy October 19, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    I hear you Michelle! I think there are all kinds – unsocialized kids in schools AND homeschools. The type of school the kids attend don’t dictate their social skills at all. Gah!!

  13. Bhumi September 29, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Hey I have to say it too… “What an amazing lifestyle!” I’m jealous! ;D

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel October 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

      @Bhumi, Thank you! It really has been an amazing experience for our sons (and us!). We’ve all learned lots and lots from being on the road.


  1. Roadschooling - August 7, 2009

    […] One of the most popular questions we’re asked is: What about the kids’ education? What do you do about that? I’ve already answered this question a number of times, but those answers are now a bit old, so I thought I’d take a moment to put out an ‘update’ of sorts – with our most current thinking on the subject. (You can read my old answers here and here.) […]

  2. Learning on the Road | Taunyas Place - May 9, 2011

    […] Family on Bikes – website of a family traveling and learning on bikes.  […]

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