If we give kids the foundation to dream, they will figure out the grammar and the history the minute it helps them to reach their goals and make a difference. ~Seth Godin from ‘Stop Stealing Dreams’
I am an unschooling parent. There is no doubt our approach to education falls on the outside of the norm within much of the United States and beyond. I suspect that many do not believe they have the freedom to make the same choice. The purpose of this article is not to convince you choose our lifestyle, rather to share with you some of the discoveries we’ve made along the way, and perhaps inspire you supplement the packaged school education by supporting and encouraging a natural learning process in your child.
My son Miro has been unschooled for the last 3 years from ages 10 to 13 and is undoubtedly thriving. If you are not familiar with the term unschooling, in essence, it’s approaching your child’s learning as a natural process, allowing interest to lead the educational opportunities and empowering you child to guild the process based on his (or her) natural curiosity. In our case, we are traveling, have been doing so for the past three years and have transformed the world into our classroom.
With unschooling, there are no formalized structures nor are there workbooks or curriculum to follow. It’s simply a case of trusting that interest will lead and learning will happen. And it does.
If you are new to this idea, this may sound like a radical approach, even irresponsible. I would have likely had the same reaction just three short years ago. But that was before I experienced it first hand. And if you are experiencing doubts, that’s natural, but I ask you to continue reading with an open mind.
Here are three main discoveries I’ve uncovered during our unschooling journey:
- learning is completely different than education
- passion drives learning
- empowerment translates into leadership
Learning is DIFFERENT than education
“I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like being taught.” ~Winston Churchill
At one point in my understanding, I believed school equated education and education equated learning. Boy was I wrong. Although I’ve always been one to question everything, challenge the common beliefs, I had never questioned this baseline belief surrounding education. That is, until I discovered it simply wasn’t true.
Through our experiences, I have witnessed ‘learning’ as a process of acquiring knowledge through an engaged experience. In our case, it’s an engaged experience initialed through my son’s interest. His interest in Greek Mythology has prompted an 11 year old to seek out and acquire college level books on the subject, which he ferociously devoured.
Another example is my son questioning the food chain as we shop in a farmers market in Peru. “Are the people selling the food the farmers? Are their farms close? How do they grow so many different kinds of vegtables?” Through his questioning, we sought out the opportunity to visit a local community farm and talk with the caretakers. Afterwards, Miro learned to harvest seeds and plant his own garden.
Another example is my son’s interest in Zombies. Sure, you wonder how zombies could be an educational tool, but he learned through reading the Zombie Survival Guide, that mysterious sightings of zombies were reported in Sir Francis Drakes‘ personal journal. The island was located in Panama’s Pacific and was refereed to as the Isle of the Damned”. Wow! That was interesting since coincidentally we were in Panama when Miro read that. Together, my son and I explored the movements of Sir Francis Drake, an infamous pirate, which led to all kinds of discoveries about history, trade routes, Spain, imperialism, conquest and geography.
Within my son’s (limited) school experience, independent investigation or discovery was not encouraged. He had to adhere to the lesson plan and use only pre-approved materials. (I am certain The Zombie Survival Guide is not among them.) My son always had a quick mind, finished the medial tasks asked by his teacher first in his class and often found himself bored. Many times my son was tasked with helping his classmates with the assignments, and told he could NOT quietly read his book until the rest of his classmates were finished with the assignment. Needless to say Miro began to loathe everything about school.
As a parent, I question why ‘institutions of learning’ (schools) demand that children obediently follow the provided curriculum and conform without engagement? Why couldn’t they progress based on their own learning style, levels and interests? Isn’t it obvious learning happens when a child is engaged? Oh, I guess learning isn’t actually the point in school.
Passion drives learning.
What your child is passionate about, your child will learn.
The very nature of unschooling, is allowing your child to determine what interests him (or her) to create the a roadmap for learning. But since it’s not framed as learning, and there are no set structures to follow, passion becomes the driving force. And passions do change, but nothing is lost if your child became engaged during the process and discovered, pursued and tried something new.
Since we’ve been traveling, my son has intentionally perused his interests in mythology, zombies, cryptozology, gardening, cooking, pirates, video games, tae kwon do and sword play, just to name a few. This does not even include the things we’ve exposed to by virtue of traveling, like language, cultures and arts. But in terms of my son’s interests, I assisted and supported him in finding the materials he needed to purse his interests. Without judgment, supporting my son’s passions became my role as an unschooling parent.
If you were ever interested in hearing an excited and enthusiastic young man describe how Prometheus gave the power of fire to man, I would say he’s learned something. And passion drove that.
A critical look at my son’s interests would reveal learning has happened within the following formal subjects: history, geography, economy, world trade, ecology, farming, cooking, mining and minerals (Minecraft), politics, religions, language, story telling, literature and civics. But since we never called it lessons, I suspect my son might argue that he wasn’t being ‘schooled’. However, as a parent, I am witnessing a process of natural learning.
An empowered child learns leadership & innovation.
You treat a child like a sheep in the herd, you will breed a sheep in the herd.
I’ve witnessed passion driving learning. But what makes unschooling work, is total empowerment. My son is empowered to determine what he is interested in, encouraged to explore his passions.
But I must also accept his laziness.
Why? Because if my son chooses to be lazy and not engage in any of his passions for a day, for a week, for a month, that’s his choice. I can hear your thoughts bubbling up inside of you as you read these words. Maybe it sounds along the lines of “You are the parent, you must put your foot down, make the rules.” Trust me, I had a battle with my own inner dialogue when I committed to unschooling that sounded very similar to that. But then I realized, if I only empowered my son some of the time and not other times, that’s not really empowerment, is it?
This is really about problem solving. Bored? Discover what your interests are. Pursue that interest. If you can’t find it, ask for help. Not sure what to do today? Explore something different. Try something new. Do nothing. Solve the problem. Even doing nothing is a solution. An empowered solution, I might add. Empowered because if that’s what my son chooses, it’s his solution.
These problem solving lessons are life lessons. This opportunity teaches leadership. Most of all, leadership for his own life. Empowerment to make decisions creates resourcefulness, a skill my son would not be likely to learn in a traditional learning institution.
Then, I’ve had the opportunity to see this leadership in action. On our travels, we’ve come across many kids, been involved with many volunteer programs, interacted with many children from different cultures. Each time, I have witnessed my son encourage these kids to peruse their interests and figure out what their dreams are. Most of these children had never even considered that their interests were important, let alone been asked their opinion before. This simply inquiry may have a lasting effect on another child’s life. It’s an inspiring process to witness. That’s taking a leadership role.
“Leaders are not, as we are often led to think, people who go along with huge crowds following them. Leaders are people who go their own way without caring, or even looking to see, whether anyone is following them. “Leadership qualities” are not the qualities that enable people to attract followers, but those that enable them to do without them. They include, at the very least, courage, endurance, patience, humor, flexibility, resourcefulness, stubbornness, a keen sense of reality, and the ability to keep a cool and clear head, even when things are going badly. True leaders, in short, do not make people into followers, but into other leaders.” ~John Holt, Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of Homeschooling
My desire is that you have not interpreted this article as being anti-schooling. I understand for many there is no other alternative than the public schools. My intention was simply to share our experience with you in hopes you can find a way to engage in your child’s learning, regardless of your current situation. Some of you will resonate with the unschooling lifestyle choice. Others will not. But there’s something to be said about using what works for you and and shifting you perception of the educational paradigm as to what learning really is.
Learning is said to be an ongoing process. An individual is always learning, from his birth till his death.
In my option, learning is not something imposed upon a person, it’s something that happens naturally.
Lainie Liberty and her son Miro began their 8 year adventure in 2009, starting in Central & South America. They are slow traveling around the globe allowing inspiration be their compass. The pair is most interested in exploring cultures, contributing by serving & connecting with humanity as ‘global citizens’. You can follow them at Raising Miro on the Road of Life.
This post in one is a series about redefining education. You can read others here:
Why the School System isn’t Educating Your Child (And What To Do About It)