Unschooling: learning by the seat of your soul

After dark on a summer evening, an 8-year-old boy named Allen and his mother sat on the blacktop driveway, which was still warm from the day’s sun, drawing with chalk. But they weren’t drawing daisies and rainbows and other normal-type pictures–they were doing geometry. Why? Because Allen wanted to know how the odometer on his bicycle worked. Why so late at night? Well, when better to learn than right after the question is asked?

Allen remembers the night as having an exciting quality to it—like being allowed to stay awake to ring in the New Year—and he felt like they were up until midnight measuring the bicycle tires, calculating r2 and discussing the Pythagorean Theorem. In reality it was probably much less than that, but time warps when you’re engaged with something, and even geometry can be exciting to an 8-year-old when it’s applied to real life.

Our childhood was filled with such time-warped moments; so much so that it was the norm instead of the exception. You see, my younger brother Allen and I didn’t go to school. Our classrooms were chalk on the driveway, the local riding stable, Girl Scouts, museums, beaches, Europe, Australia, caves, libraries, mountains, homemade movies, stage productions, cooking in the kitchen, managing family finances… We were (and are) unschoolers.

Unschooling is an exciting alternative to contemporary schooling that empowers students to create their own education. Much like homeschooling, families are free to explore opportunities outside of the public school system, and even outside of the curriculums that many homeschoolers use. Unschoolers pursue their interest of the moment, and in the process find their passions of a lifetime.

Conversations with God, Book II talks about a new education system which is based on the values of awareness, honesty, and responsibility; a system that teaches the student to think critically, come to their own conclusions, and gives them a sense of “unlimitedness.” Unschoolers have been doing this for decades in our modern era, and humanity has been doing this in a sense for our entire history. Babies “unschool” themselves in learning how to talk and walk: Unschooling families simply let their children unschool the rest of life, too.

While the students pursue their interests, the parents create the space for learning: they make sure resources and opportunities are available for their children to follow their interests as deeply as they want and to stumble upon new potential interests. In the process, a fully-rounded education emerges, which includes more than just mathematics, history, and literature. For us, and for the many unschoolers we know, we learned respect for ourselves and others because our parents respected us enough to take control of our own education. We learned to see the world with curiosity and with the awareness of the differences in people’s lives and cultures, and to appreciate those differences as beautiful. We learned personal responsibility in managing our time, making our educational intentions known, and following through with our goals. We didn’t always succeed, and we learned a lot from that, too.

Love is freedom. We know this from the New Spirituality paradigm, we know this from Christ, and some of us know this from our own experiences. In order to unschool, parents must have the unconditional, unfearing love that gives the child freedom to make their own choices; the freedom to know themselves as individuals and as integral parts of a family unit and larger society; the freedom to hone their strengths and learn how to contribute to help the world move toward the grandest vision that it has for itself.

In return for this freedom, the child is more likely to respect the parent’s suggestions for how to live a full, safe, expansive life. This is not theoretical: Allen  and I have a wide collective base of unschooled friends and rates of stereotypical teenage rebellion in unschooling families are next to none. For instance, even though I often felt annoyed at the inconvenience, I never fought my parents’ rule that I couldn’t drive a car with passengers without an adult present or express permission until I was 18, because I understood that I was an inexperienced driver and that friends could be distracting. I knew that the rule came from a place of love, wisdom, and experience, so it made sense to follow it.

Because unschoolers have the fortune to grow up in a family culture of unlimitedness and exploration, they often have an advantage in adult life. They know how to pursue things they’re interested in (which translates to careers), and they’ve often had experience in approaching people and marketing themselves as worthwhile apprentices or employees. They already understand the principle that if you pursue what you love, the rest will follow. Most will not let themselves get caught up in the cultural story of needing to go to college and get a job that they hate so that they can buy nice things that will ultimately “make them happy.” Instead, they write their own story and live it, unafraid of being different and being satisfied with the choices they’ve made.

Allen and I took vastly different paths as young adults, and we are both largely happy with our lives and our choices–perhaps mostly because we learned early on that our choices are simply that: ours. We have the freedom to choose our life paths, interests, emotions, reactions, thoughts…everything. And because we know that so deeply, it’s much easier to change our choices when we think we need to. My biggest “victimhood” struggle was when I went to college and felt completely imprisoned by the institutional system. I had to remember that college was my choice, and that because I wanted to see it through to the end, I’d have to make the choice to stop feeling imprisoned. After that, college flew by.

Of course, we’re still figuring things out, we still make mistakes, and we still need guidance, as everyone does, but both of us feel better prepared for life than most of our peers. People from all areas of our lives, with relationships to us from friends to classmates to bosses, have commented on qualities like our maturity, perseverance, ingenuity, and intelligence that we ascribe to our unschooled upbringing.

Not every parent is ready right now to be an unschooling parent, but the unschooling movement is growing. Since the modern emergence from the public school system in the 1970’s, our numbers have grown to an estimated 100,000 or more students of current school age. However, most of us consider ourselves unschoolers for life, since unschooling is living life, so I expect there are quite a few more of us than that. As our world goes through massive shifts and growing pains, Allen and I think that unschooling is only going to keep rising in popularity, not only because it works as an education system, but because it works as a parenting system and as part of a more coherent and functional cultural story. The unschooling society in the US currently is spread out, but still tight-knit and supportive. We’re not immune to drama and disagreements, but we tend to be creative in the way we solve those disagreements. We tend to quickly remember that freedom (and the love that is inseparable from freedom) is the basis of our unschooling culture, and that is the culture we want to plant, nurture, and grow in our world.

And yes, it really is as simple as being willing to use your evening at the drop of a hat to explain to your 8-year-old how his odometer works. The rest will follow.

Laura Allen(Laura Ellis is 26 years old and lives in Santa Fe, NM. She is enrolled in a Master’s degree program for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and has a background in writing, Reiki, horseback riding, and social sciences. Allen Ellis is 24 years old and lives in Orlando, FL. He is the Senior Motion Designer at Cybis Communications and has a background in videography, piano, web design, and programming. They can be reached at whyunschool@gmail.com. For more information on unschooling, visit whyunschool.info.)

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