Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Unschooling is Forever Part 1: Beginnings

It was a really great experience speaking at the Toronto Unschooling Conference (and it was a wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable conference!).  I should know by now not to freak out over public speaking, because once I get over the pre-talking-in-front-of-a-bunch-of-people nerves (which fade about a minute in), I really and truly enjoy it!  I never thought I'd say this, but my experience in the last year has led me to believe that public speaking is lots of fun!  And the incredibly kind words of those in the audience make all the stress and worry that goes into doing it MORE than worth it. 

The audio recording of this talk will be for sale here sometime soon, unless I'm much mistaken (I believe the cost per talk is $5 Canadian), and I'll be posting the text of this talk in it's entirety here over the next few weeks.  Here's the first part!

I’d like to start with a quote by Wendy Priesnitz:

"I wonder why so many parents still want to keep their children hidden away in schools, when they could be learning in the wonderful, bright, ever-changing, always-stimulating real world."

How I became an unschooler

Before I was born, neither of my parents had ever even considered homeschooling, never mind unschooling. It just never entered their minds. But my mom was, and still is, a bit of a hippie, so she did plan to breastfeed. Because of that, she joined the La Leche League when I was born (or possibly before I was born... I’m not sure how those things work!). Now, my mom had plenty of gentle discipline, unconditional parenting, type books, I was never let to “cry it out”, lived in a sling for ages, and all those other attachment parenting type practices, though I don’t believe that term had yet been coined when I was born.  Point is, she was the type of parent who liked having her kids close by, and wanted to be very involved in their lives.

At the La Leche Lague, she was exposed to an idea she'd never really thought of before: homeschooling. And she liked it! Being the type of parent she was, she didn't like the thought of sending her little girl off to spend her days with strangers.  So she started reading and researching, and decided that she really did want to homeschool! My father, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic. He can be rather traditional minded, and he truly thought that school was the best place for a growing child to learn, so my mother agreed that they would at least try it out. So off I went to half-day kindergarten at age five! I didn't really mind it. Neither did I love it. I had fun sometimes, but I was always happy to head home afterwards, as well. However, partway through the year, we started getting strange phone calls. Obscene phone calls, actually, and when they were traced by police it was discovered that it was a kid in grade 2 making them. Sad, isn’t it? So that was enough to convince my father, and halfway through my first year of school, I was pulled out. That half year of kindergarten remains my only experience with institutionalized schooling.

We started out as homeschoolers, though pretty darn relaxed ones, and for years our "schooling" is a bit of a blur, I'm afraid. I was pretty young! I know that we had various school books and programs and similar stuff, to use if we wanted to. We did lots of fun science experiments, as well as watching Nova and Nature and similar shows avidly (I say we, because my sister reached school age with no one ever suggesting she go to school, so we just continued to learn together!). My mom always read aloud to us: poetry, stories, the newspaper, and I started actually reading myself at age 8 or 9 when my mother was reading Harry Potter too slowly for my taste!  I memorized poetry, and wrote both poetry and stories before I could even read (I'd narrate them to my mother). But what I remember most strongly from these years is how connected and good everything felt.  Playing for hours on end, hiking in the woods, making crafts and art, cuddling and spending time together.  Everything was tactile and immediate, a life free of lectures and homework and intermediaries between my young self and the learning that was all around me.  Throughout this time period, my mom would tell everyone that we were doing "child-led" homeschooling.

And in all that time, the only thing that was ever really treated in a non-unschooling way was math.   When I was about 11, when any existing control around that was let go, I’d say we became true unschoolers.

So, How do you learn?

Unschooling requires a paradigm shift, one in which you must stop looking at the world as a series of occurrences/resources/experiences etc. that can be learned from, and a series that can’t.  The world doesn’t divide neatly into different subjects, and you can’t tell right from the outset what a seemingly unimportant question, interest, or TV show obsession will lead to.  I learn from: wandering, wondering, listening, reading, watching, discussing, running, writing, daydreaming, searching, researching, meditating, hibernating, playing, creating, growing, doing, helping, and everything else that comprises the day to day happenings of my life.

Unschooling can seem like a complicated endeavour, growing up as we do in a society so thoroughly schooled.  A schooled outlook sees learning as something difficult and mysterious.  As Ivan Illich said:

“Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends upon knowing that secret; that secrets can only be known in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.”

But in moving past that mindset, a more accurate question starts to become how can you not learn, and I truly think the answer to that question is that it’s impossible to live without learning.

Once you’ve realized that, unschooling starts to seem incredibly simple.  Because, well, it is!  Unschooling, at its heart, is nothing more complicated or simple than the realization that life and learning are not two separate things.  And when you realize that living and learning are inseparable, it all starts to truly make sense. 

Read part 2, part 3, and part 4.


  1. I have just recently started researching unschooling and I have to say.. I was meant to read this post. I have never felt so inspired. Tears came to my eyes when I read these words "Unschooling requires a paradigm shift, one in which you must stop looking at the world as a series of occurrences/resources/experiences etc. that can be learned from, and a series that can’t." I felt the affects of this confusion at a very young age in school. I never once felt that my brain worked in the way school was designed, and constantly struggled with the separation of life and learning. I can't tell you know much this post has affected me, and the future of my daughter who is 9 months old. I want so badly to see her mind work in the way nature intended it to. Thank you from the bottom of my heart... For the amazing insight, and your story. And give your mother a hug from me, for raising you. :) I will be back to read more.

  2. Well done Idzie. I think that ideas from unschooling have started to infiltrate into public school-that has been my experience recently where at a school meeting for one of my girls, the principal reported that the board of ed is now starting to acknowledge that kids learn holistically-hence the introduction of a 'critical thinking' overall program as opposed to separate subjects like 'history' 'geography' etc. At least, this is what has been started this year in the program that my daughter is in.
    Still, as far as I'm concerned, a school is a school!

  3. Hi Idzie!
    So far my favorite part of your speech is the way you so beautifully explained the way (the feeling) of being so directly connected to your world - nothing standing as a barrier between you and its aliveness.
    'Course, those weren't your words exactly, but that's how they made me feel.
    Just wonderful.
    Looking forward to the rest!

  4. So very inspiring. We have recently made the decision to unschool our children, ages 4, 3, and 1. Love your blog and will be including a link to this post very soon in my blog explaining unschooling to my friends and family. It's funny how even traditional homeschoolers "look down" on this type of schooling. People keep asking me when we're going to start homeschooling and I'm still working on an intelligent non-confrontational answer. Thank you for your blog, if only we all could have had the same experience growing up. I am very envious. :)

  5. Thank you for sharing your speech with us - I had to post about it on my blog:

    "Unschooling, at its heart, is nothing more complicated or simple than the realization that life and learning are not two separate things. And when you realize that living and learning are inseparable, it all starts to truly make sense."

    Wonderfully said! Looking forward to the next part!


  6. This is ridiculous. Unschooling will get you no where. My friend's son was unschooled and just started highschool. He couldn't write well-barely spell easy words. Now he is furious at his mother and blames her for making him incompetent. Don't do it!

  7. @Katie: Few things make me happier than knowing that my words have affected someone in a positive way. I'm so happy that you found this post, and want to thank you so much for your extremely kind words! :)

    @Anonymous: Let me get this straight: you're on a blog called "I'm Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write." which is *written* by, you know, an unschooler, and you're saying that unschoolers will not be able to write well... Oh, the irony! Thanks for cracking me up. ;-)

    @Everyone else: Thank you so much for the kind words!!

  8. I graduated school with a handful of students, public-schooled their entire lives, and cannot spell, write, or use basic reading comprehension. So by Anon's logic ...


  9. @Summer-well said. I think though, that Anon might have touched on something valid and that is if you are unschooling, you need to support the child's learning path and so be that thinking, a mother would need to ensure her kid is prepared to make such a transition from unschooling to highschool. I guess what I'm thinking is that we need to support our kids. There is a good post on the that speaks to this.

  10. @Summer: I second Clementine: well said! Thanks for the comment. :)

    @Clementine: I agree that an unschooling parent needs to support their children, BUT that doesn't mean making sure that their children are "at grade level", or at all times ready to enter the school system. That would involve a lot of forcing of various subject matter, which of course is not unschooling at all. I do see supporting your child as including helping them to gain all the necessary skills to enter school if they choose to do so, before they actually enter school.

    And by the way, I'm totally not trying to say that what you meant in your comment was that parents should make sure their kids always learn what their schooled peers are learning, when their schooled peers are doing so! I could just see the possibility for your comment to be interpreted that way, and wanted to clarify my own feelings on the topic! :)

  11. My daughter's are 3 and 6 months and we unschool (or I guess I should say, nothing will change just because they hit some arbitrary age). I loved this post. It is the type of life and memories I hope my children have in 18 years. :)

    And I'm not normally someone who likes to pick apart posts or comments, but I do find it ironic that I noted more grammar/spelling mistakes in Anon's one comment than your entire post. ;)

  12. What I think is worth considering here is what this @anonymous person means when they say "writes well," and what that implies.

    See, as technology evolves at a crazily-rapid pace, I think a lot of people are realizing that what's importation is communication, not whether or not we are following the exact orders of what some old white people decided was the proper way to turn all of our thoughts into words so many years ago.

    People might be horrified at what IMs, txts & the internet have done to their precious "grammar," but we're just trying to speed up the process of all being telepathic with each other Plus, look at all the new friends we're getting to meet! Normally, I would only be allowed to talk with a teenage girl if I were related to her or teaching/coaching her, because we're taught in school that we should only have friends our own age, and it's reinforced in the media that all old people (especially men) are out to kidnap or rape their children. But look, not only am I not hurting anyone, but all us strangers with common interests are getting together to talk to each other and feel happy because of the single blog of one unschooler's actions. Oh sure, some of us won't win any Spelling B's anytime soon, but we're not entirely sure that that's so important anymore. We're evolving our priorities to mesh with the planet and our own well-being (or at least trying to!).

    So by saying this friend's son doesn't "write well," do you mean that there are slight "grammatical errors?" But what is he like as a person? Is he kind? Does he have passions about trying to make the world better in some way? Does he even enjoy being alive? Because a lot of people who "write well" are also destructive, abusive, and secretly want to die (and you shouldn't rule out the possibility that they turned out this way because they were forced to go to school, and are now unhappy and unconsciously angry at the mess it has created?).

    Also, was it true unschooling (see, parents aren't always perfect, so sometimes they can interfere with a child's natural growth without even realizing it, causing all sorts of unknown frustration and resentment in the kid, causing them to bottle it up and not be able to focus as well on what their true calling might actually be..)?

    Lots of stuff to consider before we go posting an anonymous dismissal of an entire movement based on the assumption of what one friend told you about their son.

    In any case, it's been really encouraging reading your stuff, Idzie, and I'd actually love to do some sort of vloggy interview you when you get the chance, because I have so many questions that I've yet to see anyone else talking about in all the unschooling stuff I've come across in the past near-year since discovering it, and I'd love to hear your thoughts about them.

  13. What a wonderfully, well-written blog! You definitely have something to say and to teach the world, keep it up!

    Learning can exist outside the classroom, with the mediums that are open to us in the 21st century, everyone can "learn" something simply by being alive. All a diploma is, is a piece of paper that states that you have met the prescribed requirements for graduation, there is no real indication of what you have truly learned.

    There is someone who would be very interested in what you have to say. She is a researcher, I have worked extensively with. Her primary interest is self-directed learning. If you would like, I could give you her contact information.

  14. Great blog post. I've gone through a Very Similar Experience with my children, especially my eldest girl who is now 10.

    We did school for a while, but it wasn't really anything good in our lives. (family pressure to 'conform' and 'help my child's education'...humph!) She ended up being told she had a learning disability because she got bored so much. Reading was a big issue. Now, after two years of unschooling she reads anything she can get her hands on, and is writing and illustrating three childrens books. Her current reading book is The Celestine Prophecy, and she loves it. And, she's actually got three books under her pillow which she alternates between depending on what she's most interested in reading.

    My boy, 7, is blossoming with his comprehension of words, and beginning to just spell things and write stuff all by himself.

    My biggest hurdle over the last two years has been to relax and trust that their instinct to learn will guide them towards their interests, which in turn teach them so much more than I could 'plan' to teach them. :)

    Best thing is that my child who is now 2 is experiencing 'the unschooling thing' as natural life...gotta love that,... and she's already trying to write! :)

    Excellent blog :) You rock :)

  15. Great post, Idzie! Thanks so much for writing about your unschooling life. It's inspiring to lots of people.

    I'm passing along "The Versatile Blogger" meme award to you.


  16. Hi Idzie!

    I'm a long-time (or at least the past several months) lurker, first-time commenter. And I just wanted to say that your comments really resonated with my own personal experience.

    An example:

    I was home-schooled (in a fairly relaxed way, though not unschooling by any means) so I ought to have known better, but...a couple of years ago, a friend of mine at the time had two charming, funny, articulate, interested-in-everything, elementary school kids, whom she homeschooled.

    One day she mentioned that her oldest daughter had gone to first grade for awhile before she pulled her out. I commented something to the effect of "She was so far ahead of the other kids, right?" My friend said something that rocked my world--I can't remember the exact quote, but it was something like 'No, not at all. When they did testing that year she came out right in the middle. And I was so afraid she'd lose her enthusiasm for learning and come to see herself as a middle of the road _person_ so I pulled her out.'

    You're so right--unschooling (and many forms of homeschooling) _makes people motivated_.

    I also volunteered at Sudbury democratic school this past year, and I just recently commented to a friend (a lifelong unschooler and autodidact, and fellow librarian) that I really missed the company of kids who weren't schooled.