Thursday, June 7, 2012

Occupy Education Conference Talk

I wrote a fairly short introductory talk on unschooling for an event that happened last weekend, the Occupy Education conference. The attendees were a mix of homeschooling and unschooling parents, striking university students (there's a pretty incredible social movement going on here in Quebec. Google "Quebec student strike" and you'll find lots of info!), and educators. It went really well. Lots of interesting group and one-on-one discussions! And since most readers couldn't be there, I wanted to at least share the talk I wrote. It's nothing I haven't said before, but I hope you'll enjoy reading it nonetheless.

My name is Idzie, and I'm a kindergarten drop-out.

The early years

When my parents first took me out of school, they had the idea that they'd homeschool me. And most people have at least a vague idea of what homeschooling is (though they usually also have a whole bunch of misconceptions). Instead of being taught by teachers, kids are taught by their parents. Usually at least some curriculum, bought or put together by the parents, is used, and, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the family, you do school at home. That's the idea that we started with. But my mother always trusted a lot in the innate ability of children to learn, so from the beginning we were very relaxed homeschoolers, and by that I mean that there wasn't a curriculum that my sister (who also didn't go to school) and I were expected to, but my parents still expected us to work on certain "school" subjects, namely math.

As we grew older, those expectations started to dissapear, and I finally said no, I'm no longer going to use those math textbooks, which is when I'd say we truly became unschoolers. I was probably around 10 or 11.

What is unschooling?

Unschooling, on the other hand, is something that people know less about.  It can be described in several different ways, all accurate, just different. I've decided to share this passage from my blog, slightly changed from the original, because I think it's the most thorough description of unschooling that I've ever written.

Version #1: Unschooling, which is considered a type of homeschooling, is student directed learning, which means the child or teen learns whatever they want, whenever they want. Learning is entirely interest driven, not dictated or directed by an external curriculum, by teachers, or by parents. For an unschooler, life is their classroom.

Version #2: 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 every aspect of my life, every activity I do, be it discussing politics with a friend, gardening, reading a novel, or simply daydreaming. 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.

A rise in popularity

Unschooling, or life learning, as some prefer to call it, is the oldest type of learning there is. It existed long before anyone came up with the idea of putting everyone under a certain age into a single building, deciding that they'd best learn how to function in the rest of the world by staying in that building for a number of years. Even the modern unschooling movement has been around since the 70s (when the term "unschooling" was coined by John Holt), yet I've seen a marked increase in interest in this philosophy in my lifetime, and especially in the last few years. There's been a lot more media attention, with a myriad of TV spots and articles from sources across North America. More unschooling conferences are popping up, and people are even starting to recognize the term, even if they're still not sure what it means! I feel this increased interest is a very positive thing, and shows how dissatisfied so many people are with the current system.

Misconceptions and important questions

With the added exposure to unschooling--usually exposure that's presented in a very misleading and sensationalized way--comes a lot of misconceptions about the concept, and it gives rise to a ton of different questions. I'd like to address a few of the ones I've encountered most frequently, just to get them out of the way right from the beginning!

Many people think because unschooling parents or caregivers don't enforce an educational structure on their children, that unschooling automatically means there is no structure, which isn't true at all. Since unschooling puts learning into the hands of the learners themselves, they can and do choose as much or as little structure as they personally want. Thus, from the outside, it might even look like what some unschoolers are doing is school: with a curriculum, a schedule, and classes they take through their homeschool co-op. The difference is that that structure is freely chosen by the learner. They've decided that's the way they learn best, and the way they feel happiest learning. By the same token, unschooling parents may suggest various classes or structured activities, and the learner is free to say yes or no. Unschooling doesn't mean no textbooks or classes, it just means no textbooks or classes unless you want them!

It's also common to believe that, because unschooling parents don't usually "teach" their children (though they may if their children ask them to), that they're uninvolved in their lives and in their learning, which couldn't be further from the truth! Unschooling parents are generally extremely involved, helping their children navigate the world, exposing them to interesting things, helping them access various resources from books to classes to mentors, and in many cases simply sharing in the discovery and wonder their children experience in their daily lives.

And sometimes, people like to say that unschooling would only work with motivated individuals. That only a few especially intelligent or special people could "succeed" with unschooling. And I really couldn't disagree more! I'm not especially motivated or especially special (though I suppose it's flattering that so many people seem to think so). What people fail to realize is that, if nothing gets in the way of the joy, people really love learning. Humans are good at learning, and, empowered by how trusted they are with their own education, unschoolers are motivated to learn. So it's not that motivated people are particularly suited to unschooling, but that unschooling creates motivated people. That learning may not always, or even often, look like the education you'd find in school, but it's most definitely learning.

"If kids get to choose what they do, all they'll ever do is play video games and read comics!", people say, which doesn't take several things into account. First, that those activities have worth, and much can be learned from them. I've heard of some kids who learned to read by reading video game manuals, and my sister has spent quite a bit of time in the past studying Japanese, thanks to an interest in Japanese culture sparked by Manga (so, basically, comic books). The second is that no one wants to do only one thing forever. Unschoolers may go through stages where it seems ALL that they're doing is one thing and one thing only. For a couple of years most of what I did was read novels. Eventually, I started wanting to do other things as well, and, in large part, I credit that time of intense and voracious devouring of books with the skills in writing I have now. It was all-consuming, but it was okay. It was good. Sometimes, people learn best by focusing on one thing for a while.

People also sometimes tell me that learning is hard, and kids don't like to do hard things. Yet babies learn to walk and talk without any forcing, something I'm sure is incredibly difficult. We're driven to be part of the world we find ourselves in, and are drawn to learning the skills we need to function in it. Sometimes learning feels easy, and sometimes it feels hard. Sometimes learning, whether it's harder or easier, is fun, and sometimes it's less fun. But if it seems important and relevant in our lives, and if we have the confidence and support needed to do so, we will learn what we need to learn. Though, again, it may not be on the timeline expected from those in school. I learned to read at age 8 or 9, "late" by many peoples' count, but it hasn't harmed my ability to read or write at all.

Where I am now

Now, as a grown unschooler, freedom-based education and unschooling in particular has become quite important to me. I write a blog about unschooling, I speak at conferences and similar events, and I try to share what knowledge I have on the subject in hopes it'll help others searching for an entirely different way of looking at learning and education. I'm also extremely passionate about food, growing it and cooking it and sharing it with others. Next year I plan to leave home and spend the year living in various rural areas, and working on organic farms. Eventually, I want to be involved in building a radically sustainable intentional community. I'm interested in feminism, non-hierarchal organizing and collective decision making, travel, and writing. There's still a fairly big gap between where I am now in my life and where I want to be, but I feel I'm heading in the right direction. Contrary to what some believe when they hear of unschooling, I do not and never have hated my parents for not sending me to school, or not "making" me learn. Instead, I'm incredibly grateful to them for the freedom I was given, and feel that because of that freedom, I had the time and space to figure out a lot of important things about myself, about the world, and about where I fit (and want to fit) in that world. And that's an important thing to know!

In conclusion   

If there's something from the philosophy of unschooling that I most want people to get, it's a realization of how capable humans are: children of learning, and parents and caregivers of assisting their children in learning. We don't need large institutions to teach us, or corporations to sell us "educational material," or governments, institutions, or corporations to tell us what we need to be learning. We're capable, as individuals, as families, and as communities, of controlling our own learning and our own lives. In empowering us with this knowledge, I truly believe unschooling as a philosophy has great potential in helping us to really change the world and how we live in it.


  1. Lovely!
    -Tanya Dehmer, mom of 3 'almost unschooled' boys.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing. We are parents of 2 beautiful unschooling children. And while we both know and feel this to be the right decision, there are times where "questioning"can create doubt, especially while being surrounded by schooled friends and family.
    But its the questioning, that in fact hones in on the very reasons we ARE doing this as a family. So in reading your experience as an adult today,I feel more sense of purpose to the vast possibilities of things to come for our kids.

    I think i've just hit a bit of a wall, as you do, as a parent, as a person. And coming across this today is exactly what the doctor ordered. Cheers!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, views and experience being an Unschooler. This type of philosophy is a freedom to choose what the child wants to learn.
    So many years is spent in public schools and when the students leave wind up in entry level positions. The wonderful part of being an Unschooler is this: you can enjoy a position lets say at 8 and not be controlled or minipulated by a structured time. It takes devoted families to be able to take on this learning style.
    Thank you, thank you and thank you. You are truly an inspiration to many who are following this path. Peace

  4. I'm so glad that you're willing to share your ideas on education. My son gets questioned so often when we're out in public by "concerned" adults. They want to know if it's a day off school, and he always replies, "I don't have days off. I always seem to be learning something new whether I want to or not."
    "structure is freely chosen by the learner" Very true. My son, who takes dance classes, is now deciding that he might want to make dance his career. This summer he is attending a professional ballet school and will hopefully be able to continue in the fall. Dance is providing most of his structure in learning and he likes it. Unfortunately the ballet school wants him to go to a regular school for grade 8. The director doesn't seem to understand un/homeschooling. She seems to think that it's about cloistering the child away from hurtful situations. I guess it will be my job to educate her.

  5. Another FANTASTIC post!!!!!!
    If you ever get to the Midwest, I would love to hear you speak!!!!!

    Peace, Karen

  6. Meanwhile, leaders of our powerful country fear an unschooled population will boom. A nation full of bloggers, hippies, artists etc... And no more doctors, scientists, mathematicians or anyone at all that will keep our society going. Americans might be happier. But America will be dumber. How about working to change what you don't like about your teachers or school systems, before just deciding to not participate in formal education? There is a world of diverse interesting and motivational educators out there that your children are missing out on meeting. Raising kids unschooled promotes more harm than any unschoolers are willing to ponder.

  7. @Anonymous
    Many unschoolers do and did plenty to try to "change what [they] don't like" within the system and many realized they had better use for their time and resources; not to mention, allowing children more freedom & better support also "changes what [we] don't like" in a way you obviously can't see. Also, the edict we should only work for change a certain way - i.e. a way that commits our kids to 40 hours a week for 13 years - to instigate change, and we cannot possibly effect change any other way, is excessively narrowminded and fear-based.

    It is also erroneous to think "bloggers, hippies, artists" and "doctors, scientists, mathemeticians" are mutually-exclusive populations. The concept that unscoholing leads to "dumber" people reveals you are entirely ignorant of the real-life results of radical unschooling. If you dive deep into Idzie's blog and especially her interviews with grown unschoolers, you can learn a great deal. Good luck!

  8. Why can't unschooled kids become doctors, scientists or mathematicians?

  9. This is so fantastic... Such a great explanation of unschooling. Kudos. :)

  10. Found this post from Christian Unschooling's FB feed. I really, REALLY enjoyed it! Thank you for your articulate message. I am an unschooling mama to three boys.