Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Unschooling for Adults

Mostly what I write is aimed at unschoolers themselves (unschooling parents, teens, and grown unschoolers), and  potential unschoolers/those new to unschooling. But what about the people for whom unschooling, as in the practice of not going to elementary or high school and instead learning from life, is no longer an option, just because they’ve already finished with high school (sometimes quite a while ago)? For the schooled adults who discover unschooling and love what they see, and want to know how they can incorporate the ideas/ideals of unschooling into their own lives, this is the post for you.

Not being a schooled adult, I can’t swear this is the best advice for someone who was, but here are some things I think have the potential to make a difference in the way people approach learning in their own lives.

Forget everything you know about what is and isn’t “educational.” 

Most adults have a pretty set idea of what things are educational (things taught in school) and which things aren’t (things done for fun or leisure, aka things not taught in school). Learning is everywhere, if you’re looking for it, and there’s nothing that’s not worth your time to learn, as long as you want to be learning it! Spend your time learning about whatever you’re curious or passionate about, whether or not it seems particularly “useful” or “educational.”

Let go of any ideas you have about what the structure of learning is supposed to look like.

If you genuinely thrive on learning in a really structured and organized way, then go ahead and create your ideal curriculum, complete with scheduled study time for the next few months. But you can also just pick up a few books from the library to read whenever you feel like it, or spend time googling a subject in free moments between other commitments, or drop in to a local music jam whenever you want some help practicing. Learning can be as rigorous and structured or as relaxed and casual as you wish to make it. Learning doesn’t have to be pursued in a way that looks like school for it to be worthwhile.

I'm thinking of trying to find a fiddle teacher,
after wanting to play for many years.
Learning by myself isn't going as well as I'd hoped!

Learn to relax. 

There are times when unschoolers face the pressure to perform well, for sure: auditions and job interviews and university entrance exams. But for the most part, the meat of learning is done without someone looking critically over your shoulder, without the looming presence of quizzes and exams. Learning can be strictly for you, simply because you want to learn. Take a deep breath. Relax. Learning for the sake of learning can be really fun and exciting and rewarding.

There’s no end date to learning. 

“I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.” Eartha Kitt
There’s a reason that quote has lived at the top of my blog for years. Its message resonates with me, and reminds me that it’s never too late to learn something. You’re not too old to learn X instrument, or to decide to memorize the times tables, or learn anything else that you’re “supposed” to learn young. For as long as you’re alive, you can keep on learning any damn thing you want to.

All of these are important things to remember, for schooled people and unschoolers alike (I can get caught up in other peoples' expectations of what learning is, too). But the "secret," if there is one, comes down to just working on eroding the imaginary line between living and learning. Life learning is what it's all about.

What is your advice for adults wanting to incorporate unschooling ideals into their lives? What have you felt was helpful in your own life?


  1. "You’re not too old to learn X instrument, or to decide to memorize the times tables, or learn anything else that you’re “supposed” to learn young." Thank you, I needed to be reminded of this :) And, as always, brilliant post.

    I would add – basically an extension of your first two points, really – try not to feel guilty for not learning something, or judge yourself by what other people know. I think school/academic culture pushes ideas of what's "worthy" to learn and what's not, and also the pressure to be good at something and succeed at it, and competitiveness. It's really easy to feel bad because other people can do/know things you can't/don't, or because you're not spending as much time doing X-thing-that-seems-really-worthwhile-and-"educational" as someone else.

    And I know that sometimes it is a case of motivating yourself and you end up doing something like just mindlessly browsing the internet when you'd really be happier doing something else – but it can be hard to work out where "what I would be happier doing" merges with "what I think I SHOULD be doing", if that makes sense? Anyway, probably stuff you already know and have far more eloquently said! – just wanted to expand on that a bit.

    Also, curious, how are you finding the fiddle? I love folk music and the sound of the fiddle, and I play some other instruments, but find fiddle quite hard. It's like, everything about it seems to be designed to make it difficult to play, but it's so frustrating because you know it can sound lovely! Good luck finding a teacher, I hope you manage to get a good one. :)

  2. Great post! Since discovering unschooling when my kids were really little (they're teens now), I've thought that I would have made a great unschooler myself. I enjoyed and was naturally good at the academic part of school, but really suffered (as a shy and sensitive child) with the social setting - cliques, peer pressure, dating, etc. One thing I didn't learn until I was an adult, probably because academics came naturally, was the value of practice. My kids seem to have learned it much younger, which is great. I think "practice, practice, practice" is the number-one piece of advice I would give learners of any age. And it helps that when you're following one of your passions, something you're excited about anyway, that practice will also be fun.

  3. Totally agree! I attended school all my life but I am 100% an unschooler. School got in the way of my learning IMO. I would have to set down the study I was reading to do homework that bored me. As an adult, and unschooling mother, I spend at least an hour a day reading up on various topics. Its easy to grab my phone and do some quick reading when I have twenty minutes while I nurse the baby to sleep.

    I adore unschooling and I'm so happy to learn for the rest of my life. Frequently I hear from people "why bother...you're not in school anymore. There's no more tests" those comments make me realize how differently unschoolers see the world.

    1. This post is quite old, but the content is still valid. And I agree with it. The unschooling is the state of mind whether or not attending school...
      And the older my child is the better I understand the whole concept of the learning. I mean - this comes from our nature of curiousness.
      I'm 38 yrs old and.. I learn every minute, sometimes simply observing the people/nature/environment, sometimes reading the books/journals/blogs/watching yt/etc or explaining something to my child. Mostly - by PRACTICING. Sometimes just looking deep inside of me and finding answers for all of my questions - and this is this kind state of 'deep understanding' when it comes from my body and then arises in my mind.. it is so powerfull..

      Yes.. unschooling teaches us what the normal school is not doing - it creates the space for deep learning. And this will not come from previously prepared programm for studying. This is not the same and never be.
      I love love this blog!:)

  4. Thank you for your post. I am an unschooling mother of six. I got horrible grades in school but often scored the highest marks on the tests. I learned the material. It was interesting to me, but I despised homework. It wasn't necessarily the work itself but the pressure and all consuming busyness of it. It just took so much of my time. I'd just let it pile up until the end of the semester then cram it all out for partial credit at the end and scrape by with a C or D. I loved college but didn't get the greatest grades there either in classes that relied heavily on busy work. I quit college ten credits before receiving my degree because I hated the idea of that piece of paper. This was before I'd even heard of unschooling. To me right now as a unschooling adult, I see unschooling as a way to transcend the crippling dependence on the praise and criticism of others. It's definitely been a process for me, and I'm still working hard on it, but I can see the light.

  5. My parents in India also felt school was not useful (especially for girls), so they removed me when I was 9. They told me that nothing learned in school (reading, math etc...) would benefit me in daily life. I had to stay home and cook, clean, help take care of younger children. I ran away at age 13 because I wanted to be educated. Luckily, I found a school willing to take me in. I exchanged work for schooling. I ended up eventually moving to Britain and graduating with an advanced degree. Now I advocate for schooling, especially for girls.

    My brother is very traditional and he will not educate his daughter. He says he is "homeschooling" or "unschooling." I found this blog looking for information on what unschooling is. I am heartbroken that someone would discourage children from going to school. Yes, having "useful" life skills are good, but all children should have the opportunity to go to school. I continue to advocate for girls (like my niece) to be able to go to school and enjoy having career options beyond domestic work.

    1. I'm so sorry you had that experience, and that your brother has chosen to co-opt the terms "homeschooling" and "unschooling" in order to try and justify his neglect of his children! But please don't think that what I or the vast majority of unschoolers advocate is anything like what you describe.

      Peter Gray and Gina Riley conducted a survey of grown unschoolers here, which should give you an idea of what unschooling actually means, and what the majority of us practicing it experience: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201406/survey-grown-unschoolers-i-overview-findings

    2. A rather cold reply, just because I cannot do otherwise here :

      It is often noted that school is a good thing for kids for whom home & family are worse : oppression, abuse, comtempt, humiliation, servitude, violence, rape... The school is then a place of relief and solace, for such kids. Some even end up liking school for itself.
      Also, official education is a good thing for people already so broken, morally and mentally, by their previous life history, that *they* cannot expect or hope for anything better than a *normal*, conformant life, at a level as high as possible on the scale of power ("social" status) in our liberal civilisation. This means, formost of us in fact. However, even so, a communautary or really social environment with real life-learning possibilities would probably be so much better even for them, and help them heal (uncondition themselves, become intelligent again). People observing little kids arriving in settings like Sudbury "Schools" often note that they need weeks or months (of healing their autonomy) to start and do things, join others, follow their desires, participate to the community, by themselves. What about older and adult people ?

      I am also very sorry that you had to live through such a childhood. However, who knows whether it is really so much worse than what nearly all kids live in the western world ? Hard to say, really, since it is what is *normal*, the dominant ideology, so that we are unable to just see it as it is, less so to judge it. I bet that as a *little* child you were much more free than nearly all occidental kids of today. A sure thing anyway is that it goes worse and worse : kids are less and less free, live less and less with one another, are more and more controlled, are more and more conditined and formatted... I end up seeing home like a prison for kids, and family like a sect for kids. Then come kinderschule, real school, TV and other media, work, entertainment...

    3. I would put an accent on groups.
      Humans are communitary mammals.

      Kids or adults are meant to learn and evolve by living and participating to a community, in groups and at times alone : observing, playing, trying, playing, cooperating, playing, sharing...

      It is hard to create groups of learning, groups of passion, groups of sharing. And we find or try make one, we find ourselves greatly unable to live it, to enjoy it, to profit of it fully or not. Not only that, but it is greatly fearful and shaking... All of our "education" has the effect, and probably is unconsciously meant to, deprive us of our natural *autonomy*, to erode, distort, destroy it. It also deprives us of our natural sociality.
      Long ago, and long before I heard of unschooling, I once trid to set up an association to learn together a special practice (physical training for theater). We never managed to do it, and I ended up leader and teacher of the group...
      More globally, we miss the ability of *communion*, in the original non-religious sense; meaning to live things in common, together, to share things in a deep, relational sense. (It's magic!)

      Learning together, living whatever in commun, find requires to find people who are still somewhat alive on this side of life, autonomy in common, but also not too much (or we will flee). I once knew an anarchist, "punk" community and could not do and live much with them...

  6. Thank you Idzie! I am a 40 year old mom of four who has been working on putting all of these unschooling ideas into place. I really love your blog and I loved the article you wrote about how unschooling doesn’t have to be “impressive”. I love the perspective you bring to unschooling:)

  7. I work across the street from a "school is optional" place -- and I'm pretty envious; but really, this idea you put forward of being an adult doing unschooling -- really, I've been doing that for the last 30 years (I'm nearly 60).

    A couple of my favorite things I have unschooled myself on: p

    Playing traditional music on recorder (twenty five years) and fiddle/viola (8 years). As a kid, I took classical piano from a very kind and gentle teacher, who taught me how to use the difficult bits of the music I was studying as technical exercises to move myself forward. I loved her, and I loved playing music, but I rarely enjoyed it -- I was so afraid of making mistakes and of being heard and judged that I was most just very tense and stiff. I practice my half hour a day because that was how I got to go on taking lessons, but I never learned to loosen up and "play" with what I was doing.

    Now, I get to use the best of what my teacher taught me and set aside most of the other stuff from the intensely demanding academic culture I grew up in. I get to just play the things I like playing, and to sneak up on the times when I can really just let go and enjoy it. It's a bit of a conundrum how to get to the "letting go and enjoying", though, I was very well schooled in grimly studying and keeping my head down because I was never more than a "B" student and that just wasn't really good enough.

    Another project is telescope building. I got interested in astronomy in 2014, and kind of stumbled into building a telescope as a way of learning more about them to figure out what kind I might want to buy. I figured the $20 Ebay mirror set and throwing together a plywood thing would probably get me something that barely worked, and I would learn a lot and move on. But the thing actually works really well -- it's a very small telescope, but it is light and fun to use and I can really, really see real stuff. There's a catalog of astronomical objects that was compiled in the 1700's, the Messier list, and I can see about 65 out of the 110 objects, which isn't much, but the astonishing thing to me is just how much fun I have with it.

    Somehow, waiting to be 55 before getting interested in astronomy has meant that, when I'm out with my scope, I'm free of a huge amount of the reflexive fears and self-doubts, all the "you're going to do it wrong anyways, you're not going to be good enough, so why bother" that burdens so much of what I do. It's this HUGE gift!

    So I'm working on building my second telescope, which is NOT a seat of the pants thing: I've been using my computer drafting skills from work to design a rather unconventional scope, and the CNC router at work (with the boss's blessing, as long as I keep it not interfering with any work hours/projects) to make something that has been as much fun to design, and redesign, and now to build, as it has been to look at things up in the sky.

    Then there's the reading astrophysics thing -- I started that in 2014, just because I was was so astonished to find out that comets are not made of rocks (they are about the density of cork) and also that they are dark in color -- darker than black velvet! -- not bright white icy things like I thought. I found out, from reading real papers on arXiv, and people's dissertations, that when I just read the stuff I understand for what I can learn from it, and ignore a lot of the stuff I really don't understand (like, the math!) and then follow up on a few things that get me interested -- I learn, learn, learn, learn. It's way fun, and it's all free, too, and I don't have to stay up late or talk to anyone when I'm not in the mood or anything. I keep a lot of papers on my computer and read them in bits and pieces when I please. Open Scholarship is an amazing thing.