The Weird and Fascinating World of Unschooling

Logan LaPlante was 13  when he gave a TED talk about how homeschooling makes him happy. It’s an inspiring message that racked up over 8 million views on YouTube.

You can watch it here:

What makes Logan’s story newsworthy, however, is that he’s not just a regular homeschooler. He has complete freedom to learn whatever, however, wherever and whenever he wants.

Turns out, there’s a word for this type of education – unschooling.

Unschooling is an offshoot of homeschooling. In both cases, parents choose to educate their children at home, but unschoolers take an autonomous approach to learning, letting kids explore their interests with no curriculum, agenda, or timetable.

Writer and unschooler Ben Hewitt says:

[My sons] have almost total autonomy over their days. At ages that would likely see them in seventh and fourth grades, I generously estimate that my boys spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education. Not two hours per day or even per week. Two hours per month.

Hewitt argues that traditional schools rob kids of their natural creativity and curiosity. What kids need instead is exploration and play without limitations, which is what builds confidence and self determination.

Our days do have structure: chores morning and evening, gardens to be turned and planted, berries to be picked and sold, all these things and so many more repeating in overlapping cycles. But even within these routines, Fin and Rye determine how their days will be spent. Often they disappear for hours at a time, their only deadline being whichever meal comes next. On their backs, they wear wooden pack baskets that they wove under the tutelage of a friend who also unschools her children. When they return, the baskets are heavy with the small treasures of their world and their heads are full of the small stories of their wandering: the moose tracks they saw, the grouse they flushed, the forked maple they sat beneath to eat snacks. “The bark felt thick,” Fin tells me. “It’s going to be a hard winter.”

And yes, they do know how to read and write, multiply and divide.

The Education Problem

I think we can all agree that the education system in the United States is antiquated and flawed.

There are certainly some fabulous schools and programs with progressive philosophies, cutting edge teaching systems and technologies, and passionate teachers, but even then, they can only teach to the median. Kids in a classroom will inevitably become bored or uninterested. 

bored student

So to see a kid like Logan – so motivated, so self aware, so eloquent – it makes you wonder if these unschoolers are onto something.

If you look at Dan Pink’s research on the science of motivation (as it applies to the corporate world) which he fascinatingly describes in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, it’s not money or perks or rewards that drive employees to do their best work, but rather autonomy, mastery and purpose.

autonomy mastery purpose

I suppose you could say that I’m unschooling myself here at Hackerella. I immerse myself in challenges out of a genuine desire to learn, and turn to resources like YouTube, Amazon, Udemy, Fiverr, Upwork, Coursera and other amazing platforms that allow me to learn, get, or do whatever I want. I’ve got the motivation trifecta of autonomy over how I schedule my work, mastery in that I’m invested in growth, and a sense of purpose behind the things I pursue, and it’s awesome.

So if kids are motivated by these same factors, then our education system is falling short in a serious way. And it certainly doesn’t prepare them to be the innovative, entrepreneurial minded and creative people that the next generation needs.

Even Elon Musk was so dissatisfied with the system that he pulled his kids out of school and started his own – a small, experimental, and secretive school called Ad Astra, which means “To the Stars” that’s based on a lot of unschooling and motivational principles of exploration, curiosity and experience.

I don’t see the regular schools doing the things I thought should be done… Some people love English or languages. Some people love math. Some people love music. Different abilities, different times. It makes more sense to cater the education to match their aptitudes and abilities.

I agree. Education needs to be more personalized.

In my perfect world, kids would be educated by highly trained, passionate teachers in collaboration with sophisticated technology and artificial intelligence platforms that would allow for a totally personalized system of learning. And it would be accessible to all kids. In my perfect world, of course.

Silicon Valley based Altschool is addressing this issue, as are a number of other private schools and experimental programs within public schools (parents might want to check out the Waldorf, Reggio Emilia and Montessori models). But right now, homeschooling is one of the only ways to have complete and total control over a tailor made learning experience.

Dipping my Feet in Unschooling

A few weeks ago my five year old and I took a trip to Manhattan, where we turned the incredible city into our classroom for the week. We explored:

Art and culture at the Children’s Art Museum and a Broadway performance of Aladdin.

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History at the Museum of Natural History and the 9/11 memorial.

Free play and exercise – think 11,000 steps averaged per day, playground time not included.

Comprehension and critical thinking with dinnertime questions and discussions about the things we experienced that day.

Reading and writing with the fun flashcard game I introduced last week.

Back at home, I decided to give the whole “total autonomy” thing a shot.

They chose television. And they played, but mostly they wanted to watch TV.

So I moved onto plan B and created a number of activities that catered to their current obsession: American Girl (the doll Grace in particular who visits Paris and the Eiffel Tower). We…

Watched YouTube videos about the history and construction of the Eiffel Tower.

Drew our own pictures of the Eiffel Tower, copied from a photograph.

eiffel tower

Practiced reading and writing with more flashcards that had words like Paris, France, Grace, America, and Girl.

And we spent two uninterrupted hours sorting through and counting over $100 worth of piggy bank pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that they promptly spent at – wait for it – American Girl.

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A Parent’s Dilemma

It’s been eye opening for me as I’ve studied and experimented my way through this project. We’ve played and explored, asked questions and looked for answers, and the kids were engaged, focused, and able to pick up on new concepts. It’s exactly the type of environment that cultivates genuine desire to learn.

The skeptic in me, however, has some doubts.

I wonder to what extent my kids are learning. Are things sticking? Am I doing it correctly? Is it right to put their education in the hands of a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants-non-expert (i.e. me)?

mom teacher

I also wonder if too much freedom is exactly that – too much. Because in the real world there are rules and menial jobs and crappy bosses and boring work that require a good amount of self discipline and structure (two things I believe strongly in).

And then there’s the issue of interest and time. Unschooling, as unstructured as it is, does require significant education, planning and commitment on the parent’s part, and that kind of time investment isn’t something we all have, or necessarily even want.

So where does that leave me?

As much as I find value in the principles and research behind unschooling and even homeschooling, I’m not prepared to go that route.

I’m lucky to live in a district that has a top-notch public school, where my daughter will be attending come fall. In a few years time, the little one will follow suit.

Outside of the classroom, you can be sure that I’ll be incorporating some of the unschooling and mindset philosophies I’ve picked up into their activities and routines, as well as my own.

And if something’s not working, I’ll be the first to reassess. Maybe down the line homeschooling or unschooling or private schooling or alternative schooling or some combination of everything will be the answer.

One thing’s for certain – I’m going to let my kids be kids, love them to pieces and do my very best. And I’m pretty sure they’re going to be just fine.

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