An adult guide to unschooling.
I am fascinated by the idea of unschooling.
Two of my three children are in their mid-20s now. I learned about unschooling when they were in fifth and sixth grade and it changed everything.
My daughters — one in graduate school and one who just started high school — both love school. They happen to be people who learn well by listening to instruction and reading. They enjoy the social aspects of school. Neither of them is/was interested in being unschooled.
But my son, Nicholas. Oh, man.
He has autism that wasn’t diagnosed until he was thirteen. School was, to put it generously, a fucking nightmare. For him. For us. For the schools.
Years and years of utter misery.
Just try to imagine the worst possible job you can think of. Something that hits all of your bad buttons. My husband is a craps dealer and that’s the job for me, for this thought experiment.
I would hate literally every single thing about it.
Math-focused, stinky, dealing with drunk people all the time, taking money from people I know don’t have it to spend, super micro-managed to the point of having cameras pointed at me all the time to make sure I don’t mess up. Loud. Flashing lights.
Ack. No. I would be in agony.
And you know what? I wouldn’t last long before I quit. I sure has hell wouldn’t last twelve years. But that’s what was expected from my son. Twelve years of mandatory, compulsory attendance at his own personal nightmare of a job.
Unschooling saved us.
He still went to school. Sometimes. From eighth grade on, he generally went to school from the start of the year through the Christmas break. We did other things the rest of the year. Used other tools.
When I learned about unschooling (from Grace Llewellyn’s out of print but completely amazing book The Teenage Liberation Handbook), I stopped thinking about public school as compulsory.
Unschooling basically means — student-led (person-led?) education.
In my house, in my family, school is a tool for learning. Sometimes it’s the right tool. But sometimes? It’s really not. Sometimes, school hurts more than it helps.
You know that saying — if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail?
School is a hammer. If that’s all you have, every kid is a nail. And it’s great if you have a kid who responds well to a hammer. I did. I loved school. I learn best by reading and taking notes and doing things. Literally, I can’t remember something unless I write it down. So lecture-based learning works really well for me as long as I have a notebook and a pen.
But my son? He’s not a nail. He’s a tactile learner who needs to be shown how, and then be allowed to do things on his own. He has to master skills one at a time. He’s easily overwhelmed by large groups and being put on the spot. He is dysgraphic (like dyslexic, only with writing instead of reading.) So, while taking notes is almost the only way I can really learn something, it’s the fastest way to shut him down.
It was a constant battle with teachers and administrators who looked at my son and saw ‘normal’ and expected him to behave a certain way. They expected what they expect from pretty much any kid — for him to do as he was told, for him to fit in and not take up more than his fair share of attention.
It was so much worse than that, though, because in the constant quest to figure out why Nicholas was such a square peg in a round hole — he was medicated. That story is a heartbreaker. It’s hard for me to even think about.
The point of this post is that a long time ago I read this book and my brain shifted — and I realized that school didn’t have to be a compulsory nightmare. Anyone can learn in the way that is easiest for them, and the United States is set up with a big, giant educational tool called public school that can be used in whatever way works best.
That means prioritizing learning above grades or degrees or anything else.
It means allowing time off school for my last school-aged kid for trips or mental health days or just because she feels like spending a day drawing.
If those mental health or drawing days start to be most days, then it’s time to think about how we want to use that tool.
For my son non-compulsory school meant going to school for a few months every year and then moving on for the rest of the school year to continuing to learn in the way that worked best for him.
That meant giving him access to as many books as he wanted on the topics that interested him, listening to him talk through his learning, and finding ways for him to learn in the tactile, kinetic way that works best for him.
And, as he got older, it meant finding educational situations (like adult high school) that are set up for students who learn best on their own.
Literally the moment I stopped making him go to school — everything changed. Even though he still went to school.
When he felt like he was in charge, even if the teachers and administration thought they were, he was able to get something out of the time he did spend in class.
And the weirdest thing? As much as things changed for him to know that he only had to go to school as long as that was the learning mode that worked for him in the moment — it changed for me, too.
I started to unschool myself.
My youngest daughter was a newborn baby at that time. I’d written my first novel when I was eight months pregnant, during NaNoWriMo (she was born December 8.) The combination of realizing that I actually had it in me to finish such a long project and this new idea about unschooling fired something off in my brain.
My first novel sucked. A lot. But I decided that becoming a better writer was mechanics. It was something I could learn to do, and I set out to teach myself how to do it.
I found websites, connected with other writers, took college classes (and earned degrees), took community classes, went to conferences, read so many books. I sought out experts, in whatever form I could get them — from Youtube videos to books to face-to-face conversations — and I learned.
It wasn’t compulsory. No one told me that I had to learn how to be a better writer. No truant officer would show up at my door if I just stopped. My dad is hugely pro-education, but if I dropped out of college or just decided I didn’t want to learn any more about writing, he probably wouldn’t have even known if I didn’t tell him. And even then, I was in my mid-30s and then my 40s. What could he do?
Once I started learning something that I really wanted to know, I was on fire.
There are plenty resources out there for unschooling your kids.
I have some ideas for unschooling yourself.
Start With This Book
I recommend Grace Llewellyn’s book so often, because I really don’t think I’ve ever read a book that caused such a sudden and sharp shift in my life. Ever. I’d never heard of unschooling. It had literally never occurred to me that I was allowed to not think about school as compulsory.
And it made me start thinking about my own education and what kind of learner I wanted to be for the rest of my life.
I actually came across my first copy of The Teenage Liberation Handbook at a thrift store and it’s a little mind blowing to me to think about how much someone dropping that book off at a Goodwill changed my whole family.
Train Yourself To Be Curious
By the time I got to my 30s, I was less open to learning. Curiosity tends to atrophy with age, I think.
I find myself sometimes not trying something new, for instance, because I don’t know how to do it. Kids expect not to know how to do things, so the fact that they’ll have to learn how doesn’t slow them down as much.
And between being a mom and being a teacher (this is hard to admit!), I’m used to being the one who knows stuff. It takes some brain power to shift to the role of learner.
Part of unschooling myself has involved remembering to be curious. When something catches my attention, instead of being satisfied with what I already know, I take a minute to learn a little more. I ask a question. I find a book. Or, lots of the time, I just look up a Wikipedia page. It’s a starting place.
Get a Library Card
The best way to start unschooling yourself is to start reading. Whatever your interests are — immerse yourself in them. Try hanging out in the children’s section, even. It’s a great way to learn a little bit about a lot of things.
See what sticks.
If you already know what you want to learn, that’s fantastic. Learn. Apply what you learn. Don’t just read. DO. Practice. Find classes. Look for a mentor. Join a group or a club. Give yourself permission to absolutely suck during the learning process.
Remember: Graduation Wasn’t the End of Learning
I’m re-reading Carol S. Dweck’s fantastic book Mindset right now. It’s another one I first came across when Nick was in school and I was desperate for any sort of relief.
Dweck talks about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A growth mindset continues to learn. Forever. A fixed mindset has reached a point where it has learned enough.
I love this quote from the book:
The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.
Learning doesn’t end when you graduate — from high school or college or trade school or whatever. It doesn’t end because someone says oh, hey, you’re done. In fact, maybe the best thing you can learn in school is how to continue to learn.
It’s a sad fact that A) no one teaches you that in school and B) if you’re someone who doesn’t learn well in a traditional school setting, you run the risk of coming out the other end completely resistant to learning.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes andis the original Ninja Writer.