The School of Life (An unschooling adventure begins)

We are spending almost everyday just hanging around the farm we live on at the moment. We slog up the paddock to feed the chickens and Ramona climbs into their coop to collect the eggs. We pick up the other kids and take a for walk to visit the cows. We forage for chestnuts and roast them. Ramona swings, bounces, negotiates games with the kids. She bakes biscuits, she plants flowers and we read. She paints her whole arm blue, they all watch a movie then they set a rat trap.

It is life and it is learning and it is Ramona’s school.

State school is the only right education for a left wing family, right?
I have always known that my children would go to school. My socialist lean towards good state schools for the masses grew alongside my awareness that I would one day have children that would attend them.

I just knew that the only way schools could meet the needs of a whole community was if all members of that community, rather than the poorest who couldn’t do better, supported them. Even as a teenager I scoffed at Labour politicians who educated their kids privately.

This was despite ALWAYS hating school myself. I was bullied for most of my primary school years and spent ALOT of my secondary school years absent- lazing about the beach getting a well good suntan (I’d come home and shake the sand out of my bag and mum would sigh and ask “Good day at school, Lu?!”) or playing Snake on my Nokia on the back row of desks. (I was a champion at Snake.)

Since actually having children, like so many of my opinions, I have changed my mind.

A child has a natural instinct and ability to learn
I first questioned our faith in our education system when I read about one of my favourite authors lack of ability/desire to read until she was eleven, at which stage she taught herself and began reading and writing novels ferociously. She didn’t go to school, she simply hung about with other kids at their commune. WHAAAT? People can become successful novelists without school?

I began reading up on children’s development and learning and I began to trust that intuition I had about my child’s natural ability to learn.

It was through reading John Holt’s “How Children Learn” that I found my instincts shored up. Through spending time with Ramona I had become fairly convinced that her curiosity and sponge – like mind was enough of a combination to give her all the learning she would ever need in life. Just like I *never* taught her how to speak (really; we never once corrected her talking or pronounced items to her, we simply spoke to her a lot) I became sure that she wouldn’t have to be taught anything.

The times that I tried to teach her stuff fell flat on their face- for example, when we found her a secondhand scooter and I tried to show her how to turn it and use the brake. She completely ignored me and continued to use it all wrong but then one day, about a year later, she was just ready and she got it out and in the space of half an hour could turn and brake, and charge WAY TOO FAST down massive hills, just like a pro. All without a peep of advice.

Through John Holt I discovered hundreds of examples from home life and the classroom (he was a teacher for many years) of children taking their own learning into their own hands and discovering SO MUCH. And most of all, delighting in it.

I actually feel sad that for most of my life learning for me has been completely devoid of joy. It was only when I was 17 and went to college, where I was given a choice of subjects, and crucially, an enormous amount of autonomy, that I discovered how much I loved to learn. And then, despite not knowing any algebra, or even knowing what different clouds are, or who was the reigning king in 1703, because I was far too busy mastering Snake, I went on to become a fully functioning adult! And I got A-levels, and then a diploma, then a Bachelor of Arts and then a Master of Science!

As soon as adult-led, compulsory education got out of my life I fell in love with learning.

I feel that for far too much of the time an adult’s interruption in a child’s learning process actually hinders that learning. That we try to teach something in a little box , the boxes that all our schooled, adult minds work within, and the child then learns to put that discovery in to a box, rather than what they were originally going to do with it which was probably explosively creative and intelligent and linked up to all other bits of knowledge they have in their amazing brains.

With a nurturing, supportive environment children are fully able to complete their own learning journey.

The term for all of this? Unschooling.

Unschooling in every part of life
I recently realised that we have always been unschooling. For unschooling isn’t just “Not sending children to school” – it is really a whole life philosophy of trusting children. Trusting their own natural learning process but also trusting things like their eating (Baby Led Weaning is a great example of unschooling with a baby!) and their sleeping and their playing.

A few weeks ago we trundled along in big old Bert (our bus) to the New Zealand Unschooling Retreat. We bowled in through the gates and found a whole field full of tents, the whole place strung up with flags and a big craft marquee in the middle. (It is what heaven is like.) There were way more people then I thought would be there and we met so many people on this journey. Most unschoolers I knew by then were through online forums like Facebook groups- and the internet can be quite a polarising, angsty place, eh? To meet unschoolers in real life and to see how gracious and understanding and embracing they were was awesome.

And to spend time with so many families who work outside of the common control based relationship that can define quite a lot of other families made us feel normal!

It really did feel different to another gathering of families. There were no threats called across the fields, no bribery at the shared dinner, some kids up as late as the adults, all kids treated with as much respect as the parents.

It was a sort of mini utopia of peaceful adult- children interaction, a place where the children were autonomous and the adults supportive.

School’s out for… Ever?
And I guess that’s the funny thing… It is fully possible to be an unschooling family whilst having children at school. Some parents will do all this stuff- this trusting their child, communicating respectfully, allowing full autonomy- but not feel able to have their children at home full time, or their children will even choose to go to school.

If you encourage the sparks you see in your child’s eyes, give opportunities for them to dig deep into the things they love, and give them space from pressures to read and add and write then you are unschooling, even if the go to school.

We have heard of a local preschool that is completely child-led and even have one full day in the local woods and we have begun thinking about Ramona going there for a day or two. She LOVES hanging out with other kids without us and I think she would thrive.

And if we manage to set up a Forest School ever, then we would happily send the girls there – that is basically unschooling under trees!

But I do feel that at this stage, a classroom led by adults where tests and homework and a disjointed curriculum are not for us.

Unschooling lays the groundwork for utopia
And I guess I am left with the same question I began with. Can you really be a lefty and unschool? Are we not ditching the rest of society? Being uncaring about the state of state schools?

The way I see it is that ultimately schools *will* get there. They *will* eventually understand and put into practice the fact that a child’s learning journey is best undertaken free from pressure and that a child has the right to be treated respectfully and given autonomy. It might take a while but eventually schools will be up to it. (There are already some amazing schools in Germany; Democratic Schools and Forest Schools that look this way and preschools sometimes practice this stuff.)

We are on the cusp of a movement that will allow children freedom and rights and responsibility. But to get there we need families already acting in this way.

Unschoolers are part of the movement – by supporting natural learning and respecting the full rights of children we are revealing it! We are saying “this can be done!” And we are building a world where schools can too.

So long term I think unschooling is one path to a socially just society. (Which is what all us raving commies want, eh?)

Have you heard of unschooling? Do you do it in parts or fully? Would love to hear from you. (I don’t have much internet in my life so can’t reply to each comment but I do want you to know I read and value each one.)

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23 Responses to The School of Life (An unschooling adventure begins)

  1. Angeline says:

    Love your posts because they get me thinking and ground me. I hadn’t ears of I schooling but it sure makes sense. I feel we do try too hard to fit into societies little boxes . I think that children have far too much pressure in life and to let tem be free, is a good thing. Tests, exams , pressure? What’s it all about? Home work every night because they have to, after sitting in a classroom ring talked to for 6 hrs a day.. Not good when you stop and think about it. Too many rules ! Yes , it’s good to have boundaries set etc but it’s really too much too soon.

    Thanks again for making me think!

  2. ThaliaKR says:

    Amen and amen. Thanks, Lucy.

    I have been obsessing about unschooling since my boy was about a year old (my further thoughts here: http://sacraparental.com/?s=unschooling) and have a very similar story to you. Idealogically supportive of state schooling + hated school myself + discovering unschooling (and crucially, how different it is from traditional school-at-home homeschooling, which I have never been drawn to).

    I REALLY like your point about leading the way from outside, if you can’t in good conscience participate in the current state system. That is profound and very helpful in my thinking. Jesus’ call to be both salt (mixed in thoroughly, as a preservation agent) and light (showing something different) at the same time has troubled me when it comes to my inclination to avoid state education. As you say in commie terms, should we not be where everyone else is, rather than using our privilege/mature prioritisation to abandon ship? But perhaps one can be ‘salty’ from the outside, in some circumstances. Or from the outside of the actual system, though not outside society itself, right?

    Thanks for your excellent, well-considered thoughts. Keep up the fab work :)
    ThaliaKR recently posted…Lent with Kids, Week 3: Jesus Gives Us Important JobsMy Profile

  3. Francesca says:

    Dear dear Lucy,

    We are committed unschoolers, I have been following your blog for quite some time and always wondered if this is where you were headed :-) it is with great pleasure that I read about your questioning of society and how we can all live more joyfully.

    In our family we also live by consent and the children have the right to decide how they spend their time (this migh sometimes be one of the children wanting to play minecraft all morning even if we would rather go to the woods, all their wishes are deeply respected), common solutions are found instead of voting or someone making the final decision, so this looks very different from a socialist or democratic stance. I also come from a very left wing point of view but the more we go down the unschooling and respectful living path, the more we are rejecting much preconceived knowledge. The aim is to feel free, joyful, to learn and live together. I find that this way we are not isolating ourselves in fact with are much more in tune with others and our planet.

    Enjoy your journey!

  4. jessica says:

    love this post and so excited to hear more about it! My son is 8 months old so we’ve got time to think about this idea. I’d heard about it when I was pregnant and immediately felt that it made so much sense.

  5. Eumaeus says:

    We do it fully. But the habit energy is strong in us. We are constantly turning the damper down on our habit energies and learning to trust and let go. It is a journey. Reading things like this helps. Peace.
    Eumaeus recently posted…I Chose the Cookie Factory, I Still Work at the Cookie Factory a.k.a ‘The Cookie Poem’My Profile

  6. unschooling 4 says:

    I disagree about unschooling being possible with kids is school, I think you can parent your schooled children respectfully but once they enter that school environment they are no longer unschooled because they no longer have freedom over how when and what to learn. I believe even if attendance is at the request of the child that they are choosing to be schooled and therefore are no longer unschooled. I don’t believe you can go into that school system and remain intact with yourself no matter how much self directed learning happens outside of school, school has too large an influence for a huge chunk of time during a crucial phase of human development, being schooled alters our very being at the core. I know this to be true because I was schooled and I am damaged from it, my ongoing deschooling process surfaces more of this damage as we carry on this journey.

    I also do not believe state schools can be made better, I think much of what is wrong with our society could be put right by stopping the segregation of our children into schools for almost their entire childhood, we need a drastic change in our culture and one that removes the isolation of our young and elderly.

    You may like to read some of John Taylor Gatto’s writings

    • Lucy says:

      Thanks for this thoughtful reply. I do know that a lot of unschoolers don’t agree :) I have just begun to see that unschooling goes far, far beyond just the classroom and that us what I was getting at.
      I will DEFINITELY look that author up- thank you!

      • Yael says:

        Thanks! really interesting.
        I went through this trail but reversed – started with reading Holt and after years realised I actually support state schools as a social ideal, while still hating schools and schooling…

        As a teacher myself I can testify that unschooled children who joined school at a later age have a special dignity about them that is very rare in schooled children, who have already internalized oppression.
        I feel that their families definitely unschooled their kids even when they were in school (alternative as it was). Something about them just didn’t let the school system drip into the family dynamics and the children felt confident to maintain their freedom in school.

        I don’t see how unschooling can be a fair choice for people on low salary who must work full time, children to parents with low cultural or social capital or children with learning difficulties. It’s a privilege of a certain class and background, and it will be tricky for children in these circles to meet the mix of kids in a normal state school.

        My eldest went to an alternative free school and spent there 6 frustrating years making his own choices about everything he did (he started reading at 9 and spent most of yr 1 in the sandpit). Now he is happy and content in the structured state high school – what a relief to have someone else taking care of what to do now! it was too much to ask from him as a young child.

        I too hate schools and wish my circumstances would allow me to home educate, but my kids love them and go happily every morning. What a dilemma!
        Yael recently posted…אז מה הסיפור עם קואופרטיב הדיורMy Profile

        • unschooling 4 says:

          I have a couple of points about this, one is about children from low socioeconomic backgrounds getting a better mix in a school setting. I really don’t see this, I grew up in the UK, in a low socioeconomic area and the school I went to was full of people from the same area with the same background, we also lived in an area that was predominately white and so we hardly mixed with anyone from different cultures and races, added to that was then the further segregation into only mixing with people born within the same year as me, I was then further excluded because I was *a boffin* and was then confined to a small group of similar backgrounds, same race, same culture and same *boffin* slant and clung to that group as my way to survive school. Sure there were 1100 pupils at the school, I mixed with about 10 of them.

          The other point I have is about free schools, free schools and unschooling I feel strongly are not the same thing. And John Holt slams them in his writings as being child centered and inappropriate. He strongly felt that children should be around adults doing real work and that their participation in those activities not be forced so that their learning was child led, however he did not believe that children should be directing their own lives all day in a child centered environment. I believe it was in “teach your own” that I read his feeling about this.
          My unschooled children don’t get to do what they want all day, it’s simply not possible for them to do that because we’re a family of 6 with multiple needs to meet. There is no way my kids could spend a whole year playing in a sandpit even if that is what they would want to do because we’re not all going to sit and play in the sandpit for a year, we have other places to go, other things that need to get done, other needs that need to be met. I think this is the main issue with free schools, kids can do what they like for 30 hours a week with little or no adult interaction or guidance.

          Ideally I think we need to go back to small community living, where adults and children are with each other all day, where children aren’t excluded from adult places of work, so that they can be around those things and where the elderly aren’t locked away in old peoples homes but are around to share their knowledge and wisdom, particularly with young children. It would not only be better for children it would be better for all of us. Unschooling really is a poor second to what we use to have a few centuries ago, but until a radical shift in mainstream thinking comes it’s the best we’ve got.

        • Lucy says:

          Wow, FASCINATING! I very much agree that realistically, us the masses, need a kind of school…

  7. Teacher1 says:

    An interesting read. I think the sad thing is, many teachers and schools would love to be this way. We are trained in child development and sometimes it’s really disheartening to hear ‘schools just don’t get it’. We do get it. It’s the pressure from successive governments and ever more unrealistic ‘targets’ that stop it from happening. These are among many teachers’ reasons for going on strike – we’re just not allowed to do what we feel is right for the children – yet we get slated for striking!

    • I totally agree with you. I know quite a few teachers and the common theme is frustration with the way in which they are made to deliver learning.
      Tasha Batsford recently posted…The Elephant in The Room – Baby EczemaMy Profile

    • Teacher Mummy says:

      Great post. It’s so sad to hear that teachers/schools don’t share the ethos you do. We totally ‘get it’ and I’m lucky to work in a school which is very child led, we incorporate Forest School and are all trained in it. Our school has it’s own woodland which is just amazing.
      Our Foundation stage teachers plan by the seat of their pants to fit the children’s learning abd interests from day to day and provision, extended play and child led thematic learning runs right through our school.
      I hate the targets and restrictions, I’m just glad to work and send my son somewhere that children’s natural learning leads all of us.

  8. Useless fact of the day: The UK was going to adopt Montessori as a state education philosophy … and then WWII broke out.

    As much as I hope you are right, I feel like the attitude of government has moved on to a place where things have to be provable in order to be adopted. The sad fact (and part of the reason I love unschooling) is that you can’t measure it. And if you can’t measure it, then how can you judge success or failure?

    As I’ve said before state education beyond pre-school is not aimed at inspiring a love of learning, but training children to join the rat race.

    Or am I just letting my cynical side show again? ;)
    Tasha Batsford recently posted…The Elephant in The Room – Baby EczemaMy Profile

  9. EC says:

    Hey!
    I was just saying the other day that I had changed my mind about requesting early enrollment for Itty Bitty who will miss the age cutoff in our town by three weeks and by default will go next year when she is almost six. I changed my mind because she is teaching herself (with my guidance here and there) how to add and write. I’d just been thinking it is about time to introduce her to telling time and counting money. I knew how to do so much before I went to kindergarten, and was taught by my grandmother. There is nothing she can learn in school at this age that I can’t teach her or supplement with free programs at the library.

    I always though traditional schools should go back to the multi-age classroom, and have their subjects more integrated. The older children can help the younger children, the younger children can observe the older children, and it would eliminate the need for a teacher’s aide even if the class size was a little big. Teaching others reinforces your own skills, and can often drive you to learn something in order to help another better.
    EC recently posted…Month 31: Question–How do I teach my toddler to ask for the potty?My Profile

  10. Caroline says:

    Really interesting post Lucy, I’m massively envious of your adventure(s) and always find what you have to say makes me think.
    We delayed sending our son to preschool for as long as we could because I was happy with the learning he was doing hanging out at home. Now he goes and is very happy but I wouldn’t say he’s learned anything he wouldn’t have worked out for himself at home. I wanted him to go though so schooling wouldn’t be too much of a shock but part of me is so sad that he’s entering a world where his learning won’t be fuelled by his own spontaneous discoveries.
    And guess what – I’m a part time teacher – so the other side of the coin is that when I’m at work I’m desperately trying to plan lessons and experiences which are as close to truly child centred learning as I can think up.
    I would agree with another commentor above who pointed out that teachers are schooled in child development and know this stuff already but often parents expect testing and structured curriculum and there would need to be a massive sea change amongst what parents expect too.
    I will say though – having a child like Ramona – who would no doubt be creative and intuitive and have such wonderful general knowledge would be a joy for a teacher to have in their class:)
    Caroline recently posted…This LifeMy Profile

  11. Renee says:

    I choose to unschool my daughter at the age of 9, so 2 years ago I pulled her from a school were she was being bullied, was dreadfully unhappy and even the teachers were letting her down. Within days she went from a sad, angry little girl to the happy, relaxed and more focused I had known in the past. Unschooling was a conscious decision as I felt passionate kids learn better autonomously than being told when and what to learn. No one really understands it to this day, I still get told she does nothing during the day. That small worlds or the other sites she goes on doesn’t constitute an education. Yet, she has learned to make slide shows, build a website, is a small worlds master and can touch type faster than most. Without me showing her how too. She even has told me what and ampisand is! Her social prowess is amazing, she relates to adults like peers, is confident in herself and more mature than I even hoped. She has choose to go back to school in September but I feel what she has learned in the 2 years unschooling will set her up for life. I am proud of her and what she has taught me.

  12. EWP says:

    As I have set off reading about unschooling, inspired by this post, my friend posted this article: http://m.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/03/23/kindergarten-teacher-my-job-is-now-about-tests-and-data-not-children-i-quit/ – so apropos

  13. Laurenne says:

    Loved reading this, and completely agree. Our girls won’t be going to school either. We too have discussed the issue of being supportive of state schooling but no feeling able to participate in it in its current state.

    Even with an ideologically perfect state schooling system with regards to child-led learning etc what does it for me personally is the lack of choice about being there much of the time. Brilliant if your child loves it and wants to go every day, but there’s no way I would / could force my child to go if they didn’t want to on any given day. It’d need to be far more flexible for me to think it might work for us.

    My experience of learning was very similar to yours with school – only found I enjoyed learning when I did final year of degree with the open university, finally of my own subject choice and at my own pace. It saddens me because now I have such a thirst for knowledge, my book list is longer than my arm *adds John Holt book* but with 2.5 and almost 1 year olds I have such little time to get through it… and I wasted all those years when I had no other responsibilities and all the time in the world! I am pretty good at snake though ;)
    Laurenne recently posted…“I want not to be governed by money or clocks…”My Profile

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