Why We Unschool

It occurs to me that it has been quite some time since I have written a post about unschooling. I'm not really certain why that is. Maybe I have written so much about it that I ran out of things to say, or perhaps I just have so many other things that are on my mind right now that I haven't really even had time to give the matter much thought. After all, as I wrote yesterday unschooling isn't something that I am, it's something that we do. The longer we've been at this, the less I have come to see unschooling as a choice and the more I have come to view it simply as a set of principles with which we live our lives. That said, every once in a while I think it's a good thing to step back and examine why we make the choices we do, if for no other reason than to ensure that we are parenting consciously and avoiding the mistakes of living our lives on autopilot. So this morning as I was on my way to work, I began to have an internal dialog and challenge why I think we have made this choice to unschool.

The first reason is pretty simple. Our kids love it and respond to it, it works for them, and we believe that their opinion on how to conduct their childhood is just as important, if not more so, than ours. And if they came to us tomorrow and said that they were ready for school, well, we'd support that to. More on that topic another time.

But it's more than that. For me, the reasons we unschool are founded on some of our basic beliefs about how people learn, and then what they do with that knowledge. When I view our choice in this way, four key points come to light.

First, humans love to learn. From almost the moment a baby is born, they subconsciously begin trying to learn as much as possible so they can adapt to their new world. As they grow older, they learn how to get a parent's attention, how to act in order to get held or put down. They have an innate curiosity about almost everything they come into contact with, viewing the world through wide eyes and with open ears as they begin to categorize, classify and process all they come into contact with. Many people believe that this natural thirst for learning dissipates when they get into school, but I actually believe that is not the case; instead, I think that their interest in learning is simply conditioned and then redirected. The most disinterested student still likes to learn, they just enjoy learning things other than what is being taught to them. They quench their thirst in different ways, using TV, games, books, day dreams, and imaginative play as ways to re-engage their interest and hunger for new ideas and new ideals. This thirst for learning continues through college, into work and parenthood, and beyond. It may and should look different for different people, and we often do not have the time to learn formally, but the desire to learn and the joy that people derive from doing so never wanes; it's how we keep our brains from atrophy.

While all people love to learn, they certainly learn best when they have an interest in what they are learning. That only makes sense, right? I mean, we are naturally inquisitive about things that catch our interests, and we naturally avoid those things that we find boring or dull. This should be obvious, but virtually all traditional forms of education and training seem to ignore this in some way or another. Simply walk into any classroom or training session of any type, anywhere in the world, and you will see some proportion of the attendees who are completely blanked out. You can see it in their body language, their participation level, and their attentiveness. People who are disinterested in a subject are likely to be texting, surfing the internet, slouching in their seat with their heads down, doodling, or writing down a list of all the places they would like to go. They may learn facts and figures, processes and methods, but most of the time they only do this so they can pass a test or complete a training class. They can learn the theory behind new ideas, but they will stop at the application of this theory because they have no passion for or interest in what they have learned - so they can drop it once they have no further need for it and move on to something that captures their heart. But people who are interested in the subject matter have an entirely different look about them. These people are likely to sit upright, take notes, ask questions, and try to find ways to use the information - to find the practical application behind it - than to simply memorize it. They talk about it after class, they read further about it on their personal time, they talk to professors or instructors or professional in the field, because they have a thirst for more and more of the good feeling they get from learning something that they care about.

That brings us to the critical point about why we believe so deeply in unschooling. If we accept that people love to learn, and that they especially love to learn something that brings them joy and hold their interest, then it follows that such feelings of joy will be contagious to them. They will never stop at just one subject or just one topic. They have felt the spark that comes from digging deeply into a subject, exploring new territory, finding new applications, playing with new ideas and the feelings that always seem to follow. That becomes a switch that is impossible to turn off, because they have ignited the spark of a love for learning. For example, a child who hates math but loves history may be restricted by her schooling to only committing a certain amount of time to each subject in order to succeed. But if she has a true passion for history and is allowed the time to explore that passion down whichever paths make the most sense to her, the very act of the exploration is likely to lead her to math at some point. She may read about the Revolutionary War and want to learn about taxation; she may read about a battle and begin to add up lists of casualties and compute percentages for each side; she may think about how the New Deal was financed and the impact on worldwide markets. Wherever her thirst for history takes her, subjects like math which would have once stopped her in her tracks will now be new areas to learn about and conquer, with just as much passion as the subject that led her to math in the first place. The point is that learning is so addictive, so contagious, that once you allow someone the freedom to pursue their thirst for a specific subject it is very likely that the thirst for one will lead to a thirst for many; learning is just so powerful that it is impossible to keep it down unless you beat them down with it.

I also love the fact that unschooling allows us the freedom to focus on the application of what we have learned, if we so choose. So much of our Sad American Scholastic System is designed around helping students reach specific goals in order to get into college and enter the workforce as productive Americans. That completely discounts two things. First of all, stating that all children need to operate from the same exact body of knowledge completely negates everything I said above, that is to say that it dismisses the way people actually learn best and how critical learning choices are to maintaining a love for learning throughout your life. But worst of all, by saying that we all need to know the same things in order to succeed in the world, it discounts the fact that this world is a crazy and complex place. I feel very comfortable saying that what we need is fresh and unique perspectives to solve some of our problems and inequities, not a bunch of sheeple who have been born and bred in a world of doctrine and routine.

We love the fact that unschooling enables our children to spend time learning things that they are passionate about, and that learning this way opens so many doors and interests that they never would have felt the freedom to learn in a more traditional setting where a deep love for a single subject would have been beaten out of them. But we also unschool because of what unschooling is, not because of what any other educational choice is not. It is amazing, freeing, flexible, provocative, enabling, interactive, solitary, expansive, focused, connective, learning, being, living, touching, easy, hard, scary, peaceful, loud, messy, and neat. Just like life.

There are so few things I can control as a parent. I mean, I can control my own behavior to a large degree of course, including the attitudes and spirit with which I approach each situation. But I cannot control outcomes. I don't know how my kids will turn out, and guess what? Neither do you. But I do know that if I can help my kids see that the world is a place of endless possibilities, and if I can help them see the benefit of pursuing passions and learning new things regardless of the subject, that I think they stand an excellent chance of being happy. And if more people were happy, well . . . I guess that would make the world a better place, too.

That's why we unschool.


  1. Beautifully said! This is exactly why I have chosen to unschool my children. My son is only 8 months old now but already I feel strongly for a free education (as in free-range kinda thing). My own experiences in the public school system has made me lose faith in our culture's perspective on learning. I believe change begins at home and unschooling is a grand step in the right direction. Perhaps eventually the education system will follow suit.

  2. Great post! We're more relaxed homeschoolers, than unschoolers, but I totally agree with what you've said. I also love the warning at the top of your blog. Perfect!

  3. Maybe it's the margarita talking but SHEEPLE--Ha Ha Ha--LOVE it. I was SO trained into being one of those SHEEPLE so I have a unique perspective about how Baaaaaaad that can be. A huge reason why we unschool.

  4. I am happy to see that you are back!