Kerry McDonald has been deeply involved in education policy and practice for two decades. She has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. from Harvard University. This blog gives information on family learning for adults.
When I was a child, I remember counting the days until the end of the school year. Once June hit, I would mark off on the calendar the field trip day to a museum and "field day, with its tug-of-war and potato sack races. Those days wouldn't "count" in my total remaining days of the school year because they wouldn't actually be school days. They would be fun. And I loved school! Yet, today I wonder: If I loved school so much, why was I always so eager for it to end?
My Instagram feed fills this time of year with photos announcing the last day of school, for both homeschoolers and conventional schoolers alike. Often, these photos are accompanied by a "first day of school" photo from the fall, showing the beginning and the end. I get it. Childhood moves so quickly that we crave tangible markers of the passage of time, visible measures of growth.
These photos are a vivid reminder of how different unschooling is from standard schooling or school-at-home. With unschooling, there is no beginning and end, no start and stop. I can't even imagine having a "last day of the school year" photo for my kids. What would it look like? The last day of what?
For unschoolers, learning is woven into the continuous, year-round, natural process of living. It is not separated into certain subject silos or reserved for a specified number of hours or days. It is not orchestrated by a linear, sequential curriculum determining how, when, and in what ways a human will learn. It is not pre-determined. It is not forced.
In How Children Fail, John Holt describes how children become conditioned to be taught, to be coerced into learning, to be prodded with bribes and punishments. Children learn that this is what it means to be educated, that others hold the puppet strings. They learn that learning is not within themselves but at the command of others. Holt writes:
"This idea that children won't learn without outside rewards and penalties, or in the debased jargon of the behaviorists, 'positive and negative reinforcements,' usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat children long enough as if that were true, they will come to believe it is true. So many people have said to me, 'If we didn't make children do things, they wouldn't do anything.' Even worse, they say, 'If I weren't made to do things, I wouldn't do anything.'
It is the creed of a slave." (italics in original)
My kids read, write, do math, and explore all sorts of topics all year long--not because we tell them to read, write, calculate, and explore, but because they are genuinely excited about learning. They have not been trained otherwise. They read books that they love, ask daily if they can do Prodigy Math on the computer because it is so much fun, write blog posts or scripts or emails or stories because they decide to do so--not because they are cajoled into it. They have no reason to think that math is only something one does during certain seasons or as an "enrichment" activity. They can't imagine a forced writing or reading assignment. They write and read because they want to, because it's useful and enjoyable. They have no mental model to think that reading, writing, and arithmetic are somehow onerous subjects to be avoided, or only reserved for certain times and places.
My 11-year-old daughter has been taking a rigorous fiction writing class through Outschool.com, an online learning platform for kids. The class is taught by an award-winning fiction writer and incorporates live group discussions with her classmates around the world and ongoing writing expectations and feedback. It is quite a commitment, but it is something that she is passionate about, that she is driving. As an unschooling parent, I connected her to Outschool as a possible resource, as well as other local writing classes, and she found that this online class was the best fit for her writing goals. She writes all the time, enthusiastically prepares for her class, and connects with many of her classmates around the globe through Google Hangouts. She also knows that if this course no longer meets her needs, she can leave. So far, she has no interest in leaving and signed on for a three-month summer extension of the course. I found it interesting that some of her other summer classmates are homeschoolers.
Non-coercive, self-directed, interest-driven, adult-facilitated learning has no first day and last day. Unschooling is interconnected with daily life, and authentic learning isn't tied to an arbitrary calendar. There is no ending my children are anticipating this month. If there was something they didn't want to be doing, they wouldn't be doing it.
Summertime rhythms will be similar to springtime ones. They will continue to play with friends and pursue passions. Tomorrow will look much like yesterday and next week. We'll do just as much swimming in September as we do in June. Reading, writing, arithmetic--and so much more--will be explored, freely and joyfully. Photos or not.
I am excited to launch a new, weekly podcast series called Unschooling And... that explores how unschooling connects to broader topics in education and culture, history and philosophy, innovation and entrepreneurship, and so much more.
A special thank you to my nine-year-old son, Jack, for doing all of the production work! I know nothing about podcasting, but fortunately he does. He was the one who suggested that I create a podcast and he did all of the behind-the-scenes producing, editing, music arranging, recording, and uploading work to get this show to you!
And... if you like what you hear on this podcast--as well as on my blog and other articles--please consider subscribing to the podcast and donating to my Patreon page (or make a one-time donation here) so that I can bring you great content more regularly. I am so grateful for your support!
Let me know what you think of the podcast--and what other topics might interest you for upcoming episodes!
I recently read William Golding’s classic 1954 book, Lord of the Flies, to Jack (age 9). Unschooling is often cartoonishly characterized by critics as a 'Lord of the Flies' environment, where chaos ensues. In the story, young boys stranded on a deserted island devolve into tribalism and savagery.
There is an important difference between freedom and chaos. With freedom, comes responsibility; without that responsibility, and the fetters it naturally creates, chaos could reign.
In the book, the absence of adults to model and nurture responsibility is palpably felt. Adults matter to children. They guide, protect, tend, reassure, and mediate. The lack of calm, care, and stability that adults offer children is what ultimately triggers the boys’ downfall. Of course, the great lesson from this great book is that it isn’t just children who would descend into brutality when calm, care, and stability are missing; it’s all of us.
Unschooling requires a significant adult commitment and ongoing role. Whether they are unschooling parents or educators working in a self-directed learning center or unschooling school, adults are central to unschooling’s success. They hold the space for children, maintain calm, and tend to their needs. They facilitate children’s self-directed learning by identifying and supporting a child’s interests and connecting those interests to available resources.
Most importantly, adults model freedom and responsibility. Unschooled children are granted tremendous freedom in their lives and in their learning, but they must also assume responsibility – for their actions and for their interactions. For example, most of the unschooling centers and schools that I visited while researching my forthcoming ‘Unschooled’ book, have clear expectations for clean-up and chores, for acceptable behaviors and obligations. In some cases, these expectations are drafted by the children themselves, in community with adults, as part of their school’s philosophy of democratic self-governance. In other cases, they are established by the adults running the space and agreed to by the young people who attend.
Similarly, most unschooling families have explicit or implicit expectations for freedom balanced by responsibility in their own homes and communities. My children have chores and responsibilities, just as we adults do, in contributing to the smooth functioning of our shared home. We also all try to live and learn respectfully with one another and in accordance with our own values.
The responsibility component to freedom is what enables us all to live peacefully and respectfully in a community with others. It is what prevents us from the chaos of the lost boys on the island. As the 20th century Nobel prize winning economist, Friedrich Hayek, wrote in TheConstitution of Liberty: “Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences…Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.”
Freedom, as The Lord of the Flies so vividly shows, is the easy part. Responsibility is far more difficult to demonstrate and tend to--for unschoolers and for all of us.
I remember the book I read that would set me on my life’s initial career path. I was 14 and it was lying in a book bin in the small den on the first floor of my childhood home. For 8th grade English class we had a brief and unusual hiatus from whatever curriculum directives dominated the syllabus and we were allowed to read whatever book we wanted. It was called “free choice.”
The pages of Dale Carnegie’s classic bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, captivated me. A blend of historical anecdotes with real-life applications for understanding human relations, Carnegie’s book triggered a fledgling personal interest in both business and self-improvement. Years later, as I founded my own corporate training company and taught hundreds of professionals across the country in business workshops ranging from public speaking to client service to leadership skills, the key idea of individual self-mastery first planted by Carnegie’s book remained with me and was echoed throughout the classes I taught.
I don’t remember much else about 8th grade English. The lessons that stayed with me, and that would ultimately define my early professional life, had nothing to do with what I learned in school. Perhaps that is why I am such a vocal advocate for freedom and choice in learning: the seminal lesson from my time in school was the brief moment I was given “free choice” to do something completely outside the ordained curriculum, following my own interests.
This is one reason why I don’t tell my children what books to read. They are free to choose whatever books interest them, whatever styles and genres and subjects fascinate them at any given time. My job is to connect them to available resources, to make frequent visits with them to the local library, to fill our home with a variety and abundance of books and other reading material, to read to them often and to model my own love of reading for them. But all of their books are “free choice.”
At seven, my daughter Abby is our family’s newest reader. She told me the other day: “Mama, I don’t read books that I don’t like.” It was such a simple, yet culturally radical, statement—for a child anyway. I replied that I, too, don’t read any books that I don’t like. Most of us adults are, I hope, free to choose what books we read and don’t read. Yet, for children we often assume that there are certain things they must read. Not only that, we often force them to read in a long, arduous, mundane process, completely disconnected from their interests and on an arbitrary timeline that increasingly pushes young children to read before they are developmentally ready. As assistant professor of education, Daphna Bassok, and her colleagues at the University of Virginia discovered: In 1998, 31% of teachers believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that number was 80%.
If we were to design a system of reading instruction certain to fuel a general dislike of reading, and by extension learning, then we would create a system that forces children to read things they don’t like and that have no meaning for them, at ever earlier ages, with rampant labeling, tracking, testing, and interventions to ensure that they meet an artificial curriculum standard. Are we surprised that one-quarter of American adults haven’t read a book, in whole or in part, in the last year?
“But there are certain topics children should know about,” one might say. “American history, for example.” I agree that it is desirable for educated citizens living in a free and democratic society to have a certain collective knowledge about important topics. But I disagree that the best way to impart this knowledge in a free and democratic society is through force. This may also explain why, according to a 2017 University of Pennsylvania poll, 37 percent of Americans could not identify a single right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution! Curriculum by force, and knowledge imparted through compulsory schooling, may not be working so well.
“But surely you have read things in your life that you didn’t like but that you had to read,” a critic may add. Yes, I am sure that I was not thrilled to read certain journal articles or essays in college or graduate school, for instance, but I chose to go to college and I chose to take that course in pursuit of an individual goal. The choice, and attendant responsibility, were on me. I could also have chosen not to go to college and not to take that course. Most children are not granted that same free choice in their learning.
As author Ray Bradbury famously said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” If we want an educated and engaged citizenry, with a passion for reading and knowledge and ongoing self-mastery, then perhaps “free choice” should be the rule rather than the exception.
Saturday was spring clean-up day at our city community garden, where we just received a plot after a long time on the waiting list.
One of the gardeners announced that she was looking for volunteers who could help identify maple tree saplings. They needed to be spotted and removed before casting shadows on the growing crops. Two people spoke up, saying that they could identify maple seedlings: my 11-year-old daughter Molly and a veteran gardener who has been planting in that soil for decades.
When Molly said she knew how to identify the plants, the other gardeners were delightedly surprised. "Did you learn that in school?" one asked. "No, I homeschool," Molly replied. "So, did you learn it in homeschool?" the gardener continued. "No, I just know it," she answered cheerfully.
This weekend conversation exposes the deep, underlying myth in our culture that children cannot learn unless they are systematically taught. Whether in school or school-at-home, children can only learn when they are directed by an adult, when they follow an established curriculum, when they are prodded and assessed. How could a child possibly know how to identify plants if it wasn't part of a school-like lesson?
Yet, this assumption was not placed on the older gardener who also knew how to identify the maples. No one asked her if she learned about tree identification in school, or if she had a recent refresher course on the topic. It was assumed that she knew this information from experience, from immersion. She had been gardening a long time and likely enjoyed the process, becoming increasingly interested in plant and soil life. Maybe she spent time with other, more experienced gardeners who over time shared their wisdom with her. Maybe she read some books and referenced some field guides. No one questioned that the veteran gardener learned about maple-spotting through time, experience, and real-life immersion; yet, they had a hard time imagining that a child could do the same.
Molly became interested in gardening when she was quite young, prompted in part by her great-aunt's passion and talent for gardening. A master gardener, her aunt happily included Molly and her siblings in gardening efforts over the years. Molly became particularly interested in plant identification. She asked a lot of questions and absorbed all of the answers, through active immersion in the real-life process of gardening and exploring nature. She also referred to books and field guides periodically, when it mattered to her. Molly learned about plants from following her interests, asking questions of those more knowledgeable, listening thoughtfully to answers, and, crucially, from doing the real work of gardening. She learned the same way the older gardener learned, the way most humans naturally learn.
Most of what I know today was not what I learned in school. It is what I have learned since school, while following my own interests and pursuing meaningful work. This is how most of us adults learn and do--particularly if we have been fortunate enough to retain, or rekindle, that innate spark of human curiosity so often dimmed by conventional schooling.
"The hard task of education is to liberate and strengthen a youth's initiative, and at the same time to see to it that he knows what is necessary to cope with the on-going activities and culture of society, so that his initiative can be relevant. It is absurd to think that this task can be accomplished by so much sitting in a box facing front, manipulating symbols at the direction of distant administrators. This is rather a way to regiment and brainwash." (p. 140).
Children do not need to sit in a classroom, or at the kitchen table, following a regimented curriculum of knowledge deemed by others to be important. They learn as all people naturally learn when free from institutionalized education: by following the human instinct to explore, discover, and synthesize our world.
Children are astoundingly eager and capable learners when they are granted freedom, respect, and authentic opportunities to interact as vital members of their larger community. We must remove them from the box and welcome them to the world.
To be honest, I didn’t want to read it. I dragged my heels on buying the book, thinking it would be an irritating diatribe on homeschooling or a shallow attack on the deep complexity of parenthood. I thought it would be one long whine from a now 30-something acclaimed writer with a Ph.D. in history complaining about how her parents had ruined her life. I thought I would hate it. But as Tara Westover’s book, Educated:A Memoir, hit The New York Times bestseller list for one week, then another, and another, I relented. I’ll hold my nose and swallow, I told myself. It will be good for me.
From the first page, I was captivated and, cliché as it is, I truly couldn’t put it down. I read the book swiftly, entranced by Westover’s vivid depiction of growing up in rural Idaho in a religious fundamentalist, survivalist family. School was where the devil hides, often clothed as socialists, or so her father said.
In piercing prose, Westover offers an eloquent illustration of conviction blurring into paranoia, ideology into lunacy. She describes how fragile those lines can be.
Without blame, Westover’s memoir serves as a sharp reminder for homeschooling and unschooling parents that with freedom comes responsibility. The freedom to educate our own children, or to facilitate their own self-education, is tempered by the constant, demanding obligation to provide them with resources, support, and opportunities to widen their world. Benign neglect or willful indifference toward a child’s education are incompatible with responsible homeschooling and unschooling.
Still, despite the unimaginable obstacles Westover encounters during her childhood, her book showcases the extraordinary human drive to self-educate. Her life story reveals the almost primal instinct to seek out and synthesize knowledge, even when those most dear to you may actively dissuade you from doing so. It shows how capable we are of self-directed learning and mastery, even when barriers seem insurmountable. Westover writes:
“Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. ‘If the lines are cut, we’ll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,’ he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we’d be communicating with” (p. 46-7).
While Westover was able to overcome childhood neglect and violence, and succeed as a self-directed learner, her book is an candid reminder that Self-Directed Education is an education philosophy and lifestyle that families choose. It is not a default or a lapse or an inevitable outcome of alternative education. It is not laziness or apathy. It is capital letters, not lowercase ones. Choosing Self-Directed Education for your children requires significant thought, effort, and vigilance on the part of parents. Whether it occurs mostly at home or at an unschooling learning center or self-directed school, Self-Directed Education is a commitment to provide the time, space, support, and opportunity for interest-based learning to thrive. It is freedom and responsibility.
Educated is a powerful memoir, a testament to the human drive to self-educate, and a reminder to parents about their educational duty, however and wherever their children learn. It is definitely worth adding to your spring reading list.
Do you remember sentence-diagramming in school? I do. It was the onerous process of breaking apart individual sentences into their component parts and identifying those parts, like the subject, the verb, the modifiers, and so on.
By the time sentence-diagramming was introduced in elementary school, I had learned how to play the game of school. I had learned that obedience, memorization, and regurgitation of exactly what the teacher wants is the key to school success. I played it well. Looking back, and witnessing how my own unschooled children learn how to write, I realize how arbitrary and artificial learning in school was.
Those of us who buried our enthusiasms in the name of conformity did well. Those who recognized just how silly it all was did not.
Along with sentence diagrams, we also learned how to write simple letters and five-paragraph essays, again by dissecting component parts and following meaningless (to us) writing prompts. Those of us who could ignore the fabrication and effectively mimic the teacher did well. Those who refused to play the game did not.
The reality is that sentence-diagramming and copying someone else's writing template don't create better writers. They create students who may meet contrived curriculum benchmarks and pass standardized tests. They create students who can play the game.
With unschooling, there is no game to play. There is no manufactured curriculum or assessment. There is simply life.
My son Jack (age 9) downloaded an app this week that offered a free 7-day trial. It includes an abundance of content related to skateboarding, one of his present passions. There is a section of content in the app that he particularly likes, and he wanted to know how often that content is refreshed before deciding whether or not to purchase the app. He searched the company's website for information. Unable to find the answer to his question, he drafted and sent the following email:
To Whom It May Concern:
I am interested in subscribing to [your company’s channel] mostly for the show “XYZ” (and others). Right now I am in a 7 day free trial and am very pleased. I was wondering when the “XYZ” upload date would be. Is it once every 2 days or once every 2000 days?
We didn't spend time on sentence-diagramming. He learns parts of speech from playing Mad Libs with his siblings sometimes. He likes to practice typing to get faster and better. He asked me how to address a letter to someone when you don't know his or her name, and the rest he wrote by sincerely expressing himself about something that matters to him. He learned spelling and punctuation by reading a lot, and reading things that he wants to read.
This wasn't an "activity" we decided to do that day. It didn't occur as part of a curriculum segment on letter-writing or in preparation for a standardized test. It wasn't a lesson. Jack wrote this letter because he needed information that was otherwise unavailable. In short, he wrote this letter for the same reason you or I might write a letter: because it is purposeful. When we write, it is for a reason. It is authentic.
In my forthcoming Unschooled book (now at the publisher!), I highlight the story of a grown unschooler who didn't really write until he was a teenager. Then, he wanted to communicate with a girl he liked and wanted to impress her. That provided the real and motivating context to write--and to write well. He never had formal writing instruction as an unschooler, but after writing back and forth to the girl, he realized that he liked both the girl and the writing! He became increasingly passionate about writing, ultimately majoring in journalism in college and becoming a successful journalist.
When learning is connected to living it is meaningful. It is not something that occurs at certain times, in certain places, with certain people. It occurs all the time, everywhere, and with everyone around us. Unschooling allows natural learning to occur by providing the time, space, support, and opportunity for interests to emerge and talents to sprout. With unschooling, reading, writing, and arithmetic become purposeful activities connected to personal interests and motivations.
Writing letters is enjoyable and important when it is necessary for your own purposes. Writing letters when someone else tells you to--when it is forced--may not be so fun or helpful. As Plato warns: "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."
"If you don't teach them, how will they ever learn?"
"If you give them freedom, how will they gain discipline?"
"Without schooling, won't they just do nothing all day?"
These questions are only a sampling of the typical unschooler's interrogation. I get it. Unschooling challenges everything we have been taught about learning, knowing, and growing.
At a friend's birthday party this weekend, the topic of unschooling came up. After I had explained, thoroughly I thought, that we don't replicate school-at-home, that we learn in and from our daily life in the city, that the children's interests guide their learning, that we live as if school doesn't exist, the person paused and asked: "So do you give them exams?"
The conversation was all the more poignant given the martial arts tournament Molly competed in earlier that day. During a walk around the city last fall, we passed a newly opened martial arts school. Molly was intrigued. She walked in, made an appointment for a trial class, and was instantly captivated. Since then, she spends three afternoons a week at martial arts classes. Her enthusiasm spread to her younger sister, and now Abby joins her for classes.
If you are unfamiliar with martial arts, as I was, it is a very disciplined, physically and mentally demanding activity. Respect, for oneself and others, is paramount. The training is rigorous and regimented. The focus is on control of one's mind and movements. It is not a sport for slackers.
I have since discovered that many unschoolers gravitate toward martial arts. I am not surprised. Unschooling epitomizes self-discipline and self-direction: key qualities of martial arts training.
Unschooling may, at first glance, seem like a rejection of formal instruction and rigorous training. The reality is that unschoolers often choose very formal instruction and very rigorous training. The key word, though, is choose. They choose--based on their own interests--what to learn, when, how, and from whom. When they find something they are interested in, unschoolers often immerse themselves in it wholeheartedly. They commit to rigor and regimentation when it matters to them. Choosing to join the military and endure boot camp training is quite different from being drafted. Freedom is the opposite of coercion.
While Molly competed in her first martial arts tournament this weekend, I was struck by its tone and structure. Dozens of students, of all different skill levels, ranging from age six to over 70, competed before an awestruck audience. Sprinkled between their individual performances were master-level demonstrations of the highest skills in eight martial arts. Observing a highly diverse group of people of all ages and stages gathering together in pursuit of a common interest, with only themselves to compete against, was truly inspirational. It's rare to see such intergenerational collaboration and respect.
Unschoolers unapologetically reject coercion, choosing freedom over force in learning and in living. Freedom comes with responsibility. When children are given freedom and opportunity, they will take responsibility for their own education and become astonishingly self-disciplined. They will immerse themselves in meaningful passions and commit to mastery of skills and content with unimaginable enthusiasm and grit.
So, no, we don't give our kids exams. But that does not mean they are not tested.
Today, students across America will join in a national school walkout day to memorialize the 17 people tragically killed in the recent Parkland, Florida school shooting and to advocate for stricter gun control laws.
But what if they don’t go back?
The real protest would be to challenge the increasingly restrictive environment of forced mass schooling that is leading to serious mental health issues for children and adolescents. Recent data show that 20 percent of children ages 3 to 17 suffer from a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. That is one out of every five children, or about 15 million kids.
The numbers keep getting worse, particularly regarding adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide. The suicide rate for teen girls ages 15 to 19 doubled between 2007 and 2015, reaching a 40-year high in 2015. The suicide rate for teen boys also jumped 31 percent during those eight years.
While there are no clear answers as to why many American teenagers are in such emotional turmoil, school seems to be a key factor. Researchers at Vanderbilt University discoveredthat, unlike adults who experience suicide spikes in warmer months, adolescent suicidal feelings and attempts decline in summer and spike at back-to-school time.
School isn’t what it used to be. Today, young people are spending much more time in school than ever before, beginning at earlier ages and for much lengthier portions of the day and year than at any other time in our history. University of Michigan researchers foundthat children spent much more time in school and school-like activities in the early 2000s compared to the early 1980s, with a corresponding decline in outdoor play activities.
Since 2001 and the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schooling has also become much more standardized and test-driven. Common Core State Standards were adopted by most states in 2009, the same year that Race to the Top grants enticed states to accept these national curriculum frameworks. And in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act reinforced standardized curriculum goals, with yearly testing expectations from 3rd through 8th grade and again in high school.
More restrictive schooling encompassing more of childhood, along with a corresponding drop in free, unstructured childhood play, may be a significant factor in the alarming rise of childhood mental health disorders. Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, argues in a journal article for a causal link between the decline in childhood play and the rise in psychopathology in young people.
As students walk out of their schools on Wednesday, they should think seriously about whether or not they want to return. Instead of spending their childhood and adolescence in increasingly restrictive, test-driven mass schooling that is damaging their well-being, they could take back their own education and explore alternatives to school that put them in charge of their own learning and doing. With the support of their parents, they can regain their mental and emotional health and chart a future that is meaningful to them.
These students can disentangle their own education and individual passions and goals from the institution of forced schooling.
Watching children learn naturally, while following their own interests, is nothing short of astonishing.
It shouldn't be, of course. We shouldn't be surprised that giving children freedom and autonomy, and trusting them to pursue passions most meaningful to them, would lead to deep and lasting learning. But Self-Directed Education is so rare in our widely schooled society that most of us don't get the opportunity to see what learning without schooling (including school-at-home) looks like. Natural learning, or unschooling, is strikingly different from schooling--in all of its various iterations.
Over the last few weeks at our house, unschooling looks like Jack (age 9) spending countless hours taking online photography classes. He started with Udemy, but then we found even better-quality, online courses through Lynda.com--which is available for free through our local library (and probably yours too).
The instructor he likes the most on Lynda I find to be rather monotonous. I don't know how he sits for six hours and listens intently to this guy, but Jack loves him. He keeps returning to this particular instructor over the others that are available because he finds him to be the most knowledgeable and he likes his style. To each his own. A Self-Directed Education means the ability to pick and choose one's courses and instructors. A teacher who I may not click with may work beautifully for someone else. Having the freedom to be discerning of what we learn and from whom we learn it is a core tenet of unschooling.
Jack photographing neighborhood fences
Unschooling also recently looks like Jack poring over photography books, learning about angles and shutter speed and light and depth. It looks like practicing with his camera, taking various shots and then editing, uploading, and sharing them. It looks like an in-depth conversation, and some email exchanges, with an adult friend of ours who enjoys photography as a hobby and whose interest emerged when he was around Jack's age.
Unschooling looks like us reading books together and watching a PBS documentary about Ansel Adams, one of the greatest landscape photographers of the 20th century. Incidentally, Ansel was homeschooled after the school told Ansel's father that Ansel was hyperactive and needed more discipline because he was restless and couldn't pay attention. Ansel's father disagreed, saying he needed more freedom. He gave it to him. This was in 1915 and Ansel was 12. Today, what label and pill would he be given?
Unschooling leads to intense study of content that matters to the individual child. Through that individually-driven intensity, advanced literacy and numeracy skills are developed and sustained. These are not skills memorized and regurgitated for someone else's test. These are skills that are essential for one to know in pursuit of his own passion-centered education.
When children know that they are responsible for their own education--that it is not a teacher or a parent or someone else deciding what they must learn and do--they will take their own self-education very seriously and tackle it with great enthusiasm. Children's self-educative inclinations are with them from birth. They do not disappear on their own, but they can be stifled when a child is trained to be taught. That is why, if a child has been schooled, it can take a very lengthy "deschooling" process to reconnect with those early self-educative instincts. As John Holt writes in Teach Your Own: "In short, if we give children enough time, as free as possible from destructive outside pressures, the chances are good that they will once again find within themselves their reasons for doing worthwhile things."
Witnessing children's natural learning, and supporting them by helping to connect them to resources related to their developing interests, is both astounding and deeply rewarding. It is also unsettling to think of how easily it is for children's natural, self-educative tendencies to be weakened through schooling. Unschooling preserves these powerful natural learning capacities, granting children the ability to determine and drive their own education.