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The Unschooling Life


John Holt coined the term “unschooling” in the 1960s, and yet the idea of it has been around for much longer. In ancient Greece, Plato said, “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” Playwright George Bernard Shaw expressed it this way: “What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” Even Mark Twain had his own witty remark on the subject: “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

For countless years people have learned to follow their own hearts and inklings to educate themselves, and, as many parents are using this idea for their children today, we can see that for some people unschooling may well be the most beneficial form of schooling there is.

Unschooling is a form of education that’s for the individual. It can also be called child-led learning, autodidactic learning, child-directed learning, discovery learning or natural learning, although the premise is the same. In it, the child chooses for him- or herself the topics of interest to study, from their own loves and interests, rather than be bogged down by set courses and rules. Rather than decide “I must study this right now because it’s in the textbook” a person would say, “This is a subject that captures my imagination — I’m going to learn all I can about it.” It’s not necessarily homeschooling, although homeschooling includes unschooling. The idea is for the child to decide what to learn while the parent may guide or help.
I unschooled, though I didn’t know it at the time. From 10th through 12th grade I began doing independent study, and I chose it for one simple reason: I hated high school. I hated the busy work, the pressure, the attitude of If-you-don’t-get-straight-A’s-you’ll-never-amount-to-anything. I hated sitting still, being told what to do, and, of course, having teachers tell us who was smart and who wasn’t. Everything at high school was supposed to fit into a neat little box, and when I, and others, did not fit inside, it meant there had to be something odd about us.

And perhaps the strangest thing of all about my hatred of high school was as simple as it was profound: I loved to learn. Maybe that was another reason why I didn’t like being there. I didn’t feel I was learning. Therein lay the irony: I, a lover of knowledge, was at a place made to collect knowledge and I couldn’t stand being there. Having set lessons and designs will certainly work for some people, yet it didn’t work for me. After ninth grade, I broke free of this and found myself on the unschooling path, which was the path I’d been wanting all along. It was the path that came alive for me and sparked my imagination to learn as much as I could.

It had taken some time to convince my parents to let me try independent study, a certain form of homeschooling, as they did not have the time or energy to educate me themselves. They thought of homeschooling as the parents teaching the children and were not yet aware there were other forms. Through research I discovered an independent study school which set me up with teachers in the form of long-distance learning. I worked at home while staying in contact with these teachers and mailing them my work. As I began to meet my teachers through email and over the phone, I talked about how I liked to learn. How, if I had the chance, I would read and write constantly. Ever since I was little, I had written, and being a professional writer was the only career I could see myself having. Likewise, I was not a child who had to be forced to read — I was a child who had to have books pried from her hands in order for her to get other things done. Was this typical behavior in a child? Maybe it was more typical than my public high school teachers had led me to believe.

With this independent study type of homeschooling, came new ways to learn and I ate this up. I began asking the teachers if I could substitute my lessons to learn about things that interested me specifically. Since I’d already read the book in my English course, could I instead read and write about Goethe’s Faust? I really enjoyed books written as poetry. In science, instead of doing this experiment for which I can easily figure the results, might I instead write a report on Neanderthals? That week I’d really been fascinated by Neanderthals.

When my teachers gave me permission, it felt too good to be true. Instead of studying something because I had to, I studied something because I wanted to. And, naturally, since it interested me, I didn’t forget it. In hindsight I came to realize just how much I’d forgotten that I’d been taught in high school, quite simply because it didn’t interest me. When a topic doesn’t catch my mind, it can go in one ear and out the other; when a topic catches my full attention I’ll remember every detail of it, no matter how much time passes.
For so long I had hated school because it hadn’t allowed me to learn. It was through unschooling — the polar opposite of school, or the best ideal of school? — that I was able to reach for my potential because I was able to be myself and follow where my mind wanted me to go. Although I didn’t hear the term “unschooling” until after I had begun independent study, I see that it’s something I practiced all along. Even though it is a style often used by parents for homeschooling children, the whole idea of it is so much more. Everyone unschools themselves to a certain extent when they learn about what interests them. This is a kind of education that can be for everyone, because it can — and will — span itself over a lifetime. For me there is no such thing as graduating from school — inasmuch as when you unschool, your entire life is a series of passions and educations.

These days I’m always writing, always reading, always dreaming, and, of course, always learning. Then again, this is what I’ve done since I was very little, but thanks to dropping out of public high school, I began to have more time to do it in. Instead of busy work, I found myself doing real work — work I chose to do for myself because I could see the benefits. Wise people like Plato, George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain all expressed the importance of following your own mind, and now I express that importance too. Every day I follow my mind and see just where it will lead me next.

There are all sorts of different ways to unschool and even more ideas of how to do it. For further descriptions and ideas, the following websites can be useful:

Danica Davidson began writing professionally when she was fifteen, the same year she started learning at home. A recent high school graduate, she will never tire of learning everything she can, whether it be about Roman emperors, the Japanese language, or, of course, dinosaurs.