Contrary to what many might believe, unschooling – that is, self-directed learning – is not a “school alternative” that exists from roughly ages 5-18 and then goes away much as school fades into the distance. In fact, despite the best efforts of the compulsory school system, unschooling is never completely eradicated. Self-directed learning is our natural state of being.
You might look at it as having three stages.
Stage One: Birth-Age 5
We all participate in this phase of unschooling, although some of us don’t get to enjoy it for more than 2-3 years, what with compulsory schooling encroaching ever further into the early years of life. During these first few years, we learn to walk, talk, (sometimes in more than one language) and a million other things. We learn hot from cold, we learn to hold and use crayons, we learn to run and climb. We discover nature and what foods we like and dislike. The list is endless. From a very young age, kids form strong opinions about what they like and don’t like, and are relentless in pursuit of something they want or in which they have an interest.
We truly do not appreciate the amount of learning that happens in those first few years. This may be due to the fact that we can’t remember how we learned to walk or talk; we just did and it seems normal and ‘easy’. But walking and talking are two of the most difficult skills we will ever learn, even though we might not think of them as such.
Stage Two: The “School” Years (or roughly age 5-18, or 22 if you include college)
Most kids are not allowed to continue their unschooling during these years. If they were, they would pursue whatever interested them, learning to read, use math and many other skills along the way and in their own time. My kids, and other unschoolers like them, have the luxury of being free to continue learning just as they did in Stage One. They do so with the support and encouragement of their parents (or the adults in their lives, whoever they may be), who will comfort them when needed, help them get up when they fail and support them in their pursuits.
Stage Two, for schooled children, is often a time of confusion and pain. Suddenly they are told that all those things they are interested in aren’t as important as whatever curriculum someone else – someone who doesn’t know them at all – has chosen for them. They are admonished to put their individual interests aside. Sometimes, when they are interested in something that is usually taught in an older grade, they are told that they are “too young” to be learning such a thing.
And yet, sparks of self-directed learning persist. A schooled child may draw his own cartoons during study hall; maybe he or she writes fan fiction on the weekends or memorizes every lyric to every song from her favorite band, then practices writing lyrics of her own. These things are often done in secret or with an element of shame because they are not “real learning”. A child who is discovered “goofing off” in such a manner, especially during school hours or in the evening when homework is supposed to control their time will be labeled as a “problem” child.
Unschooling in Stage Two is what we need to reclaim for all kids.
Stage Three: Age 18-22 to…?
Stage Three is a lot easier for those who never had their self-directed learning interrupted. Learning is part of life; the two cannot be separated. As Dayna Martin said in her interview on the “Jeff Probst Show”, “[Unschoolers] don’t live our lives broken down into subjects.”
For those who went through school, it is sometimes a shock to find that in the “real world” the best way to succeed is not to wait until someone tells you what to do. Suddenly you are told to “think outside the box”, but the box is where you were trained to conform and do as you were told; going outside the rules of the box inevitably led to trouble. How can you venture out now, all these years later?
In our personal lives we tend to do better. We take on a new hobby, teach ourselves to garden or cook, all on our own. Sometimes we enroll in a class but only when we are motivated to do so, and not because someone tells us we must.
When anyone asks me how I know my kids are learning, I feel sorry for them. I want to tell them that they’ve forgotten who they are. They’ve forgotten the scientist, artist, explorer and inventor that lived in them until it was fatally subdued by coercive schooling.
Our challenge is to remind everyone where they started out, and show them how to reclaim it for themselves and/or support it in their kids.
Then we could do away with the stages of unschooling altogether, and just call it life.