A Journey to Unschooling

Mary Hickcox
Activist Post

Unschooling is a term that John Holt coined in the 70s, after years of extensive research regarding how children learn and what was causing them to fail. He determined that totalitarian school pushes many children to fail via a fear inducing sub-society, where school as structured seemed to slow the learning process in most children.

One of his strongest beliefs was that children did not need to be forced into learning, that they are always learning, yet anything that resembled the rigid structure of school was actually counterproductive to their success.  The theory has resonated, thus unschooling, or life-learning led by the child’s interests, was born.

When I first heard about unschooling 8 years ago I thought it seemed crazy.  I thought all the things that some of you are thinking right now.  What about socialization, grades, college?  My children need to go to school to be “on track” with everyone else.  It seemed lazy and neglectful, and I couldn’t imagine going against the grain in such an “extreme” way.

Flash forward to today and you see a very different philosophy in my home.  I have spent the past 6 years homeschooling my oldest son.  We have since had 2 more children, traveled with them extensively, moved to a foreign country, and experimented with almost every type of homeschooling you can imagine.  Then I discovered the mind-opening experience that is unschooling, and now I can’t imagine living my life in anything but this “extreme” way.

My oldest son started out life in a mainstream fashion. He attended 2 years of preschool and then went on to half-day Kindergarten. We lived in a wonderful small town with an excellent school system and were lucky enough to get an award-winning teacher for his Kindergarten experience. She was fantastic, but through her own admission she could not provide the experience that she felt the students deserved. It wasn’t a bad experience but we wanted more for our son. What more did we want? For starters, more room for independent thought, creativity, an ability to question things without being in “trouble” — and the freedom to run our household without the demands of the school system intruding.

The nagging question that remained was what could I, as a parent, do? After talking to that very same teacher, and a lot of soul searching, I decided to withdraw my son from school. She not only encouraged this; she was almost as enthusiastic about the idea as I was. I found that there were many philosophies to choose from within the realm of homeschooling. Since I was still caught up in the “school” mentality, doing a canned curriculum at home is where we started.  We tried this in many different ways for 3 years when I realized that we solved some of the issues but not all of them.  Simply put, we were not enjoying it as much as we thought we should and thought more freedom and independence may be the cure.

At this point I opened up my mind to the thoughts of unschooling and started reading book after book about it.  I realized that I needed to throw away conventional thinking and open up my mind to the possibility that what I thought of as learning may not be the only path to knowledge.   My discovery took place because of pioneers: Holt, Gatto, Kohn, and Sandra Dodd.   They all showed me, through their writings, a new reality that I will forever be grateful for.

Reading books and opening my mind were the first steps in the process of de-schooling that Wikipedia defines as: “The mental process a person goes through after being removed from a formal schooling environment, where the school mindset is eroded over time.”  This step is vital for the entire family, but for the parent it can be very difficult.  Parents have far more baggage in regards to school, as well as the added feeling and stress that we are responsible for our children’s education and ultimately their future.  I struggled with what seemed like an ingrained need to conform in some way.  After all, I did go to public school and in his book Dumbing Us Down, John Taylor Gatto says “we are schooling children to merely obey orders…” Although I was a bit rebellious in school, I was still conditioned by societal norms and allowing myself to break out of the box is where I struggled most on my journey to unschooling.

Ivan Illich first coined the term “deschooling” in a controversial book called Deschooling Society, published in 1971.  In this book he enlightens his readers to the fact that “universal education through schooling is not feasible.”  He goes on to explain that the institutionalization of education means an institutionalization of society as a whole.  And that until we change the way we view education we won’t be able to change the way all institutions function.  There is a corrupting impact at the institutional level, but it is particularly damaging to society when this happens in schools; and it is happening in schools as we speak.

Another big hurdle for me was in understanding that authentic learning happens all the time.  I have realized over the past few years that you really can’t stop someone from learning no matter what you do or don’t do.  My middle child has never been to school or even attempted anything remotely resembling school; yet, at 7 he can read because he wanted to and he was developmentally ready to read.  Although if he was not ready there would have been no pressure put on him to be on to be “on par” with others his age.  Through simply living our lives he has learned numbers, adding, subtracting, percentage, fractions etc.  How?  We play war, poker, exchange money, let him do some shopping; all of which are necessary and fun for him, so he has learned it.  School puts our children in a box and many times real life cannot be discovered within it.  I would prefer my children to spend their time independent and free of that box, in the real world.

Everything my kids do shares an equal value because they are always learning, whether it is a walk in the jungle, building a chicken coup, playing video games, or reading a book. We love that our children have a say in what they want to discover.  We offer them ideas and show them various paths to knowledge, but ultimately it is what interests them.  Don’t we all learn better when it is something pertinent in our lives?  I know I do and I know my kids do as well.

Deschooling is an ongoing process and something I will be actively doing for many years to come.  It has profoundly changed me as a person and there is no going back inside the box.  It reaches beyond schooling and into our lives on every level.  There is a new intensity of respect, equality, independence, and unconditional love for all members of the family.  We now know what authentic learning is:  It’s experiencing life without structured learning, and we are all happier for it.

Author Mary Hickcox is an unschooling advocate, mother, and life guide to three sons (11, 7, 3).

Recent Article by Mary Hickcox:
4 Reasons to Change the Way We View Education

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