In recently answering questions about unschooling, I found myself writing more of a manifesto. This has ended up being an updated, secular version of my earlier notes on Christian unschooling, and reflects our family’s current position on unschooling.

Calista jumping on the trampoline, October 2012
"I was undisciplined by birth, never would I bend, even in my tender youth, to a rule. It was at home I learned the little I know. Schools always appeared to me like a prison, and never could I make up my mind to stay there, not even for four hours a day, when the sunshine was inviting, the sea smooth, and when it was joy to run about the cliffs in the free air, or to paddle in the water." — Claude Monet

Homeschooling is a choice that we embarked upon after considering all the schooling options available to our children. Unschooling is a style of homeschooling where a child is given the freedom to pursue the things they want to learn without having topics and tasks forced upon them.

I only learned about unschooling when I started to research homeschooling methods and the educational philosophies that underpin each style. I unschool our four daughters because I believe it is the most progressive educational option available to modern children, and I have made myself available to give this to ours.

Traditional educational establishments have served a purpose, but I believe that — in time — the Information Age will render them obsolete. Schools are factory-lines of mass education, relics from the Industrial Age. They fashion students’ minds to a particular shape, fill them with the same stuffing, paint everyone the same colour and spit them out at the end. Children who refuse to conform to the established norms are tagged — either with good labels or bad ones — and these provide less of an indication of a child’s possibilities than how the system is inflexible to the innate differences between individuals.

My own schooling was in boarding schools overseas. Although I’m Australian, I was taught with a North American curriculum. I remember studying U.S. history in Year 10 and how to fill in American tax forms in Year 12. Although this information was irrelevant to my circumstances, I was forced to learn it so I could be tested on it — simply because it was part of the package deal of my school’s educational structure. My greatest education was through my love of reading and the world around me. We lived in French-speaking, West-African nations, and this extraordinary upbringing — coupled with the books I read — taught me how to think independently and approach problems creatively.

Homeschooling is growing in acceptance as a positive alternative to traditional education, and unschooling is the most rapidly expanding style of home education. Some academic research into unschooling has been recently published, and this reinforces the positive anecdotal experiences that have been shared between unschooling families.

However, until more parents stop and analyse why they send their children to school and what type of educational philosophy will best suit the personalities of their own children, these parents cannot necessarily accept unschooling because it forces them to recognise the inferiority of a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Some children do thrive in traditional educational establishments, but many do not. The greatest gift parents can give their children is the opportunity to thrive in an environment that would best suit them.

In a natural-learning environment like unschooling, learning is not linear. We don’t start with integers and work our way into fractions and then algorithms. We don’t even start with the alphabet and then create words. A child learns what she wants to know for the task before her. She is writing a letter and wants to spell “love”, so I give her that word and remind her of the formation of the letters. At this point, it’s irrelevant that she doesn’t know how to write a Q or a G. When she needs to know those letters, she will ask how to form them. Unschooling provides children with the freedom to acquire knowledge on demand, in a context relevant to them.

We are immersed in a literate, numerate society. We shop with numbers and navigate with letters. Books and signs surround us, and our technology asks for input through literacy. Provided with a loving, nurturing home environment, I’m confident that my children will learn the skills they need for a self-sufficient adulthood. At the same time, my greatest desire is that they never lose the inclination to pursue new skills, seek out knowledge and ask questions about things that interest them.

I am opening the world to my children, providing opportunities to learn what they need to know through experiences and information. Through deliberate intent, I am creating an environment where my children can ask questions and receive answers rather than having the questions thrust upon them. A system where children are forced to provide answers so they can be measured and judged is not a good indication of learning, it’s a reflection of how deeply a system has pervaded that person’s mind. I would rather that my children learn the skills for life-long learning without ever considering that learning must be endured rather than enjoyed.

As with many homeschoolers, there is no “typical” day. We engage in life — household chores, long-term projects, outings, visits, and down-time — and along the way my girls approach problems with creativity and a quest for answers. Each school subject is covered in a real-life context, and I am available to answer questions and stimulate conversations.

We are full-time travellers, living out of a housebus. This lifestyle provides an added scope for education because the girls’ environment is always changing. I am not the sole teacher in their lives — my children learn from the friends we meet, the places we go, the changing world around them and the information they receive via technology. Where knowledge used to be the repository of educational institutions, it is now freely available to anyone who cares enough to ask the questions. When our girls desire expert instruction, they will be free to pursue this — whether it’s through a TAFE course, personalised tutoring, online mentoring, or within a traditional classroom. Until they reach that level of interest in their passions, I encourage them in a path of autodidacticism so that they build the skills to pursue knowledge for the rest of their lives.

We need more parents to question what is right for their children, which may mean courageously stepping away from the status quo. For some parents, it may also require reassessing their relationship with their children. Do we really want to spend a lot of time with our kids, or are the out-of-school hours long enough? Personally, I had to grow to a point where I knew that I loved my children enough to spend all day, every day, with them. It wasn’t until my third daughter was born that I recognised that my relationship with my children was something that I wanted to pursue over my rewarding career in graphic design.

I know grown unschoolers, some in their thirties and older. They’re still passionate about learning, about living — often pursuing counter-cultural interests — and they are strong, confident people, content to express their individuality. We would like our children to grow up knowing their greatest strength is not in the way they can conform to the people around them, but in the way they cultivate and express their individuality for the improvement of their own lives and the world around them.