Yesterday, I took the opportunity to have a chat with all four of the kids about unschooling. I wanted to be able to share their words, their thoughts, and their perspectives. What follows is just a portion of the awesome conversation that unfolded. Bold words are mine, and responses are from Spencer (16), Paxton (12), Everett (almost 9) and Tegan (5)
What is unschooling?
Everett: It’s learning what you want, in the way that you want to learn it.
Paxton: It’s hard to explain. Being autodidactic. That’s unschooling.
Spencer: Unschoolers can learn what they want, when they want.
Paxton: They’re not forced to go with the “system”
What is the best part of unschooling?
Tegan: Playing, and playing tag, and playing dolls, and all sorts of fun stuff. Okay… Playing.
Everett: I like all of it.
Paxton: Having the freedom to be able to do what you want, when you want.
Spencer: Being able to set your own schedule.
Are there any negatives to unschooling?
Paxton: Not that I can think of, no.
Everett: No. I like everything about it.
Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on anything by not going to school?
Tegan: I do! Like story time.
Paxton: Well I might be missing out on opportunities to make a few friends…
Paxton: But I’m okay with that because I’m an introvert, and that’s what homeschooling groups are for anyway.
Spencer: Absolutely not
Which leads me to my next question. Do you feel like you have enough opportunities to be around other kids/make friends?
Tegan: Mmm hmmm.
How do you know you’re learning if you’re not tested?
Tegan: Well, I know I’m learning because everybody tells me that I’m learning every day
Paxton: Because it’s a fact. You learn something new every day whether you realize it or not.
Spencer: Just because I know more stuff than I used to know
Paxton: Over time, you just realize that you know more and can do better
Everett: Even in school, the teachers can’t really know if you’re learning, because they’re not inside your head
Spencer: Yeah, that’s a good point. You could get an A on one test, or you could get an F, even if you know the answers.
Right, some people just don’t test well.
Everett: So the teachers can’t always know, because they’re not you
Some people think that unschoolers will only learn things that are easy for them, and will not ever challenge themselves. So do you learn things that are difficult, or do you just go for easy things that you know you’ll do well?
Spencer: I like a challenge!
Paxton: Yeah, if it’s too easy, it’s no fun. If it’s too hard, it’s no fun.
Everett: And if at school, if you were doing something hard that you didn’t want to do and were forced to do it… you couldn’t take a break and do something easy for awhile when you wanted to. With unschooling, you can put the harder thing down for awhile, and do an easier thing.
Paxton: Absolutely. I’m going into programming games in Python, and that’s learning like millions and millions of lines of code. It’s not exactly an easy thing to do.
But you have the motivation to do it because…
Paxton: Because that’s something I want to do for a career.
Do you think you’ll ever want to try to go to traditional school?
Paxton: Unless it’s necessary for what I want to do with my coding, no.
Everett: I might eventually want to go, just to try it out to see, but I’m happy being unschooled.
Spencer: There’s so many advantages to unschooling.
Do you think unschooling would work for any child?
Paxton: Not necessarily… some people might be more inclined to want to go to school.
What would you say to a parent who says, “Unschooling would never work for us because my kid would just sit and watch TV all day, and would never learn anything?”
Paxton: You learn something new every day
Everett: You might think they’re not learning, but they really do learn something, whether you see it or not
Paxton: What if they’re watching shows about something they want to do as a career?
Paxton: Then being able to sit and watch TV all day would be a huge bonus
Paxton: I watch Mythbusters because I want to blow stuff up. Blowing stuff up is cool.
Everett: I totally agree with that
Paxton: But the science on Mythbusters is really cool
Some people that with unschooling, the kids run the house. Agree or disagree? Who do you think runs our house?
Spencer: You and Dad.
Tegan: Spencer took my answer!
Everett: I think we all run the house
Paxton: Disagree. Obviously you as the parents get the final say if an issue comes up, but it’s really pretty much a family deal around here.
Tegan: Mommy and Daddy, and everyone except the pets
Some people say that unschooling equals unparenting… that there’s no guidance, and that the kids just run around all willy nilly.
Paxton: No. Just, no.
Paxton: I mean, to an extent. You’re not strict like other parents, but there’s still guidance.
Spencer: And there’s rules…
Paxton: Not so much rules, but just general.. what’s the word…
Paxton: Principles, yes, but something else. Just general… The word’s on the tip of my tongue. It’s two words… (he’ll think of it later)
Okay, we’ll come back to that. How do you learn to do math if you never have a math lesson?
Spencer: Just doing it in our daily life
Paxton: I use math on a daily basis… sometimes for fun, and sometimes just to figure something out.
Everett: I taught myself.
But how did you learn it?
Paxton: By doing it.
Everett: You just do it, and then you do it more, and practice and you get better…
How did you learn to read?
Everett: The same as math
Paxton: Self-taught. Autodidactic.
Spencer: Playing games, doing things on the computer…
Do you feel like you’re being sheltered from the real world?
In unison: No
You guys are giving really short answers..
Paxton: Do you want a novel for each question?
Yes (laughter) Okay, what do you think is the biggest misconception about unschooling?
Everett: That kids don’t learn anything, that they are just running around doing what they do.
Paxton: I agree with what Everett said, and also that the kids run the house. That’s not true. So not learning anything, the kids running the house deal. I’m still looking for the two words from that other question…
Do you feel like you’ll be prepared for a future career?
Spencer: Yes, because I’m already working on what I want to do for a career right now (working on small engines)
Paxton: Yes, that’s why I’m starting that Python class next week.
When you have kids, do you think you’ll send them to school or will you unschool?
Tegan: Well, I’m not going to send them to school when they’re little, but I might send them to school when they’re big
Everett: I would do what they wanted to do. If they wanted to go school, I’d let them go to school. If they wanted to be unschooled, I’d unschool
Tegan: I want to change my answer. I’d let them choose.
Paxton: I’d let them do what they want to do too, but I’d definitely try to urge unschooling
Spencer: I’d unschool
Paxton: Common sense!!! Common. Sense. Those were the two words. I don’t even remember what the question was, but common sense.
Was it the question about not having any guidance?
Paxton: Maybe… In the context of knowing what to do, and what not to do. Common sense.
Ooooh, okay, you mean you don’t have to have rules, because how you act in a household is just common sense?
So how did you learn to have this common sense if you didn’t have rules, weren’t punished….
Paxton: Because it’s common sense…. Like if you do something once and something bad happens, you say to yourself, “Oh I probably shouldn’t do that again.”
Let’s go back to the question about kids just watching TV or playing video games all day, because that’s a real concern for some people. Do you think that it’s an actual thing that happens, or do you think it’s a misconception?
Paxton: I think it just depends on the kid. It can happen, but it’s not a bad thing. If you think about it, a kid that’s free to choose isn’t going to play a video game or watch a TV show all day unless it’s something that they’re really interested in or passionate about.
Everett: Yesterday, I was watching a video about how educational video games could be
Do you think you get a well-rounded education being able to follow your own interests?
Everett: Well with unschooling, you’re not forced to learn about any one thing. You can learn about other things if you want to
Paxton: But do you want to? When you’re following an interest, do you learn a variety of things, or do you just learn about that one thing?
For example, basic skills…. reading, writing, math… do you feel that you get all those basic skills just by following your own interests?
Everett: It kind of depends on what your interest is, but yes
Paxton: I definitely got my math brain from my father, but even just by learning about what I’m passionate about, I’m definitely learning a lot about math and numbers and words… how to put this together and that together and try this… engineering….
If you want to learn about something, what do you do? What tools do you use? Who helps you?
Tegan: Well, you help me. I want to learn about going on the green slide, and driving and stuff. You help me. You’re my person.
Paxton: You’re her person
Spencer: Well, right now I’m interested in getting better at small engines, so your uncle’s been really helpful
Paxton: If I want to learn about something, my first instinct is to go to YouTube
Paxton: Or, you know, find a book or something. Or find somebody that I know who has an interest or knowledge of that subject
Oh! Here’s a question. Some people think that unschoolers don’t use books. True?
Everett: That’s totally not true
Paxton: I for one, don’t particularly enjoy doing my reading from books. But I will do a lot of research online… find articles, forums, everything on the subject that I want to learn about
Spencer: I like books. You got me that whole set of books on engine repair, and they’ve been a good resource.
Paxton: Yeah, you’re very supportive of what we want to learn about, and help us find what we need to learn more about it, and to follow the interest.
Spencer: Yes, you are
Everett: But you don’t force us to do it
Paxton: No, you just help us when we need it
So you don’t feel like I’m “hands off”, or that you’re learning on your own?
Paxton: Not at all
Everett: Because if we have an interest, you support it, and you help us research it. And even if we want to do something, and can’t figure out, “how do I do this?” we can ask you.
Do you ever feel like you’re overly encouraged? Like do you think that you’re being pushed to take certain paths?
Paxton: You’re encouraging us in the areas we want to pursue.
Everett: Right, you’re not encouraging us to go into chemistry if we want to go into math.
Paxton: I feel like any job we chose would be supported
So, Spencer you want to go into engine repair and landscaping; Paxton you want to be a computer programmer. Everett, do you know what you want to do when you grow up?
Everett: Making games would be fun
Paxton: He’s said he’d like to go into sound effects
Everett: Yeah that’d be really fun job to do
Some people think that since we don’t really have rules in the house, and since the parents aren’t really the “boss”, that you’ll never learn how to respect authority. What do you think about that?
Everett: That’s not true. We learn to respect others.
Paxton: Again, it’s just common sense. There are rules everywhere, and we learn to follow them if we want to be part of… Part of…
Paxton: Yes, society. We’re respectful members of society, just not the system.
Okay, let’s talk socialization.
Paxton: I’m socially awkward
Paxton: No, I’m not that socially awkward. I’m not Sheldon. I know how to introduce myself, say hello, shake people’s hands….
Spencer: In school, you’re mostly just around other kids
Paxton: In the same room, all day
Everett: With kids that you might not even choose to be around. Or be friends with.
Paxton: And being out of school, we’re around people of all ages. I like being able to make friends with other people who have similar lifestyles, but if we don’t, I can adapt and still say hi and be friendly and become friends with one another.
Here’s one someone asked me the other day. How do you know that you prefer unschooling to school, if you’ve never been to school for comparison?
Spencer: We can just talk to friends that have gone to regular schools.
Paxton: Well I’ll find out next week, even though I’m not actually going to school.
Right, but it’s one class that you chose, and something that you’re interested in.
Paxton: That’s true. It’s really different than going to school for what, 7 hours a day? Being forced to learn something and do things that you may not want to do just doesn’t sound like a fun concept.
Everett: And even if there is something you do want to learn about, you can only learn about it at certain times.
Paxton: And you’re forced to learn it whether you want to at that time or not. You don’t have the freedom to do what you want, for how long you want.
Do you think that unschooling is a good option for someone who is considered “special ed”, has ADHD, etc?
Everett: I think unschooling is better than regular schooling, because they can learn at their own pace, instead of being forced to learn things in a certain way.
Paxton: I think everyone would have some sort of label if we went to school.
Spencer: I think unschooling would be the best choice, because something might be harder for them to learn in the traditional ways.
Everett: And with unschooling, you can focus on strengths
Does it bother you – or maybe this hasn’t happened to you – if someone says for example, “You’re in sixth grade, you should know this by now?”
Paxton: It doesn’t bother me, but it’s annoying.
Spencer: Yeah, when someone says that it’s like they’re boasting and rubbing it in your face
Paxton: Exactly. They’re being kind of rude.
Spencer: Like, “Ha ha, we know more than you.”
Paxton: It doesn’t bother me at all if I’m “behind” where the public schools think I should be, because everyone learns at their own pace, but I’d be pretty irritated if someone actually walked up to me and said something like that.
Okay, to expand on that… Do you think there is a certain group of things that kids should know at certain ages? Or do you think everyone should just learn at their own pace?
Spencer: Everyone should be able to learn at their own pace.
Everett: I’d say, if they want to learn it they will, no matter what age they are
Paxton: Everyone learns at their own pace, but there will be some things that will be necessary in life sooner than others. Like reading, math… that kind of thing
So do you think unschooling has provided you the environment to learn those things? Or the tools to know how to learn them when you need them?
Paxton: Yes. It’s provided me what I need to know, what I already know… AND has given me the tools to learn more when I want to or need to.
How about this… do you think it’s important for kids to learn for example, all the state capitals, or who was president when, or the dates when certain things happened…
Spencer: It just depends on the person
Paxton: For some people, it’s really cool for them to learn about stuff like that, and for others, it’s just really frustrating and hard to remember. And if they don’t need it…
Everett: No one’s going to want to be forced to learn it
Paxton: And they’re not going to remember it anyway, if it’s not something they’re interested in
Okay, upper level math. Necessary? Not necessary?
Paxton: Yeah, unless you’re going to go into a field that requires it, you’re probably not going to need more than the basics in day to day life.
Some people worry that if kids are given too much freedom, they’re not going to make good choices. What are your thoughts on that?
Spencer: I think most kids would make good choices if they’re trusted
Paxton: I agree
Tegan: Ask me the question!
Tegan, do you know what are some good choices, and what are some not-very-good choices?
Tegan: Hitting and punching aren’t very good choices. Saying bad words isn’t a good choice.
Paxton: Oh, are we going to talk about swearing?
Did you want to?
Spencer: It’s just about knowing when
Paxton: When, where, time and place, being aware of and respectful about who’s around you
Tegan: Spanking someone isn’t a good choice.
Oh! Let’s talk about spanking. How did you learn to stay out of the street if you were never spanked?
Everett: Because you told us to. You talked to us.
Paxton: There’s no need to cause physical harm to teach someone to be safe.
Spencer: You can just say, “Don’t go in the street.” It’s pretty obvious.
Everett: Or you can say, “That wasn’t very safe. Please don’t do it again.”
Paxton: And again, it’s common sense. If you do it once, and are told not to, you don’t do it again. And then you get to a point where it’s like, “Hmm, that car is coming pretty fast. Maybe I shouldn’t jump in front of it.”
Here’s a question. We don’t require any of you to do chores, but you all pitch in when we ask anyway. Spencer, earlier I asked you to bring out the recyclables, and you did. You didn’t have to, but you did anyway. Why?
Spencer: Because the bin was overflowing, and we all use it. It needed to be done.
Everett: And it’s just the nice thing to do
Paxton: That’s exactly what I was going to say
Tegan, why do you brush your teeth when I ask you to, even though it’s never been something I’ve made you do?
Tegan: Because I want to keep my teeth clean and healthy.
So how have you learned to do things if they were never a requirement?
Everett: We just choose to do them
Paxton: Yeah, choose to do them, then learn from the outcome. Learn from the outcome, and decide whether or not it would be a good idea to do whatever it was again.
Along those same lines… you’re all able to set your own schedule in terms of sleep, etc. How will you adjust to having a job and having to get up early/be somewhere at a certain time?
Paxton: I’d just set an alarm, and get it done. Eventually you get into a routine, and you’d get used to it.
Everett: Yeah, you just keep doing it, and it gets easier.
Spencer: What I do when I want to adjust my schedule is just start going to bed an hour earlier each night until I get on the schedule I want.
Paxton: Yeah I’d rather just set my alarm. I’d have to force myself to do it the first few times, but then it would become a habit, and get easier. Just do it, and get it done.
At this point, I tried to ask them what they’d learned from video games, but it rabbit trailed into a very long discussion about the zombie apocalypse. They did eventually tell me that in addition to learning what to do in case of zombies, that they’d learned (and are continuing to learn) things like reading, physics, problem solving, grammar, spelling, math, cooperative play…
Paxton: If you’re exposed to anything enough, you learn from it.
Everett: In the video I was watching yesterday, the guy was talking about Minecraft and about how many different things kid can learn from it… even just from how big the blocks are, how they fall…
Paxton: Portal II is also a great game to figure out physics, puzzles, how things fit together, how to think outside the box….
Here’s something that has been pretty hotly debated lately. Do you think it’s possible to unschool part-time? For example, saying, “We unschool except for math and english?”
Paxton: That’s not unschooling. That’s homeschooling. If you’re forcing them to do it, even if it’s just one or two subjects, that’s homeschooling, not unschooling.
Everett: With unschooling, you should be learning what you want to learn.
Spencer: Yeah, I think if you’re going to unschool, you should unschool. Traditional homeschooling is pretty much the same as going to school, you’re just doing it at home.
So you think that you’re either an unschooler or you’re not?
Paxton: Yes, there’s not really an in-between.
What would be your response to somebody who said something like, “Oh I like the idea of unschooling, but I’d be worried that my child wouldn’t learn everything he’d need to know.” ?
Paxton: If they truly need to know something, they will learn it.
Everett: Yeah. If they really needed it, they would know it, and they would learn it.
Paxton: If something is truly a NEED to learn, the child would learn it… on his or her own, at his or her own pace, with no force.
And finally, are you going to grow up to be murderers and drug addicts and criminals?
Everett: Well, not those things. But I might be a hippie.
Everett: Hippies rule!!
Thank you, to the four most awesome kids I know.