Is unschooling a preview of the future of education?

The other day, I was listening to an interview of Leo Babauta of zen habits. I used to closely follow his blog many years ago, so I was interested to see what he is up to these days.

In that interview, I heard him talk about how some of his children were "unschooled."

My ears perked up. I've been wondering for a long time how Rei and I should educate our children, as I've yet to hear something that sounds like a viable option for us.

Leo sent me down a rabbit hole. And every day I find myself wandering farther underground, discovering new and exciting caverns.

What is unschooling?

First, it is a type of homeschooling.

More specifically, it is learning without a curriculum.

Your kids tell you what interests them, and you help them learn more about that stuff. Keep doing this until they are adults and don't need your help anymore.

That sounds crazy! Ridiculous! Unrealistic!

...is a common first impression. And I must say I was skeptical myself. Now I'm not so sure.

Why school sucks

Is fuck a bad word?

My soon-to-be 4-year-old nephew asked his mom this the other day.

Yes! You shouldn't ever say it.

She had to tell him this because it will be a serious pain in her ass if her son starts dropping f-bombs at kindergarten next week.

And yet, I just can't imagine being able to tell my children that "fuck" is a bad word. I think that the very idea of swear words is ridiculous.

Bad words to me are words that are intended to harm someone. Hurtful language. Verbal abuse. You can do this without using swear words. Hearing "You're pathetic" or "You could be a model, if you lost some weight" is a lot more hurtful than hearing "Fuck you."

Schools impose culture on students. The culture of my family is different than these cultures, in no small part because I have one parent who's American and one who's a New Zealander, while my wife has one parent who's Japanese and one who's Korean. Every one of my children's grandparents is from a different country.

Cultures have rules. Thus, schools have rules I would never give my children. This is partly because they must create an environment that is appropriate for an entire group of similarly aged humans.

This is also why the curricula at schools are invariably problematic.

You cannot create a single curriculum that is ideal for more than one person.

As a result, school ends up being about instruction and coercion, not learning.

You have to learn A. Then B. Then C. In that order. And you have to learn them in a way that more or less works for everyone, even if it's not the best way for anyone.

No wonder classes were so boring back when I was in school. Half the time, I was drawing pictures or writing notes to my friends because I had to fill the wasted downtime spent going through learning materials at everyone's speed.

Sitting and watching the teacher go through the math problem for 5 minutes even though you solved it in 30 seconds.

Sitting and not knowing how to go through the math problem because the teacher assumes everyone knows that, as it was taught in an earlier class.

I won't even get into the issue of testing, which is probably the dumbest thing about schooling in general — and one of the reasons that I think other language learning resources do such a terrible job compared to my own company, NativShark.

But doesn't homeschooling suck too?

Homeschooled kids are weird, and they have no social skills.

This is what my parents told me growing up. And maybe it has been true to some extent, in some communities, over the last century.

But like most generalizations, it can't be entirely true.

Some homeschooled people have amazing social skills. (All people are weird, though. Some just hide it better than others.)

There is no point in talking about whether or not learning is effective with homeschooling. This is a moot point because some forms of homeschooling are just learning what the kids in school learn... at home.

Is unschooling effective?

If done correctly, I have a hard time imagining that it wouldn't be.

The successful case studies are already piling up. There are books, podcasts — all kinds of people talking about how great it is.

Pam Laricchia of Living Joyfully hints at this in her explanation of what unschooling is:

Unschooling is, at its most basic, about learning without a curriculum, without a teacher-centered environment, but sometimes the concept is easier to define by what it's not. It's not school-at-home, a re-creation of the school environment with a low student-teacher ratio around the kitchen table. And it's not about leaving your kids to fend for themselves, far from it. It is about creating a different kind of learning environment for your children. An environment based on the understanding that humans learn best when they are interested and engaged, and when they are personally involved and motivated. Creating an environment conducive to real learning is very difficult if someone else—parent, teacher, or curriculum developer—is dictating what a person should be learning at any given time. But drop that outside control over the child and learning truly comes naturally. As the late John Holt, educator and unschooling advocate, notes so succinctly, "Fish swim, birds fly; man thinks and learns."
In addition, once you experience unschooling, you realize that there is much more to it than just dropping curriculum. It becomes a learning lifestyle—one where parents and children together enjoy exploring their interests and passions, learning along the way; one that evolves to inform your outlook on just about any situation that arises. Some like to call it life learning because what you are doing is learning through living. It revitalizes your relationships with your children. You will come to see that learning is often handicapped when confined to a classroom and a curriculum, but exciting and ubiquitous when children are given the freedom to explore their world. And soon you begin to glimpse the true nature of unschooling unfolding: living joyfully and passionately as a family, and building lifelong relationships in an environment where your children are free to discover and to grow into the people they were born to be. Unschooling is a unique process for each family, and for each child. That may be why explaining unschooling is so straightforward and so difficult at the same time; the implications of that simple phrase learning without a curriculum are profound and life changing.

OK, so that sounds pretty cool, right?

But let's get to the real question:

Is unschooling feasible?

This is where my doubts start to arise.

I'm not worried about the social aspect like my parents were. Yeah, it's extra work, but I can get my kids to find and interact with other kids, even if they don't go to school. There are groups, clubs, classes, get-togethers, neighbors, relatives, and all kinds of other ways to find and interact with similarly aged Homo sapiens.

And I'm not worried about allowing my kids to decide what they want to learn and when. My son is only 18 months old, and my daughter won't enter the world for another couple of months, but it's already obvious that children are insatiably curious, and they want to learn more about life and everything in it.

The problem is being there to help.

Both Rei and I have full-time jobs. And so far, most of the people I've heard talking about unschooling are stay-at-home parents. Yeah, they might be going to school or working part-time, but that's very different from a full-time occupation.

Would one of us have to quit in order to unschool our kids?

Even if that were the "only" way to do this, it's not very appealing to me. I want to spend my life with Rei. No small part of the joy I find in working is the fact that she's sitting right next to me half the time, working with me.

If her "job" were guiding the kids in their learning journey, I want it to be my job, too. But I don't want us to be taking turns and doing our jobs that make money apart from one another. I want to spend my life with her. Not my nights and weekends. That's why we've worked for ourselves and no one else since the day we quit our jobs and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand way back in 2014.

I've googled some solutions to this issue of both parents working but wanting to unschool, and so far they all seem pretty meh.

Just have one parent work.
Have both parents work part-time.
Work from home.
Hire a babysitter or nanny.
Partner up with some other unschoolers nearby.

Meh, meh, meh, meh, meh.

We already work from home, and I can definitively say that our jobs require a level of focus that would not allow us to be present and helpful in our children's learning journeys, at least not for several years.

So, I don't really know what to do.

Just sending them to traditional school is in my mind not an option at this point. Aside from the plethora of reasons mentioned above, we like to move around. If we decide we want to spend the next 3 months in Bangkok, or Tokyo, or Auckland, we're not interested in waiting for our kids to have a break from school.

I'm sure we'll come up with a system that works for us, but I'm not sure what it is at this point.

Is unschooling a preview of the future of education?

I could have rephrased this section to be the question that everyone else asks about unschooling:

What about college?

Just to get that out of the way, kids can still get into college if they're unschooled. They do it all the time. If an unschooled child decides that they want to get a PhD or a medical degree or attend a famous law school, those options are open to them.

This will probably be less of an issue one or two decades from now, though. People are realizing that you really just don't get that much bang for your buck with college these days. Unless you want to be a doctor, a scientist, or a lawyer, it's pretty hard to justify paying for a college education. This trend will continue as independent forms of education continue to become available.

To give an example, you could study Japanese for 4 months on NativShark and learn more than you would from 2 years of classes at a university — and a lot of things you will never learn at a university, period.

You can actually already do this for just about anything, but it usually equates to watching a bunch of boring video lectures — in other words, it's the same as school through a computer. In time, smart educators will realize that curricula can be built that are structured around what a student has learned so far, should learn next, and would benefit the most from learning, and they will offload all of the mental energy of managing that, much like degree programs at universities do now.

It will be faster, easier, and cheaper to learn virtually anything through online platforms in the near future. Which means that the motivated student learning what interests them (i.e. an unschooler) can learn more effectively than a traditional student.

But if they're still kids and their parents are both working, who is going to watch them while they do? Who is going to help them find the right resources and learning platforms? Considering the rate at which traditional education institutions evolve, I doubt it will be them.

I can't wait to find out who steps up, and how.