Post written by Leo Babauta. Reprinted with permission.

There’s nothing I get asked about more as a parent than unschooling, and nothing I recommend more to other parents.

It’s an educational philosophy that provides for more freedom than any other learning method, and prepares kids for an uncertain and rapidly changing future better than anything else I know. My wife and I unschool four of our kids, and have been for several years.

And yet, as powerful as I believe unschooling to be, I’ve never written about it, because the truth is, I certainly don’t have all the answers. No one does.

The beauty of unschooling is in the search for the answers. If anyone had all the answers, there would be no search. And so what I’d love to teach unschooling parents and kids is that the search is the joy of it all.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: what is unschooling? Why should you do it? How do you do it? What should you read? We’ll talk about all that today.

What is Unschooling?

First, it’s a form of homeschooling. But there’s no easy answer to that except in comparison to regular schooling. There’s no one way to do unschooling, and people who do it often do it for many different reasons in many different ways.

However, this is how I describe it — in contrast to school:

  • While school has classes with subjects, unschooling doesn’t.
  • While school has goals set by teachers and the school system, the unschooler (the kid) set his or her own goals.
  • While in school, knowledge is handed down from the teacher to the student, in unschooling the student is empowered to learn for himself.
  • While school has specific books or sets of learning materials, unschoolers can learn from anything — books they find, things on the Internet, siblings or parents, the outdoors, museums, people working in interesting fields, anything.
  • While school is structured, unschooling is like jazz. It’s done on the fly, changing as the student changes.
  • While students in school learn to follow instructions, unschoolers learn to think for themselves and make their own decisions.
  • While students in school are asked to learn at pace arbitrarily set by administrators, unschoolers learn at their own pace.
  • While in school, learning happens in the classroom at certain times, in unschooling learning happens all the time, and there is no division between learning and life.

Let me emphasize that for a minute: in unschooling, life itself is learning. There is no “doing school” … you are learning all the time.

Unschoolers learn just like you or I learn as adults: based on what interests them, figuring out how to learn it on their own, changing as they change, using whatever resources and learning materials they find, driven by curiosity and practical application rather than because someone says it’s important.

This is how I learn as a self-employed writer, as an entrepreneur, as a parent. It’s how our children will learn when they’re adults. Why not have them learn like that now?

Why Unschool?

Let’s think about what school is about: preparing kids for jobs (and life) in the future … a future that’s probably a decade or more away. Now think about a decade or more of change: how many of us predicted 13 years ago what life would be like today? Did we know about the economic recession, or the changing job market, or the fact that things like smartphones and iPads and ebook readers would be so widespread? And that’s just the start.

If we can’t predict what our kids’ future will be like, how can we decide today what they should be learning to prepare for that future? We’re preparing them for today’s jobs, not tomorrow’s jobs. School teaches kids a set of facts and skills that they might not need in the future.

Unschooling takes a different approach: kids learn how to learn, how to teach themselves. If you know how to learn and how to teach yourself, then you are prepared for any future. If in the future the things we know are obsolete, then the person who knows how to learn anything will be ready to learn whatever is in use in the future. The person who only knows how to learn from a teacher will need a teacher to teach him.

More reasons to unschool:

  • It’s how entrepreneurs learn. Schools prepare kids to follow instructions, like good employees, while entrepreneurs take charge of what they need to know and make decisions for themselves, navigate through uncharted waters. Unschooling prepares kids to be entrepreneurs instead of robots.
  • It’s much more natural. The school system is a fairly modern invention, and isn’t how humans have learned for the majority of our history. Unschooling is the learning method used for most of human history — including by people like Leonardo Da Vinci, Leo Tolstoy, Mozart, Einstein and Benjamin Franklin.
  • It’s freer. The structure of school is good for people who like decisions made for them, but if you like making your own decisions, and figuring out things based on current needs, you will want more freedom.
  • We learn with the kids. While in school, many parents are removed from the learning process, and ask the teachers to take responsibility for their kids’ education, with unschooling you learn with your kids. The most important learning I’ve been doing is learning about learning. We figure out, together, how people learn, what’s the best way to learn, for each kid.
  • Learning is unlimited. In school, learning is limited to the classroom and homework time. Then kids believe they stop learning and they can go play and live life — as if learning is boring and they only do it because they’re forced to. But unschoolers learn that learning happens all day long, every day, no matter what you’re doing. If you’re not studying a textbook, does that mean you’re not learning? Can’t you learn from playing games, going for a hike, talking to strangers? How about from figuring out how to cook dinner, or fix a broken faucet, or make a fort? Learning is all around us, and it’s fun! That’s what unschooling teaches us.

There are many more reasons, of course, and each person will find her own reasons. These are just a few of mine.

How to Unschool

This is the hard part, because there is no right way to do it, no single way. And parents who are starting out always, always want to know how to do it. I know we did, and the honest truth is, we’re still figuring out the answer.

Why is there no answer? Because every kid is different. Everyone has different needs, interests, abilities, goals, and environments. What would you say if people told you there was only one way to live your life, one way to do your job? You’d hate it, because it would take away your freedom, and also all the fun.

Telling you how to unschool is like taking away your freedom and all the fun out of it. The questions are everything, and the finding out is the fun.

That said, I will offer some ideas of how we unschool, and some ideas of how you might approach things — but these are just ideas to start you out!

  • College bound. Our 16-year-old has decided he wants to go to college, and so studies for the SAT on his own, and is taking some free college courses online, and writes practice college essays on topics he chooses. He also learns things on his own, like programming or 3D animation, and plays the guitar.
  • Origami master. Our 13-year-old wants to get good at math, so does some math courses on Khan Academy. She also makes origami and weaves friendship bracelets and reads teen novels and Archie comics and plays piano and goes to the park to play basketball and likes to learn to cook.
  • Wolves and wizards. Our 8-year-old loves to read about wolves, and often will pretend he’s a wolf. Also a wizard or werewolf. He likes to play games and read with us and make up stories and draw. He’s pretty good at math on his own, though we don’t really study that with him much.
  • Forts and restaurants. Our 6-year-old likes to be read to and isn’t into reading on her own, though she’s been learning to read through games and reading with us. She doesn’t like math but will do it in games. She makes forts and art and likes to play outside and pretend she owns a restaurant or store.
  • The power of questions. When the kids ask a question, that’s an opportunity to find out something. We’ll look it up together, or look for books on it in the library.
  • People you know are incredible resources. If your kid wants to be a chef, you might know someone who is a chef or owns a restaurant. If your kid wants to create iPhone games, you might know a programmer. If your kid is interested in science, you might know a marine biologist. And so on. Connect them with these people.
  • Games are your best friend. Play all kinds of games. Don’t be concerned with what they’re learning. They’ll have fun, and learn that life can be play, and so can learning.
  • Fun projects. Working on art and science projects can be a lot of fun.
  • Pursue interests. If the kid is interested in something, show her how to find out more, or play with it.
  • Deschool. If you’re new to unschooling, and your kid has gone to school for awhile, it’s often a good idea to “deschool”. That means to not worry about learning or schooling for awhile — a couple weeks, a couple months. The idea is to get them (and you) out of the mindset of schooling, which can be very difficult, because we’ve been trained to think in terms of school. We think we need to be productive teachers and students, and that school has to be done a certain way, and that if the kids aren’t learning something from an activity, it has no value. All that is crap, of course, so take some time getting out of that mindset.
  • Expose them. Learn to give kids a variety of stimuli — books and magazines lying around the house, watch shows about interesting things, play old board games, get out and explore your town, meet different people, find stuff together on the Internet. This exposure will help them to explore new interests — even if they don’t seem interested at first, the exposure will allow them to find new things on their own.
  • Learn as you go. The most important thing is that you need to figure out what works for you. Try different things. Play. Make things. Go out and do things, meet people, have fun learning about new things. Fun, always fun, never hard work unless it’s fun, never force, always get pulled.
  • Be patient. You won’t see “results” right away … changes in your kid will happen over time, as he learns that learning is fun and can be done all the time in lots of ways. You also might get frustrated that your kids doesn’t want to study or read or write papers or whatever. But instead, let him play music or play pretend games or read comic books or play outside.
  • Trust is important. It’s hard in the beginning (we’re still learning to do this), but it’s important to trust that kids can learn on their own, with minimal guidance, and that if they’re interested in something, they’ll learn about it. We all think kids can’t learn on their own, but they can.

Before you get the wrong idea, I should give credit to Eva for doing most of the unschooling work, and being better at it than I am (Eva is really great, though she won’t admit it). She has read more books and websites on the topic than I am, and does the majority of the unschooling on a daily basis (though I do help out as much as I can). I should also give credit to my awesome sister Kat, who inspired us to unschool, and is one of the most amazing unschooling moms I know.

More Reading

This isn’t a definitive guide — I don’t have the experience or knowledge to write that guide. Better people than I have written much more on the topic, and while I can’t provide a comprehensive list, I will share some books and sites to get you started (many are from Eva and my sister Kat):

  • Sandra Dodd – one of the first and best writers on unschooling.
  • John Holt – another of the seminal writers on unschooling, a classic.
  • A-Z Homeschooling – so many things for homeschoolers. So many.
  • Khan Academy – amazing resource for learning all kinds of subjects.
  • Open Culture – such a powerful collection of free learning resources, including a list of free online college courses, language learning, and so much more. Wow.
  • Clickschooling – newsletter with links to learn about different learning topics.
  • Schmoop – a fun way to learn literature, history and more.
  • Reading Rants – blog by a librarian who gives reading suggestions for young adults.
  • Free Rice – game for learning different subjects.
  • YouTube – It’s an interesting video site that you might not have heard of. But what an incredible resource for learning videos — learn French or Spanish, math raps, and much much more.
  • Self-Made Scholar – free classes.
  • Free-Range Kids – how to raise self-reliant children.
  • The Sparkling Martins – for unschooling inspiration.
  • Homeschoolers Guide to Getting Into College – it’s not only possible, but very doable.
  • Life Learning Magazine – on non-coercive, interest-based learning.
  • Natural Child – learning to treat children with with dignity, respect, understanding, and compassion.
  • Joyfully Rejoicing – great overview of unschooling philosophy with more resources for learning more.
  • Zinn Education Project – excellent resources for learning history, Howard Zinn style.
  • Coursera – free online courses.

‘We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.’ ~Lloyd Alexander

Post written by Leo Babauta. Reprinted with Permission.

I am a teacher and an avid learner, and I’m passionate about both.

I’m a teacher because I help Eva homeschool our kids — OK, she does most of the work, but I do help, mostly with math but with everything else too. I also teach habits, writing/blogging, simplicity and other fun topics in online courses.

I’m a lifelong learner and am always obsessively studying something, whether that’s breadmaking or language or wine or chess or writing or fitness.

Here’s are two key lessons — both really the same lesson — I’ve learned about learning, in all my years of study and in trying to teach people:

  1. Almost everything I’ve learned, I didn’t learn in school; and
  2. Almost everything my students (and kids) have learned, they learned on their own.

Those two lessons (or one lesson) have a number of reasons and implications for learning. Let’s take a look at some of them, in hopes you might find them useful.

Why Learning is Independent

One of the foundations of Unschooling, which Eva and I and the kids do here at home, is that you’re not teaching subjects to your kids — in fact, you’re not really teaching them at all. They take responsibility for their learning, and do it because they’re interested in something, not because you tell them they should learn it.

This is exactly how I learn as an adult, and so I know it works.

When teachers (wonderful people that they were) tried to teach me something in school, I often became bored, and just did what I needed to do to do well on the test. Not because the subject or the teacher was boring, but because it wasn’t something I cared about. They wanted me to learn it because they thought I should, but that’s not why people learn something. They learn it because they care about it — because they find it incredibly interesting, or because they need it to do something they really want to do.

When teachers succeeded in getting me to learn, it was only because they made something seem so interesting that I started to care about it. But then I learned on my own, either in class while ignoring everyone else, or more likely after class in the library or at home.

That’s because someone walking you through the steps of learning something doesn’t work — you aren’t learning when you’re just listening to someone tell you how something works. You’re learning when you try to do that something — putting it into action. That’s when the real learning begins and the superficial learning ends — when you try something and fail, and adjust and try again, and solve countless little problems as you do so.

The best teachers know this, and so they inspire, and help you to put the learning into action.

As an adult, I’ve learned a lot on my own. The stuff I’ve just read, I’ve mostly forgotten. But the stuff I’ve put into action by playing with it, by practicing, by creating and sharing with others — that stuff has stuck with me. I truly learned it.

I learned about blogging when I started blogging, and kept doing it for five years — not by reading blogs about blogging. My students have learned habits and decluttering and meditation and blogging from me not because I told them something brilliants, but because the ones who really learned put it into action. They formed a simple habit, decluttered their homes, did 5 minutes of meditation for 30 days, blogged.

This is where the real learning happens — when the fingers start moving, the feet start dancing, not when you hear or read something.

How to Learn (or Teach)

The teacher’s job, really, is to fascinate the student. Fascination is the key to learning. Then help the student put the fascination into action.

It follows then, that if you’re teaching yourself, your job is exactly the same.

Here’s how to learn:

  1. Get fascinated. As a teacher, you should fascinate the student by rediscovering with her all the things that originally fascinated you about the topic. If you can’t get fascinated, you won’t care enough to really learn something. You’ll just go through the motions. How do you get fascinated? Often doing something with or for other people helps to motivate me to look more deeply into something, and reading about other people who have been successful/legendary at it also fascinates me.
  2. Pour yourself into it. I will read every website and book I can get my hands on. Google and the library are my first stops. They’re free. The used bookstore will be next. There are always an amazing amount of online resources to learn anything. If there isn’t, create one.
  3. Do it, in small steps. Actually doing whatever you want to do will be scary. You can learn as much Spanish vocabulary as you like, but until you start having conversations, you won’t really know it. You can read as much about chess as you like, but you have to put the problems into action, and play games. You can read about how to program, but you won’t know it until you actually code. Start with small, non-scary steps, with as little risk as possible, focusing on fun, easy skills.
  4. Play. Learning isn’t work. It’s fun. If you’re learning because you think you should, not because you’re having fun with it, you will not really stick with it for long, or you’ll hate it and not care about it. So make it play. Make games out of it. Sing and dance while you do it. Show off your new skills to people, with a smile on your face.
  5. Do it with others. I believe most learning is done on your own, but doing it with others makes it fun. I like to work out with my friends and with Eva. I like to bake bread for my family. I like to play chess with my kids. That motivates me to learn, because I want to do well when I do it with others.
  6. Feel free to move around. I will dive into something for a couple weeks, and then move on to something else. That’s OK. That’s how passion for a topic often works. Sometimes it will last for a long time, sometimes it’s a short intense burst. You can’t control it. Allow yourself to wander if that’s where things lead you.
  7. But deep learning takes months or years. You can learn a lot about something in 2-4 weeks, but you really become an expert at something only after months and years of doing it. I knew a lot about blogging after 6 months, but I waited a couple years before I was comfortable teaching others about it. Even now, after 5+ years of blogging, I’m still learning. The same applies to habits — I’ve learned a lot after 7 years of successfully creating habits, and now can actually teach it with some confidence. So how do you allow yourself to wander, but stick with something for long enough to get deep learning? By wandering around within the topic. You can learn a lot about wine in a month, for example, but what if after that you focused on cabernet sauvignon for a month, then zinfandel, then pinot noir? What if then you decided to learn about Oregon pinot noirs, then Sonoma pinots, then (the wonderful) pinots from Burgundy? You’d be wandering around, but going deeper and deeper. You can also move away from a topic, then get fascinated with it again and come back to it.
  8. Test yourself. You can learn a lot of information quickly by studying something, testing yourself, studying again to fill in the holes in your knowledge, testing again, and repeating until you have it by heart. That’s not always the most fun way to learn, but it can work well. Alternatively, you can learn by playing, and when you play, allow that to be your test.
  9. Disagree. Don’t just agree that everything you’re reading or hearing from others on a topic is correct, even if they are foremost experts. First, experts are often wrong, and it’s not until they are challenged that new knowledge is found. Second, even if they are right and you are wrong by disagreeing, you learn by disagreeing. By disagreeing, you have already not only considered what you’ve been given, but formulated an alternative theory. Then you have to try to test to see which is right, and even if you find that the first information or theory was right and you were wrong, now you know that much better than if you just agreed. I’m not saying to disagree with everything, but the more you do, the better you’ll learn. Don’t disagree in a disagreeable way, and don’t hold onto your theories too tightly and be defensive about them.
  10. Teach it. There is no better way to cement your knowledge than to teach it to others. It’s OK if you don’t really know it that well — as long as you’re honest about that when you’re teaching it to someone. For example, I’m a beginner at chess, but I will learn something about it and teach it to my kids — they know I’m not a tournament contender, let alone a master, and yet I’m still teaching them something they don’t know. And when I do, I begin to really understand it, because to teach you have to take what you’ve absorbed, reflect upon it, find a way to organize it so that you can communicate it to someone else clearly enough for them to understand it, see their mistakes and help correct them, see where the holes in your knowledge are, and more.
  11. Learning can be subliminal. We think we’re in control of our minds and we’re like programmers telling our minds what to learn, how to learn, and what data to retain. No. Our minds work in mysterious ways, and cannot be tightly controlled. They wander, latch onto the weirdest things, and soak up more than we know. Later, you can come back to what you’ve absorbed, and test yourself, and find you knew something you didn’t realize you knew. The lesson is to expose yourself to as much as possible on a topic, and allow yourself to absorb it. Sometimes your mind will pick up patterns you didn’t consciously realize were there, but then can use those patterns later when you put the learning into action.
  12. Reflect on your learning by blogging. You soak up a ton of information and patterns, and you can put that into action, but when you sit down and reflect on what you’ve learned, and try to share that with others (as I’m doing right now), you force yourself to think deeply, to synthesize the knowledge and to organize it, much as you do when you teach it to others. Blogging is a great tool for reflection and sharing what you’ve learned, even if you don’t hope to make a living at it. And it’s free.

‘The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.’~Albert Einstein

Post written by Leo Babauta. Reprinted with Permission.

Kids in today’s school system are not being prepared well for tomorrow’s world.

As someone who went from the corporate world and then the government world to the ever-changing online world, I know how the world of yesterday is rapidly becoming irrelevant. I was trained in the newspaper industry, where we all believed we would be relevant forever — and I now believe will go the way of the horse and buggy.

Unfortunately, I was educated in a school system that believed the world in which it existed would remain essentially the same, with minor changes in fashion. We were trained with a skill set that was based on what jobs were most in demand in the 1980s, not what might happen in the 2000s.

And that kinda makes sense, given that no one could really know what life would be like 20 years from now. Imagine the 1980s, when personal computers were still fairly young, when faxes were the cutting-edge communication technology, when the Internet as we now know it was only the dream of sci-fi writers like William Gibson.

We had no idea what the world had in store for us.

And here’s the thing: we still don’t. We never do. We have never been good at predicting the future, and so raising and educating our kids as if we have any idea what the future will hold is not the smartest notion.

How then to prepare our kids for a world that is unpredictable, unknown? By teaching them to adapt, to deal with change, to be prepared for anything by not preparing them for anything specific.

This requires an entirely different approach to child-rearing and education. It means leaving our old ideas at the door, and reinventing everything.

My drop-dead gorgeous wife Eva (yes, I’m a very lucky man) and I are among those already doing this. We homeschool our kids — more accurately, we unschool them. We are teaching them to learn on their own, without us handing knowledge down to them and testing them on that knowledge.

It is, admittedly, a wild frontier, and most of us who are experimenting with unschooling will admit that we don’t have all the answers, that there is no set of “best practices”. But we also know that we are learning along with our kids, and that not knowing can be a good thing — an opportunity to find out, without relying on established methods that might not be optimal.

I won’t go too far into methods here, as I find them to be less important than ideas. Once you have some interesting ideas to test, you can figure out an unlimited amount of methods, and so my dictating methods would be too restrictive.

Instead, let’s look at a good set of essential skills that I believe children should learn, that will best prepare them for any world of the future. I base these on what I have learned in three different industries, especially the world of online entreprenurship, online publishing, online living … and more importantly, what I have learned about learning and working and living in a world that will never stop changing.

1. Asking questions. What we want most for our kids, as learners, is to be able to learn on their own. To teach themselves anything. Because if they can, then we don’t need to teach them everything — whatever they need to learn in the future, they can do on their own. The first step in learning to teach yourself anything is learning to ask questions. Luckily, kids do this naturally — our hope is to simply encourage it. A great way to do this is by modeling it. When you and your child encounter something new, ask questions, and explore the possible answers with your child. When he does ask questions, reward the child instead of punishing him (you might be surprised how many adults discourage questioning).

2. Solving problems. If a child can solve problems, she can do any job. A new job might be intimidating to any of us, but really it’s just another problem to be solved. A new skill, a new environment, a new need … they’re all simply problems to be solved. Teach your child to solve problems by modeling simple problem solving, then allowing her to do some very easy ones on her own. Don’t immediately solve all your child’s problems — let her fiddle with them and try various possible solutions, and reward such efforts. Eventually, your child will develop confidence in her problem-solving abilities, and then there is nothing she can’t do.

3. Tackling projects. As an online entrepreneur, I know that my work is a series of projects, sometimes related, sometimes small and sometimes large (which are usually a group of smaller projects). I also know that there isn’t a project I can’t tackle, because I’ve done so many of them. This post is a project. Writing a book is a project. Selling the book is another project. Work on projects with your kid, letting him see how it’s done by working with you, then letting him do more and more by himself. As he gains confidence, let him tackle more on his own. Soon, his learning will just be a series of projects that he’s excited about.

4. Finding passion. What drives me is not goals, not discipline, not external motivation, not reward … but passion. When I’m so excited that I can’t stop thinking about something, I will inevitably dive into it fully committed, and most times I’ll complete the project and love doing it. Help your kid find things she’s passionate about — it’s a matter of trying a bunch of things, finding ones that excite her the most, helping her really enjoy them. Don’t discourage any interest — encourage them. Don’t suck the fun out of them either — make them rewarding.

5. Independence. Kids should be taught to increasingly stand on their own. A little at a time, of course. Slowly encourage them to do things on their own. Teach them how to do it, model it, help them do it, help less, then let them make their own mistakes. Give them confidence in themselves by letting them have a bunch of successes, and letting them solve the failures. Once they learn to be independent, they learn that they don’t need a teacher, a parent, or a boss to tell them what to do. They can manage themselves, and be free, and figure out the direction they need to take on their own.

6. Being happy on their own. Too many of us parents coddle our kids, keeping them on a leash, making them rely on our presence for happiness. When the kid grows up, he doesn’t know how to be happy. He must immediately attach to a girlfriend or friends. Failing that, they find happiness in other external things — shopping, food, video games, the Internet. But if a child learns from an early age that he can be happy by himself, playing and reading and imagining, he has one of the most valuable skills there is. Allow your kids to be alone from an early age. Give them privacy, have times (such as the evening) when parents and kids have alone time.

7. Compassion. One of the most essential skills ever. We need this to work well with others, to care for people other than ourselves, to be happy by making others happy. Modeling compassion is the key. Be compassionate to your child at all times, and to others. Show them empathy by asking how they think others might feel, and thinking aloud about how you think others might feel. Demonstrate at every opportunity how to ease the suffering of others when you’re able, how to make others happier with small kindnesses, how that can make you happier in return.

8. Tolerance. Too often we grow up in an insulated area, where people are mostly alike (at least in appearance), and when we come into contact with people who are different, it can be uncomfortable, shocking, fear-inducing. Expose your kids to people of all kinds, from different races to different sexuality to different mental conditions. Show them that not only is it OK to be different, but that differences should be celebrated, and that variety is what makes life so beautiful.

9. Dealing with change. I believe this will be one of the most essential skills as our kids grow up, as the world is always changing and being able to accept the change, to deal with the change, to navigate the flow of change, will be a competitive advantage. This is a skill I’m still learning myself, but I find that it helps me tremendously, especially compared to those who resist and fear change, who set goals and plans and try to rigidly adhere to them as I adapt to the changing landscape. Rigidity is less helpful in a changing environment than flexibility, fluidity, flow. Again, modeling this skill for your child at every opportunity is important, and showing them that changes are OK, that you can adapt, that you can embrace new opportunities that weren’t there before, should be a priority. Life is an adventure, and things will go wrong, turn out differently than you expected, and break whatever plans you made — and that’s part of the excitement of it all.

We can’t give our children a set of data to learn, a career to prepare for, when we don’t know what the future will bring. But we can prepare them to adapt to anything, to learn anything, to solve anything, and in about 20 years, to thank us for it.

“Our culture lies. They say they want to encourage and reward individuality and creativity, but in practice they try to hammer down the pointy parts, and shame off the different parts.” – Sandra Dodd

Post written by Leo Babauta. Reprinted with Permission.

Going through the traditional school system (in California, Washington and Guam) was never my favorite thing as a kid, but as a parent, I’ve grown to realize that the whole system is upside down.

Not the system of any particular state or nation, but system of education as a concept.

Traditionally, schools use this model:

1. Decide on what kids need to know to prepare them for adulthood.
2. Prepare a curriculum based on this.
3. Give students a schedule based on this curriculum.
4. Have educated teachers hand them the info they need, and drill them in skills.
5. The student reads, memorizes the info, learns the skills, and becomes prepared.
6. Students must follow all rules or be punished. This is actually more important than the info and skills, although it’s never said that way.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a great model. Mostly because it’s based on the idea that there is a small group of people in authority, who will tell you what to do and what you need to know, and you must follow this obediently, like robots. And you must not think for yourself, or try to do what you want to do. This will be met with severe punishment.

This is ideal if you’re going to be a corporate employee, and need certain skills in order to work for the corporation — mostly skills of obedience, actually. This isn’t ideal for the workplace of the coming decade, when people are less likely to be employed by a large corporation, and more likely to work for themselves. And have to think for themselves. And figure out, for themselves, what they want to do. And learn new things for themselves, without a teacher.

Things are changing faster than ever before. Every month, new technology is announced that alters the way people work, or will work in the future, and we need to be able to learn and adapt to this ever-changing landscape.

How are we to do that, or how are our children to learn that, if they have no authority telling them what they need to know, or how to learn, or what to do?

People often grow up to be competent learners, and achieve great things, after going through the traditional school system. But this is in spite of the system, not because of it. We are pretty adaptable people, inherently curious, and we can learn without an authority, but the current school system tries to beat this down. It usually fails to some degree, but to the degree it succeeds, it harms people.

Schools fail not because they don’t impart knowledge or skills, but because they kill curiosity, smother excitement for learning, club down with a furious brutality our desires to be independent, to think for ourselves, to learn about things that actually interest us.

“I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays, and have things arranged for them, that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.” – Agatha Christie

But Teachers are Great
Yes, I agree, they are. My wife was a middle school teacher, of English, and she worked tirelessly with her students’ interests at heart. She really wanted to teach them to love reading, and did everything in her power to do so. Unfortunately, she was frustrated by the authoritarian nature of school administration, and left. She now homeschools our kids, and is trying to give them the freedom to learn on their own.

My grandmother was a teacher for decades. My aunt is a teacher, first of elementary and middle schools, now of children in a juvenile detention center, and is wonderful at getting kids to love reading. My father is an artist teaching others to love art, and to do it well. I love teachers, and have the highest respect for them.

I just think they’re in a system that doesn’t work. That cannot work, given the nature of what the world has become.

How can we prepare children for a future we cannot foresee? How do we know what skills they will need, what knowledge will be important, in 10 years, or 15? We have no idea what the world will be like then. I sure don’t. Do you? Does anyone know how people will be working 15 years from now?

I submit this is impossible. And what’s more, it always has been impossible. The workplace now is vastly different than it was when I was a lad in shortpants three decades ago running around in the schoolyard, wiping snot from my nose and learning about the Cold War. People then didn’t have computers in the workplace, at least not most of them, and those who did have computers didn’t have anything resembling what we have today. Most people used electric typewriters, and fax machines weren’t in offices yet. Fax machines.

So yes, I love teachers, and think they are incredible at what they do. What I think they need to do, though, is not be teachers, but facilitators.

Don’t direct learning, because when students grow up they won’t be directed in their learning, they’ll be self-taught. Think about it: when you learn things today, as an adult, do you learn from a teacher, or do you learn things on your own? And isn’t learning on your own more fun? Don’t you love learning new things? Doesn’t that make the learning stick with you for longer than when you had to memorize things in school?

What we learn in school isn’t nearly as important as how we learn, because how to learn is the lesson of school.

“The founding fathers in their wisdom decided that children were an unnatural strain on their parents. So they provided jails called school, equipped with tortures called education.” – John Updike

How to Learn
And the way we’re taught to learn is as receivers of information, non-thinkers. Follow the rules. Read pages 100-132. Do the exercises. Memorize the information. Spit it out in a test. Do this project, because we tell you to, not because it’s fun or interesting.

The way we need to be taught to learn is completely different. It’s this: learn about what interests you, gets you curious, gets you excited. Figure out where to get the information you need. Read about it, talk to someone about it, find out about it. Try it. Do it, make mistakes. Figure out how to correct the mistakes. Figure out how to solve the problems you encounter. Repeat.

In other words, find problems that interest you, and figure out how to solve them.

Sometimes, you’ll have to solve problems that aren’t so interesting, just to solve problems that do interest you. That’s OK. That’s how things work.

And here’s a secret: we already know how to do this. From birth. This method of learning is innate in all of us. It’s built in.

When a toddler wants to do something, like get a stash of chocolate you’ve hidden on top of the fridge, he’ll figure it out. He’ll find ways to move a chair to the fridge, or climb up onto a counter near the fridge, in order to get the candy. Along the way he’ll learn a thing or two about cabinet doors and fridge doors and why you shouldn’t lean too far in one direction on a chair if you don’t want to fall and get bruises.

When a kid wants to play a video game, she’ll learn things like how to set up and turn on the PS3, how to navigate menus, how to get started with the game, how to convince mother that she’ll clean her room later and that her homework is pretty much all done so that she can play the game now.

Kids know how to solve problems, when they want to do something.

We don’t need to teach them to learn. We need to get out of their damn way.

And that’s the problem with schools. They can’t motivate kids to learn, because they’re forcing it. They’re trying to impart on them a rigid system of authority that kids naturally rebel against. In fact, this is the main problem kids face, and they come up with all kinds of incredibly creative ways to solve it, from skipping school and smoking pot to drawing incredible doodles in notebooks instead of listening to a history lecture to finding ingenius ways to communicate with peers, through technologies like texting and iPhones and through old technologies like passing notes and so on.

Creativity isn’t dead in our kids. It’s alive, but it’s being marshaled to beat the forces that are beating them down.

“No use to shout at them to pay attention. If the situations, the materials, the problems before the child do not interest him, his attention will slip off to what does interest him, and no amount of exhortation of threats will bring it back.” – John Holt

Turn Education on Its Head
So how to prepare our kids for tomorrow? Better people than I have written on this. Look up Unschooling — it’s already been invented, and it’s what I’d recommend.

It’s pretty much just getting out of the way of kids. Let them learn about what they want to learn about, and you know what? They’ll actually care about what they’re learning, because they chose it themselves. They’ll get excited about things, something schools usually fail to achieve.

They’ll learn how to deal with the delicious problem of freedom, a problem most kids don’t have these days. They’ll get some hands-on, down-and-dirty experience with autonomy, something they’ll have in spades as adults.

But what if they watch TV or play video games all day? What if they aren’t interested in math or science and never learn them? What if they’re totally unprepared for the workplace?

These are newbie questions in the world of unschooling, and I won’t answer them all here. You’ll have more, in the comments, I’m sure. I’m not the guy to answer those questions. Google unschooling and read up, because many smarter people have answered all your questions and more.

I’ll just say a couple things. One, we need to relax and not look at childhood as a time when every minute needs to be filled up with rigid rules and learning. It’s a time that should be enjoyed, and kids should play, and in playing they’ll learn. They’ll learn to play well and work well with each other. They’ll learn how to figure things out for themselves. They’ll learn to love the lovely freedom and its associates, autonomy and responsibility and choice and time management and, yes, passion.

Two, remember what we talked about above: we have no idea what the workplace of the future will be, so stop worrying about preparing them for that. In fact, stop worrying so much. Let kids learn how to learn, and learn how to be excited about things. That will prepare them for the future.

Three, also realize that we don’t need to be hands-off. We can be hands-on, if we’re facilitators instead of directors or dictators. We can help kids find things they’re interested in, expose them to worlds of fun (like science and math), teach them games that they might like, help them solve problems so they’ll learn how to do it on their own, guide them to resources and people who will give them mountains of information. Be there for them, as guides.

This is a huge topic, and one that I can’t adequately cover in one post. I’ll do another post sometime, talking about homeschooling and unschooling, and how we do it and how to make it work for you. But for today, I just wanted to throw out some thoughts on schooling, and get you riled up a bit perhaps. We could all use some good riling now and then, I think.

“To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves…and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” – John Holt