What if children were trusted to make decisions about their own learning?


Unschooling is a type of parenting more than a type of education. It involves a family or community all supporting a child’s interests and respecting and trusting the child to make decisions about his or her own learning. My dream is that this could one day be the model for typical western schooling.

In typical western schooling we expect to drop our children off and have someone else help them learn and grow. in this setting often one teacher has 25 students and cannot possibly know the children well enough to let them all delve their own passions. In addition, in our measurement-obsessed culture of one-size fits all, pre-set, often scripted curriculums and standardized testing, we think we are able to teach all children the same, and easily measure children’s success. But we are excluding most of the ways that children thrive: the arts. 

In unschooling there’s no easy way to measure a child’s “success”. However, through photo documentation, drawings and writings by children, videos make of and by children about their experiences and learnings, we can construct a portfolio that shows a child’s journey, which in reality cannot be measured. Each human’s journey is their own. If learning is the goal (as opposed to set adult-decided content) it is not difficult to ascertain. 

When we take away these individual, institution-based measurements and look at children over years who’ve been exposed to unschooling we find children who are motivated, dedicated, and driven to study topics that excite them. They’ve developed research and leadership skills, and have, through this process learned how to learn- how to dive into a subject, explore it from all angles, share it with others, and sometimes use it to make social change.

Of course, this only works in a family and/or community who is conscious of exposing it’s children to all different kinds of culture, geography, literature, science, and more. In this way, children’s interests are sparked and the adults can observe patterns in the children’s interests and continue to suggest and expose them to other activities and organizations that the child might be interested in.

Unschooling is so beneficial for children. First of all it shows them that their ideas matter- it gives their ideas validation. Second it show them that the adults in their life support and trust them. Third it give children the freedom to become the kind of learner that they are. In typical western schools, material is presented as listening or reading, but not everyone learns best these ways. Some children need to do. Some need to watch others do on a youtube video before feeling ready to try it themselves. By allowing children the freedom to become their own learner, we imply that there are many right ways to learn. Fourth, and as a teacher in the US for 10 years, I think one of the most important aspects of unschooling is that it doesn’t rank subjects or attach ages to them. If a child wants to learn to read at 12, that’s ok. If they want to study dance from ages 6-10 that’s ok. If they want to work at a skateboard shop and learn about skateboard design from 10-12, that’s ok. And so all of these ways of interacting with the world and being a productive member of society are valued. In typical western schools it’s feels like it’s only the reading, writing, math, science and social studies that count. We forget about integrated disciplines and the arts. We try to boil it all down and give children, what we think, is a well-rounded education but it misses so much, often including the arts.

But how can we, adults, decide, what is a well-rounded education for a child? Children come from different backgrounds and have different interests, so it only makes sense that they have a say in what they learn. There is no “right” set of skills a human needs. Humans seek and develop skills based on their interests. Unschooling creates an environment where education is not just child-led, but child-created. And what we choose to learn is what’s right for each of us. There are tons of things I learned in my typical western education that served me no good. However, there are also things I learned that excited me but were just a beginning. So outside of school I dove deeper. It was the choices I made, outside of school, that were my real education. And there were only a handful of things from school that sparked me outside of school. But imagine how much would spark you if you got to choose and if the adults around you made suggestions based on your choices! It’s so powerful.

Imagine what it would be like to have the world as your classroom? To have experiences and topics of study suggested to you by adults who are learning your interests and want to encourage them. It reminds me of adult networks: people in different circles of your life who know you and know your interests and keep that on their radar. It feels special when someone suggests just the thing that sparks you. Unschooling is a way to create this from birth.