Why We Decided to Unschool

The decision to home school or to unschool may be as unique as the families that do it. We actually made the decision to unschool a number of months before we committed to coming to Costa Rica for our new adventure. This is how we came to our decision.

Before jumping in, there is a big difference between home schooling and unschooling, or “hack schooling,” even though they share some similarities. Susan Wise Bauer, author of the Well-Trained Mind has a good description of home schooling that begins with:

Home schooling occurs when parents take charge of their children’s education — organizing subjects, teaching lessons or arranging for tutors, evaluating progress, and supervising social contacts.

Unschooling goes a bit further. There are several good descriptions of unschooling: Earl Stevens, John Holt, even Wikipedia. John Holt is one of the early pioneers of unschooling and we like his definition, which can be summarized crisply as:

This is also known as interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning. Lately, the term “unschooling” has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn’t use a fixed curriculum.

While one key difference between home schooling and unschooling is no fixed curriculum, the bigger difference for Debbie and I is that in unschooling, the students direct their own learning based on their individual interests. As Holt notes, unschooling is “…the natural way to learn.” It is “…the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work.”

Debbie and I are both human-centered designers. Human-centered design is basically a design process that emphasizes creation of artifacts based on the understanding the goals and needs of people (as opposed to making the user have to adapt to the product). For us, unschooling is the educational equivalent. We tailor learning to the interests of the learners.

We had three big reasons for why we favor the unschooling approach, but like many things, there was an initial “trigger.”

By the end of year 2 of middle school, Vie absolutely hated school. While it was the largest middle school in Seattle, it had many of the same challenges as other public, and many private, schools: large class sizes, emphasis on memorization and testing, little individual creativity, lots of effort spent on managing the class, and little actual time spent on learning.

I remember going to a science fair and seeing a number of signs in the classrooms about what the kids could not do, right next to equally large signs about what the consequences were if someone did them. I asked if they actually spent much time learning and Vie said “no”. Add to that all the mental bullying among pre-teens and Vie was ready to try unschooling.

In contrast, Aidan had a fabulous experience at University Cooperative School. We loved the place, the teachers, and the parents – and continue to be inspired by them – but he had graduated from 5th grade and was destined for a similar middle school experience.

We had planned to start unschooling this year in Seattle. As we first planned and then started making Costa Rica a reality, we saw our adventure as yet another way to enhance unschooling.

With that, here are the 3 big reasons why we decided to pursue this path of unschooling. Like most things, this is a change we are trying. We hope and expect it will bear great fruit. We don’t expect to get everything right but we all expect to work together to fix things when they aren’t working.

The Challenge – A Failing System Under Pressure

Our schools are under incredible pressure these days and are less and less capable of achieving the goals we all put on them. There are growing demands on what teachers have to cover in their curricula, producing more and more homework and focusing on memorization. Take a look at the incredible documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here. Add to this consistent budget cuts to education and the consequent growing class size, reduction in class diversity (especially the arts), and other downstream challenges. John Taylor Gatto talks about a lot of this in his “underground classic” Dumbing us Down and his other books.

Probably the most telling challenge to me is that so many bright and creative teachers – the ones who can bring change, the ones who are willing to take risks and try new things – are getting burned out or pushed out of the system.

That saddens me especially since, at least generally in our system, every student has to experience the same thing. An incredibly gifted teacher, and we’ve seen many, can make almost any subject interesting. But that places all of the weight on one part of the system and those teachers are getting to be few and far between.

The Opportunity – Learning to Love Learning

Lifelong learning is an important value for both Deb and I. We embrace it completely and continue to learn every day. We want to help our young adults embrace this value as well. That’s one reason why we left our high-tech jobs for a year – so that our young adults have an opportunity to experience another culture. However, to get our young adults to embrace lifelong learning, they have to love learning, which is difficult if they “hate school.”

We wanted to get Aidan and Vie back to the point where they loved learning as young kids. Letting them experience learning more naturally by what drives their interests harnesses their natural passion and curiosity. Basic skills like reading, writing and math can be learned in the context of something they care about in ways that help them understand why it is important to learn those skills.

A good example is what Vie and Aidan when they did their “paper quest.” Aidan generally didn’t like writing, even at UCoop. Vie was uninspired at best, except perhaps for creative writing. Both did have a good foundation of how to write a paper though. They just had assignments that didn’t engage their interests. It used to be like pulling teeth to get Aidan to write more than a few sentences, even though he loves speaking and has an incredible vocabulary.

Aidan and Vie’s “paper quest” was a “quest” to write a paper comparing two of their favorite video games. They were both excited to write about it. Their final paper was a 28 page multimedia paper. That’s more than I’ve seen either of them write before – or anyone in their schools for that matter. The incredible part is that we didn’t say anything about length; we just let them go. They wanted to write this much. This example just reinforces for me the benefit of harnessing their natural, and different, interests and using them to cover the more basic things.

An unschooling approach is really tailored to each of them naturally. We aren’t designing curricula around their interests. They are. We simply help them bring some structure, take responsibility, find resources, act as sounding boards, and yes, help motivate them – especially now in our early days of doing this. Logistically, this doesn’t fit the one-size-fits-all approach in schools; that’s not how they are structured. And unlike home schooling, it doesn’t rely on Deb, me, or anyone for that matter to find or create a curriculum to teach them. They learn naturally because they want to. Or at least, that is what we are hoping.

Almost by definition, an unschooling approach focuses on building confidence, interest and passion – more than mastery. It’s the fuel for mastery. There is a place for mastery, but I believe mastery is actually not possible without the former, otherwise it ends up being short term memorization to pass a test. I even saw this at Stanford, a school I love dearly. As a premed (who decided not to pursue medicine), I saw many people studying for science tests, writing memorized formulas and facts down on those tests to get “partial credit,” rather than actually trying to solve the problem. That approach may work well in the short term for tests, and perhaps for some schools, but not for creating mastery.

Creativity, along with mastery, allow people to do or solve things that they have never seen before. To get there, people need to be good at learning new things, applying knowledge in new ways, and fearlessly trying new things that might not work out. In other words, they need to know how to learn more than what to learn. With the latter, you can do what you know, if you manage to remember it. With the former, you can do anything. We need more of that in our world, especially now. And it won’t be on any test you can study for.

Learning is changing

There’s one more reason for why we are unschooling. It wasn’t on our radar as much before we started this journey. We are seeing learning itself changing, not through some plan, but rather organically, shaped by the economy, generational differences, technology, the internet, and Universities themselves.

According to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” Much of it is available online now. If we want to learn about something, or try doing something, it’s likely that there is a YouTube video on it. [As a fun aside, Aidan wanted to make Deb and I Margaritas the other day. He looked up a video on YouTube, made the drink, and brought it to us, all without us knowing about it. He made a great Margarita to boot.] We are getting good at looking things up “just in time” when we need them. People are learning how to learn differently as part of the digital world most of us live in.

Now think about all of the incredible resources that are becoming available online. For younger folks there is Khan Academy of course. But college classes from some of the best instructors in the best Universities in the world are available through services such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX. They are available to the whole world, not just their “home” Universities.

I heard an amazing story at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference last year (thanks to Carl Bass). A few years ago, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford put their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online for anyone to take for free. More than 160,000 students from around the world enrolled. Evidently, the top ranking Stanford student in that class of 160,000 was somewhere in the 300’s. The company Udacity was created out of this experience. Talk about levelling a playing field.

What happens when instead of paying a large sum of money to one University (even a top one), you can pick and choose the best of the best University classes from all of the top Universities for a fraction of the cost? This is reality today.

On top of this, we have a worldwide job market that is trending to care less about degrees and pedigrees and more about what you can do and what value you can bring. David Wong describes this well in his scathing Cracked post 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person. Be sure to watch the video from Glengarry Glenn Ross (warning: it has NSFW (not safe for work) language).

Vie will be college age in perhaps 5 years and Aidan in 7 or maybe less. That’s a very long time in our digital world. Would they even want, or need, to go to a physical college? One thing is clear to me, however. Taking advantage of resources like this, creating your “own path” as a “major”, circumventing the institutional system entirely and yet learning what you want, will all take a honed ability to know how to learn as well as a curiosity and passion for learning itself.

On our unschooling road, we have really just started taking baby steps. We are working hard to create interest and passion. We can then can work toward confidence. There is still a lot of work to go on helping Aidan and Vie learn how to learn and at least for now it comes a little at the expense of learning some basic skills such as math and science. We’ll get there. That’s part of this journey we are on – one that itself will hopefully be a model for how to learn new things.

Unschooling “Begins”

This past week we started the process of unschooling with a “warm up” week to help transition from vacation to more of a regular unschooling “schedule” as our new adventure officially begins its fourth week. As Deb noted, it’s a bit hard to say that the unschooling is “beginning” because, truly, it has been going on in a background way for several months. But, let’s call this the “structured beginning”.

Deb and I have read a lot about unschooling, starting with John Holt, who is one of the early pioneers of unschooling. One of the other best initial sources was Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. One of her and other’s recommendations was to give the unschoolers a “break” from school – a time in which they can disconnect from all of the unhelpful structure, memorization, tests, and directed work. Essentially, that’s what we were doing with Aidan and Vie from September, when formal school started this year, through our departure and arrival, until now.

Deb and I thought the transition from “vacation” to unschooling mindset might be a little abrupt and so we decided to do a “warm up” week. The goal was hopefully to get the young adults inspired and ready to jump in to unschooling pursuits following their interests. Part 1 was some light reading, exploring, reflecting, and video-watching. Part 2 was surf camp. The other benefit to the warm-up was helping and I and Deb prepare for something we’d never done before.

We sent several good warm-up references to Aidan and Vie. As articles/blogs, we sent them a few good descriptions of unschooling (Earl Stevens, John Holt, Wikipedia), as well as some tenets Deb and I will try to strive for, and a third article espousing what Vie often does, which is that teens and pre-teens can do a lot more than we (adults, as well as Deb and I) give them credit for.

The videos were mostly TED videos to get their juices going. They included the excellent TED talk by Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education.  Another key one was a TEDx talk by 13 year-old Logan LaPlante: Hack Schooling. We actually love the term “hack schooling”. I think it fits what we are doing even better.

Finally, we gave them some links to Khan Academy as well as Coursera and edX to explore their areas of interest and potential “classes” they could take on those subjects.

The tricky, and interesting part, was figuring out what indeed they were interested in. We like to think that we had a good idea but we were happily surprised in several cases.

To understand what they were interested in, we relied on our own background in design. As designers, we use a very simple process to design things that really provide value to people. Some people use the now controversial term “design-thinking” for this. High-end design firms like to coin their own steps for the process – even using the same letter for each step to seem more unique and cool. It truly is a very simple process and is really just a step above common sense.

The steps are simply:

understand – create – iterate

You begin by understanding your customer – what they (think they) want, what they are trying to accomplish, their hopes and desires, and what they truly need. You need to take what they want with a heavy grain of salt though; rarely do customer descriptions of what they want lead to good or successful products. What they say though helps designers empathize with what customers want to accomplish. In this case, our “customers” are our young adults whom we are unschooling.

You then create a prototype solution, which you know will initially be wrong, but it gives you something you can try out with your customers and test your assumptions. Then you listen and learn as your customers try the prototypes and you iterate, making the product better – until you get it right. It’s worked well for designers across the world as well as for us in our careers spanning education, startups, web sites, healthcare, legal software, Microsoft software and hardware, aviation and more.

We started by asking Aidan and Vie to give us their “top ten” list of favorite “things” to do or “things” they are interested in. They could be “subjects” like chemistry, activities like “writing”, just topics they want to know more about. The one topic we asked them to include was learning Spanish. We felt that was a “must have”. Here are their lists (they also provided descriptions of why they chose these):

Aidan                                                   Vie
1. Surfing                                             1. Drawing
2. Cooking                                            2. Photography
3. Making videos                                  3. Creative writing
4. Building on Minecraft                       4. Sewing/costume making
5. Baking                                              5. Transgender studies
6. Making my own video game             6. Cosplay
7. Making a card game                         7. Computers
8. Making my own board game             8. Coding
9. Make my own cereal                         9. Gaming
10. Spanish                                          10. Spanish

We won’t do all of these things at once, but we wanted to start with things they are interested in and then work towards things they might not think that they are (such as math) but which they will need.

We then asked them to think about 2-3 projects that might combine some of these things, such as Aidan creating a game involving cooking. We didn’t lock in on anything specific yet, but that’s because we unexpectedly found a great collaborative project for them this coming week, and we went with the flow.

It started with a conversation at dinner about Diablo III and Borderlands II – two Xbox games we all play. We were talking about their game mechanics a bit and then we got a good idea. I offered them a “quest” (a popular component of Role-Playing Games). The quest was for them to write a “paper” comparing and contrasting Diablo III and Borderlands II across many different attributes/dimensions.

And then it happened. A spark. We saw Vie get visibly excited.  Really excited. Aidan followed quickly. We talked about what dimensions they could use, whether they wanted to collaborate on it (they do), and even what form the “paper” might take. It’s now this week’s project. You’ll hear more about this soon. But the big takeaway for Deb and I was that we saw them get excited not just about something unschooling related, but writing a paper no less. That was a great spark to start with.

After a few days working on the warm-up activities, we switched gears a bit and ended the week with one of the top surf camps in the world: Witches Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo. We spent 4 days learning to surf and practicing. It was incredibly fun and incredibly exhausting. It also provided some good physical balance to the mental work.

As a start on our first week of unschooling, I’d say we had some good initial success, but Deb and I have a lot to learn and a lot to improve. True to our process, we didn’t get it completely right, but we learned what worked and what didn’t and we’ll make adjustments (iterate). One key thing we need to evolve is how to get the kids more engaged in discussion about what they like and what they are doing. We have no doubt that will come. Meanwhile, stay tuned for more on the “paper”. It looks to be an exciting week.