I was recently scrolling through a Facebook group designed for people who plan to homeschool their children someday, and I encountered a typical objection that many unschoolers face. A mother was feeling nervous because her in-laws were making sniping comments about her lack of a teaching degree. They wondered how she could possibly teach a child everything he or she might learn from grades K-12. It’s a fair question.
How can our kids learn the things they need to even if we aren’t chemists, literary scholars, biologists, volleyball coaches, and master-craftspeople?
Let’s dive in.
First of all, deciding to give our children the space to be self-directed does not mean that they will only spend time around us. If we act intentionally, unschooling allows for our children to have more exposure to a wider swath of grown-ups than the modern educational paradigm. For example, children here on the Seacoast have tapped into the liberty community to attend Darren Tapp’s math classes and Joel Valenzuela’s Taekwondo classes. I don’t need to be a black-belt or a mathematician for my children to learn Taekwondo or math, I just need to make sure my kids have access to knowledgeable people. This hasn’t been difficult at all.
What’s more, these classes appeared to be successful because all of the participants were there on a voluntary basis. Thinking back to my own time as a formal student, it’s impossible to count how many learning opportunities were derailed by even a single unwilling student (and let’s be honest, sometimes I WAS that student). When children are free to pursue learning on their own terms, they find conducive environments for focus and achievement.
Of course, in the modern world there is so much more to learning than signing up for classes. My older children have become incredibly skilled at playing Minecraft, for instance, without any instruction from their parents whatsoever. Some people might not view playing Minecraft to be a particularly “important” skill, but that’s not material here. What matters is that they sought to improve at something, and they did so completely on their own terms. They watched videos, talked to their friends, experimented on their own, and practiced – and voila! They run circles around me when we play together.
When young children decide to pursue expertise in something that interests them, in this case Minecraft, they custom-design a blueprint for mastery based on their exact learning style. They can use this blueprint throughout their entire lives - when they develop a passion for physics, statistics, or whatever else. So instead of memorizing facts at a young age, unschoolers are honing their skills at the learning process - something which will inevitably be useful to them as they move through life. In addition, while learning Minecraft, my children have developed excellent number sense (mandatory for quick real-time decision making in Minecraft), and shown dramatic improvement in their cooperation, strategic thinking, and even typing skills. It’s very hard to pursue expertise in anything without developing a number of skills that are useful across a range of disciplines.
So, no, I don’t expect that I will be the guru they turn to for every subject they pursue throughout their lives. Instead, I hope to continue to support them in equipping themselves with the tools necessary to find the information they desire. I don’t remember my calculus enough to teach it to my kids to be sure, but I’m pretty confident that I could help them find a way to learn it if they were interested. I hope my kids will be confident that they could figure it out without me being involved at all.
The truth is that people don’t need to be dependent upon others to force them to learn things, but people canbecome dependent upon others - if they lose their interest in learning new things or their ability to do so on their own. In my mind, the unschooling approach creates the best possible training grounds for our kids to develop their learning skills, with the lowest risk that they will burn out on learning. To me, that’s the best of both worlds.
James is an unschooling father of three, an entrepreneur, and a Free State Project mover living on the Seacoast of New Hampshire. When he’s not spending time with his own children, he tries to get adults throughout the country to re-think the adult-child relationship through speaking engagements, staff trainings, and his podcast, One Free Family. He continues to experiment with the ideas of child autonomy and self-direction at Camp Stomping Ground, a summer camp he co-founded in 2014.