It's like someone hands you a train schedule when you are five years old, and it details the plan for every day of the next thirteen to seventeen years of your life. The stops are laid out, the timetable is set. There is only one set of tracks for your school train.
They are the same for everyone. They tell you this is the only way to get between stops, where you are tested to make sure the train is on schedule. Sometimes you might see a shortcut to the next stop, or a nice sidewalk or winding wooded path running along the tracks. You say "Look, that path goes to the same place we are going anyway. Can I use it instead for a bit?" They say that's not the right way. You have to get there the same way as everyone else, at the same time. You have to ride the train with only other kids who are the same age as you, whether you like them or not. Sometimes, if your train is small enough, you end up spending years and years with this same group of kids. Even if you don’t get along with any of them.
You might really want to go sit with your sister, who loves you, whose train is a year ahead of you on the tracks, but that is not allowed.
It will be decided for you very early on if you get to sit in the front of the school train or the middle or the back. Once the decision has been made, it will be very difficult to switch cars. You end up feeling like you must be where you belong. All the cars take the same time to move between stops, but the kids in the front always get there first, and the kids in the back always last. It is made quite clear that it's better to get there first.
Sure, there will be some (planned) "destinations" along the way, where you get to get off the train for a set amount of time. Maybe you are one of the lucky kids, for whom weekends and summers are actually destinations, places to stop moving, or at least to move in the vehicle of your own choosing, at your own pace. But maybe you are a kid whose weekends and summers involve more trains, maybe with a choice about which trains to ride, which sport train or which art-or-music-themed train. But still with little or no choice about the path or the pace.
While riding any train, you have to do what the conductor (teacher) says. Stop when he wants to stop, go when he wants to go. You might get new conductors every year, and sometimes multiple conductors will rotate through each day. Some of them will be amazing people, who will inspire you.
Others will not be kind. And they all have different expectations of how the ride is supposed to go. You are expected to know this, and adapt to each one. To know what each one requires of you and be able to give it, even on your worst days. If you don't follow the rules on the train, they might kick you off. You might be relieved that you are getting off, until you realize they are only taking you to another train.
You watch the real world fly by you out the windows, and it looks like a blur. You might catch a glimpse of something that looks interesting and say, "Excuse me, can we stop for a minute? I saw something cool out there."
But they say they can't make unplanned stops. That would make the whole train late. When you finally realize how futile it is to ask, you might find ways to sneak off and get to a destination on your own.
Or you might just stop looking out the window.
The worst part of these train rides is where they drop you off at the end: your parents' house! This whole time, they were telling you how important it was to stay on schedule. Now you are back where you started. With a lot of knowledge about riding trains, and maybe not much else. They say go now, find your passion. You say "Now? But that's what I wanted to do all along and you... Nevermind."
At this point, at the end of your compulsory schooling journey, you might find that you are one of the really lucky ones who has managed to figure out at least one thing you are passionate about in school or in spite of school. Good for you.
Or you might get off the school train at this point and realize you have no idea how to live, off of a train. You might have forgotten that it's even possible to live and to learn without a train, a timetable, a conductor.
You might get a job that feels exactly like being on a train as well. You will keep hopping from job train to job train, hoping to find one that makes you happy, or at least one that doesn't make you miserable. Or maybe you will stay on one that makes you miserable, because you realize that they are all inherently the same. It's just easier to stay on the one you're already on.
Or you might get off a train at 18 or 22 or 25 or 35, and say "Wow. There has to be a better way." You might spend the rest of your life trying to avoid trains. You might be able to make up for the time you lost, and find some passion after all.
So, if being in school is like riding a train, then what is traditional homeschooling like? You know, the school-at-home kind.
It’s like riding in a car. Your parents are driving and you get to sit with your brothers and sisters if you have any. But other than these two common elements, the details of the car ride can vary greatly, depending on your parents' views on education.
You might have parents who buy a curriculum, which resembles the timetable used by the school train. Your mother might take on the role of "conductor," and insist that her car keep up with the train. She might not let you have much say about how fast to go or what the stops will look like. You might spend as much time in the car as schooled kids do on the train.
Or you might have parents who make up their own curriculum, accepting some level of input from you. They will take your interests into account when planning activities. They will adjust the pace if they think it is necessary. They might even stop the car sometimes when you point out something interesting you see out the window. You might spend a lot less time in the car than schooled kids do on the train.
But either way, you are still a passenger, sitting in the backseat, having at least somewhat of a passive role in your educational journey and your life overall. The car, like the train, separates "learning time" from the real world, which you are still looking at through a window.
The car follows streets, like the train follows tracks. There may be more than one path between two stops now, but you are still confined to the streets.
So what’s an alternative to exploring the world in trains and cars?
Imagine everyone in your family has access to lots of different bicycles.
Some days, your mom or dad says, "Want to go for a ride? I have something fun I want to show you." If you want to go, you hop on the bike and go. Some days, you are the one who has something you want to explore, and your mom or siblings or dad ride along. But every day, you have choices about what to do.
When you are too little to ride a bicycle, your parents can take you on theirs. You can move on to a tricycle with a handle to make it easy for a parent to help you move and steer. On your tricycle, or a bike with training wheels, you can learn to use the pedals. You might even get a balance bike, to learn how to propel yourself and balance without pedals. And when you are ready, you will ride your own bicycle.
Your own bicycle can be powered by your own legs, steered by your own hands. It stops when you stop, goes where you want to go. But it's not that you are always responsible for your own movement. You are not just left to figure it out for yourself. When you prefer to have some level of assistance getting where you want to go, you also have choices like tandem bicycles and bike trailers available to you. You get to choose if you want help and what kind and how much. And your parents do their best to help when and how you want them to.
No matter which kind of bicycle you are on, there is no separation between you and the outside world. No window to look out. You can smell the real world, hear the real world, stop and touch the real world. You are part of the real world. In many places there are paths to follow if you want to, but your rides are not limited to the paths.
In your family, no one is the teacher, but everyone learns from all the others. It is not that your time on your bicycle is your "education." Every day is your life, no matter how it is spent.
You learn from all things you do, but the learning does not need to be measured. Your parents don't keep track of how fast or how far you go each day. Your choosing to do something makes it valuable. You get to learn what you want at your own pace. You don't have to keep up with anyone else.
That is unschooling.
It is not a model of education, but a way of life. It is recognizing that people learn from living, and there is no need to separate learning from living.
It’s like riding a bicycle.
Those of us who are living it know how wonderful unschooling can be. However, those who are unfamiliar with unschooling have many concerns about it. One concern many people have about unschooling is that it might leave a person with “gaps” in knowledge.
They wonder how we will make sure our children learn everything they will need to know for their adult lives. These people are right about one thing: people who grow up without school do have knowledge gaps.
However, they are wrong to assume that going to school will somehow guarantee a person will learn everything he or she needs to know. Since no one can possibly know everything there is to know, all of us have knowledge gaps. One thing that is great about unschooling is that we can look at these gaps differently.
The people in charge of the school system have preselected the gaps THEY feel are most important, and then they instruct their teachers to “go over” the information to fill in those gaps. Even the terminology of “going over” a subject fits perfectly with the idea of riding a train, because that’s exactly what a train does. The train goes over the gaps where the tracks are already set.
The train passengers can’t even see a gap as they approach it, and they can’t see what it looks like underneath the bridge as they cross it. They can only look out the windows as they cross a bridge that someone else built. They have no experience of the gap itself unless they have the time and inclination and access to explore the gap on their own time.
On board the school train, students are passively pulled across the gaps. The teachers may describe what the gap looks like, and then the students are expected to “know” what the gap looks like. In school, a “gap” in knowledge is seen as a weakness, a failure. Students are constantly required to memorize facts, and then tested so they must prove what they know. Not knowing how to cross the gap by answering their questions correctly translates to losing points, being punished by low grades.
Asking for help getting over a gap can be considered cheating, which is another thing that leads to punishment and shame if the student is caught. Some people grow up to fear the gaps they will inevitably come upon. They fear not knowing what to do in new situations. They lose faith in their abilities to overcome their knowledge gaps without being pulled over a bridge built by someone else. They feel ashamed to even think about asking for help. They might become very skilled at avoiding gaps altogether.
In the world of school, not knowing something you are expected to know means you fail.
However, outside of school, it is all right if you don't know all the answers, or even any of the answers. You can hope for better results if you can quickly admit that you do not know the answer to a specific question, or the best solution to a problem. Because the best things to know are when you need help and where to go for help. And then you go there. And you ask for help. You are not alone and you don't have to figure things out on your own. You are allowed to consult someone else or some technology to help you figure out an answer. The train model of schooling teaches people to think there is only one right way to cross a gap, and if you don’t know it, you fail.
Now think about how different it is to be riding along on a bicycle in a direction that interests you, and coming upon a gap where you don’t immediately see a way to get over it or through it or around it. Think about how many options there are when you are on your bicycle.
Maybe someone else has already built a bridge across the gap and you discover it. You choose whether or not to use it. Maybe you figure out how to build a bridge yourself. Maybe you see something interesting deep down inside the gap and you find a way to get to it. Maybe you recognize it is too dangerous or difficult to cross this gap by yourself, so you ask someone for help. Maybe you think that crossing this gap isn’t so important to you after all, so you find a way around it. Whatever you decide, you know that YOU decided what to do. YOU get to decide which gaps are important for you to get across. YOU decide in what depth to explore them. YOU get experience making important decisions for your own life.
With unschooling, we do not have to think of gaps in knowledge as failures of our children or ourselves or our lifestyle. Our children will hopefully not learn to fear gaps, but instead feel empowered to know how to handle them.
Instead of being afraid of not knowing how to do something or how to answer a question, our children can embrace their knowledge gaps and recognize that each gap is actually an opportunity, either to learn or discover or invent new things, or to work with and rely on others who can help them. Our children will not feel ashamed if they don’t always know how to cross the gaps immediately, or alone, or ever.
This is where we, the parents, and other supportive adults, come in. We can help our children learn how to navigate the gaps they come upon. To continue with the analogy, we don’t just hand over the bicycles to our children and assume our jobs are done. We know our children. We help them figure out which type of bicycle is most appropriate at a given time and we give them access. We stand behind and push our toddlers on tricycles. We provide training wheels or balance bikes until our kids feel ready to ride on two wheels. We provide helmets and other safety equipment as needed. We get on our own bicycles, and ride alongside our children. We are there to help them stand up if they fall. To fix their flat tires. To watch out for dangers. And we are there to help them explore and cross the gaps they find along their paths. We provide as much help as they need, until they have enough practice and confidence to do it without us right next to them.
We are there, especially while they are very young, to make sure they understand that riding their bicycles in freedom does NOT mean they are allowed to ride around anywhere they want. We help them and guide them and talk to them about respecting people around them, and things that belong to other people.
We help them remember that crossing a gap does not mean riding through someone’s garden just because it might be the easiest way. When we are comfortable that they understand these things, maybe we ride behind them at a distance for a while.
We watch them to see how they handle the gaps in front of them. We and our children grow, and we can be confident that whatever gaps they approach as they grow up, they will be able to decide which gaps they want to cross and to come up with a plan on how to do so.
Sometimes we might catch a glimpse of the school train and worry that we and our kids are not keeping up with it. When these doubts and worries creep in, it helps to remind ourselves that we are providing the opportunity for our children to experience a life with richness and depth that are immeasurable, specifically BECAUSE we are NOT pressuring them to keep up with the train. Because we are mostly ignoring the train as we live our lives. Are we going slower than the train? Probably. Are we going to end up covering the same exact gaps as the train does? Definitely not.
We will not have the same convenience that school parents have, of being provided with a neat little map at the end of each year that shows where our children’s trains have been and how well our children kept up with them. We will not have the grades to prove to others how well we are educating our children. We will not be validated by people who believe in the train and will never understand how we can live without it.
What can help us feel better is to decide early on whether or not these things really matter. To remind ourselves often that we are trading the perceived efficiency and predictability of the system that follows the train tracks for a unique and rich and joyful and wonderful life on bicycles. The gaps we and our children discover and explore and cross will feel meaningful and memorable, instead of feeling frustrating and obligatory, constantly moving in a direction someone else has chosen.
The beauty of unschooling is that it allows the members of a family to live together, learn together. As parents, we not only get to watch our children grow and learn, but we also get to experience a way of living and learning for ourselves that most of us never had a chance to experience before. We get to explore the world on our own bicycles. We get to go through the gaps we always knew we wanted to experience more deeply. We get to find new gaps we never knew existed because we couldn’t see them from our seats inside the trains we spent most of our lives on.
Do unschoolers MIND THE GAPS?
Yes and no. No, unschoolers don’t MIND the gaps, in the sense that we are worried or distressed by their existence. But yes, unschoolers MIND the gaps, in the sense that we are aware of their existence, we approach them thoughtfully, and we take care to cross the ones that are most important to us and our children.
So the next time someone asks you if you are afraid your child will have knowledge gaps because of unschooling, you can say something like, “I’m sure they will! And what thrilling opportunities those gaps will provide for my child!”
The next time you are feeling doubts about unschooling, when you question whether or not your child is learning everything he or she needs to know, you can think of bicycles. You can think of all the interesting gaps your child has crossed so far on a bicycle. And you can get excited about the possibilities of where and when your child will find the next gap, and how you can support him or her in crossing it.
Unschooling at its best is built on trust among family members, and trust in human nature. Trust that children have a strong desire to learn about things, even if those things may not be on the short list of school subjects. Trust that, with our acceptance and support, our children will follow their own paths, leading exactly where they want to go.