(Above: Maleka Diggs, founder of Eclectic Learning Network, leads a discussion around community building at the 2019 Decolonise Unconference in Soweto, South Africa.)
Almost every expert interviewed for this article points out that the child needs time to get out of “schooled” mode. The first year becomes a “deschooling” process — estimate for every year the child has been in school, they need a month to decompress, to trust their house isn’t going to turn into a school. For some young people, it can take longer to recover from the oppression, the bullying, and the trauma they encountered at school.
While homeschooling presupposes learning requirements, unschooling is void of a predetermined curricula: Learning is natural. Schooling is a choice. Learning is always happening; it’s schoolish adults who believe that learning looks like identifiable, data-driven metrics, or sitting quietly in a classroom as one would at church.
Sandoval thinks of it as having options. For her youngest, who is self-motivated and driven, self-directed learning is great. But both Sandoval and her middle child, a teenage son, have realized the same rules do not apply to him that would apply to the children of her white friends. Those white children, she says, might not need a degree — but for her son and other young people of color, the degree can be the key to a door that is too often closed to communities of color.
Unschooling, says Diggs, goes beyond a method to follow and rather is a lifestyle to live, making room for a child to know they are responsible for their learning, and that they have partners who will support them. It is never pre-determined and is inclusive of the learner’s consent and interest.
“For me it’s very important kids know [school] is a choice,” stresses Yaï. “That’s part of unschooling. It’s a choice. Not a must.”
A Solution That Speaks to Equity and Equality
Sandoval works closely with the immigrant community, and notes that immigrants often carry both an entrepreneurial spirit and a huge responsibility to elevate the family with education. “Self-directed education and unschooling can work to prevent the programming that happens in school: that [the student] can’t question, that they need permission,” she notes. But being outside of the school system runs the risk of denying the young person the same opportunities as students within the system. While self-directed education is “meant to help, not harm,” Sandoval notes that telling that to a community that is already harmed might be preemptively dismissive.
School, then, can be a useful tool depending on the child. “If you are coming from an economically and educationally deprived home, you won’t have the same opportunity as you would in other elements of social class,” says Gray. “Are there books in the home? Are [family members] involved in the community in positive ways? [Unschooling] works well when it’s a family well-connected with culture at large, and parents feel confident they are able to help their child learn. If your parents aren’t in that, then you have less opportunity to be exposed to kinds of experiences [you need] to rise out of poverty.”
Sandoval points out that many homeless and undocumented immigrant families have been unschooling out of necessity for years: Already excluded from the system, or even in hiding, children in these families are still learning and figuring out the world, often with the support of extended family or community, and without the laptops, tablets, and broadband internet of their more resourced peers. They are still able to flourish. Indeed, homeless families are often known at public libraries.
Forty-nine percent of low-income households have no access to the internet at home, and the US continues to struggle with the digital divide. For example, seventy percent of children in Detroit have no access to the internet at home. Libraries and learning centers can help young people get the skills they need to navigate the digital realm.
Gray suggests other solutions can be found in centers rooted in self-directed education, such as the Agile Learning Centers or Sudbury schools, where kids aren’t segregated by age, and where the learning resources range from books to games to computers to a woodworking shop, gardens and a kitchen. Field trips are encouraged, and fees are accessible and based on ability to pay. They provide a wide range of options for self-directed learning, and provide students with a pressure-free space to discover what they want to learn — and how they learn best.
“In theory, this kind of education is even more valuable for those coming from underprivileged backgrounds,” notes Gray. “We don’t have enough experience to test statistically, but enough anecdotally to say it works well.”
Sandoval notes that some perspectives are often missing from SDE conversations — the voices of Indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ and single-parent families, as well as families of kids with special needs (such as those who are deaf). In each of those communities, SDE will likely look different than it will in other communities, and what works for one might not work for the others. For example, young people in an Indigenous community might learn their own language, culture, and traditions, such as agriculture, and are likely expected to follow their elders’ guidance and direction. Yet in white SDE communities, the child’s interests often come first. “When you’re unschooling from a white perspective, you have to find the ‘yes’ — but there have to be hard ‘no’s,’” says Sandoval.
These differences also surface in community: White parents may be at a loss as to how to both work from home and facilitate learning with their children, while some families will turn to their families and communities instinctually for collaboration and support.
Richards notes the pandemic and nationwide rebellions have presented the opportunity to get back to our communities. “There are communal ways of being together that we forget about,” says Richards — ways we can turn to now, both to unschool and to restore relationships as young people continue to learn.
What Does SDE Look Like?
Farenga suggests letting your child’s opinion count—what do they want to read? To learn? To do? Then providing children with access to materials, and providing them with people who can answer their questions when they are asked. Who in your family or community has hobbies, skills or a profession that lends itself to teaching the young people something they want to learn? He gives an example of the Anatomy Coloring Book, which he used with his own kids and their fellow SDE students. They wanted to learn more, so one of the other parents asked a chiropractor they knew to teach them. It turned into six weeks of learning with the chiropractor. Farenga says it might require thinking outside the box, but why can’t a chiropractor teach your child anatomy? Or an accountant teach them math? If you don’t know anyone, expand your social network, or turn to groups like Diggs’, which can help coordinate programs and learning opportunities for your children. Finding the support for your child might actually support you more, too.
Mojisola Yaï and her daughter, Sena. Unschooling, Yaï says, “removes you from the system. You can start building relationships, rather than fitting them into the slots society has given to you.” (Photo courtesy Mojisola Yaï)
SDE, then, creates an opportunity to get off the conveyor belt of education and reconnect with family and community, and creates an opportunity for identifying who can help your child learn. It gets back to a way of learning that has served humanity until very recently.
Another option is to identify local learning centers, which may even teach them more about democracy than kids learn in public schools. “You can’t overcome a hierarchical authoritarian mentality if you are growing up in a school system that embraces it,” notes Gray. At both ALCs and Sudbury schools, rules are determined democratically, so every student, regardless of age, has one vote, notes Gray. This way, the student has experience with democracy, not top-down control. Giving students a voice in making the rules empowers them.
“I see it as healing work,” says Richards. “What it means to be together and own ourselves. It’s recognizing how we oppress others. It is communal and non-hierarchical. It’s about ancient collaborative ways of being, that have nothing to do with being rich and white.”
For Richards, this is a prime opportunity to exercise the skills inherent in unschooling, such as intergenerational relationship building. School teaches segregation by age, and this in turn plays out well into the workplace later in life — one needs to only look at the gap of understanding and lack of relationships among generations of workers to see how learned ageism is passed down and used as a tool of bullying into adulthood and later in life.
The deschooling journey is lifelong, with young people in your life growing and maturing just as you are. The idea is to come to those relationships with respect. Otherwise, “we reduce education to a transactional thing about employment,” notes Farenga.
Yet education is not the solution to racism, notes scholar Ibram X Kendi. “If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion,” he says. “The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural [self-interest].”
“A lot of people agree that the education system in the U.S. is not a good one and that it is one rooted in white supremacy,” says Yaï. Unschooling, she says, lets you observe how it shows up in your life and in relationships.
What we call self-directed education is, in fact, how children learned for thousands of years, outside of the Eurocentric notion of what it means to be ‘learned.’ The idea that the COVID-19 crisis has created “a lost generation of knowledge,” notes Farenga, is “such bullshit.”
Advocates point out that while society values the degree, one can obtain a degree and still not know how to read. In fact, 19% of high school graduates are illiterate.
If self-directed education still inspires discomfort, it might be helpful to remember that Henry Ford only occasionally attended class when he wasn’t working on his family’s farm; Amelia Earhart was homeschooled; and Louis Armstrong stopped attending school in the 5th grade.
What Do Kids Think?
Yaï’s daughter Sena, 10-and-a-half, liked her time at U.S. school — except, she tells Next City, for the “small” stuff, “like people getting in trouble, or getting suspended.” For her, going to school in Benin was also challenging, because classes were conducted in French — not her first language. Yet Sena speaks fluent English, Yoruba, a bit of Japanese and Fon, in addition to some French.
“I like how I am learning now,” she says of her self-directed education. “Mostly I learn stuff by asking questions, watching stuff, seeing stuff. And books. I like to read. And sometimes games.”
Sena says she wants to be a digital artist or a scientist, and is currently interested in learning more about the brain and anatomy.
When Yaï sent Sena to school in Africa, she wanted her to see the difference between Africa and the U.S. In Africa, it’s more strict. Still, “teachers have all the power in both places. Teachers are allowed to hit the kids,” Yaï notes. In the U.S., corporal punishment is legal in the public schools of 19 states.
When Yaï realized that both systems were deeply rooted in colonialism and oppression, she decided to unschool in both places.
“Equity isn’t the goal,” Yaï stresses. “With unschooling you can be as oppressive as you want to be.” The key, for her, is to think critically about why you would choose to unschool.
“The unschooling that I think we all need to do, that would provide equity, has to do more with relationships than with learning,” says Yaï. “For me, it’s seeing my relationship with my daughter, and how I use my power over her. I am bigger than her. I birthed her. She looks up to me. She is more likely to do what I say. And so being careful about how I use that power, and being observant about how she responds to that power dynamic, translates how I navigate power dynamics between myself and others.”
When you focus on those power dynamics, explains Yaï, and not on micromanaging the household and controlling the people and kids around you, you also notice how people do that to you. You notice how you do that to others outside the household. Then you see it at work in society writ large. Unschooling, Yaï says, “removes you from the system. You can start building relationships, rather than fitting them into the slots society has given to you.”
A child’s “socialization” is often used as an argument against unschooling and in favor of a classroom environment. Yet self-directed education highlights social issues that extend beyond white supremacy: Many people who came through “official” educational channels do not have knowledge of self, do not practice self-care, and do not have leadership skills. Most do not ask questions, lack their own time management skills, and many don’t even know what they are genuinely interested in. Schooling is structured in a way that does not cultivate these skills in most people.