Unschool House Rock

Image of Shcoolhouse Rocks

Last year my wife Antonella and I decided to unschool Captain Miles. While thinking and talking about the process I think we came up with a few loose principles that might help guide our approach (though Anto probably has a different, more intelligent take and will hopefully blog her vision soon).

1) We weren’t going to be didactic or preachy about the decision. I want to talk about the practice at the same time I think about its larger cultural and political implications. This is first and foremost an experiment for our family, we want to have fun with it and once it becomes a psychic burden for whatever reason we’re open to reconsidering any and all options.

2) There will be no curriculum. None. Period. To home school seems to me to defeat the purpose of the experiment, and for us allowing as much freedom as possible for all of us to share and learn is crucial. What’s more, we want to make a concerted effort to meet other unschoolers (or not unschoolers) and embed ourselves within a series of networked relations both in person and online.

3) Unschooling for us need not be understood as some repudiation of the public trust, or public schools. Nor need it be understood in the stark, divisive terms of institutions need to be gutted, rather it is an attempt to create some critical distance from one institution in particular we both care deeply about: public education. Fact is, on a daily basis we depend upon all kinds of public institutions to carry out this process: the local libraries (which are amazing), the University of Mary Washington (for both flexibility and my paycheck), as well as the innumerable people at innumerable institutions who share things with us all the time. For too long the annoying “but you’re at an institution” shot lodged at me and many others (with some justification) has failed to take into account just how vital many of these institutions are to the public trust and the future of our culture. I want to think this through, while at the same time moving away from empty rhetoric and stepping into the light of praxis.

Unschooling in our particular cultural moment is often framed as a privilege, and while that is true to some large degree I think it is also a series of choices and sacrifices for anyone who does it. And while some of them are financial, both Anto and I believe this vantage point has become an almost blanket excuse not to consider the alternatives—and it remains deeply rooted in so many of the cultural values of invidious distinctions, conspicuous consumption, and the mortgaged value system of a “comfortable, middle-class life.” So while certainly a privilege, it is also a very real choice about the idea of this thing we call school. And by extension such an occasion provides the opportunity for all of us to explore some of the assumptions undergirding our education system in an attempt to think through things as both individuals, a family, and hopefully a much larger network.

In fact, what inspired me to write this post in the first place is not only how unbelievably awesome Antonella has been with the whole endeavor, but just how this may provide some sense of self, some idea of awareness for all of us, particularly the kids, about what is possible and how education is not a series of protocol, assignments, and grades—but a shared attitude towards the culture and our world. And this video Anto and I watched on YouTube this week brought it all home for me in the brilliant words of an adolescent Emi, who insights and sense of self seem to me to embody the ideals of what all education (institutional or otherwise) should shoot for.

And how #ds106 ties into all of this, well that is space for a whole series of posts 🙂

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Unschool House Rock

  1. Lisa says:

    Are you taking a radical unschooling approach with the younger kids, too? We’re pretty unschooly in our general approach to parenting (as non-hierarchical as we can manage) and pro-unschooling. Ideally that’s the route we would take, but we can’t figure out what different choices we could make for it work for us (the moms) right now.

  2. Andrea_R says:

    Did you see my earlier tweets about Emma reading a hardcover version of Empire Strikes Back?

    It’s the first adult-level book she’s read, in its entirety, all on her own. She’s ten. I bought it less than a week ago at a library sale.

    She’s had 3 formal reading lessons.

    So yeah, unschooling is pretty darn awesome.

    I hop by stating no curriculum you’re not actively *shunning* curriculum tho. While we have used it, it’s been at *their* insistence, and we’ve made whatever it was work for us. Don;t use the questions if we didn’t like them, found other resources to add if we wanted. But we’ve always been really light on formal stuff, tossing it when it no longer works for us.

    And Lisa, I think that’s the key – you don’t have to figure out all twelve years *now*. What you do today doesn’t have to continue for the remainder of the journey, wherever it takes you. Flexibility, and above all *trust* – that it works, that the kids will learn – and believing that your really do have the freedom to do whatever the hell you want to.

  3. Jared Stein says:

    I have a friend who’s doing similarly great things. He has a pretty extensively thought-out philosophy for the whole thing, based on more classical (pre-industrial) views of education, which I’ve been itching to find out more about. Hope you regularly post your progress with unschooling!

  4. Lou McGill says:

    Great post Jim and totally agree that Emi’s articulate and wise video are what it’s all about.

    We do what I call home learning here in the UK – I call it that to distinguish from home schooling which implies bringing a school philosophy and curriculum into the home. Of course learning happens all over so the ‘home’ is also problematic.

    Unschooling is often used over here to mean that period when a child might leave the formal education system and need to ‘recover’ from it. This is sometimes, unfortunately, actually about damage done to children who suffer greatly through being different in a system that values conformity, but may just be being about the time it takes for parents and children to stop automatically thinking in terms of study time, and textbooks, and set subjects.

    However your post reflects more how we feel in our family about our approch to learning. There are however such negative vibes about home learning in the UK that I don’t think people would tend to use that term as much because it may imply rejection of the public system (and attract unwanted attention) rather than embracing the difference.

    Long live the difference. I plan to do a post myself about this so thanks for the inspiration.

    • Reverend says:

      Thank you for an important linguistic distinction that I hadn’t considered, and that’s because I am admittedly very new to the whole thing. And you are right, unschooling does suggest and undoing of something done, and that can’t really be the case for us given our kids never went to school. Antonella referred to it at lunch as home education, which she used to define both home schooling and unschooling, and I think it hits the same chords your onto here. Interestingly enough, Antonella is born and raised in Italy, and when we went back there it was apparent that unschooling (or whatever term we find) was pretty fringe, and most of her friends and family were fascinated, if not a bit puzzled. That said, my dad was a public school teacher, and he constantly asks me about the socialization, and it’s apparent my long Island family thinks I am a nutball, but they are used to that with me. I sometimes joke we are doing it so that she doesn’t have to witness the kids succumb to cafeteria food in the US, but in there is a serious thread. Her own sense of the US school system, the idea of testing, etc. has pretty much enabled us to start pursuing real alternatives, and I am really lucky in this way. i was always deeply worried about seeing such a move as a capitulation of the public goo, but I think that is a bit of a simplistic, duality ridden vision that kinda pits me in the boring and completely unworkable camp of conservative vs. liberal. I want no part of that, and I want to experiment with this stuff in a real, authentic space of my own life.

      What’s more, I hope you do blog about it soon, because I really look forward to some discourse around this whole thing, i can only figure it out by jumping in, and that has worked brilliantly for me in edtech, I’m hoping the same goes for this process. Thanks for chiming in here, and hope to get to the UK to meet all the UK radicals—I was telling David Kernohan today just how much what you all are doing buoys my thought an influences my practices regularly.

  5. Reverend says:

    The moms question was a huge one, and it is why we are trying to be as flexible as possible, it may soon happen that I am home with the kids most of the time and Anto is working, and I think that option in place is crucial—if very difficult. There is no right way to live a wrong life, but at the same time realizing it isn;t impossibl has been crucial for us. I think once we made this decision with Miles, the other two just basically get into a similar pattern, its fun to watch. Miles started reading so now Tessy is starting as a way of keeping up. They define the terms more than we do, and pulling back on making them read or pushing them to do X, Y, and Z has been a real big learning curve for me (and I think Anto) —what’s more I am far from a perfect parent. I lose my patience often, but at the core I think we are all having fun with it.

    Obviosuly you and Ron have been a big influence on me. I have followed your work with your kids, and the homeschooling network of blogs, and that is crucial in my mind for what I want to become a more integral part of. As for curriculum, I don;t want to say I am actively shunning it, but rather we are weaving into our daily life. We do actively avoid learning goals, test, visions of level-appropriate material, etc. I think we want to make it part of a directed stud that more organically grows from the world in which we find ourselves.

    It’s funny we’ve kinda “offically” been at it since September, and I meant to post on it a number of times, but found I wasn’t really sure what to say. So this morning I just decided to start writing, and hopefully I can weave into the others things I am doing like #ds106, edtech, and following the vision many of us articulate both within and outside of institutions. What’s cool is a feel that everyone I work alongside of onlien and in-person is a partner in this whether they realize it or not.

    That said, i acknowledge my ignorance in this realm, and really hope to refine some of my very loose, contradictory, and imperfect thoughts above, but it is a start. What’s more, I’d love to find out more about the pre-industrial views of education—who are they reading? What’s that all about?

  6. monika hardy says:

    cool Jim.
    i love this:
    There will be no curriculum. None. Period. To home school seems to me to defeat the purpose of the experiment, and for us allowing as much freedom as possible for all of us to share and learn is crucial.

    and the video is great. thanks for sharing.

    for more insight – if you’re so inclined.. i love Kate Fridkis. she writes about unschooling at http://un-schooled.net/

  7. Lisa says:

    @Lou, I’ve heard that called “deschooling” in the US.
    @Jim, just as a point of clarification, when I said “the moms” what I meant was us, specifically, as parents–it’s just that we only deal in moms in our family (actually, we are called Mama and Gator). If you read “the moms” as an implication that unschooling is a bigger commitment for mothers than for fathers (generally) that’s not what I meant and I’m sorry. I’ve heard unschooling–as a lifestyle and beyond an education method–as being a family in which nobody’s needs are more important than anyone else’s. Not because of how old you are, your gender, what your role in the family is, how much money you make etc. I think there can be a knee-jerk assumption that unschooling lends itself to parents beholden to their children’s whims, when in fact in can open an avenue for each member of the family to suss out and articulate their own particular needs and desires.

    • Reverend says:

      I didn’t read it that way at all, and in fact as of now there is no question the majority of the work has fallen on the mom in our case, and that is particularly gender specific. What’s more it gets at some real issues of re-inscribing some of the traditional roles we might want to challenge. So, to that end, there is absolutely no need to apologize (I repudiate your apology 😉 ) and would say this is exactly the kind of conversation I’m hoping for, cause like the idea of privilege, the idea of gender looms large here, and can only be ignored at our peril. And what’s funny, is like with Lou, Antonella and I were talking about what this idea of unschooling means for family. She was talking about Lou Faranga’s videos about unschooling and family (which comes at the end of this video http://youtu.be/POjzEV4GCzw and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsnhoGDfRm4) which gets at this idea of family being the core principle for all of this, which I have to work through in some ways given how reactionary that can and might me. And it’s what attracts me to your articulation of what it might mean for family a lot. So, please bring more, more often, I love it.

  8. Lou McGill says:


    thanks for your response – and it’s great to see so many other comments too.

    re socialisation – oh don’t I know it….
    I have done a couple of posts on my blog about this and hope you don’t mind me adding links here
    this one was in 2009 and talks about face to face communities
    and this one is recent about mys son (now 14) using World of Warcraft and other gaming sites to socialise and learn with people all over the world…

    much more effective that shoving him into a class with 30 other people who just happen to be the same age as him..

    Not sure the uk is ready for you yet jim; )
    only joking – we already benefit massively from your boundary testing work and think you would receive a warm welcome…

  9. Lisa says:

    I think that’s a fair point about gender, and strangely, one that we can sometimes ignore precisely because we are two moms–probably ignore at our own peril, though. Maybe sometimes we think that gender issues are taking care of themselves for us since we’re not only a two-mom family but a butch/femme couple. What’s the difference between unschooling gender and ignoring it?
    I do see this urge towards unschooling, for us, as broadening a feminist/queer (dare I say punkish?) sort of social justice-y agenda that extends to and includes children’s rights in it.

  10. Andrea_R says:


    “We do actively avoid learning goals, test, visions of level-appropriate material, etc. ”

    YES! Us too. 🙂 It’s either you know it.. or you don’t. Or you know a little bit and are not yet interested or ready to know more, so maybe it’ll circle back in time. I mean, you’ve got twelve years here…. and you can’t cover everything, no one can. Our goal was always to make them functional, capable, intelligent adults by 18. so far, we are 3 out of 4, cuz the youngest is only ten. 😀

    But it’s been just as much learning for us too.

  11. Good for you guys. Unschooling isn’t easy for parents to do – the opportunity costs can be vast – but the benefits are excellent.

    Socialization: unschooling can mean *not* getting the *bad* socialization caused by schools. That’s a huge benefit. i.e., no automatic deference to authority, not being accustomed to peer bullying, etc.

    Another problem: criticism from friends in education. We got used to it, but for a while the K-12 teacher and supporter negativity was harsh.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.