Unschooling Instead of High Schooling

Lisa Stroyan commented on my “School Decision Makers… Revisited” post that she has a son who was in public school through fifth grade, but is now homeschooling, and moving toward the more unschooling end of the homeschooling spectrum. As an initial suggestion, I think she should check out www.unschooling.com, for some information and provocative thoughts on that educational path.

Lisa said she was also interested in my own experience with my kids’ homeschool/unschool journey during their teen (normally high school) years, maybe how or whether an unschooled kid learns traditional academic subjects like algebra. So here goes…

Eric’s Story

Our Son Eric, Age 17

We pulled our son Eric out of school in February 2000 at age 14 because it had become clear that he hated going to school, and had basically become allergic to the conventional instructional academic environment. (See my earlier post on “Thoughts on Emily & Middle School Issues”). We had been considering doing it for a while, and my partner Sally (Eric’s mom) had done some research on homeschooling on the Internet. Sally and I had an initial strategy to attempt to guide our son in a homeschooling strategy including the four conventional academic subjects – English, social studies, science and math. Eric, as it turns out, had other ideas.

We did consider some other options for Eric. We looked at very alternative private schools (I remember a school called Miramar) but we had just purchased a large house and we felt we did not have the money to send him to an expensive private school, which we weren’t sure would work for him anyway. After a year and a half at home we tried him at our local state high school, Cleveland High, but he lasted just four days. We looked into homeschooling collectives, but they were all generally for younger kids. Eric was so burnt out it seemed intuitively that he just needed to stay home.

At first I made attempts to interest him in continuing to pursue the academics, developing a “curriculum” of sorts for him. For English, I suggested great sci-fi books for him to read, which he did, because he was actually interested in that, and it led to great discussions about the books. For social studies, he had an interest in 20th Century history, so I looked for movies to rent (like “Doctor Zhivago” and “Shindler’s List”) and scanned the TV listings for appropriate History Channel shows. He enjoyed the movies, we mostly watched them together, and we discussed the historical context they were set in, the biases of the movie maker, etc.

I had also bought him computer software to help him learn middle school math (pre algebra and algebra) and science (biology and earth science). He may have tried them once, but since he had not found any real interest in either program, he had not given them a second look. All my subsequent attempts to interest him in academic science or math were unsuccessful.

This was a very frustrating and anxious period for his mom and I. Was our son just going to hole up in his room for the rest of his life? Was he doomed to working at minimum wage jobs and being dependent of us? Had we totally failed as parents by not practicing “tough love” and forcing him to stay in school?

After starting to fight with him again and consider coercing him somehow to do academic work, I finally decided to give it up. We had pulled him out of school to avoid this kind of confrontation, stress and stalemate, so I finally gave up the effort, and we told Eric he could basically use his time as he saw fit, what based on Sally’s research had come to be known as “unschooling”.

During that first year of “unschooling”, Eric spent most of his time alone in his room with the door closed playing games on his computer, decompressing and deprogramming, and testing us to make sure we didn’t have other schemes in store for him. Sally had learned from her research that this was a typical transition from externally-directed “schooling” to self-directed learning. Eric got to a point, somewhere in that transitional year, where he was complaining to us that he was bored, which initially inspired us to again try to suggest “curriculum” for him, which he again resisted. But now I see it as an important threshold, when he realized that he was ultimately responsible for his path forward.

At my suggestion, he got involved in the Unitarian-Universalist high school youth YRUU program and met a lot of wonderful unique kids like himself. He also got deeply involved in several on-line youth communities on the Internet, getting on the volunteer board for one even. He even wrote a virtual play that was performed on-line by all the avatars of the people participating in this particular dungeons & dragons type fantasy community. He also participated in a yearly drama camp and made a circle of friends there.

Within three years of “opting out” Eric had built at least three circles of community – UU, drama/theater, and on-line gaming – where he had friends all over Southern California and literally all over the world. He got his feet back under him, and is now one of the most charming, caring, well-spoken young person you could care to meet.

During Eric’s next four years of unschooling, basically through the time when he would have graduated from high school, he recovered his self-esteem and become a very confident, caring, wise and well spoken young man, truly his own person. We constantly harassed Eric his last three years in school to get up in the morning to go to school and to do his homework at night. We didn’t do that anymore, and our relationship with him became one of mutual trust, love and no longer adversarial. It all happened slowly, but in the end it was pretty shocking. We gave Eric his space, gave him love, just a little bit of advice here and there…and he blossomed…did it his way. Despite no high school, he got jobs as a video game tester for a couple years.

Last year, Eric pulled three other partners together and started a business called “Techies” (www.mac-techies.com) setting up computer systems for video editing businesses in Hollywood and also repairing Apple computers. Eric is the Chief Operating Officer, who handles all the personnel, logistical and financial issues, and is the cool head that holds the other partners together. With our awful economic recession this past year, they have been struggling, but they are hanging in there. Almost ten years from the date we pulled him out of school in eighth grade, it is amazing how much he has developed and how far he has come.

The whole experience turned Eric’s mom (my partner Sally) and I into supporters of unschooling, certainly a very unorthodox educational path, but one that works very well, particularly for kids who like to march to their own drum beat. While our son recovered his sense of self and took full responsibility for his path forward we saw other kids like Eric who were getting brutalized and beaten down trying to fit into regular schools.

5 replies on “Unschooling Instead of High Schooling”

  1. You asked where in CA I was. I have lived taught in Rosemead for 38 years (minus two on a Native American “reserve” in the Dakotas). I have been on my school board for five years. I also am a single adoptive parent – an alternate family style that was short lived as the right leaning talking heads began to prevail. I was inducted into the National Teacher’s Hall of Fame in 1997, one of only three Calif. teachers in the Hall.

  2. Bob… Congratulations on your induction into the National Teacher’s Hall of Fame in 1997. I’d be interested to hear more about how NCLB and all this high stakes standardized testing has impacted your work as a teacher and other teachers you know.

  3. No one is doomed to working minimum wage jobs. I had a chemistry teacher who used to scare us about that, though. “If you don’t do well on this test,” she might say, “you’ll probably end up working at Wal-Mart for the rest of your lives.” Really, school taught me to rely on others for the answers. It taught me to be scared when the path wasn’t laid out clearly ahead of me. It taught me to fear failure.

    From a schooling perspective, the only path laid out clearly ahead of us was: apply for whatever job you can get with your skill level — not your actual skill level, but your skill level as defined by others, based upon how much formal education you’ve completed. Just as we were expected to rely on our teachers to tell us what and how to learn, we are expected to rely on other people to tell us what we can do for a living and what salary we deserve.

    But just as there are other paths — a path of creativity and intrinsic motivation — in learning, there are other paths to livelihood as well. The creativity and intrinsic motivation you develop from unschooling serves well when you’re looking to find a job, or God forbid, decide to bypass all of that and create your own job!

    That’s what I’ve done. Now, my partner, who never graduated from university, is turning down resumes from Princeton graduates and PhDs. We started our business essentially over the course of a weekend, and just kept learning, stayed curious, figured out what works through trial and error. That’s something that’s much easier to learn, I think, as an unschooler than as someone passively going through school and relying on someone else to determine their future. Then you learn to develop income streams through your interests and… in the end, I think it’s a lot more likely you’ll be stuck at a minimum wage job you don’t like if you passively go through school like everyone else.

    It really doesn’t take much — it’s not as hard as you might think. I could start any kind of business! People told me that if I wanted to do computer programming I’d have to get a degree, but most people could care less what kind of education you have. If you start a business that looks respectable and has done some good work for people, nobody is going to even think about your formal qualifications. No one has ever asked us to produce a resume. People are going to just assume you’re qualified. When I went to work for others, sure, people wanted to know my qualifications — but when I built my own business, our website and testimonials speak for themselves.

    That’s the kind of thing that can be learned so easily as an unschooler and it’s why I have absolutely no fears about my children, when I have them, being stuck in minimum wage jobs. If you’re curious and motivated, there’s nothing to worry about. I’d worry about them if they stayed stuck in school and lost their own initiative!

    People get beaten down trying to fit into regular schools, and also trying to fit into regular jobs. Neither is necessary! Having done this myself, I start to highly doubt the oft-quoted statistic that 90% of businesses fail. If you just keep trying and learning and don’t do anything really stupid, as long as there’s not a huge initial investment requirement, and as long as you’re providing a service that’s actually needed, I think some degree of success is almost inevitable.

  4. It is interesting how kids who were unschooled or attended free schools like Sudbury Valley tend to be more entrepreneurial as adults… but it makes sense.

    That said, I do think conventional instructional schools do work for some kids and their families. If there were more options for all the other kids, and they did not have to be in conventional schools against their better judgment, then those teachers and kids that were okay in the conventional environment would have a classroom much less affected by all that negative energy. Check out my initial “Many Paths” post at http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/2009/01/11/an-argument-for-many-paths/#more-191.

  5. […] our son Eric unschool, rather than go to high school. I wrote a piece about it in January of 2009, “Unschooling Instead of High Schooling”, and I have reworked that piece below, based on additional thought, more feedback from Eric, and […]

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