Unschooling. Or Learning as You Go.

23 May

Climbing a ladder on the back of a sangthaew taxi-van. On the Mekong, Four Thousand Islands, Laos.

About to cross the Mekong. Laos.

[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]It’s a truism that one learns by travelling, and a cliche that travel broadens the mind.

From the days when English noblemen embarked on that aristocratic GAP year, the Grand Tour of Europe, to today’s school trips, summer camps, foreign exchanges and volunteer placements, travel has been key to education.

So, when we went to see the nine-year-old’s school before we set out on our long journey around the world, it seemed pretty obvious that he would learn far more travelling on four continents and fifteen or so countries than he would in his (extremely good) London primary.

Although I wouldn’t have expected his headteacher to make that point for me…

One thing I didn’t really know, though, was how the learning would work. So where we’ve ended up, after some vicissitudes, is with an educational philosophy called unschooling.

Flower in the exhaust of a motorbike at the Imperial Palace, Hue.

Making a point about pollution.

Like many scarily innovative ideas, unschooling originated in the States in the early days of t’interweb: on AOL listservs, rather than The Well, but, well, you take my point… A lady named Sandra Dodd created the name, taking her inspiration from a Seven-Up ad.

In unschooling, essentially, the child chooses how to learn and what to learn. You look for the learning in what’s around you, find opportunities, then let it happen.

Some central messages of unschooling?

“Let go of learning. It happens anyway.” Yikes!

“Let the child lead.” Blimey!

You can agree between you certain variations on this theme. In our case, this is that he has to write sometimes. (And, yes, err, that is it.)

Now. A year ago, this would all have sounded like crazy hippie shit to me.


Letting junior direct his learning has really worked. (I wrote more about how here.)

On a giant tree trunk in the ruins of Ta Prohm, Cambodia.

In the Angkor-era ruins of Ta Prohm, Cambodia.

When you’re travelling the world, the humanities pretty much teach themselves. You can’t help but learn when you’re meeting survivors of the Pol Pot Regime, visiting the Museum of War Remnants in Saigon, snorkelling World War II gunboats in the Philippines, exploring Angkor Wat or the Purple Palace, meeting young monks in a Cambodian monastery or participating in a Filipino Easter festival.

There are few more beautiful places to appreciate ecosystems in action than coral reef, where you regularly see predators hunting and killing, clownfish protecting their anemone nests, and parrotfish grazing on coral. Geology comes very easily when climbing an active volcano, or kayaking a mature karst landscape. And coconuts sprouting on the beach are germination writ, well, huge

close-up of field of bright green young rice, Hoi An, Vietnam.

The brilliant green of young rice. One of the colours of Asia.

Actually, even the very simple unschooling strategy of taking the time to find a proper answer to those difficult questions that children ask works in mysterious ways.

Z’s question “What is a positron?” (a positively-charged electron, since you ask…) led us onto anti-matter, quarks, the Big Bang and string theory.

“Who was Kublai Khan?” took us on (via this amazing resource) to Indian, Chinese and Western styles of art and Coleridge. Although I have to say that the fact that Mongol children had to gather animal poo to use as fuel for fires made more of an impression.

Watching The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with its tortuous Vogon poetry, led us onto Jabberwocky and free verse. (Zombieland produced a hilarious guide to Zombie Survival for N0obs.)

Even maths (which bored us both shitless taught traditionally: see here for our nadir) works well. Sir started to speculate about whether computers were moving humans “up or down the evolutionary tree”, which brought up Moore’s Law, arithmetic versus exponential growth and binary numbers. (We even did a graph!)

Roman numerals in chapter headings bring you onto teaching Roman numbers. Money conversions bring you onto market movements, interest rates, exchange rates. Diving theory brings you onto bars, pressures, partial pressures, switching between decimals and percentages. And so on…

Kayak approaching gap in base of limestone cliff: Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Kayaking Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Physically, the transformation since we left is astonishing. Since Z was born he’s been long and thin, with the sort of appetite that made my grandmother talk about hollow legs. But he’s much, much stronger and more active than he was. In London a chronic, nay, pathological, dawdler, he now steams ahead of me on hills.

He swims confidently. His balance is good and he climbs well. He’s learning scuba and is teaching himself to meditate. We’ve played a bit of mini golf and I’m hoping to find a good course down south.

When it comes to languages, he’s picking up bits and pieces of the local languages as we travel, and has been teaching himself a little French using Google Translate (when he starts spouting, I start talking back). We’ll be learning Spanish together in Latin America next year.

He draws constantly. And, thanks to all those long train journeys, he’s discovering Dickens (who works amazingly well in transit).

Certainly, compared to ploughing through worksheets or the Year 4 primary syllabus, let alone trying to mimic the type of education homeschoolers provide with a full library, a packed kitchen, ample art supplies and no 36-hour train journeys on the horizon, unschooling works very well. And it takes phenomenally little time.

In the water, making a bamboo raft in Virachey National Park, Cambodia

Making a bamboo raft in Virachey National Park, Cambodia

So…. Crazy hippie shit? Lazy parenting? Or effective educational strategy for some children (especially those at the extreme ends of the ability range)? I’d go with all three of the above, with the emphasis on the third.

But what do you think? Should I be spending more time actually, y’know, teaching him stuff? Or following a syllabus? Did you ever travel longterm with your kids (or did you travel yourself as a child)? And what did you do about education?

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19 Responses to “Unschooling. Or Learning as You Go.”

  1. jessiev June 11, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    LOVE this! as you know, we unschool our daughter. it works so well, esp since kids have an innate sense of curiosity about the world. they can get so engaged (and learn so much) – and we can learn together. YAY!!

    • MummyT June 12, 2010 at 8:10 am #

      Totally concur! And, thanks for all the links you’ve sent me. It does, honestly, seem to be working right now…

  2. Ad June 12, 2010 at 5:06 am #

    One of the most interesting (and successful) people I’ve met in recent years was raised in outback Western Australia by intelligent, educated parents. He had an aptitude for pulling engines apart, so decided to do an appropriate apprenticeship, in town. It was only when they gave him books to read that he decided it was time to learn!

    One skill he had learned was problem solving- he followed the local headmaster home and knocked on his door. the man taught him to read.

    He’s now a partner in a huge engineering company, that makes stuff for the mining industry, and he’s the go-to man when their clients have problems- somehow his brain was wired differently to all the university educated engineers working for him.

    Which is my point- the more kids that step outside “the system”, the more various and interesting brains we have. Universal education systems produce similar thinkers.

    • MummyT June 12, 2010 at 8:13 am #

      Good lord! So, how old was he before he learnt to read? It sounds as though he was well into his teens… Does he have kids yet? Is he raising them similarly, or taking a more conventional route?

  3. marketingtomilk June 27, 2010 at 1:15 pm #

    Holy *. i’m 33 and i have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about with any of this stuff. (i had a conventional, private education and went to university – surprisingly i know very little). ;<)

    • MummyT June 27, 2010 at 8:16 pm #

      Our teaching of history and culture remains very Eurocentric, I think. To be honest, one of the slightly unnerving aspects of unschooling or homeschooling (neither things I would have contemplated in the early years) is realising how very little our primary system actually delivers.

  4. midway2go June 29, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    Lazy parenting? Banish the thought! It’s the bliss of the easiest course of action being best. Although it doesn’t always feel easy, and I’ve threatened my two with regular school at least once a week every week of this trip! So, yes, we, too, unschool and find it a perfect fit for travel. So, welcome to the hippy bullshit club…

    • MummyT July 10, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

      We started with regular school once a week. FAR too much like hard work. It’s amazing how fast they learn when it’s self-directed, isn’t it?

  5. Cristina September 3, 2010 at 6:46 am #

    I love this! I have always noticed how wonderful travel is. My oldest has done the most traveling, and she comes back with a camera full of photos and so many stories, she’s taught me a number of things!

    • MummyT September 3, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

      Why, thank you!

  6. Marilia October 21, 2010 at 6:43 am #

    What a wonderful post for me to find. Especially because I´m about to travel to Central America with my little one and am considering unschooling her if we keep traveling.

    It´s been great for me to find more and more unschoolers around the web with so much information on how they deal with it.

  7. Leah October 22, 2010 at 6:29 am #

    The longest holiday my family ever did when I was growing up was 7 weeks, so there wasn’t really much need to focus too much on our schooling for such a short period. (And often those trips were over Christmas holidays anyway so we wouldn’t be missing much school if any. [Australia’s Christmas holidays are our longest].) But as we would be rejoining our class upon return, I do remember being given a few homework sheets to complete while away. They usually took me a minimal amount of time. My mother also made us (4 siblings) keep a journal of each of our holidays. That’s the most in the way of formal education we had on our holidays. However my mother is a teacher (literally) and so it wouldn’t have been unusual, at home or on holiday, if someone had asked her a maths-related question and she’d launch into a ten-minute mini lesson on fractions or whatever, usually complete with diagrams.

    I wonder if you’d need to be a bit more formal about educating if you had several children? I think we (my siblings and I) would have distracted each other and not asked such probing questions. (That said I often overheard my brother asking Dad such questions as “what’s the theory of relativity” or asking about light and waves vs particles when he was about 8 years old, just randomly at home. Weird kid.) Plus you’d have to make sure you were dedicating enough ‘education’ to each child at their different levels. Interesting. It certainly seems to be working with just the one kid though.

  8. Colleen Hackett December 30, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

    I have been doing this with my child since he was leaning to talk without much thought, just followed my heart. I find that I learn more from putting myself in his shoes with far more passion at least when it comes to subjects I myself was not keen on,like math or science. Of course, I was a good student and could apply myself, but when its your child’s mind that is opening up the passion you put into it feels effortless.

    I have to say that I predict Z will be a very skilled at imagining the perspective of other peoples and cultures having eaten with them, slept in their homes and meditated in their temples, then most diplomats, who try,but fail to be able to truly grasp the commonality with other peoples.

    What a wonderful life experience you are giving Z. I will have to just do summers, but will be sure to go slow and in depth starting with borneo and Northern Laos this summer. I’m curious: where was the experience with the turtles and have you ever been diving off West Papau ? I would love to hear how you went about getting Z the diving experience. My son is 8 ( will be 8 1/2 this summer) and is a one length of pool only swimmer, but I soooo want him to see that marine life. How did you manage to get tanks that wouldn’t be too heavy and get a dive outfit to allow him to dive?

    Much appreciate any advice, feed back, ideas.

    • MummyT December 31, 2010 at 3:25 am #

      Oh god, Colleen, I owe you an email! I’ve been meaning to get back to you on Borneo in depth, but I guess best to do it here.

      1: Experience with the turtles was on Pulau Derawan, off the coast of Indonesian Borneo, but relatively easy (for Borneo) to get to if you cross by boat from Tarakan in Sabah to Tawau: I blogged it here: http://travelswithanineyearold.com/2010/08/26/turtle-island-indonesia-pulau-derawan-turtles-sea-turtles-sangalaki-manta-rays/. No need to prebook or do organised tours as at, say, Turtle Island in Sabah. We stayed at Losmen Danakan, where we could see them swimming off the dock. Then it’s just a question of wandering down the beach to find if a turtle’s laying at high tide, and making friends with the guys at the turtle hatchery on the beach: they love kids. It’s a tiny little place, idyllic, and I think you would adore.

      2: West Papua: no, we do this in a couple of months, I’ll keep you posted. The Raja Ampats are supposed to be amazing. As a Junior Open Water Diver, though, Z’s limited to a max depth of 12m and it would be unwise to take him anywhere with heavy current.

      3: Diving introductions. The Bubblemaker is a PADI discover diving course suitable for age eight and up. The challenge is not so much the tanks but finding a BCD (jacket) that’s small enough, flippers that are small enough and a mask that fits and allows him to equalise his nose: but they only take you to 3 metres (some outfits will do 5 or 6, but they shouldn’t). I’d consider investing in a mask, snorkel and flippers to get him comfortable in the water (also a great way to develop a child’s swimming) and comfortable propelling with fins before doing the leap to diving.

      You can only do a Junior Open Water Diver course if the child is 10, unless one should inadvertently miswrite their birth date, say: but they have physical challenges (you need to be able to swim 500m through open water, tow an adult diver 25m in full gear) and academic challenges (they do the same course, same skills and same exam at the same accelerated learning pace as adult divers) that some adults find hard to do.

      I would go with a PADI 5* school with access to a pool for introducing your son to diving. Z had a great introduction via AB Wonderdive in Puerto Galera, in the Philippines, which started with a game of underwater frisbee: http://travelswithanineyearold.com/2010/04/15/bubblemaker-diving-puerto-galera-philippines-travel-family-kids/.

      I’d also consider doing just Borneo, which is the world’s second biggest island, rather than going for northern Laos too. You can see walking fish, orangutans, a whole bunch of stuff… Preferred Sarawak and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) to Sabah, myself, which is the one more on the backpacker circuit…


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