The Path to Unschooling

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Pat Farenga is coming to speak. Just in case you missed that. If you want a deal on tickets to hear him speak AND a great meal you might want to get on that. Just sayin’.

Before we get into Pat’s contribution to unschooling I’m going to walk you through our path of discovery. It’s isn’t the homeschooling choice for everyone but I’m a keen researcher and this model has genuine benefits and insights that even the more conservative homeschooler would benefit from. At the end of the post I’ll list some resources I found invaluable.

Some say unschooling started with John Holt while others suggest the idea goes back to the 18th century with Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s Emile is cited as arguably the first document on education and encourages freedom to learn as the male child needs, in nature and in accordance with their own unique needs and desires. (Females were not included in his philosophy).

“Knowledge constitutes the ability to reason and use our senses to learn; if we use books in place of nature and our senses it teaches us to believe much and know little.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau

The ideas of Rousseau are philosophical and ideal, but it was not what sparked the investigation. The first encounter I had with an unschooler was while I was teaching in China. There were not many of us so we spent a lot of time together. She was a Californian single parent of a 9, going on 10 year old boy and a newly adopted teen girl whose mother (and personal friend) had just passed away from a terrible illness. Yes she was an amazing woman! She trucked this small family across the world for faith and family to offer them an opportunity to see things from another point of view. The child was unable to read or write (our marker of academic success at that age) or tell time on an analog clock. But boy could he build! He would spend hours building ‘something’ out of ‘anything’. Bridges out of noodles, towers out of toothpicks, castles out of straws. I recounted this observation to her when I reconnected years later now with children of my own. She didn’t even remember he did that. At the time of our conversation he had graduated with honours from architecture school and was unschooled right up to university. It was this experience in China that sparked the interest, not the outcome because I wasn’t aware of the child’s journey until later. It was because he was happy and insightful, beyond what books could offer at that age. One has a lot of free time while teaching abroad and the time I spent with this family offered me the opportunity to ask questions and observe. By the time homeschooling became a reality for us my only genuine model was this amazing family.

In steps John Taylor Gatto, John Holt and Patrick Farenga. Their publications were a staple in my reading and the foundation for the choice to homeschool. The one that stands out for me is Pat’s Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling. Before unschooling became a word in our world it was this book that launched our imaginations around what was possible. One of my favourite stories from Holt is about a child (I’m recounting from memory so feel free to correct me if you know it better) of a friend who asked him to come outside to throw a baseball so she could swing a bat. He noticed some areas for improvement and began to instruct her on proper swing and technique to which she replied something along the lines of “I didn’t come for a lesson, I just wanted you to throw the ball”. John Holt’s perspective and experience offered the practical application to the task of unschooling a child in a schooled culture.

“It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives.” – John Holt

However we are still in the area of theoretical approach but what we hear in conversation still begs the “how” of it all in the moment. How do they learn math? How do they learn to read? How do I get them to do work I can produce for presentation in that final facilitation meeting? From here we jumped to those that have successfully unschooled their children or were unschooled themselves. What is defined as “success” is another conversation but for now let’s say they reach adulthood and get paid work allowing them to be independent and self sufficient.

Many have their own go-to resources but ours was Sandra Dodd and I will forever refer back to her book and website. I had a chance to speak to Sandra when I bought her book because I posed a question on the purchase page and included my number. She called me! We had a fantastic conversation about pretty much everything homeschooling and our personal histories. My favourite is her story of being David Bowie’s very first fan (or maybe it was American fan) but it made it into the newspaper. She provided me with some great resources including Joyce Fetteroll and Pam Laricchia. Sandra’s site is a bit of a rabbit warren which is unschooling personified if you ask me.

“Read a little, try a little, wait a while, watch.” – Sandra Dodd

There is a laundry list of others along the way including Rue Kream, Dayna Martin, Ben Hewitt, Grace Llewellyn and Pat Hunt. Each experience and interaction supported the idea and I found many good people in our local community that followed and shared our views. What unschooling offers every homeschooling parent is a moment to stop and think – does this truly fit my child? Whether it’s choosing a math curriculum or the developmental timing around reading and writing skills, the unschooling approach is about taking a moment and really getting to know your child. Simply for the joy of it.

One of my favourite accounts by an unschooled adult is documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor’s lecture at the Walker Art Center called “On the Unschooled Life“. She talks about the loss of the pedagogical visionaries of the late 1960s and 70s similar to the education her mother receives at a free school in Carcross, Yukon.

“The ‘world’ was our classroom, that’s what we would always say. In theory nothing was off limits.”

Taylor explains their journey created amazing experiences of self-advocacy and discovery including her physically disabled sister Sunny Taylor who became a world renowned artist with work showing at the Smithsonian. She attributes a large portion of their success to their unschooled life because they had the freedom to pursue their passions daily.

Take a look at the resource list, as well as the embedded links above. There might be something in there of value. And do join me for Pat Farenga’s talk! It should be a great evening and a fantastic opportunity to look at things through a new lens. If you have resources to add please comment below. Local resources would be super!!

Resources off the top of my head:


Local resources:



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