Not Just for Children:
Reframing Unschooling to Include Adults
By Wendy Priesnitz
“In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” ~ Eric Hoffer
John Holt’s word “unschooling” has taken a battering lately. Some homeschoolers love the word; others (like me) don’t. Some unschoolers are passionate about defining and refining it and adding on to it. Some see it as the basis for a movement, or at least a community. Others have recently been caught up in fights over the integrity of some who would be its promoters. And some are trying to stretch it to create “unschooling schools” and learning centers.
I’d love to abandon the word; as some of my articles on this website make clear, I have been trying for a couple of decades to stop using it. (Web keyword marketing protocol is the only reason I haven’t.) But twice recently, I’ve seen the word “unschooling” reframed in a way that I think is really important in terms of the future of education. Both references originate with a trend spotting/marketing firm called Sparks & Honey.
First, I saw an article in Fast Company quoting Sparks & Honey CEO Terry Young with a list of eight new jobs people will have in 2025. Number two on the list is “Un-Schooling Counselor.” The logic is that “education as a four-year box-ticking exercise” will be over. In a more diverse future, people will occasionally dip into and out of both formal and informal education experiences throughout their lives, and “un-schooling counselors” will guide them through their personal processes. “We’re seeing the evolution of the traditional counselor to someone who can hack your life together so it’s unique,” Young says. (Why we can’t do that ourselves is another question!)
Well, of course, everyone’s life is unique, although reinforcing that uniqueness doesn’t appear to be the aim of our systems of formal education – from preschool on up to university. Life learners have already realized this. In fact, avoiding the homogenizing of public education is one of the reasons many of us have chosen the school-free lifestyle.
The Sparks & Honey folks have also identified eight trends that they predict will not only shape the future of education, but humanity. And they’ve co-opted the term “unschooling” to describe what others like Dale Stephens, Kio Stark, and Anya Kamenetz have been calling “hacking” your education, doing “UnCollege,” or “edupunking.” (The trend spotters give a nod to the Thiel Fellowship, which helped Dale Stephens set up UnCollege, in their materials). And so we see this interesting phenomenon whereby school-free living and learning is moving from an outlier philosophy about educating kids to being mainstreamed for adults.
But wait! They also appear to be saying that this “new” learning model (which is how my kids learned 40 years ago) is for kids too. They have a slideshow entitled Drop Out Now: The Economics of Unschooling. Superimposed over a photo of a child (not a teen or twenty-something) with a laptop, are these words: “Welcome to the new learning model, a move from institutional learning to the school of Life…Learning is becoming more about self-actualization and less about receiving a particular grade. Education is being custom-tailored to fit the individual.” (Of course, that means it is becoming commercialized too, but that, again, is another story, and I am trying to be positive here.)
I’m not going to regurgitate the article I wrote for this magazine in 2010 entitled Ready For A Changing World. But I will say that Drop Out Now confirms its basic thesis, that people need new skills and attitudes to be able to thrive in what will become a decentralized economy, and that life learning, as a decentralized style of education, can provide them.
When my article was published online, it was widely shared, but often laughed at, and disparagingly called “naïve,” “a fantasy,” and “utopian.” Perhaps – if the highly paid trend spotters are to be believed – utopia has arrived without my critics noticing! In that article, I wrote, “The ‘real world’ that parents worry unschooled kids won’t be able to cope with is not the ‘real world’ of the future; it’s one designed to churn out obedient workers and consumers. But times – and the economy – are changing.”
One needn’t be a rocket scientist to realize that the industrial model of work design is becoming outmoded, and will inevitably take the industrial model of education along with it. It’s becoming clearer every day that careers are, as Sparks & Honey put it, becoming “unstructured and less singular,” and that careers and lives will benefit when people have a wider range of skills than before.
Realistic rather than utopian, this sort of thinking recognizes that the “facts” and skills taught in schools today could be irrelevant in the not-too-distant future, and that the jobs of the future don’t even exist today. And, as I wrote in my 2010 article, the skills people will need include some things some people might not think of as such, especially in the workplace context. I’m thinking of flexibility, adaptability, networking, research ability, motivation, time management, comfort with numerous types of learning modes and models, strong family and community ties, entrepreneurship, innovation, creativity, self-reliance, willingness to do it yourself. I and many others believe these will become indispensable. And I can’t think of a better way to develop them at any age than by life learning.
My partner Rolf (who now manages apprenticeship training programs in addition to publishing our magazines) and I recognized this a long time ago. And when we were designing this magazine back in 2001 (the first issue was published in March of 2002), our vision included adults as well as children.
We recognized that, in fact, young people and adults who went to school could have the more difficult task in employing interest-based, learner-directed education. That’s because most of us were limited by our schooling and continue to be limited by a society that still clings to standardized, classroom-based education. On the other hand, children who have never been to school don’t have to deschool themselves or be taught how to learn – they just do it naturally, with a little bit of assistance from adults. (Knowing when to help and when to keep out of the way becomes easier after we’ve deschooled ourselves, of course.)
So I welcome this new reframing of the idea of unschooling to include adults. And I think that home- schooling families would do well to actively support this broadening of the word’s usage. Maybe some credibility for adult DIY learning will trickle down to more respect for our children’s ability to self-direct.
Academic and motorcycle repair entrepreneur Matthew B. Crawford writes in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft that the way we come to know a tool is by using it, and recognizes that the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world “depends on our doing stuff in it.” He was referring to adults, who benefit from regaining our curiosity, trusting our ability to learn by doing, and not separating the world’s store of knowledge into silos. In addition to the other benefits, hacking our education alongside our children makes us good role models for their independent learning. Conversely, we can learn from them how to move beyond the limits of formalized education…no matter what word we choose to describe it.
Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything by Kio Stark (Kio Stark, 2013)
Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will by Dale J. Stephens (Perigee, 2013)
Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree by Blake Boles (Tells Peak Press, 2012)
DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz (Chelsea Green, 2010)
The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education by Maya Frost (Harmony, 2009)
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s founder and editor, the author of thirteen books, a journalist with over forty years of experience, and the mother of two daughters who learned without school in the 1970s and ‘80s. This article was published in 2013.
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