It has often been said that real learning transpires beyond the classroom. There is a lot of knowledge to be gleaned by being more observant, by reading vociferously and by experiencing the realities of life.
Many families also believe that learning can become more effective and entertaining when it’s done together, while others realise their children thrive best in an independent learning environment. Welcome to the era of unschooling.
Several countries offer supporting infrastructures for the unschooled. And unschooled children can gain admission into higher grades or colleges based on entrance tests, essays and other criteria.
It's certainly not for everyone, but here are six families who have gone down this path — and their reasons for and expectations of the method.
Learning on the move
Ten years ago, when the second of Cecilie and Jesper Conrad’s four children did not want to go to school, they let him learn from home and, eventually, “learnt to unschool him”, says Cecilie, who is from Denmark. “It was like walking through the wardrobe and reaching Narnia.”
The Conrad family have been living and travelling full-time in their red bus since 2018, with their dog, Yuna, and recently completed 666,666 kilometres. They recount their experiences on the popular Worldschooling Nomads website.
“The truth is everyone learns all the time. Most activities are extremely boring if there is no challenge. When we face a challenge, we pick up something new,” says Cecile.
Travelling, she believes, adds fuel to unschooling, exposing the children to myriad enriching life experiences. “As their hours are not stolen by other people's agendas, they are free to do what they want and have more time to find their passions. They have the choice, and can do graduation or opt directly for a career. Our role is to give them options, and guide them towards meeting their passion.”
Mastering many skills
Shyamala Sathiaseelan pulled her children Abhinav, 14 and Anoushka, 12, out of school eight years ago. The family divide their time between Dublin, Ireland, and Chennai, India.
“Education is not learning stuff by rote and reproducing it. Education is something that happens as a part of living. I am still learning at my age,” says Sathiaseelan, who has explored more than a dozen countries with her family. “Travel helps us learn first-hand about languages, culture, food and more.”
She believes unschooling gives her children time to dig deeper into the subjects they wish to explore. “For us, a lot of learning happens by reading, watching videos, meeting people and doing things practically in no particular order.”
Anoushka does artwork for her friends and gets paid in credits for online gaming or subscriptions to things she wants, while Abhinav loves to play the keyboard. Both children have trained in karate and swimming, and also love to play chess, badminton and tennis.
Eventually, Abhinav wants to study law or be a stunt pilot, while Anoushka might pursue a path that combines her love of art and tech.
Sathiaseelan is confident of the future because she believes “the world is changing, and everything is going to be equally open in the long run".
"Unschooling has given my family the opportunity to travel around the world and live wherever we want. It has given us the opportunity to pack our bags and learn from life as we live it.”
No timetable for adventures
Emily Kutz, a mother of two from San Antonio, Texas, believes her children are the best teachers. “I learn so much from them. They are more aware of themselves than I am, and awareness of surroundings is key to learning.”
Niyan, 10, is an engineer at heart, says his mum. He loves to code, produce music, play Minecraft and create sculptures, and takes ceramics classes. Amari, 8, on the other hand, wants to be an “ultimate beast ninja warrior”, and is learning parkour.
“Not being bound by the timings, testing and homework of a public school, or stressing about keeping up with a curriculum, keeps our form of education fun,” says Kutz. “We wake up with no goals as to what to accomplish, yet still accomplish so much. We spend every minute creating the life we want, the adventures we want.”
The family have been living in and out of a motorhome for five years, and have visited the rainforests of Puerto Rico, watched the Milky Way from mountains and deserts, and surfed in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I just want them to be happy and do what they love. I want them to know their full potential and have the self-worth, and confidence to go after anything they want,” says Kutz.
An app a day keeps the cobwebs away
Sara Hernandez, a Mexican mother of two, gets her children to practise 10 minutes of maths, Spanish, Arabic and piano on correspondent apps every day, after which they are free to use the rest of their time for other activities.
“Unschooling gives my children the freedom to discover themselves, identify their passions, pursue them, and keep reinventing themselves as many times as they want,” says Hernandez, who lives in the UAE. “It allows them to form deeper links with people and places, and build up knowledge through their own processes with minimum external intervention and influence.”
Hernandez, who used to hire experts in sports, music, archaeology and science before the pandemic hit, says she and her husband are also continually trying to “deschool our own minds”.
For Nisha Singh, a mum of two who lives in the UAE, unschooling is a lifestyle decision. “We want our children to want to learn because they are curious, not because they are forced to or shamed to do it, as it often happens in schools.”
Her children, who are now 9 and 7, have been unschooled from the beginning. Instead, they pick out different indoor and outdoor activities, such as discovering more about sea creatures at the beach, listening to audiobooks, socialising with friends, and playing Minecraft and Pokemon. Singh is, however, particular about her children reading, writing and exercising for at least half an hour every day.
She foresees her children “growing up to be emotionally intelligent adults who value life and relationships, and work on whatever they wish to achieve”.
Freedom of choice
Ritu Bhattacharya had her son Aryan Iyer, 14, drop out of formal school in Bengaluru, India, after grade two. “I strongly believe children are capable of self-learning, as in they should be able to choose what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, and where and whom to learn from. Conventional schooling felt suffocating to the creativity and freedom of my child, which led us to embrace unschooling,” she says.
Aryan, who is currently focusing on collaborative gaming and video editing for YouTube, is passionate about hardware and technology, and dreams of building his own gaming PC. However, Bhattacharya says as he's a teenager now, he is also curious to explore college life with his friends. So, he is planning to take up the tenth-grade examination from India’s National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS).