Unschooling skills in the adult world

Note: I was on The Unplugged Mom today, where Laurette Lynn and I talked about unschooling. If you don’t know who she is, go listen to her now! She is what everyone wishes they could be: great at talking.

Non-schoolers learn a lot of things that end up being important in the adult world. When I was a kid and people asked me questions about my education, it was clear that they were concerned about my eventual ability to “make it” in a harsh, unforgiving world. A world for which, they imagined, I must be totally unprepared. What if I couldn’t do math fast enough in my head? What if I didn’t have enough friends my age? What if I’d never had to take tests and be told it was weird that my arms were that hairy and develop the self-discipline required for night after night of homework?

There are plenty of things I don’t do well. Math is one of them. If someone asks me to multiply one big number with another big number in my head, I will definitely fail. And then I will stand there for a long time, blushing and looking totally awkward. And then I will laugh.

But here are some things that happen all the time in the world I now inhabit that remind me a lot of unschooling. And when I spot them, and I think about my education, I feel kind of proud:

1. Seeing the big picture

How are things connected? When you’re working on a task, how does it contribute to a larger project, and how could that project be improved? Everything I did as a kid felt interconnected. When I wrote a sentence it was part of a chapter which was part of a book. The people who do well in the adult world aren’t just following instructions and completing little tasks. They are working towards something more meaningful, and they can shape the way it develops.

2. Interacting with all kinds of people

Making friends with your peers is healthy and helpful and fulfilling. But it’s also really important to become close with people who know a lot more than you. People who have already succeeded in the ways you want to succeed. They’re probably older. As a kid, a lot of my friends were a lot older than me. Older people have the best stories. And they can help you out a lot.

Also, if you’d like to be any type of leader, it’s really important to be able to communicate with people in all different situations and positions in life. As an unschooler, you’re often educated in a community. As a teenager, I was working as a community leader and teaching, and I couldn’t help but get to know all different kinds of people.

3. Being adaptable

Everyone knows that the economy is awful right now. I read article after article about how law students can’t find work. People who have done everything exactly according to the rules, and could have once counted on a certain level of employment waiting for them at the other end of their long, long education, can no longer depend on that security. Unschoolers lead necessarily unconventional lives. We have never learned to expect things to unfold in a prescribed, structured fashion. As a result, we are open and adaptable. Which seems to be exactly what the job market requires of its entrants right now.

4. Being entrepreneurial

It applies to everything! If you can’t find a job, make one! The current market is informal and global and technology- based. It relies on new, creative vision, and people are making up jobs as they go.

Being able to rely on yourself to make the connections you need, and create projects that sustain you financially and emotionally is always, always, always useful. Especially now. Also, it’s more fun. I know a grown homeschooler who got an advanced degree from Columbia and then a prestigious job and then quit to start his own company. He is having the time of his life.  He doesn’t regret it for a moment. The feeling of being able to rely on yourself no matter what is incredibly empowering. And the sense that life is an adventure, rather than a series of increasingly complicated and intimidating tests, is invigorating.

5. Being able to fail

I may say this a million times (see? Bad at math…), but the ability to fail and keep going is one of the most critical abilities a person can have. When you haven’t been taught to define yourself by constant measures of failure and success, you might not recognize failing as a bad thing. It might not even count as failing. If you make a mistake, the mistake feels unimportant compared with the progress that follows. The mistake does not end up on a record that impacts your later opportunities, it simply becomes a part of a larger experience. Being able to mess up and keep going is  a key to  success in the adult world.

Anyway, the point is: as unschoolers,  the skills we acquired weren’t just different from the ones kids in school earned, they were completely practical.

*  *  *

Disclaimer, of course: Kids who went to school also acquire these skills plenty of the time, obviously. But not, I think, because school emphasizes them.

P.S. The pictures are supposed to suggest a nice metaphor, like, “The path can lead anywhere…” I didn’t have any of people starting a business or failing gracefully. For a post with even less obvious photos, check out my other blog here. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

8 comments to Unschooling skills in the adult world

  • Nicely written Kate. What you say is in keeping with the grown non schoolers I know and have interviewed. They are not afraid of the world or of taking risks or of trying new things and of learning new things.

  • You have just described all of the things my students gained from being in the art/puppetry program on the high school level. The arts teach everything from problem solving to entrepreneurialship, and of course failing, and relearning, and self evaluating, and critiquing, and and and and and…… Of course I am not talking about the “dabbling” in art that often goes on as “art education”, the “make and take” projects, the “let’s make Mother’s Day gifts” type of work. I am talking about the investigation of thesis statements and thinking about the making of art, the skills needed to actually make art, and of course the reverance for all those who made and continue to make art and expose themselves in the search for truth.

    • I was only at RISD for 18 months, and did not continue to study art, but what I learned has been invaluable. I learned to work with my own creativity and planning towards a goal, instead of by externally-dictated rote. I learned to sit through a crit and listen to what was said, rather than just get defensive about it. I learned to see that any challenge has an infinity of answers, and I learned that I could produce one or more of them!

  • I AM SO HAPPY!!!….to realize these things while my kids are young, and for us to “unlearn” all these prerequisites I had previously held in such high regard, together. There is no real community where we are for this type of schooling, so the wisdom gleaned in just a few short minutes from the posts here have brought such encouragement. My son couldn’t ask questions. He was discouraged from expressing interest or taking his time–it was a distraction to his mainstream classroom. We took him out and have been trying out some ideas at home, but none really fit. This does. He’s engaging like never before! Pursuing interests he I never knew he had! And O MY–reading! On his own! Falling asleep in a pile of books at night–and the teachers said he needed an IEP for reading. BAH! He knew when he was ready. Thank you SO VERY MUCH for the encouragement and guidance!

  • So well said. SO completely true. And so interconnected with what our culture conditions us to expect of childhood. I tried showing it from outside that perspective awhile back and had to delete some truly cruel comments:
    You’ve explained it much better!

  • Courtney

    Love it! I am going to read this when my mother’s voice gets in my head and says “you’re failing the children by not being a dictator.”

  • Robyn

    My sons have been unschooled since 2003 when we let our 7 year old finish 2nd grade. Our youngest attended a 1/2 day 3 days a week “school”. Anyway, they are now 13 and 16 and they both interact with people of all ages, are active in our community and have the freedom to pursue their interests. My oldest does enjoy math and is excited about precalculus ( I know! ) and has a love of reading Shakespeare while my youngest enjoys watching countless history documentaries and reading Sherlock. They read because they enjoy it not because it’s on a reading list.
    They aren’t afraid to ask questions of anyone. I love reading your blog and reading the comments!

  • Photographs with paths fascinate me; I used to stare at a print on Gramma’s wall, tracing the path over and over, imagining what was beyond the hill. If it has trees and a path–all the better.

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