The Power Of Unschooling: Why My Daughters Don’t Go To School

How does a 10-year-old Atlanta-based black girl with Jamaican parents, shoulder-length locs, and zero interest in school become deeply immersed in the studies of Finno-Ugric language groups and Eurasian migration?

It started with flags. And the Internet, of course.

Sage would come across an image of a flag, then search online to find its related country. Then, she’d see the country’s name written in its national language(s) to the right on its Wikipedia page.

Seeing the languages written down nudged her toward exploring the languages themselves, and that’s where she discovered that she loves languages.

But why would a 10-year old be researching flags?

For a school project, most likely. Right?

Not in this case, because Sage, along with her twelve-year old sister, are part of a family that practices self-directed education: specifically, unschooling. Unschooling, a term coined by John Holt in the 1970’s, is used to describe self-directed education, or learning that does not centralize school or a particular curriculum.

As a self-directed learner (unschooler), much of Sage’s (and her sister, Marley’s) time is spent exploring the things they find interesting.

Those interests, like all things in the world, do not exist in vacuums. They are connected to other things, people, and places, and so their exploration of a single thing will always result in exposure to other things, the same way flag research led Sage to discover her love for languages in written form.

The catalyst for this particular interest showed up as a result of cartoon-watching. Sage and Marley are anime (Japanese animation/cartoons) enthusiasts and are constantly creating characters that they write into fan fiction versions of shows (anime) and graphic novels (manga) they enjoy.

These Original Characters (more commonly referred to as OCs) were for Hetalia, an anime that personifies countries, and is based on the mega-popular comic and manga by Hidekaz Himaruya. Sage and Marley’s OCs are incredibly detailed, and their character sheets often include the languages the characters can speak and write.

As Sage continued to create OCs, she recognized that she was particularly curious about the histories of Europe and Asia, and how migration influenced language and culture, both historically and today.

Essentially, a cartoon with no overtly embedded learning objectives was the catalyst for Sage’s current studies in language, history, art, art history, geography, anthropology, and reading comprehension.

Today, she can identify multiple languages by seeing them written (Russian, Italian, Faroese, etc.). She also speaks Mandarin and is currently learning Finnish, Icelandic, and Korean.

This broadening of perspective sharpens both her understanding and her sense of ethics. For example, Sage watched and continues to watch videos about African people living in Finland, and had plenty to say about how their experiences are different from and similar to black people from other countries living in America. She is developing a particular social justice lens as a result of her observations and opinions.

That path from exploring a single thing to diving deeper into multiple things — and discovering areas of ongoing interest — is quite normal for unschoolers. The idea is that children are given space to explore anything around them without adults guiding that exploration or requiring them to continue exploring any particular thing.

In that way, unschooling is both learning-centered and learner-centered.

What do I mean by “learning-centered” and “learner-centered”?

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