[00:01:40] Podcast Sponsors
[00:06:40] Guest Introduction
[00:09:06] Establishment of Formal Schools
[00:12:48] Where the modern school system has failed us as a whole?
[00:19:43] Unschooling vs. Homeschooling
[00:24:12] The value of play and unstructured time when it comes to learning
[00:31:59] Podcast Sponsors
[00:34:29] Testing and Results in Unschooling vs. Traditional Schooling
[00:41:10] Unschoolers Can Go to College
[00:44:28] Creative Ways to Satisfy Governmental Education Requirements
[00:47:37] The Concept Of “Block Learning”
[00:50:02] Typical Day of Unschooling
[00:54:56] Success Stories and Research on The Benefits of Unschooling
[01:01:00] Comparison to Waldorf Or Montessori Method of Learning
[01:06:07] Other Skills Than Traditional Handwriting
[01:20:15] Closing the Podcast
[01:23:05] End of Podcast
Ben: On this episode of the Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast.
Judy: Education is being disrupted now. It’s like the king who nobody acknowledges. He’s not wearing clothes. I think we underestimate the value of play and the value of downtime. In that, that is what gives your brain a rest and start thinking about creative ideas. We’re trying to fill in all that summertime for kids by keeping them busy in activities. They need to take ownership of their education and learn what they want to learn.
Ben: Health, performance, nutrition, longevity, ancestral living, biohacking, and much more. My name is Ben Greenfield. Welcome to the show.
Hey, so it’s not often I get a chance to talk education and school, but this stuff is important and I think it’s going to be right up your alley. This is a podcast about the future of education and unschooling. And even if you don’t have kids, or you’re not an educator, I think you’re going to get a lot out of this one.
Quick shout out. You can find my podcast not only on Apple, which was formerly iTunes, I think, Apple Podcast, but I mean Health, Spotify, Google, PodcastOne, Overcast, anywhere. One of my favorite apps is actually CastBox, which is pretty cool. It’s got like an audio search engine that allows you to search the actual audio of the podcast, not just the shownotes, and play it one, two, three, four times speed, download books, et cetera. So, CastBox, check that one out.
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Hey, so it’s no secret if you follow me on Instagram, or listen to a few things that I’ve said on the podcast before that recently I gave my twin 11-year-old boys, River and Terran, the option to not continue to go to the private school that they were just finishing up fifth grade in and to instead transition into a form of schooling called unschooling, in which, in a nutshell, although you’ll learn a lot more about it in today’s podcast, one learns through experiences, through life, through play, and not through a formal education or in a classroom setting per se.
Now, these days, there are three different ways to get an education. There’s homeschooling. And I was personally homeschooled K through 12. And then, there is a public or a private school. It’s a more traditional option, at least since the mid-1800s, a traditional option. And then there is unschooling. I recently read to really help me wrap my head around how to piece together a good robust education and life experience for my children a very excellent recent and relevant book that really was one of the best guys that I ever read when it comes to this whole world of unschooling. It’s called “Unschooling to University.”
This book outlines how unschoolers learn through things like play, and volunteering, and games, and sports, and mentorship, and travel, and basically just life. In addition to that, it outlines how a parent’s job is to simply provide an environment rich in educational resources for their children, things like books, and videos, and computer games, and video games, and workbooks, and projects, and museums, and field trips, and volunteer programs, museums, theaters, mentorship programs, apprenticeships, internet, the library.
The list goes on and on, and it’s a very, very well-written and thorough guide. As a matter of fact, it’s so good I decided I want to get the author on today’s show. And the author of the book “Unschooling to University” is Judy Arnall. Judy is a keynote speaker. She is a distinguished toastmaster. She gives presentations all over the world, and she specializes in parenting and education. She’s been on all sorts of magazines and TV shows like CBC and CTV and Global, which as you might know by the names are mostly Canadian networks because she’s up in Canada, magazines like Today’s Parent and Canadian Living and Parents magazine, the Globe and Mail, and Metro. She’s a certified Canadian family life educator. She’s taught for Alberta Health Services for 13 years, and she even founded the nonprofit organizations, Attachment Parenting Canada Association and Unschooling Canada Association.
If you visit her Amazon page, which I will link to in the shownotes, you will see that she’s not only written “Unschooling to University,” but she’s also written a ton of different books on parenting, on discipline, on education, and beyond. She is, of course, a parent herself of five children, and several of those are university graduates, who also self-directed their own education. So, she knows what she’s talking about, people.
And the shownotes for everything that Judy and I discuss, as well as links to her books, her website, any other resources that we mentioned can all be found at BenGreenfieldFitness.com/unschoolingtouniversity. That’s BenGreenfieldFitness.com/unschoolingtouniversity.
So, Judy, welcome to the show.
Judy: Thank you, Ben. I’m happy to be here.
Ben: Yeah. I’m very excited to have you on. Education is not something that I visit on the show, quite as much as I visit things like workouts, and supplements, and biohacking, and detoxification, and all sorts of crazy fringe fitness and health and wellness topics. But education is something near and dear to my heart, and I know that many of my listeners have asked me about some of these concepts that you discussed in the book. So, I think this is going to be a wonderful, wonderful exploration.
If I could start off, and I was very intrigued by this concept in your book with the question about why schools exist in the first place, kind of like the history of schools in terms of when schools, at least the modern schools, as we know them today, when those were established and why. Can you get into that?
Judy: Sure. Schools, as we know it today, are the new kid on the block. When you think of how long humans have been around, most of the young people have been educated into society becoming contributing members of the group through the family, through apprenticeships, through working around the home, around home businesses. And that changed in the Industrial Revolution around 1850, where the upstart of factories occurred and parents were shipped off to factories to work, but then we all had the problem of what do we do with the children. So, the answer was let’s hire those educated persons in the village to gather the children and keep them busy while we go off to the factories to work. And that established the first modern schools. Now, there are definitely authors and experts that believe that there was a hidden agenda in that. It’s a great way to indoctrinate the kids into obedience, into understanding a common philosophy and good citizenship.
Ben: Well, is that a conspiracy theory? I mean, like when we adopted this during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, wasn’t it originally based on like a Prussian education system that was designed to create obedient little factory workers?
Judy: Absolutely. And not just factory workers, but for kids to go into the military to be obedient citizens and quash critical thinking. I mean, you could call it a conspiracy theory, but when you look at the modern school system, a lot of critical thinking is not encouraged, just because it’s a huge institutional bureaucracy. So, that grew, and then curriculum grew, the whole institution grew into a billion-dollar industry in 150 years in so much that we don’t even know of life without school. It’s so embedded into our culture, our media.
Ben: Oh, yeah. It seems insane to even question the fact that a child might learn through apprenticeships, or mentorships, or life, or play. And as you say in the book, I think the way you phrase it is that children are pretty much now viewed based on the modern education system as buckets to be filled with knowledge, and not necessarily little humans who should be experiencing life and perhaps a little bit more practical hands-on way.
Judy: Exactly. And the more we know about the brain and how the brain develops, the brain interacts with its environment. It’s not a bucket that you just crammed full of facts and figures. It’s an interactive organ that interacts with where kids spend most of their day with, whether that’s with the family in the community, or in an institution with peers.
Ben: Yeah. And when it comes to this idea of sitting in a classroom in this formal educational scenario that has been the norm since the mid or early 1800s, where in your opinion has that failed us? And I realize that’s a loaded question, but we have plenty of time on the show. You alluded to the fact that children’s brains are highly plastic and not necessarily meant to be placed in one classroom and have a bunch of knowledge and facts dumped into their head when it comes to the best way to educate them. But can you get into the failures that you perceive this modern way of educating where those failures exist?
Judy: Okay. Sure. Well, actually, if you want to tie it into health and fitness, schools have stress, right? And we know now that stress impacts the body in different ways and has long-term life effects for your children. But not just children, not just students, but this whole system is stressful for teachers, too. They’re the products of the system right now, and they’re crammed between parents, and administrators, and children. The teaching profession is one stressful profession. Same with kids nowadays, when they go to school, they can experience a lot of toxic stress through the effects of bullying, through an impersonal curriculum, through expectations placed on them that are not appropriate.
So, where the system has failed us, I think is insisting on a one-size-fits-all system, and we know now about learning styles. Not all children learn the same way. We know how bullying affects them and how different ways that kids can learn, especially if they can choose what they want to learn. So, it brings out their creativity, their critical thinking. And the system is set up to not encourage individualism because it can’t. It’s a bureaucracy.
Ben: Well, I think the other elephant in the room here is the entire digital revolution. I mean, it’s disrupted, and you talked about this in the book, it’s disrupted taxicabs and transportation, it’s disrupted dating, it’s disrupted shopping, it’s disrupted the way we view television, and movies, and the way we digest music, and the way that we attend the conference. And education doesn’t seem to have changed that dramatically in the era of Digital Revolution where Google allows you to learn any time, meaning that perhaps the memorization of facts and knowledge that one could simply lookup on the internet, as bad as that might sound, it could be relatively irrelevant compared to gaining more experience in other avenues in life.
Information is now available 24 hours a day, and yet kids are still going to school at these fixed times, on unfixed days with fixed classes and fixed subjects that might not even involve something they’re even remotely interested in, or something–when it comes to the way that they’re learning agrees with their learning style or their personality type. But it’s very strange, and that so many elements of society seem to have evolved the Digital Revolution, yet school seems, I guess for lack of a better phrase, old school.
Judy: Mm-hmm. Oh, yes. Education is, it is being disrupted now. Now, it’s like the king who nobody acknowledges. He’s not wearing clothes. It’s not–
Ben: I think that was an emperor.
Judy: Yeah, the emperor with no clothes, right. It’s not publicly out there, but the numbers of homeschooling are growing worldwide across all the countries. And what else is growing is that availability, like you said, to access different courses, not just from the government in your jurisdiction, but from–you can take that course on coding from Germany now. You don’t have to take the school-approved course. And it’s that open doors that are incredible where kids can learn any time, anyway, anything they want that interest them. But yet still kids are being forced to spend six hours a day in an institution with a prescribed curriculum that they may or not be interested in. But the numbers of parents pulling their kids out are increasing, and especially as kids learning needs are diverse and they’re not being met in the system.
Ben: Yeah. I mean, that’s really where my parents were interested in homeschooling me. For them, it was a little bit more related to some of the things that you alluded to. They both had issues with bullying, with drugs and substance abuse, with peer pressure, with a lot of societal issues which influenced their decision to homeschool myself and my siblings. But in my case, I’m not as concerned about those things, like there are good private schools in my area that really don’t seem to involve a lot of those issues, granted I realize some of those things are only accessible to people who could afford to pay the higher tuition for a good private school, where perhaps, there is a little bit less of the bullying or the peer pressure issues that go on.
However, what really drew me to home–or to unschooling rather was this idea of experiencing an education through life, meaning like right now, as we are recording this podcast, my kids are out on the patio, at the table on the patio with a general contractor and a man who is teaching them math geometry and woodworking because their entire math project for this summer is building a tree fort. So, they’re building fort chipmunk, they’re learning trigonometry, they’re learning woodworking skills, they’re learning design and architecture, they’re learning Google SketchUp. But that is their education, and their test is they’re passed/failed, whether or not their tree fort actually finishes construction, and whether or not it blows over in the wind.
So, that’s the type of life experience that appeals to me when it comes to unschooling. But I do think we need to step back here and define some terms because you were just discussing homeschooling, as was I. And this really isn’t homeschooling. This isn’t like getting a bunch of books out and gathering around the kitchen table with mom and dad or a tutor. It’s something a little bit different. So, what exactly is unschooling? How would you define it?
Judy: Unschooling is empowering the learner to choose what they learn, when they learn, if they learn, and how they learn on whatever topic we’re talking about. So, the difference between unschooling, homeschooling, and school is a matter of control. Who owns the education? Right? So, the difference between homeschooling is the parents tend to control the process in the learning and the curriculum. Where unschooling is the learner controls all those things. And school, well obviously, school controls it. The difference between unschooling, and homeschooling, and school is that as you described your kids, their learning skills and knowledge, but it’s not separated from the contacts they learn it in. It’s embedded, so the learning really sticks. And most learning in unschooling is it’s an answer to solve a problem. It’s real-world problems and kids apply the solutions through their curiosity.
Ben: Yeah. So, it’s basically self-directed free learning. Like I mentioned earlier in the introduction, for example, once we decided to unschool, I sat River and Terran down, I learned some of these concepts from your book, and spent two days going through with them every last interest that they had, everything they were passionate about, everything they wanted to explore. I mean, the sky is the limit, but they wrote down things like, “Learn to fly drones. Learn to program LEGO robots.” They wanted to learn a little bit more about not playing video games, but more specifically, designing video games. They wanted to learn how to work with wood and build a tree fort. They wanted to learn more about gardening and raising the chickens and the goat. So, a little bit more about animal husbandry. They were very interested in American history. They wanted to learn how to beat dad at chess. Right? So, all of these little things.
Once I gathered all those different things that they were passionate about or interested in, what I then went and did at a fraction of the cost of what I was paying for tuition–once I added up all this stuff, I maybe spent $1,000. That’s probably about what I spent. I basically equipped the entire basement, this entire room of our basement with every last item that they would need to pursue those passions and interests. So, documentaries and board games on American history, books on architecture, and all of the different LEGO architecture kits for all of the different American history objects, like the White House and the different monuments and museums that they wanted to learn more about. Tons of books, like tons and tons of books that they weren’t required to read, but they were simply there around them for when they wanted to delve into it.
A drone and a camera attachment for that drone, the entire Google suite on both of their computers so that they could learn SketchUp, and books like How to Beat Your Dad at Chess and the battle chess video game and a nicer chessboard. And then basically, I just got all this stuff, and it’s very interesting because every single day now, when we’re in the middle of the summer, when a lot of kids are just lazing around and feeling as though they can take time off until August or September rolls around, when school begins, they are instead every single day in that room grabbing books, grabbing games, opening robot kits.
And my fear, and I’d love to hear you comment on this, was that they would just be sleeping until 9:00, waking up and maybe fiddling around with the TV, or wandering around outside and laying out in the grass, staring up at the sky or just like playing with their Star Wars LEGO kits or something like that. And instead, it’s amazing to watch. They’re playing with all this stuff all day long, especially the things that align with their passions and interests where those passions and interests lie right now. Now, is that kind of the general concept? And if so, I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about this idea of kind of like play and unstructured time.
Judy: That is the general concept. That’s amazing that your kids are doing that. And you’ve got all this stuff for so little cost. That’s amazing. For parents where cost is a barrier for providing those things, the new school is the library, right? So, a lot of libraries have software programs that kids can come and use, and there’s no cost for that. But what happens generally is when kids go from school to unschooling, they need a period of time to what we call deschool. So, they’re very used to sitting down in a classroom and having someone spoon-feed them information and what to do. The longer they’re in school, the more time it takes for them to start owning their own education, right?
So, we say it’s probably about a month for every year they’re in school. But for your kids to jump right in, I think that’s amazing. So, it takes a while. Kids may wander around all day and say, “I don’t know what to do. I’m bored.” And then gradually, they start seeing what’s around their environment, and their natural curiosity takes over, and they jump right into things. I have to say there are times when kids are laying on the grass, looking at the sky, and that doesn’t mean things aren’t percolating in their brain. I think we underestimate the value of play and the value of downtime. In that, that is what gives your brain rest and start thinking about creative ideas. I don’t know about you, but I get my best ideas in the shower, because you’re not concentrating on anything.
Ben: Right. For me, it’s when I’m walking. And there’s research on this, too. There’s even research on children, this whole concept of daydreaming. Like for our kids, we have two hammocks out on the patio, and I have found them out there just, not even with a book, literally just in the hammock staring off into the forest. And there’s now research that shows that not only giving a child the ability to play and engage in a large amount of unstructured free time is a highly beneficial for building creativity and self-directed, self-education, but daydreaming is a sign of a better-equipped brain with better learning consolidation, and working memory, and empathy. They’ve even done studies on things like blood pressure and salivary cortisol, and showed that those decrease when a child is able to just distract their attention from immediate tasks and instead just let ideas kind of flow freely, it’s almost similar to some of the benefits we see from meditation, like allowing a child to just daydream.
Judy: Yes, yes. There’s so much research. Unfortunately, a lot of parents and society look at play and think it’s just frivolous. It’s what kids do to keep themselves out of our hair while they’re not actively learning something, or going to school, or going to activities. As we know, the over-scheduling of our kids nowadays doesn’t allow, especially homework, doesn’t allow enough time for them to have that downtime that frees thinking, daydreaming or time for just unstructured play. And unstructured play is not directed by adults. So, a soccer game is not unstructured play. It’s when kids have just free rein to do what they want, manipulate toys, crafts, but not directed. They just get to make all the decisions and play on their own. And kids are not getting enough of that time. There’s a lot of statistics out there. And like you said, it does benefit the brain. The brain thrives on play, whether a child is 5 or 15. The play looks different, but it is free play, very necessary.
Ben: Right. And I think you actually get into this a little bit in Chapter 4, I believe, of your book, all the research behind the educational and life benefits of free and unstructured play. And also, I mean, you even delved into the type of things that encourage children to do that that you can have in your house. One example that you have is cardboard boxes, tape wood nails and other building materials. Well, we have those type of things just littered around the garage, and my children will spend two hours constructing these elaborate forts that they paint murals on the side of and tunnels that go in and out of with multiple rooms.
Part of me, probably two years ago, would have actually felt pretty guilty. I would have thought that these kids need to be with a tutor right now. They need to be learning something. This is not benefiting their life in any way. All they’re learning how to do is build this stupid little like cardboard fort that’s going to be destroyed tomorrow when we need to park the car in the garage. And after reading your book and looking through the research, and there’s a lot of statistics that you have in your book on this, the benefits to it are just absolutely massive, not only in terms of less stress for the child, but also the ability to be able to build things like resilience, and creativity, and problem-solving, and in being able to almost like progress to other things in life that allow them to take those skills that they develop during their free play and their unstructured time and apply creativity to actually solve significant problems.
Judy: Mm-hmm. Oh, yes. There’s lots of research. Play mimics a lot of what kids would learn in school, but it’s on their own initiative. The other benefit too is this time of the year is summer. People say, “Oh, you have to protect your children from somewhere learning slide.” So, there’s research out there that kids lose a couple months of reading your math ability, but the problem with that is that the slide is on what the school thinks the children should know, not actual learning.
So, a lot of times, summer is the best time for kids to–they pick up so many new skills and knowledge when they get to control what they want to learn about. And it’s kind of sad because we’re trying to fill in all that summertime for kids by keeping them busy in activities, where they need to take ownership of their education and learn what they want to learn.
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I think you talked about this in the book, and this was also inspiring to me. It was something I’d read elsewhere prior to giving my kids the decision about whether or not they wanted to enroll in sixth grade. And it was this idea that there arises a time, I think you say it’s somewhere around like early teenage years or 13 years old or something like that where the rigorous test-taking, quizzes, written essays, et cetera, that a child experiences in increasingly greater volumes at school eventually sucks the joy out of school. Like no matter how much they’re seeing friends, or getting recess, or having access to perhaps some cool labs or libraries at school, at some point, like this resentment and lack of joy with the schooling process builds up with all that–specifically, the test-taking. Am I correct that I read that in your book about just the issue with the model of, “Here, you’re a bucket. We’re going to dump a bunch of knowledge in your head and then see if you can pass a quiz or a test on it?”
Judy: Yeah. And that starts generally around grade six, or age 12, and high–well, some people call it high-stakes testing. I don’t think it’s very high stakes until in Canada and U.S. until they get into the later teen years. But it adds straps and it changes the nature of learning. So, even teachers can’t meander off if a group is more interested in something. They have to stick to the schedule. If it’s an exam year, they have to teach to the test. And that doesn’t allow for expansion or exploration. Where at home, you can do that. You have that whole ability to go where the interest lies, and then kids soak it up, and they remember it. The learning actually sticks in their brain because they’re interested in it. The beauty of that too is there are no motivation problems. Kids want to learn what they’re interested in.
Ben: Now, regarding testing though, you do need to establish some kind of a criteria for whether or not education has occurred, don’t you? Like I gave the example of the tree fort. Did it get built and can it withstand the wind, the rain, or anything else that they wanted to withstand, or do certain functions of it work properly? Like, they want to build some kind of a–it’s almost like a winch system to be able to get the dog via a pulley and a rope up into the top part of the tree fort on this wood platform, almost like an elevator they create for the dog to get up there. That’s an example of almost like a pass/fail type of scenario. But do you have other examples in terms of some of the subjects you lay out in the book, or some of the activities you lay out in the book of how you would actually evaluate whether or not learning has actually occurred if that’s important?
Judy: Yes. I do believe in standards of expectations. I want my brain surgeon to have passed a certain measure of abilities, or my pilot to be certified. I see education going that way though where the emphasis is on accreditation or evaluation. But how you get there, how a child learns is not important. If they acquire skills and knowledge through whatever way possible but can meet the assessments for accreditation, that’s great. I really think that’s where we’re heading, just because as we’ve talked about, kids can access learning anywhere, anywhere from around the world.
But I think most unschoolers prove their learning through writing final exams maybe at the end of grade 12, or university entrance exams, or the SATs. I know in Canada, we have grade 12 final exams, and in a lot of jurisdictions, kids can just challenge the exams. They don’t need to prove they took the course. So, that’s how we can bypass the whole school system and still prove they’re learning through writing final exams, or SATs, or university entrance.
Ben: Yeah. In Washington State, for example, where we live, there is a requirement that the children do take standardized tests each year, and that we report their learnings to the state, and we can get into some of the reporting and record-keeping mechanisms here in a little bit because I do think those are important and I can comment on how we’re doing that. But they do have a couple of months during the year where they will need to be reviewing some of the standardized test materials and with a book in a formal situation at the kitchen table or elsewhere ensuring that they are able to pass some of the social studies, the history, the math, the type of subjects that are explored on such a standardized test.
It’s not that difficult. For me, it was the same thing when I was homeschooled and I had to take these standardized tests every year. I’m not saying this to brag, I’m saying it to make a point, but I was consistently at the 95th to 99th percentile on those tests with very little preparation for them. And granted, I was doing a little bit more homeschooling out of books than I was unschooling, and so I really didn’t even need to sit down and do a whole lot of preparation for those tests just because I was learning this stuff all year long.
But for us, there is a time towards the end of the year that we do plan on the kids actually making sure they can pass these standardized tests because the last thing I want is for my children to want to go to college, whatever, to want to be, let’s say using your examples, a surgeon, or a pilot, and then having some amount of resentment because they can’t go to college university because they have no history of standardized tests taking, there’s no records, they’re not able to pass the SAT or the A–what’s the other one? There’s the SAT and–
Judy: SATs, ACTs?
Ben: Yeah, the ACT. Yeah. And so I do want to ensure that there is some amount of formality in place in terms of them jumping through the proper hoops so that they can go to college if they want to. And that is correct, unschoolers can go to college, right?
Judy: Of course, they can. But one thing I disagree with is year-by-year testing. I see no benefits of that because what that does is it ties learners and the parents to the school curriculum, right? It’s very hard to meander when you think, “Oh, they got to know this and this and this this year.” Whereas, I believe in testing by the age of 18. So, when they get to that point where they want to head into a particular college or a university, then at that age, most 18-year-olds know how to read, they’ve read lots of books, they know how to write, they know how to do math. Maybe they need a bit more brush-up on calculus, depending on the program they’re going into. But 18 years gives kids a lot of chances to play. We know from experience, a lot of unschoolers, for example, when their kids reach the age of 13, they can do eight grades of math in one year on paper that year because their brain is ready to understand abstract concepts, right?
Ben: Right. And I agree with you that completion of things like grade 12 courses, or taking the GED when they get to that level is far more important than the standardized yearly tests. But at the same time, I don’t want to create a situation where my kids are labeled truant, or a social worker shows up at the door. And there is a requirement at least in Washington State that they take these annual tests.
Judy: Yeah. I know. And that’s where advocacy comes in. In that, if you have a strong homeschooling lobby group that can lobby the government and say, “You know, testing changes learning,” it absolutely does. There’s lots of research out there that does say that. And if we want to learn what we want to learn, we can’t be tied to school testing because then you’re learning what the school says you’re learning, right? And I understand that there are different rules for different provinces and States, but keep that in mind that with advocacy comes change.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. That’s a good point. Here’s a good point. Now, there are–of course, here in Washington again, there are 12 different subjects; math and social studies, physical education, art, et cetera, that they are required to have demonstrated being engaged in during the course of the year. But you get into your book about how creative you can be when it comes to jumping through some of these hoops, so to speak. I gave the example of building the tree fort, kind of being able to pass as, for example, math and art. But do you have other examples of common unschooling or free and unstructured play type of activities that would cross over into and qualify as passing for some of these more formally defined curriculums?
Judy: There is. If you look at the legality, unschooling is just a methodology of education. Many, many schools do unschooling in their school, and it’s just a methodology of education. There are many activities that, one, when I talk to teachers’ conferences, what I like to do is give them a worksheet of skills and knowledge, and I say, “Okay. This is a Minecraft game.” Because a lot of teachers are familiar with Minecraft. And what skills and knowledge do children learn from Minecraft? What do they learn from playing Settlers of Catan, the board game? What do they learn from playing “let’s stretch this a bit fortnight”?
And then they can see on the paper the skills, the math. They learn the critical thinking, the information technologies skills, those kinds of things, how it interplays, how it comes out from just doing ordinary things kids do through their play. One of these years, I’m going to take every popular video game and slot it in there so that parents can see how educational things are that they don’t think are educational.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the way that we’re doing it is the kids both have journals, and they’re literally just–they’re not fancy at all, they’re just blank page journals, and they are expected to journal every single evening about the activities that they’ve engaged in that day, whether it’d be, perhaps, River has read a few chapters of Biography of Abraham Lincoln because he’s interested in American history, and maybe he also read a few chapters of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
That would be then, once I look at that diary, I would be able to, when I’m putting together the record, say, “Okay. So, this was the day that he did history.” And maybe at the same time, he’s also working on the tree fort, so that’s math and art. And maybe he also worked on the LEGO kit for the Washington Monument, so that’s more American history. And maybe they also decided that that day, because they have a food podcast, they’re going to go to the local, like the Queen of Ethiopia, Ethiopian restaurant, and record a podcast on Ethiopian food.
And then there’s chemistry because in many cases, they’re talking about the way the food was prepared. And also some amount of history if they’re talking about Ethiopia. And even social studies because they’re in kind of a different environment where they’re learning about the culture and cuisine of a different section of the world. And so in one single day, there’s like six different subjects that were covered. If I’m not mistaken, and I believe you talked about this in your book too, there is this concept of block learning where they don’t necessarily need to cover every single subject every day, right?
Judy: Right. Yeah. If you just look at a typical unschooling day, you could slot everything they do into subjects, right? Now, in unschooling, we don’t like to separate learning into subjects. It’s all learning, but you do have to meet school requirements too, or your authorities’ requirements. But if you look at a typical day, it sounds like you’re doing a lot. But my concern is if a child, some of mine were like that, doesn’t want to journal, or doesn’t want to build a tree fort, what are you going to make them do that?
So, unschooling is accepting that a child doesn’t want to do that. I had four boys that hated writing, hated it, and yet we had to submit a writing sample every year, which even that was really, really hard for them to do if they were forced to do it. So, we didn’t do it. But even kids that don’t want to do what you think looks educational, you can just follow them through the day and slot in whatever they’re doing into subject outcomes. For example, let’s say they go to the store and they help you figure out the cost of fruits, right? That’s math. I’m not really good at record-keeping. I figure I’m not getting paid to record-keep, so I do it on a monthly or yearly basis. So, I would write that down maybe once a month or things like that. But yeah, it’s turning what kids do naturally through their learning into what looks a really schooly subject matter outcome.
Ben: Yeah. And you have all sorts of different examples in your book for math, and social studies, and history, and the different kinds of video games, and board games, and books, and activities that would qualify as those different activities, which is very helpful. And again, your book is pretty thick. We can’t cover everything that’s in it at this point. But do you have, for example–I guess an example of what a typical day might look like, or what a typical day looked like for you as you were raising your kids and unschooling them?
Judy: Sure. And it varies with each family, but there are some commonalities among unschoolers. In fact, most unschoolers don’t like to do things early in the morning. But yeah, we tend to–
Ben: Not us. Our family right now is up. We’re going to bed about 9:00 or 9:30 p.m. and the kids are usually up by about 6:00 a.m. And this is something we transitioned into just this summer. We’ve just been going to bed when it gets dark and getting up soon after it’s gotten light. So, typically, by about 9:00 a.m., our kids are already well into the books and having made some new recipe in the kitchen and all over the place. But yeah, every family is different, I guess.
Judy: Yeah. And certainly so, when my kids were younger, they were, of course, up early. So, they would get up and they would meander to probably the TV, or LEGO, or in their pajamas, they would find something to do or play with. And I would be on my computer because I was working part-time and writing books. So, that’s what I would do. And then we’d probably have breakfast around 10 o’clock, and get dressed, and head out the door for some activity that day. It would usually be later morning, lunchtime.
Then we head back, and because I also had babies and toddlers underfoot, which is why I gave up homeschooling, and then they would nap. We’d always have quiet time. Actually, even now, after lunch is quiet time. And even though I have young adults and teenagers in our house, we just have a natural quiet time where people just do quiet activity, like read or watch a movie, or something. And then we would have a rhythm to the week. Like Monday night might be go to the library, night as a family. Every night, we would have a family dinner because the benefits, as you know from homeschooling, is that a lot of activities now are happening during the day, such as Girl Scouts, meetings, soccer. There are soccer leagues now happening in the afternoon, instead of rushing out the door at dinnertime. So, a typical day is very relaxed. And that is very good for not accumulating toxic stress as having a more relaxed lifestyle, where you do gather as a family every dinner or lunch. Sometimes we had lunch together, which is kind of nice. And having relaxation time built-in in the afternoon or the evening.
Ben: Yeah. I think the family dinner thing for us, that’s a non-negotiable. It always has been. And it’s not just because of books like Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation in which the importance of family dinners and family time in the evenings is emphasized, but also it’s a time for us to gather at the end of the day and go over our gratitude journals. And the other kids’ journals that I just described, “What have you done today? What have you accomplished?” Almost like a form of self-examination. That’s typically now almost every single night at dinner because we’ve literally got like 20 different games now, whether it’s card games, or chess, or battleship, or Boggle, or Balderdash, or any of these other things that actually count as language arts, as math, as social studies. We’re playing games almost every single night at dinner.
And granted, a big part of the unschooling that we’re doing, the kids are also in camps. They’re in different clinics. They’re out learning in kind of like apprenticeships or mentorship type of scenarios, not only building the tree fort, but they have a Spanish instructor. They’re doing cooking classes. They’ve got jiu-jitsu camp and tennis camp. And yeah, by the end of the day, it’s typically like 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. by the time we actually gather for dinner. But we literally spend like an hour around the dinner table. And then it’s pretty much dad plays guitar, the kids snuggle up in bed with books, and we hit the sack.
And I know there are many people in the health and nutrition sector who will say, “Oh, you shouldn’t be eating that close to bedtime,” but I think the pros of a family dinner outweigh the cons of a late dinner. But yeah, I mean, that’s a big part for us is the family dinner scenario. I think another interesting thing in your book is some of the particularly intriguing success stories and even research on the benefits of unschooling. I think it’s the team–is it called the Team of 30 research that you get into?
Judy: Yes. Yes, it is. The Team of 30 is once my kids hit late teens and started going to universities and colleges, and their friends did too because you tend to hang around with unschooling friends because they’re in the same lifestyle as you, right? I noticed their friends were going, and they were going, and I thought, “Okay. This information needs to get out there that kids can play most of their childhood and still go on to post-secondary.” Because that’s one of parents’ biggest worries, right?
So, I sent them all surveys on, “Okay. How many years did you unschool? Did you go to preschool? How did you get into post-secondary? Which method did you use? What field did you go into?” And I got all the surveys back, and they were either my kids’ friends or my friends’ kids. Thirty of them responded and said, “Yes, this is what we’re doing.” So, when I compiled them, all 30 got accepted to universities, colleges, tech schools. And one-third were in arts type of courses. One-third were in humanities. And surprisingly, one-third were in STEM courses. So, we had four engineers in the group. And to this date, about 22 out of the 30 have now graduated their programs.
So, when people say, “Well, show me research that says this is successful,” that’s only one measure of success. I mean, there’s a lot of unschoolers who go onto entrepreneurialship and do a lot of great successful things out there, too. And those are documented in other people’s books, but I wanted to focus mostly on STEM, and the fact that kids can go to post-secondary if they want to.
Ben: Yeah. There are a few other studies that you get to in your book, but one particularly helpful resource that I found, it’s a little more bent towards homeschooling, but it’s got a lot of unschooling tips in there too, and it’s chockfull of research. Are you familiar with John Holt’s website? It is johnholtgws.com.
Judy: Yes. Oh, yes. He’s my hero.
Ben: Yeah. He was like the father of homeschooling, or at least one of the guys I think–I think it was back in the ’70s and ’80s, who was a real proponent of this homeschooling or unschooling approach, and also just this general idea that children don’t get enough unstructured time or free play. He wrote the book–I think that’s what GWS stands for, actually, Growing Without Schooling. And I found that website as I pieced together the curriculum for our boys to be just absolutely stellar in terms of a host of resources and books.
Judy: Yeah, yeah. See, John Holt, he was the probably the proponent of the modern homeschooling movement in the 1970s. And he was an unschooler in his methodology philosophy, which was amazing. He coined the term unschooling, which the story is that at that time, the 7-Up commercials came out as an alternative to its main rival, and they called it the Uncola. So, he coined the term “the unschooling”, meaning, not school, but it kind of got delved into this self-directed learning area of homeschooling.
So, most people know the term unschooling. And it doesn’t just mean free play, or no classes, no activities. A lot of kids, like your kids and my kids, are enrolled in classes, and activities, and groups, and more formal structured things, but the difference is they choose at, right? The control is still with the learner. So, when my kids decided, “No, I don’t want to do soccer anymore,” that was fine. Let it drop, right? Yeah. He’s got amazing resources out there, and he is the guru of this unschooling movement.
Ben: Now, what do you think about that term unschooling? I mean, do you think that based on this idea of it originally being like named after Uncola or whatever, do you think it’s a silly term, or do you think the term unschooling will stick around as the way that we define what we’re doing?
Judy: I think it’s so embedded now that people still use it a lot. So, when people think of unschooling, they know what it means. I don’t like the term because when I’m presenting to teacher conferences and talking about the stress they feel in the system, I think it just sounds too anti-school, like I think their schools will always be around. There are a lot of great schools that really do free learning. There are a lot of schools that say they’re self-directed, but they’re not. They’re only self-directed in pace. So, I don’t like the term so much as self-directed education, but it is known by unschooling, so I have to use the term.
Ben: Now, how would this compare to like a Waldorf or a Montessori type of education? Are they incorporating a lot of these concepts, or is that also far different than unschooling?
Judy: A lot of schools are incorporating unschooling in their methodology. They just don’t call it that. And it is very close to Montessori and Waldorf. But I guess the real key to me when I asked, “Is this truly an unschooling school?” is I asked, “What do you do if the child doesn’t want to do that? Is it coercive, or is it not?” And most governments’ schools are coercive because they are taxpayer-funded, they are accountable to the taxpayers in society, and they have to enforce a curriculum. So, it’s mostly much easier to unschool outside the school system.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. I think a big part of this–now, I was thinking about this when I was reading recently a great book by Yuval Noah Harari, wonderful author. He wrote a book relatively, recently called 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. And in that book, he argues that schools should switch to teaching what he calls the four Cs; critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, while largely downplaying technical skills and up playing general-purpose life skills, because what he says is in an era of increasingly greater artificial intelligence and automation, that one of the most important things that an education should provide for a young human is the ability to be able to deal with change, and to learn new things, and to be able to adapt quickly in unfamiliar situations to be able to almost like reinvent yourself again and again in a rapidly changing world.
I think one of the better academic benefits of unschooling is this idea that templates a set curriculum that leads children down this path to a preconceived outcome, without necessarily fostering the ability to create original ideas that would come with play or creativity. And when we look at the way the schooling system is set up, as you establish in the beginning of today’s show, if we’re creating a good little factory worker, or someone who can put a square peg into a square hole and a round peg into a round hole and doesn’t really know how to do anything otherwise, or perhaps figure out a way to carve the square peg so that it fits into the round hole, for example, you actually create a child who’s probably going to be screwed by this increasing reliance on automation artificial intelligence and the increasing rapidity at which job descriptions and job requirements seem to change.
Judy: Yes. Absolutely. That’s probably one of the reasons I started unschooling, homeschooling is that my kids would go to school for six hours a day, learn the controlled curriculum, and then come home and learn what they really wanted to learn. And I thought, “This is wasting my time. Why don’t we just do this for–instead of school, instead of sending them away six hours a day. And that’s why it’s a problem if you have yearly testing, then you are tied to the curriculum. Kids are natural communicators, collaborators, critical thinkers. We don’t have to teach them those skills. From the time babies are born, they problem-solve how to get a shape into a shape sorter.
We don’t have to teach those skills. We just need to get out of their way, and not shut down those skills. So, the kids who are viewed as the troublemakers in school, the ones that are critical thinkers that stand up and question things, they’re the ones that get shut down. And that’s the problem that we–we need to encourage that respectful behavior, that respectful questioning, that respectful thinking out of the box because like you said, we’ll be here moving into areas we don’t even know what we’re educating for yet. We need to work on those skills, communication, but kids are natural critical thinkers and collaborators, and we want to encourage that. And that is one of the academic benefits of unschooling.
Ben: Yeah. And also, this idea that some of the skills taught in school are–even though they’re time-honored traditions, and this might offend some people, they’re not that relevant. You talked about handwriting in the book, like handwriting skills. And compared to mastering HTML or–and I realize this is controversial, but even getting good at Instagram, or designing web pages, or formatting a blog, or knowing how to use Photoshop on photographs, there are so many skills these days that trump handwriting in my opinion. I grew up learning how to handwrite beautifully with the little lined paper, but it’s like, I don’t use that at all anymore. If I would have spent that time learning how to program video games and write HTML, it would have far better served me in today’s era.
My kids and I were talking the other day about another example like just memorizing stuff, memorizing facts. And yeah, there are some benefits that have been shown to doing things like playing N-Back apps on the phone where you’re recalling and memorizing different images, and sounds, and shapes. For example, we memorize a scripture each day because we think it’s important for the spiritual disciplines to sit down with something spiritual and devotional and commit that to memory at the beginning of the day.
But this idea of just like, why memorize some trigonometry equation, for example, in an era of Google? Why memorize the path from point A to point B in an era of Google Maps? There are some things that I think we can bypass that just frees up the brain for more creativity. Like, yeah, maybe there’s a bunch of truckers that are going to be put out of a job by, say, automated driving, or perhaps even some surgeons who are going to be put out of a job by the invention of surgical robots and the increasing reliance on technology for surgery. But maybe those surgeons are going to be freed up to go discover the cure for cancer or go creatively tackle Alzheimer’s or Lyme disease, or something else that’s a big problem once robots have stepped in and are able to do the surgery. I think we just have to think on our feet a lot more when it comes to education in a far different world than the way that the world looked when schools were invented back in the 1800s.
Judy: That’s exactly right. And that’s why education needs to be disrupted because as a bureaucracy, it takes 15 years to change the curriculum and to pilot it, and test it, and roll it out grade by grade. For example, my 17-year-old right now is studying for the social studies exam from a textbook that is 13 years old. It was written before smartphones have changed our world, and it’s such a waste of time for him to learn this stuff when he could be learning how to code or make an app or things like that that is much more useful.
Judy: But that’s the way it is. It is what it is. And our world can’t wait 15 years to change curriculum. It absolutely can’t. And that’s probably why a lot of parents are pulling out.
Ben: And we discuss college university, and I don’t want to give people the impression that I necessarily think that those either should be placed on the pedestal that I think they’re placed on. Again, if my boys want to be a surgeon or an astronaut or something that I do think requires a formal education and proof that you have mastered certain concepts because you could do a great deal of damage to society if you have not, there are other situations where–like, if my kids wanted to go to school to learn art or language or go to college for an arts or language or social studies degree, I would much rather take that tuition, buy them around the world plane ticket, and let them just go explore the world for a whole year.
And I guarantee, they’re going to get a lot more resilience and self-education in a broader more useful education out of a year of traveling the world. And they’ll also get all of the social life experiences that they might be “missing out on” in college from a scenario like that. So, I even think with college and university to a certain extent, apprenticeships, mentorships, life travel, et cetera, can replicate a lot of what kids are getting in university as well when it comes to a broad well-rounded education.
Judy: Absolutely. And I think yes, definitely, post-secondaries need change. They’re still quite old school. You go into a university classroom and a lot of it looks similar to us 30, 20 years ago, where the learning style has to change from stand up at the classroom and lecture. A lot of things have to change there. But right now, we’re in a flux where we’re transitioning from more hands-on learning to how do we again credential the learning. And for a lot of subjects like engineering, a degree is the–that’s the only way you can really formal accreditate your learning at this point, right?
And it doesn’t mean that you can’t get a job and do wonderful things in the tech industry without a degree. I mean, look at Bill Gates and many others. It just means that right now, that is still a sorting hat for–especially all the talent is coming from Asian countries that we’re competing with. We still need certain credentials to go forward. And I want to assure people that you can unschool. And through unschooling, through self-directed learning, you can still get what knowledge and skills you need to pass those exams to get those credentials.
Ben: Yeah. Even the most valuable parts of my university education were, for example, the summers were at [01:12:40] _______ and do internships or practicums. Sure, I took strength conditioning, and periodization, and exercise physiology courses, et cetera, at University of Idaho. For example, one year, I went to Duke University and I worked with all the athletes the NFL was sending down there for rehab and for training over the summer. And for me to be able to have to sit down with what a linebacker was expected to do, or a defensive end with some kind of a knee injury and talk back and forth with their coach over the phone, learn how they should be training and rehabilitating in the weight room, take them out to the field and actually see how they’re cutting, how they’re moving, design workouts for them to do in the pool to rehab their knees, take them into the exercise physiology lab and actually see the actual oxygen they’re consuming, and the carbon dioxide they’re producing in a real-world format rather than a textbook.
And even the summers where I’d teach kids’ sports camps rather than simply learning out of a textbook, developmental psychology, for example, being forced to figure out how five versus an eight versus a ten-year-old would learn how to play, say, ultimate frisbee. All of those experiences were far more valuable for me in college. And so just this idea of practicums, internships, apprenticeships, and life experiences as a way to educate a human, I just think those trump classroom time.
There’s even a–I don’t know if you’re familiar with something called the cone of learning. But the cone of learning is something I paid a lot of attention to when I was putting together River and Terran’s curriculum. And at the bottom of the cone of learning, like some of the least effective ways to learn, it’s like reading, watching documentaries, looking at pictures. And then as you can imagine, higher up on the cone is actually participating in a discussion, giving a talk, doing a presentation, teaching an experience, simulating an experience, and just life rather than formal curriculum. And that cone of learning, which anyone could Google and find an image of is incredibly insightful when it comes to just seeing how humans actually learn.
It’s kind of funny, I’ve talked before about how I think the traditional American food pyramid should be turned upside down, like the healthy nourishing fat should be at the base of the pyramid, and all the sugary, starchy carbohydrates should be towards the top of the food pyramid. It’s kind of similar with the cone of learning, right? It seems like modern education has all the stuff that children learn the least efficiently through at the base of the pyramid, like reading and watching movies and having their nose stuck in a curriculum versus being out and living life and experiencing education through life, which should really truly be at the base of that learning pyramid.
Judy: Exactly. And the more we know about brain science–I mean, nobody heard of learning styles 20 years ago, but now we’re trying to incorporate. So, the more we learn, the more I hope things change. But yeah, experiences, and the more post-secondary is talked to the business community and find out what they want in educating students at that level too, as well as the school system in talking to business. Do you want kids that can communicate, and collaborate, and put their creativity into solutions? The more people talk, I hope the more things change for sure.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. Now, in terms of resources, we mentioned your book of course. We mentioned John Holt’s GWS resources. I will also link in the shownotes over at BenGreenfieldFitness.com/unschoolingtouniversity another book that I read that I thought was very helpful called “Free to Play,” which delves into this concept of play even more. But are there any other favorite websites, or books, or resources that you would point people towards if they want to take a deeper dive into this whole concept of unschooling and free play?
Judy: I think there’s a lot of resources out there now that–I really liked Thomas Armstrong’s work. He wrote books on multiple intelligences, and he wrote a book on schools. I can’t think of the name right now the schools our kids deserve, I think. It’s a book about unschooling, but how it can be incorporated into the educational system, because like I said, some parents will always need schools. It’s a valid option. But my goal is to get parents to understand there are lots of options out there.
But Dr. Thomas Armstrong, I liked him. I liked Peter Gray’s Free to Learn, or “Free to Play.” He does a lot of research on play, and its health benefits, and wonderful, wonderful things. There’s the self-directed alliance, which is spearheaded by Dr. Peter Gray on sharing resources, also for self-directed schools. So, that’s very helpful. Just Google unschooling and there’s a lot of resources that come out now. And our association, Unschooling Canada Association, is an advocacy group to promote self-directed education in Canada. We’re a formal legal group. I don’t know if there’s an equivalent in the U.S. And each country, there’s a homeschooling group on Facebook. There are unschooling groups on Facebook.
Ben: Yeah. One thing that I also did, even though again it’s more homeschooling-oriented than unschooling, was I went to my local–you can just Google homeschool law and the name of your States. And in the case of Washington State, it’s the Washington Homeschool Law website, hslda.org. It’s homeschooling under your law. Hslda.org has a website for each different state that walks you through the legal requirements for your state to ensure that your child isn’t labeled as truant to know what kind of annual assessments you need to cover, which subjects are required to be taught, et cetera, even like preset templates to file a letter of intent to homeschool or unschool with your local community.
And then the other thing that I found useful on that site was they link to some different forums in the local community, like different homeschooling forums, for example, that offer things like field trips and other social opportunities with other kids, et cetera. So, hslda.org was another useful website that I found. And what I’ll do is I’ll collect all this stuff, books by Thomas Armstrong and Peter Gray, et cetera, and I’ll put them all in the shownotes over at BenGreenfieldFitness.com/unschoolingtouniversity. And of course, Judy’s book is a fantastic place to start as well.
If you have comments, if you have questions, if you have feedback, I know this education tends to be controversial, and sometimes polarizing, sometimes it’ll say something about, whatever, vaccinations on Twitter, or talk about–even nutrition tends to be highly dogmatic and polarizing. And I realize education tends to be the same way as well. So, I, of course, want to make this an open platform, open to discussion, open to ideas. So, again, if you have comments, questions, feedback, just leave them all over at BenGreenfieldFitness.com/unschoolingtouniversity, and either Judy or myself or both will watch what you have to say over there.
So, Judy, in the meantime, thank you for writing this book, and thank you so much for coming on the show and discussing this topic with me.
Judy: Oh, thank you for having the topic. It’s wonderful to talk about it. And especially, you’re doing it now. That’s incredible.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. It’s crazy and it’s–I find myself questioning my capabilities and whether or not I’m doing everything right, but thus far, just having done this for the past several months, it’s absolutely amazing. Just being able to put my kids on an airplane. I’m taking them to–we just got back from Switzerland and we’re turning around this fall. I’m taking them to Dubai and to Egypt, and they’ve got all sorts of Arabian and Middle East cultural books, and learning materials are going through in preparation for that trip. It all seems to make sense. It’s very logical. It takes a little bit more of my time, but you know what, I’d much rather be with my kids than doing just about anything else, and this definitely paints me into that corridor quite well. So, I’m enjoying it.
Judy: Travel is so amazing. Just watching my 16-year-old son cry when I take him to Dachau, the concentration camp, and it’s so much more real than reading about it in the book. It’s just incredible. And you were doing an excellent job. Just remember, you can’t force a child to learn and you can’t stop them from learning.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. It’s crazy. You just surround them with the resources they need and then watch them take off, and it’s crazy what happens even outside the borders of a school. Alright. Well, again, the URL is BenGreenfieldFitness.com/unschoolingtouniversity. The book is “Unschooling to University” by Judy Arnall. Judy, thanks for coming on the show.
Judy: Thanks for having me, Ben.
Ben: Alright, folks. I’m Ben Greenfield and Judy Arnall signing out from BenGreenfieldFitness.com. Have an amazing week.
Well, thanks for listening to today’s show. You can grab all the shownotes, the resources, pretty much everything that I mentioned over at BenGreenfieldFitness.com, along with plenty of other goodies from me, including the highly helpful “Ben Recommends” page, which is a list of pretty much everything that I’ve ever recommended for hormone, sleep, digestion, fat loss, performance, and plenty more. Please, also, know that all the links, all the promo codes, that I mentioned during this and every episode, helped to make this podcast happen and to generate income that enables me to keep bringing you this content every single week. When you listen in, be sure to use the links in the shownotes, use the promo codes that I generate, because that helps to float this thing and keep it coming to you each and every week.
These days, traditional school—such as a public or private school—is only one of many options to get an education. You’ve probably heard of homeschooling (I was personally homeschooled K-12). But another method that isn’t as well known is known as “unschooling”
So what is unschooling?
It’s a method of education I’ve recently adopted for my boys using resources such as the book “Unschooling To University – Relationships Matter Most In A World Crammed With Content“.
Many parents are frustrated by the school system, perhaps because of bullying, crowded classrooms, and outdated, dull, online courses. Disengaged learners that have no say in their coerced curriculum tend to act out, tune out, or drop out. Education must change and unschooling is the fastest growing alternative method of learning.
Two decades ago, students registered with their local school based on their house address. Now, with the internet, students are borderless. Learning can occur anywhere, anytime, anyway and from anyone – including self-taught.
Self-directing their education, unschoolers learn through:
In this scenario, it’s then the parents’ job to provide an environment rich in resources: books, videos, cameras, computer and video games, workbooks, textbooks, projects, jobs, museums, field trips, volunteer programs, atlases and maps, science centers, zoos, museums, theaters, TV, toys, concerts, musical instruments, board games, mentor and apprenticeship programs, music, internet, libraries, instructors, living history parks, art galleries and supplies, sporting venues and equipment, science equipment, corporate venues, parks, travel, and many more.
In her book Unschooling To University, my guest on this podcast, Judy Arnall, explores the path of 30 unschooled children who self-directed all or part of their education and were accepted by universities, colleges, and other postsecondary schools. Most have already graduated.
She outlines that what children need most are close relationships – parents, teachers, siblings, relatives, coaches, and mentors within a wider community, not just within an institutional school.
Educational content is everywhere. Caring relationships are not. Families that embrace unschooling do not have to choose between a quality education and a relaxed, connected family lifestyle. They can have both.
Judy is a keynote speaker and distinguished toastmaster who gives interactive presentations around the world. She specializes in non-punitive parenting and education practices, and regularly appears on television interviews on CBC, CTV, and Global as well as publications including Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, Canadian Living, Parents magazine, The Globe and Mail, Metro and Postmedia News.
As a Certified Canadian Family Life Educator (CCFE), she teaches brain and child development, and family communication, at the University of Calgary, Continuing Education, and has taught for Alberta Health Services for 13 years. She founded the non-profit organizations, Attachment Parenting Canada Association, and Unschooling Canada Association.
She is also the bestselling author of the following print and e-books:
- Discipline Without Distress: 135 Tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking, punishment or bribery.
- Plugged-In Parenting: Connecting with the digital generation for health, safety and love. (DVD)
- The Last Word on Parenting Advice. (A lovely little journal)
- Parenting With Patience: Turn frustration into connection with 3 easy steps.”
- Attachment Parenting Tips Raising Toddlers to Teens.
- Unschooling To University: Relationships matter most in a world crammed with content.
As a parent of five children, who were raised without any kind of punishment, Judy has a broad understanding of the issues facing parents and the digital generation. She is the proud parent of several university graduates who self-directed their education.
During our discussion, you’ll discover:
-When formal schools were first established, and why…9:00
- Schools began around the time of the Industrial Revolution; was a means of keeping kids occupied while parents worked in factories
- Critics claim it’s simply to create factory worker mentality; obedient citizens, quashing critical thinking
- It has transformed into a billion dollar industry; it’s difficult to imagine life without institutionalized school
- The brain interacts with its environment; it’s not a bucket to fill up with facts and figures
-Where the modern school system has failed us as a whole…13:00
- Schools have stress for kids as well as teachers
- Teaching is a highly stressful profession
- Kids experience stress via bullying, expectations, etc.
- The big failure: a one size fits all approach
- It does not encourage individualism; it can’t because it’s a bureaucracy
- Technology has revolutionized many facets of life; formal education lags behind
-What is unschooling, and how does it differ from homeschooling…20:05
- “Empowering the learner to choose what they learn, when (or if) they learn, and how they learn.”
- It’s a matter of control and ownership
- With homeschooling, the parents control and own the process
- In unschooling, the skills and knowledge are learned and embedded with the experience, applied through their curiosity
- Self-directed, free learning
-The value of play and unstructured time when it comes to learning…24:40
- Kids need a period of time to “deschool”
- Approximately 1 month for each year they’re in school
- Their natural curiosity takes over and they embrace
- We underestimate the value of play and downtime: it gives your brain rest and time to think about creative ideas
- Research shows that play and daydreaming is a sign of a better-equipped brain (similar to meditation)
- Overscheduling doesn’t allow for this quality time
- Unstructured play means it’s not dictated by adults (soccer doesn’t count)
- Play mimics what they would learn in school, but on their own terms
-The conspicuous difference in testing and its results in unschooling vs. traditional schooling…34:30
- Tests and essays begin to increase around the 6th grade
- Teachers need to stick to the schedule; teach to the test
- The emphasis is on accreditation/evaluation; but the journey to the destination is important
- It’s not as difficult to prepare for the standardized tests as one might think
-Yes, unschoolers can go to college too!…41:20
- No benefits in year to year testing; ties students and parents to the local curriculum
- Appropriate to do a standardized test at age 18 for college entrance
- 13-year-olds can do 8 grades of math in one year because their brain is ready to understand abstract concepts
- A strong homeschool lobby can influence legislation and enforcement of local education laws
-Creative ways to satisfy governmental education requirements…44:30
- Unschooling is a methodology; many schools do unschooling within their schools
- Look for skills that can be learned in video games, journals, etc.
-The concept of “Block learning” and why learning something every day can do more harm than good…47:35
- If a child doesn’t want to do a particular task, don’t make them do it
- Turn what they do naturally and turn it into a “subject” they need to learn: math, science, etc.
-What a typical day of unschooling might look like…50:00
- It’s relaxed
- Lots of family activities, such as nightly family dinner
-Success stories and research on the benefits of unschooling…55:00
- Team of 30
- Survey of parents of unschooled children
- All 30 of them got accepted into university
- 1/3 in arts fields; 1/3 in humanities; 1/3 in STEM courses
- 22 of the 30 have graduated from their programs
- John Holt’s website
- John coined the term “unschooling”
- Judy doesn’t like the term because it sounds “anti-school”
-How unschooling compares with a Waldorf or Montessori method of learning…1:01:00
- They incorporate unschooling in their methodology without calling it that
- “What do you do if the child doesn’t want to do that?” Is it coercive or not?
- Most government schools are coercive
- Much easier to unschool outside the school system
- Templates or set curriculums lead children to a preconceived outcome
- Kids are natural communicators and collaborators
-Why “time-honored” traditions like handwriting don’t need to be emphasized in schooling today…1:06:05
- It takes 15 years to change a curriculum in a government school
- Instead learn coding, social media, blogging, youtube, etc.
- Life experiences, world travel can replicate what is taught in university
-Resources Judy recommends learning more on unschooling and free play…1:16:30
- Books by Thomas Armstrong on Amazon
- Book: Free To Learn (and Peter Gray’s other books on Amazon)
-And much more!
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