I Teach at a University and I Unschool My Kids

Photography: Katherine Heise

By Nina Palmo

I’ve been in school almost my entire life. I started preschool shortly before turning 3. I started elementary school at age 6. I followed the standard path through middle school and high school and then went directly to college. After college I earned two Master’s degrees and then a PhD. Even after that I didn’t want to leave. I now teach at a university.

As you may have guessed by now, I love school. I’m good at school. I’ve learned a lot through school. So it comes as a surprise to some people that I have chosen not to send my kids to school. Instead, we’ve embraced the philosophy of unschooling. Unschooling is a form of homeschooling that rejects the idea of replicating the school environment at home in favor of self-directed learning through living and engaging fully with the world.

Unschooling is a form of homeschooling that rejects the idea of replicating the school environment at home in favor of self-directed learning through living and engaging fully with the world.

Below are eight of the biggest reasons why we’ve chosen unschooling for our kids.

  1. I WANT THEM TO LEARN HOW TO LEARN.

In traditional schooling, there is a heavy emphasis on following directions. It starts in kindergarten and often continues on through high school. Even in most college courses, the recipe for success is laid out for students. Do the assignments as directed and get an A. Congratulations. You’ve succeeded! I can follow directions like a boss, which is one reason I did well in school. Give me an assignment and I will follow instructions to a T. Unfortunately, I’ve found that this skill is next to useless in the real world (aside from tax filing). It also becomes less and less useful as you progress in school. In fact, the further along I got in school, the more schooling began to resemble unschooling. Once I started working on my dissertation, there were no more assignments to complete according to instructions. It was suddenly up to me to ask questions and then answer them. This was a big shift for me and I spent a couple of years floundering with lack of direction before figuring out how to handle self-directed learning. An unschooled person will have a huge advantage in this regard.

  1. I WANT TO RAISE LEADERS, THINKERS, INNOVATORS, AND ENTREPRENEURS.

Anyone can raise a future employee who shows up on time and does what they are told. It’s a much bigger challenge to raise a future employer – the one with the vision and drive to make things happen in the world. Of course, my kids may not grow up to be business owners. That isn’t the goal. The goal is to raise motivated thinkers who find a place they can put their passion to work, not just execute steps according to someone else’s plan.

  1. I’VE SEEN THE POWER OF BEING PASSIONATE ABOUT YOUR WORK.

Academia is full of people who are passionate about their work. Really passionate. Not “I enjoy my job, but look forward to kicking back on the weekend” passionate. I know many people for whom their job is not only their job, but also their hobby and their life. These people are wildly successful, not just by traditional standards of having prestige and money, but also by the more important standard of loving what you do and looking forward to doing it every day.

  1. I DON’T WANT THEM TO BE AFRAID OF MATH.

The school system is clearly doing a rather poor job at instilling a love of math in its students. Given the extremely strong correlation between loving a subject and learning it, I want to keep the love of math alive and well in our household.

Unschooling parents are often asked, how will you teach your children math? The fact that this question pops up so frequently shows that many people believe math to be arcane form of knowledge that can’t be obtained the same way that reading, writing, music, or biology is learned. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think the only thing that sets math apart is that people are afraid of it. As a math major in college, I quickly got used to seeing pained looks on people’s faces when I told them what I studied. Once I was doing my homework on an airplane when a flight attendant glanced over said, “Is that math? I hate math”. The school system is clearly doing a rather poor job at instilling a love of math in its students. Given the extremely strong correlation between loving a subject and learning it, I want to keep the love of math alive and well in our household.

3 Comments

  • I think it is admirable that you are taking the un-schooling route and explaining your rationale on-line like this for others to see and contemplate. I would love see more ‘un-schooling’ in schools. Schools do talk about ‘learn to learn’ and express many of the sentiments you covering your article but rarely step up fully to the plate, which requires the courage to let go… and let the students fly. I have been a state school teacher in the UK for over 20 years and did my best to facilitate children to direct their own learning. As such, I know that un-schooling, as you describe it, can be achieved in schools and a love of Math (alongside a love of learning in the whole range of subjects) can develop as a natural response to the environment and as a function of natural curiosity and reflection. When children know (really know) that their thoughts and ideas are welcomed, respected and valued they will express them and reflect on them and surprise you with their profundity. They become mathematicians and work out the Math for themselves.

  • Can you go into exactly you unschooled them while you and your partner are at work? I’d love to take this route and have explored it extensively; however, we both work. My husband is in startup and I work at an insurance firm. I read a lot of blogs about parents who are doing this, but they always seem to skip the “how” or perhaps they fail to mention they are independently wealthy.

    • I am definitely not independently wealthy. I chose poverty and time with my child over having disposable money. I had an amazing job I loved, but I gave it up to be with my daughter. It is possible. Downsize, find a way to work from home on the side, get used to not having certain things you didn’t need in the first place, and it really helps to have supportive in -laws that feed you a lot. You may notice that if you are not working every day, your expenses and needs change quite a bit. You don’t need to buy new clothes as often, or pay for gas and childcare, you are spending way less on convenience items, it adds up.

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