Updated: Dec 17, 2019
I self-direct my education. What does that even mean? It means I do not attend school, and I get to make decisions about what and how I learn. What I do with my time is up to me, and I love the freedom and infinite possibilities that come with not being restricted by an imposed schedule nine months a year. I am always busy with reading, taking high school or community college classes, posting book reviews on my blog, interning with an audiobook narrator, or visiting museums. I can take a third of the time it would take in school to cover subjects that come more easily, or delve deep into a subject for as long as I want.
I self-direct my education.
When I am at work and people ask why I am not in school, I usually say that I am a homeschooler, which is what most self-directed learners like me are called. Homeschooling encompasses a vast array of possibilities though, and what I am referring to is a broad method called self-directed education, or unschooling, which is not compulsory education at home. Compulsory education is mandatory or enforced school attendance or adherence to a predetermined curriculum, while unschooling focuses on nurturing natural interest and encouraging the student to follow their own unique learning style.
In my experience, the most common concern for those unfamiliar with any kind of homeschooling is, “How will they be socialized?” Homeschoolers may not be trained to behave in a way that others in the group think is suitable, which is the definition of “being socialized” in the Cambridge Dictionary, but most are constantly socializing. I have the opportunity to spend time with people of all ages: with school-attending peers during sports or theatre, with adults as I work part-time or odd jobs, with younger kids that I teach at a homeschool co-op, and with my family as I help on our homestead. I also get to be a part of the world outside of school in a natural way. I am a common sight at the library, and I can enjoy the outdoors whenever I want. I get to eat fresh, homemade lunches at home, and can leave for a trip to a cool place during the school day.
Maybe I appreciate unschooling because I have not always done it. I went to public school all the way through elementary school, and, surprisingly, I loved it there, too. I loved filling out worksheets, memorizing facts for tests, impressing the teachers, getting back grades; the game was so fun, and I loved being good at it. But reward killed my desire to actually learn, and I craved the praise instead of the process. Gaining knowledge should satisfy in and of itself.
Although I enjoyed playing the game of public school, I am so grateful that I have been given the chance to connect with my own passions and desires before I become an adult. I can imagine how my story would unfold just like my mother’s, who kept chasing the carrot until she graduated from a prestigious law school, before discovering that law was not her passion; it was just what brought approval and recognition. I have been set free from that cycle, and I realize my ability to hold the carrot for myself to lead me where I want to go.
Gaining knowledge should satisfy in and of itself.
How can I possibly learn without a curriculum or a teacher? The answer is, easily. I use books and library research, and when I do need extra help with something, I can seek it through my mother or another adult. There is also the Internet, which makes finding resources on any topic nearly effortless. We live in the Information Age, and with so many ways to easily access potential knowledge—TED talks, Khan Academy, Duolingo, YouTube, etc.—, needing a teacher’s sanction to learn something seems outdated.
I have told how I learn, but why do I learn? I learn because I am genuinely interested, because I can do it on my own time, and because I have a choice. Taking classes, listening to lectures, being taught by an expert, are all wonderful resources and learning opportunities, but I will not gain a bit if I have to be there, if there is no choice. That is the most important difference between traditional school and unschooling: the difference between imposition and self-direction. Forcing something upon someone will not make them learn it. Humans have a natural desire to learn; do we doubt if a baby will learn to walk or talk? We usually do not, so why do we doubt that a child can learn other things by their own motivation? My little brother is a great example of this. When he was about five, he was finished with being the only one in our family who could not read, and decided to learn. He did it by asking questions: “Is ‘why’ spelled with just a ‘y’?” “How do you spell 'hear'? Why isn’t that the same as 'here'?” He taught himself, and all we did was give the answers he asked for. Now, he loves reading, better than most elementary students I have met, and he has no stigma attached to it, because it was not forced down his throat.
My brother also demonstrates how unschooling can be a great option for kids with learning differences. If he were in school, he would be diagnosed with ADHD, given medication, and be made to sit still. Does that mean he is not “smart” or a “good student”? As it is, he gets to run around outside for hours, naturally relieving his energy, and then intently and productively focus on his chosen task, whether it be reading, doing math problems, or using his hands to make something. Why do we revere standardized test scores above all else? The public school system sees education as something quantifiable instead of qualifiable, but there are so many types of learning that cannot be measured, and having time outside of school gives kids the chance to engage in them.
That is the most important difference between traditional school and unschooling: the difference between imposition and self-direction.
Imagine explaining how standardized education works to someone who had never heard of conventional compulsory schooling. We are so accustomed to the system and the idea that most kids do not like it that we do not question whether it is actually necessary nor do we question the principles it is based upon. The ideas of kids being divided up by age instead of ability, learning at equal rates in different subjects, and understanding material taught in such a fragmented and abstract manner would be strange and alarming to someone not as acclimatized to it. While this system favored me, it is a system that puts down and discourages kids that learn in ways other than the standardized fashion. While I succeeded in superficial learning, which was mostly temporary memorization of arbitrary academics, for most kids I know, school has been the bane of their existence and has not lead to education.
When I use the word “education,” I do not mean the major in which teachers earn their degrees, I mean what Dictionary.com has as its first definition: “The act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” Few conventional students seem truly prepared for “mature life,” and many adults would agree that they did not end their education when they were done with school, but on the contrary, began it once free from the constrictions of school.
I am not accusing teachers here; most of the teachers I have had and met genuinely care about their work and the children they serve, and I think almost all of them would agree with me that the public school system is far from ideal. Society and I are at odds, though, when public school is seen as the way for every child, and I see that child and their education harmed because of it.
If someone like me, who enjoyed conventional schooling, could gain so much depth and reality from my self-directed education, imagine the benefit to those students for whom every day of school is a struggle, or to those who do not even care enough to try. Taking responsibility for and directing one’s own education is a great option in the pursuit of a purposeful life.