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By Raj Mankad
Art By Mark Williamson

The first thing to know about an unschooling camping trip is that the children start the fire on their own. It’s a struggle for me. I want to demonstrate how to build a tipi of twigs. No can do. If a child’s hair catches on fire, the parents will put it out. Otherwise, no intervention.

So there I am, a hundred meters or so from Lake Houston, watching a six-year-old boy and my seven-year-old daughter wrap a clump of leaves and sticks in a big wad of newspaper. It’s ugly. It looks like the pellet of a giant dumpster-diving owl. Then, with one struck match, the bolus bursts into flame. I am flabbergasted. It takes me fifteen minutes of cursing under my breadth to get flames like those rolling.

Unschooling itself is catching fire. A massive technological revolution in access to information through sites like Khan Academy is accelerating a parallel social revolution in how people create their own learning communities.

The coining of the term “unschooling” is often credited to John Holt, who founded a newsletter called Growing Without Schooling in 1977. It was like a Facebook group but conducted over months by mail. He published hundreds of letters from readers who didn’t send their children to school. That long-distance community explored an alternative to the disciplinary, hierarchical world of school. To “homeschool” meant trying to reproduce a broken system in your home whereas “unschooling” was something far more open ended and driven by the child’s own initiative.

What happened to the experimented upon, the original unschooled kids? Some like Astra Taylor are now eloquent, accomplished adults speaking about their experiences. Look her up on YouTube.

In more recent years, Sandra Dodd, Dayna Martin, and dozens of bloggers have developed more delineated ideas of what “unschooling” and “radical unschooling” mean, which come down to having children establish their own daily patterns and initiate their own learning. As little or as much screen time, as little or as much candy, as little or as much Minecraft as they want! If the child wants to read about wolves for three straight months, the parent supports that. The parent is like a librarian. No measurement of progress by testing. Life itself is learning.

Some parents with this open-ended approach, but who still establish rules about candy and computer games (and manners), seem to be gravitating towards the term “relaxed homeschoolers,” though every family has their own thing going. There’s no unschooling oath.

Back at Lake Houston, the father one spot over helps me set up my tent. We start talking. I find out he is a professional acrobatic slam dunk artist. He’s played with the Harlem Globe Trotters. He tours the country doing shows, and his family is in the process of divesting themselves of all their stuff so they can tour together in an RV for a whole year. I am envious. I am often envious at unschooling meet ups because many of the parents are extraordinarily accomplished. They are scientists, artists, programmers, musicians. And when you ask them how they accomplished what they did, you often hear the same response. I taught myself.

I lied about there not being an unschooling oath. The Houston Unschooling Kids Facebook group that organized the camping trip does have an agreement. You must agree to show up to real life events, which makes sense. Just when you cut yourself off from the automatic support of the school system, nearly everyone around you bombards you with questions. How will your children be socialized? Won’t they fall behind? How will they learn to function in the real world? And you do have to figure out answers to those questions plus many more. Innumerable online groups have sped up the social revolution that John Holt helped get underway forty years ago, but it’s easy to get lost. Disagreements about nuances of unschooling frequently turn into online flame wars. Hence the stress by the Houston Unschooling Kids on a real life community.

Besides unlimited candy and screen time, the big crucible for unschoolers is math. Puzzling through the Pythagorean theorem takes patience. The mantra from many unschooling parents is that children pick up math through life — when they mix the ingredients for brownies, when they sell brownies, when they buy Minecraft with the money they made from the brownies. That approach doesn’t always work out. Every so often, you see a panicked message about math from the parent of a teenage unschooler who wants to go to high school or start community college. Help. We have to catch up.

Enter Salman Khan. If you have not created an account and delved into the world of Khan Academy, you are missing out on the unfolding of a revolution. It is a manifestation of the internet’s promise to flatten out access to knowledge. The interactive setup around videos and “mastery challenges” with badges, points, and avatars is highly motivating. At least it is for my daughter who blasted through two grade levels of math and Intro to Javascript in one year. (Beforehand she had thought she was bad at math after taking some poorly conceived quizzes at a school.) On Khan Academy, you can learn arithmetic, geometry, quadratic formulas, linear algebra, differential calculus. You can learn world history, organic chemistry, and the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Indigenous Americas.

Yes there are drawbacks to unschooling. At least one of the parents cannot hold a 9 to 5 job. Usually the mother, which is a reason why my daughter is attending Travis Elementary this year.

Having one foot in both worlds, it seems to me that my friends debating school reform have little idea that the truly fundamental, ground-shifting, systemic, contemporary movement in schooling is to choose not to. If a rag-tag movement can do an end run around the monied system we have, something has to give.

The fire is lit, and nobody’s hair got burned.

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