Teaching teachers about learning through unschooling, worldschooling, and skillschooling

It’s not every day traditional education is keen to learn more about the life and times of someone who has completely shunned the choice of school in her child’s life. So when the magazine Teacher’s Plus invited me to tell their teacher audience about our worldschooling lifestyle for their Learning on the Road issue, I didn’t need much convincing.

Schooling and life-ing: Two different things

Context is essential, and what might be evident to one audience might as well be Greek (and thus completely irrelevant) to another.

Speaking to existing unschooling and worldschooling families, I’d be preaching to the converted if I explained that school – at its best, mind you, not its worst – mimics life, academically speaking.

Families who have braved society raising its eyebrow at them as they took that leap of faith, they don’t need to hear that learning from life, especially as world travellers, is tenfold more effective at life prep than school could ever be. Especially since our careers as travellers tend to reflect that.

But teachers are trained to view school as the be-all end-all of a child’s future. Not only is it their livelihood, but if they’re teachers at heart, it’s also their calling.

So it was an honour to be given a platform where I, as a former teacher myself, could share but a tiny slice of life on the other side of the fence. (Which is like a whole other world, really.) 

How do children learn outside of school? Let me count the ways

(a.k.a learning isn’t what you think it is)

It’s a sorry but prevailing reality that since the birth of modern schooling a mere 222 years ago, we’ve come to equate the very heart of the word “learning” with its school-setting counterpart.

After six years of unschooling, this is perhaps the biggest puzzle people unfamiliar with our learning lifestyle face when they are introduced to unschooling:

“But how does he learn?”

To get my educator audience to step off of theirs and onto our page for as long as it took to read it, I went back to the core of what learning is, and how we practice it. Unsurprisingly, no school required.

I reminded what learning is (to be honest, I was never actually taught whilst studying education at university that learning was anything other than something you do at school, so perhaps – tongue-in-cheek – my reminder had a teaching element).

According to the Oxford Dictionary, learning is “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught”. Note that the act of teaching – the realm of formal education such as primary and high school – is one of three primary methods through which, according to the textbooks, learning takes place. Yet notice, also, that two-thirds of this threefold denotation relies on the learner, whether it’s the input of study or the data processing of experience.

Nadja Bester

A’s learning naturally unfolds in three interconnected streams. Explained contextually concerning the above definition:

  • Unschooling is how he studies
  • Worldschooling is how he gains experience
  • Skillschooling is how he is taugh

Of course, our definition of “studying” doesn’t involve formal standardised testing, “experience” needn’t be demonstrated for the purpose of receiving a grade, and “teaching” doesn’t involve a school bell and parent-teacher meetings.

But, surprising as it may when we’ve been led to believe that the practice of schooling owns these three concepts, they do actually stand entirely independent of any one system that happened to have adopted them.

What learning looks like

As unschoolers, learning became everyday life, and life continued to be learning, as it always had been.

As worldschoolers, we’ve definitely “levelled up” a notch. The familiarity of our daily living – the basic concepts and beliefs we took for granted all our lives – is no longer as obvious, easy, or even boring as it once were.

In the article, I explain that while the unschooling menu is up to him (whatever he’s into, wherever he’s into it), worldschooling is where things get real.

Worldschooling has its own curriculum: He practices geography, math, economics, linguistics, cultural and political studies – ever-changing and always relevant.Name me a subject, and I’ll show you how worldschooling has its own version of it.

Now that he’s growing older, skillschooling has joined the party.

Skillschooling is a term we coined to reminds us that the most valuable aspect of formal education is – or should be – marketable skills. Fostering creativity, critical thinking, and greatness is best left up to the home environment anyway, if it’s going to happen at all. Character development, I needn’t say, hasn’t been part of most formal school curriculums, either formally or informally, for a long time. It’s neither testable, nor something overworked and underpaid teachers have time for.  

(I’m in no way hating on, or blaming teachers. I’ve been on the inside, and I know what it’s like. The system is rigged, and not in anyone’s favour. Plus, it’s getting worse year-in, year-out. It’s tough as nails trying to make a difference, no matter how determined you are. And though a very low percentage of the teachers I had at school were worth their salt, they were worth double their weight in gold, and I will go on loving them forever.)

As a skillschooler, he embodies what unschooling is: It’s not no-learning for the sake of no formal learning, as newbies or the uninitiated sometimes believe.

If unschooling is interest-led learning that fosters creativity and independent thinking, then skillschooling is future-proof learning that does what formal education is supposed to be: Prepare them for their future. He learns marketable skills because he’s decided on at least some of his future lifestyle and career goals, and is working to bring it to fruition. If, at any point, he decides to head into a different direction, then so will his skillschooling.

The evolution of education 

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Mahatma Gandhi (though, actually, not)

(Incidentally, without trying to buzzkill the point I’m making, this quote is in fact misattributed to Gandhiji. The original, said by journalist and trade unionists Nicholas Klein, was, “And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” Read more on this here.)

I remember a time when the very thought of taking your kids out of school was preposterous. Six years ago when we did it, this was predominantly the response I got. So it wasn’t exactly decades ago.

Then, when homeschooling and unschooling started gaining traction (and that it did, rapidly so), education departments around the world sat up and began taking note. Sometimes, sadly, even going as far as to demonstrate that under some legal jurisdictions, our children are ours only as long as we fall in line and do what pleases the system.

Now the tides are turning. A publication like Teacher Plus, established in 1989, has been in circulation for nearly 30 years. We’re just about the same age, give a or take a couple of years. Back when I came home from my first day at school, magazine staff were sitting in the office creating their latest issue designed to assist and inspire teachers about the pedagogy of learning.

Today, learning is again coming into its own as an activity and an outcome linked to, yet indecent of, a schooled environment. It’s good news that the pedagogical media is sitting up and taking note.

Teacher Plus prides itself in being “the magazine for the contemporary teacher”. And indeed, the contemporary teacher has to contend with the fact that formal education no longer has a monopoly on learning.

Is this a bad thing? On the contrary. If the inherent gifts of alternative education are able to inspire teachers to transform their classrooms and principals their schools, then this might just be the very thing to revive the sentiment “School is dead”.


Read my article “The World as Our Laboratory”, published in their December 2018 issue, here.

7 Comments

  1. You two are too cool for school! hahaha! So great to see your story featured, and in a magazine for teachers? How rad is that! You’re my momspiration, can’t wait to see what comes next 🙂

  2. Pingback: A Digital Nomad in India - Eastern Heart Western Mind

  3. I love that a teacher’s magazine published your story! And your young man is very lucky! What a life he leads! I wish more parents would be as mindful about their children’s education as you are! Schooling systems are in chaos all around the world! And what can we do about it, governments don’t care!

    • Nadja @ Eastern Heart Western Mind Reply

      Thank you for your kind words, Pam! ❤ It’s definitely busy changing … change is just much slower than we’d like it to be

  4. tennismom miami Reply

    I find this post very very interesting because i struggle in providing that balance for my son.

    When i was little we used to be out of school by 12 or 1 pm leaving plenty of time for play and social interaction. Now school finishes at 3 pm with a lot of kids having to stay until 6 pm. The education system definitely needs an overhauling reform. The World has changed and education needs to keep up!

  5. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – That’s one of my all time favorite quotes.

    very well thought and written.

    Definitely following this blog.

  6. I am a poor village girl and to stand us a better chance in life, we must finish school and get a job. This is what I have been trained. I was sent to the best schools and got the best education. I got myself a job right after but I never knew why I felt like I don’t know so much and why I still felt felt empty. I moved out of my country and there I started filling the void. I wouldn’t go back anymore no matter what my family will say. If one day I will have kids, I will world school them too. I want them to live and not just exist. Your son is so lucky for having a cool mom like you.

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