Just got an article published at Life Learning Magazine today! If you have or get a subscription, my piece is titled “Secondary – School’s damaging priority paradigm.” It’s about how school, especially high school, appears to leave kids with too little time to follow their passions—and how society thinks this is okay.

I suppose I ought to mention that I was unschooled. Have I mentioned that? Hold on while I search my archives… Nope, not once.

In case you don’t know what unschooling is, it’s life learning. But that doesn’t tell you much either, does it? Hopefully, a longer-than-usual blog post will explain it better.
(Note—if  at any point you experience an uncomfortable, hater-like burning sensation in your heart or stomach, please consult your doctor before reading further. You may be prone to posting vicious comments or starting flame wars.)

So. Unschooling. I have my own definition, but out of curiosity, I’ll turn to Urban Dictionary. Here’s the example they list:

“An example of unschooling would be your child learn about math, science, history, and language arts through their interest in Yugioh (the most random thing I could think of). For math they would learn about the thousands of duel monsters out there and the complex math rules of the card game (trust me that some serious math there). The science would come from learning about television and the technology that goes into making a show. Also they would learn about biomes by learning about how different monsters live and do better (in both the game and show) in different environments and then discussing with them how that relates to animals in real life. History would come from learning about the Japanese culture and the history of television, card games and their impact on society, Language arts could come from writing to a Japanese pen pal about anime they have their and the societal differences such as America’s censorship of material allowed in Japan.”

That’s a reasonable definition, but it lacks one major point: none of that happens unless the child wants to do it. No way to kill an interest in Yugioh like saying “OMG WHAT A LEARNING OPPORTUNITY! Here, have twenty thousand books on Japanese culture and history! Sweetie, I found you a foreign pen-paaaaal! :D!”

It’s an incredibly hands-off method. (If you want an extreme example of hands-off education, check this out.) And from what my mom has said, it can be very frightening to keep one’s hands so thoroughly off of one’s child’s learning experience. All she did was make quiet suggestions, and fully support whatever directions I followed.

For instance, she knows I love Scotland, so she’ll nab any interesting articles or books (from the library; no monetary investment) she noticed that had to do with Scotland, and leave them for me to pick up—or not. By the way, I always picked those up.

The thing about an entire country is that there’s a lot involved in studying it. History, etymology, botany, zoology, social studies, its current and historical relationships with other countries, poetry, literature, the lives of specific historical figures, music, and I’m sure you’ve already grown bored with this list. Guess what? I didn’t grow bored at all, because I was passionate about the items listed.

Of course, some say, that’s great for some things, but what about… math? *Cue spooky music*

Mom suggested various math books and courses, and while I tried a few of them, I was never really interested. She didn’t force the issue. Then one day a guy we knew mentioned a couple math books specifically for girls, and she got them from the library and set them on the kitchen table. “Here are the books Mike mentioned,” was all she said, and I spent the next few days holed up in my room, occasionally popping out to exclaim things like, “Wow! No one ever explained why flip-and-multiply works for dividing fractions!”

So yeah, whether it’s the application of math in Yugioh, or a class they want to take, or a book they love, kids who are gently guided towards math without being forced into anything will  find something that clicks with them. The key: just keep trying new things, and don’t try them too hard.  Some people would say, “But that’s just you! You’re unique.” Yeah, but you know what? So is every kid, once you take them off the knowledge-packaging assembly line.

Well that’s great for the academic ones, say others, but what about… kids who just sit and play ____ games? *Cue gunfire sound-effects*

At another point, I think I was about ten, I was obsessed with online pet sites. Neopets, mainly. For a full two years. It took a lot of work for Mom to let go of the fact that I was spending as many hours a day as I could on such a useless activity. But she did let go of it, and I’m glad she did. When I was about twelve, they changed the graphics, and I was very upset that none of my pets looked as I’d worked to get them. “What’s the point,” I wondered then, “of working so hard for things that can change at the whim of a graphic designer? No thanks; I’ll work a real business instead.”

Because, whadda ya know, I’d actually gotten some virtual business experience over those two years. So Mom and I found a business that worked for me (selling candles), and when I discovered fencing at fourteen, that’s the income that funded it.

And so on. That’s how unschooling works. Give the child responsibility for their own education, support their pursuits, make pressure-free suggestions, and see what you get.

Be careful, though… you might wind up with a writer.

A few notes:

Yes, there were rules. Unschooling means freedom of education; it does not mean freedom from familial codes of conduct. Say please-and-thank-you. No lying, no hitting. Offer to help with dishes when you’re at a friend’s house. And no, you may not have an incredibly sugary treat right now.

Yes, there were limits on screen time. That’s a matter of health. And I personally think TV should be off-limits except for special occasions.

Yes, there were chores, yes, there were lots of them, and yes, they were required. This is a matter of contributing to the household, and I do think children should be required to contribute to the household. Not everything kids hate is bad for them, sadly, and there’s no evidence of a couple hours of yard work killing individuality or the creative drive.



  1. Congratulations on your publication!!! Likewise, on your free-to-live life. I think it’s a shame how institutionalized schooling has taken over not only countless childhoods, but such a large slice of their adulthoods, as well. Why should we wait until retirement to indulge in our passions? Why the mass lack of imagination that insists it is the only viable path to take? My own homeschooling background was a grand one, but I am left to wonder what I’ve missed that unschooling might have fostered…
    Oh, well. I made it to passionate novelist status anyway. (:

    1. Thank you kindly, madam, on both counts! ^-^

      Yes, school’s paradigms have worked their way into every level of society– largely due to most people having been through that system. And now people can’t imagine any other way of turning out respectable and productive children. Word to the wise: what you’re doing isn’t working.

      Huzzah for passionate noveling! Einstein once said “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education,” and I would think the same of artistry. Huzzah, I say, for miracles!

  2. Reblogged this on Ever On Word and commented:
    For those of you who enjoyed my homeschooler’s take on homeschooling, a while back, here’s a look at another scholastic approach: Unschooling as experienced by my writing buddy (and, as of today, published writer!) Tirzah Duncan.

  3. The Department of Education has “educated” not only children, but their parents, teaching the kids not to think, and the parents not to trust their kids or THEMSELVES. Lack of imagination (and interest) is the result of all heavy-handed regulation, subjects that could be a source of wonder and passion become just another task/job. We’re all familiar with the brain-dump after a class/test is over….that doesn’t happen with information one cares about!

    Congratulations on the publication, Tirzah, (and on having such a great mom!)

    1. Yes, it truly has been a complete and successful conditioning of society, hasn’t it? It blows people’s minds to try to comprehend that I’ve never had a curriculum, and you can see the bewildered realization “But… she’s not an idiot… huh…” School has ingrained itself in the cultural consciousness as necessary for functioning.

      Thank you, and thank you. 🙂

  4. I *loved* reading your unschooled perspective! As a joyful, life-inspired unschooling mama, I’d like to share that, at our house, there aren’t “rules” like you mention at the bottom of your blog post. 😉 I firmly believe each family must do what works best for them… and for us, whole-life unschooling has worked the same for “family rules” as it has for “math”! I have boys who enjoy helping me around the house when I need it, and who are generous and full of gratitude without being required to do chores or say “please” and “thank you” every time society may think it’s appropriate. Just another thought to blow the general-populace’s mind. lol

    Look forward to reading more from you… you are a fabulous writer! Cid

    1. Thanks kindly, Cid. 🙂 As for the family rules, I think every family needs to work out their own way of handling such things, depending on social and inter-relational issues that do and don’t arise. Good for you, knowing what your children didn’t need– that’s a rare thing.

  5. This is fascinating, and obviously you’ve turned out intelligent and well-educated from unschooling. I agree the whole school system tends to turn things that students started out finding interesting into a chore. Then amount of time I’ve spent rote learning things, even in subjects I’m really interested in, for a test or an exam, only to forget almost all of it afterwards, is a little bit tragic.

    On the other hand, what worked for you might not work for everyone. There are a whole lot of things that I never would have learned if no one had pointed me in those directions. I don’t think I could’ve been trusted with learning anything other than reading and a handful of really specialised history subjects as a child if I hadn’t been guided in some way (even if today’s education system isn’t the ideal way). When it comes to unschooling, what happens to those kids who struggle to learn to read on their own, or never show any interest in maths at all?

    I also think conventional school taught me a whole lot in the way of social skills, as a school classroom is usually a collection of really disparate kids who have not much in common to start out with, and learning to interact with people from really different backgrounds, with different values and mindsets to mine was an important life lesson I needed. Where did you go to interact with other kids your age?

    I think there’s probably a place for it with some kids, but it doesn’t work so well with others. You’re lucky your parents recognised that and gave you the chance to try.

    Oops, this turned out longer than I planned. Sorry. =)

    1. Thank you kindly; always nice to know I don’t sound like a bloomin’ idiot. ^_^

      I think a big problem lies in a couple of assumptions: One, that a child must be a jack of all subjects and a master of none. This has always puzzled me. So what if they’re ignorant on one subject if they’re brilliant in another sphere? Maybe they’ll turn out unbalanced, maybe they won’t be socially perfect. But you know what? Schooled children do that all the time. It’s a feature of humanity. And some of the greater minds and hearts in history would be considered “not well-rounded”. But in the grand scheme of things, do we really care that Einstein never learned to drive?

      But beyond that, our society has become so school-centric that we fail to remember there are influences on a child outside of school. It’s called life. I was influenced, aye, by the books I read, by the audiobooks Mom played, by my family, by the varied interests and enthusiasm of those around me. That shaped my inclination towards business and sports and writing (though my love of Scotland was my own random heart-obsession). Wise parents can guide without pushing.

      There’s also nothing at all wrong with taking classes in this or that, if a child chooses to. Some degree of “formal education” will sometimes be chosen by an unschooled child. Children will know when they don’t have the discipline to follow something through, and can chose to put themselves in a position to be pushed towards their own goals. I watched my unschooled nephew do exactly that.

      As far as reading, that’s something that a child can be guided to quite young. In fact, if it’s handled right (and the parents stop the instant the child shows signs of boredom) a toddler can be taught rather advanced subjects without ever noticing that they’re doing anything but playing games with mommy and daddy. Different unschooling families have differing views on this, as is right: they have differing children. It’s the insistence, the FORCING of education down the throat of the unwilling, that unschooling seeks to avoid.

      As far as interaction, I played sometimes with the neighborhood kids, but other than that, I DIDN’T interact much with people my age until I was about 14, when I started fencing and going to an unschool/homeschool playgroup. Up to that point, I mixed most commonly with adults. People have always found me surprisingly mature, probably as a result of that. Also as a result of that, I have never considered people in terms of age. I have made grand and fun friends of women in rest homes and babies in cribs and every age in between. I don’t think in terms of “Will there be people my age?” but rather in terms of “Will there be interesting people?”.

      And yes, I have been infinitely lucky in most aspects of my life. 🙂 I now wish to spread the luck.

      Don’t worry about length! Long, thoughtful responses to my blog posts just means that maybe I did something right. They’re certainly appreciated. ^_^

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