Homeschooling Is Not For Everyone, But Self-Directed Learning Is

Deanna Skow
Apr 19, 2018 · 6 min read
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Self-directed learning allows children to follow their intrinsic motivations. (photo credit: Deanna Skow)

My family has been on a journey of self-directed learning for several years now, with the oldest of my three children being nearly eight years old. Unschooling or self-directed learning is allowing your child’s intrinsic motivations and natural curiosities about the world around them to guide their education. After obtaining a Masters in Education and teaching in a public elementary classroom for years, I initially shied away from unschooling as an education philosophy. It felt like a radical idea. Yet, these days it couldn’t feel more natural and normal.

Letting Go of School

“Unschooling recognizes that what schools see as learning is really just a small fraction of what there is to discover in life. Learning takes a lifetime, and the order and manner of gaining knowledge is not as important as making and reaching goals.” ~Aadel Bussinger

Recreating school at home was not working for my family. There was a lot of push back from my son and the process felt frustrating. I was reading books by John Holt and Peter Gray and realizing it was time to try something new. In the beginning, the challenge for me as a homeschooling mom was reprogramming my brain, or deschooling. How I viewed education and how children learn (or rather how all humans learn) was all about to change. In most classrooms it is a top-down, one size fits all curriculum. Children are forced to learn predetermined material based on their age, whether they’re interested or not. They only scratch the surface of a subject, rarely able to dig in and and truly explore. Just when things start to get interesting, the bell rings and it’s off to the next subject of the day. The teacher doesn’t walk into a classroom and say:

“So, what do you want to learn today?”

When I was teaching in the classroom, I had my lessons prepared a week to a month in advance. On occasion those lessons were informed by the student’s interests, but mainly they were determined by the state guidelines of what the students should know and the curriculum that the school district chose. I would offer as many hands-on, engaged learning opportunities as possible, but the fault in this method is that the students were not intrinsically motivated to learn the skills and information. My lessons were mandatory and though some of them had an interest in what was on the schedule that day, some did not. But regardless, it was what they had to learn. Despite my greatest efforts, I regret that some of my students likely learned very little because the motivation was mostly extrinsic.

Embracing Natural Curiosity

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.” ~Benjamin Franklin

Though I loved the idea of unschooling, I struggled with the question I hear all the time: “How will they know they want to learn _____ (enter any subject/idea/skill) if they are never taught it?”. In the beginning, I was afraid my son would never learn to read. My years in the elementary classroom had me convinced that without daily consumption of phonics lessons and guided reading, it was impossible. Thankfully, I found the patience to just trust him. By trusting his curiosity and his natural hunger to learn, I was amazed as I watched him slowly, in his own time and following his own path, blossom into a confident and passionate reader.

So how does it happen? How do children learn without coercive curriculum? Enter the art of strewing.

Strew, Watch, Facilitate (Repeat)

Strewing is the act of scattering things in the environment of your children to spark their interest and curiosity.

In The Art of Strewing: Instilling the Love of Learning by Piquing your Child’s Natural Curiosity, Aadel Bussinger writes extensively on how to go about strewing. She suggests that strewing involves:

  • Opening doors to new ideas and opportunities
  • Feeding the flames of interests and hobbies
  • Providing resources, structure, and information
  • Showing examples of how to research
  • Sowing seeds of potential

Bussinger stresses that strewing is a passive, gentle practice that is not attached to negativity or punishment for non-participation. Sometimes, my attempt to strew is not met with enthusiasm, in which case I let it go. Maybe I will try it again later down the line or not at all. As an unschooling mom, I see it as my job to be less of a teacher and more the facilitator for my children’s education by providing opportunities for discovery. I am letting go of all the shoulds and trusting in the power of my children’s curiosity. I’m listening to their questions, watching their interests awaken, and recognizing their potential. I’m not sitting down with lesson plans in mind or an objective to teach them certain skills. Instead, I’m filling their environment with opportunities to discover their world and allowing them to show me what they want to learn. This is followed by providing them with unlimited time to explore it. No bells, no deadlines, no benchmarks, no tests. Bussinger points out that:

“Strewing is different than most interest-led learning methods. It does not require or expect anything from the child. It suggests, invites, and entices, but never does it coerce. Strewing is much less about providing a rounded education and more about enriching your lives and making it more meaningful, mindful, and observant.”

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Strewing books on the Solar System (photo credit: Deanna Skow)

What to Strew

Strewing is not just about objects in their path. Sure, I will strew books or a material that I think would ignite their passion, but strewing also includes experiences, field trips, a conversation that may encourage critical thinking, a class that may unlock a curiosity, or maybe something as simple as a walk around the block!

As a facilitator, I find the act of strewing exciting and interesting. I look at my children like puzzles. I spend my time figuring them out and learning what makes them tick. When I think I have unlocked something that drives them, I take great pleasure in searching the world for opportunities and resources to support and encourage that drive. I feel so proud and joyful when I see my children motivated and driven by a new found interest.

Sometimes people will say to me:

“Oh I could never homeschool. I don’t have the education background that you do.”

Yet, in the last few years I’ve taken a lot of what I knew as an educator in a public school classroom and thrown it out the window. To be clear, unschooling doesn’t mean there is never any direct instruction or teaching. When it is obvious to me that my children have a desire to learn something, I will teach it to them if I can. If I cannot, I will find someone who can. I don’t have the expectation of being my children’s sole educator. I certainly do not know all the answers or all the things…but I do know how to research the answers, look for resources, or find classes or experts who do know so that my children can learn about what motivates them. And as they grow, I am showing them how to research and find their own answers. Though homeschooling families have ample time and space to strew for their children, this is something that any parent can use to enrich their children’s education.

This journey of self-directed learning in some ways is as much mine as it is theirs. As a product of public schools, I feel my education was severely lacking and uninspiring. This lifestyle of unschooling gives me the opportunity to have a do over. Often times I am learning right along with them and it’s amazing to experience that together.

But I Just Can’t Homeschool

Over 2.3 million students are homeschooling in the US and that number is rising each year, yet there are families who cannot make it work for a variety of reasons. I feel strongly that those children who need to learn outside of their home should at least have access to self-directed learning through a learning center or democratic school. And if I could dream really big…I would love to see education reform offer the gift of self-directed learning in all classrooms across the country.

If you are curious and would like to read more about homeschooling or our self-directed learning journey, feel free to ask questions or join us on the blog!

Deanna Skow

Written by

Writer, maker, & mother of 3 small humans. Facilitating my children’s self-directed education at home and out in the world.

Deanna Skow

Written by

Writer, maker, & mother of 3 small humans. Facilitating my children’s self-directed education at home and out in the world.

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