Where has the time gone?! My oldest — who wasn’t yet 2 when I started this blog and began talking about unschooling — is 14 and would be a freshman in high school this year. And yes, we’re still unschooling. 🙂
A lot of people understand the concept of unschooling in the early years. Let kids play and live life…explore and enjoy, figure out what they need when they feel they need it. The best education in the early years, no matter your situation, is play-based, anyway.
Where most people get confused is with older kids. They often wonder:
- How will kids get advanced history, math, science, or language arts if they aren’t encouraged/required by someone?
- How can a kid possibly be prepared for college?
- Do kids really just keep doing “whatever” they want?
- Do kids avoid textbooks or classes?
- What does unschooling look like in high school, anyway?
Now that we’re there — I’ll share what we do!
How Unschooling Works For High Schoolers
When I describe what I’m about to explain, a lot of people give me a confused look. “It sounds like you’re describing child-led learning, not unschooling,” they tell me. There is this mistaken idea that unschooling literally means unlearning…that you try to avoid your children doing anything school-like or deliberate, ever. And that’s just not true. Child-led and delight-directed education are two terms that are often used interchangeably with unschooling. They all mean the same thing — that the student in question decides what, when, and how s/he wants to learn.
When an unschooler reaches high school age, s/he is well aware that they are facing their future as an adult in a mere 4 years…and that they need to start developing a plan. In a healthy unschooling relationship, the parent is helping the student explore their interests and options, and helping them develop that plan for the future.
(In an unhealthy relationship, the parent has no real involvement and just hopes the student figures it out. And the student has no motivation at all and plans to keep living off mom and dad forever. But this is rare and not at all the goal.)
What does this look like?
- Discussions about the future — their interests, their career goals, their future education (will they go to college?)
- Exploration of jobs through shadowing, internships, apprenticeships, or simply getting a job
- Goal setting (short-term and long-term)
- Choosing classes or curriculum or experiences that helps them gain their desired/needed skills
Basically, kids know they need to prepare for their future — and they do. It’s not all about what they want in this moment; they can and do think ahead and do what is good for them in the long run, not just what makes them happy today.
Unschooling High School in Our Home
What does this look like, practically speaking?
Future goals are definitely a frequent conversation for me and my 14-year-old — she asks me what she really needs to know for her future career, for being a generally successful adult, for getting her high school diploma (which I issue). When I have said “maybe you should learn…” (something typical kids learn), she often challenges me: “When will I use that? Why do I need to know it?” If I can make a good case for it, then she’s up for learning it. Even if it’s not something that specifically interests her.
She doesn’t enjoy math, but fully understands she’s going to need to know how to create and follow a budget, file taxes, and do other basic “adulting” math. She’s not keen on 18th century British literature, and doesn’t see any need for it — so it’s a no from her.
Currently, what she’s planning to do to start off her high school learning:
- Lots of reading and creative writing — she plans to be an author right now, and spends an hour or two a day writing
- Advanced baking — developing her own recipes
- Russian — she wants to learn this foreign language
- Biology — we’ll be doing this as a family, and she’s interested in the lab work
She chose these based on her interests. She’ll be doing her reading/writing on her own, reading whatever intrigues her and writing whatever she comes up with, and asking for my help in proofing her writing (which we’ve already been doing). Every time she she shows me her writing, I give her a few more notes on grammar, sentence structure, etc.
Baking is something she’s loved for years, and for a long time she thought she’d own a bakery. This year, she decided she’s not the biggest fan of people, and that running a business dealing with them all day wasn’t for her. She still loves to bake, and it’s chemistry to understand how the ingredients work and be able to develop her own recipes.
Russian is a language that has recently intrigued her, and she’s wanting to incorporate it into her stories, so she wants to learn to speak/read it better.
Biology, I honestly just find intriguing personally, so I purchased a curriculum for this, and we’ll be doing it as a family. I’m modifying the curriculum to combine lessons, add extra labs, and remove a lot of the written work so that we can get the most out of it. My 13 and 11-year-olds will be doing this with us. (And yes, all the kids agreed.)
Beyond this, I’m sure she’ll come up with more she wants to do over time. She’s read books on ancient Egypt; we’ll do “life math.” (Life math = calculating tip and taxes, understanding interest, calculating the square footage of a room for paint, etc. — stuff that adults really do everyday.)
Unschooling High School FAQs
Q: How will kids get advanced subjects if no one requires it of them?
A: Do they need it? Are they interested in in it? Many times, kids don’t actually need these subjects. A lot of traditional high schoolers are forced to sit in a classroom and go through the motions, but they forget what they “learned” as soon as the test is over. We just don’t waste our time on that stuff, unless they want to learn it (and every child has something ‘advanced’ that intrigues them!). We focus on life skills and info that they will actually use in adulthood.
Q: Can they go to college?
A: Yes, of course. Many kids have an idea if they want to go or not when they are in high school. Right now, my daughter doesn’t want to go — and she doesn’t need to in order to be a writer. Most unschooling families, and an increasing number of families in general, are teaching their kids that college is one potential path, but not the path in life. A lot of adults in their 30s and 40s feel lied to and are in major debt from their own college experiences. They’re disillusioned, and not going to do that to their own children.
Should our kids need or want to go to college, we will encourage post-secondary (which is free through the state) during high school to get a taste for what it’s like, and we will also encourage them to choose state schools or community college to keep costs down. We will also tell them that attending college to gain certain skills but not seek a degree is a viable option (and if they express interest in this, they can audit courses for free).
There are lots of ways that kids can go to college — if that’s the right path for them — when unschooled, and affordably.
Q: How are they going to learn to stick with something, if they just get to do ‘whatever’ all the time?
A: Unschooled kids are at no specific advantage or disadvantage here. When they choose to make a commitment to something, they have to follow through, just like anyone else. They’re going to have times when they don’t feel like it, but it’s the parent’s job to encourage them, support them, and remind them of their choices. We haven’t had any issues with kids sticking with things they chose to do.
Q: What about sports?
A: None of my kids are particularly athletically-inclined, but if they were, we’d seek out local rec leagues. Public schools typically have rules that homeschooled (and unschooled) kids in their district can try out the same as enrolled kids can, so that is another option. Truthfully, some people get a little too crazy about sports…the chances that any child, no matter how talented, is going to ‘go pro’ is very low. And if they’re not on an elite track, there are many ways to get sports experiences without public schools.
Q: How do they get a diploma?
A: I can’t speak to every state, but in Ohio, parents issue their diplomas. As a homeschooling family, the parents set the criteria for receiving one (yes, there are no ‘required’ classes or credits), create the transcript, and issue the diploma. Because of the Diploma Fairness Act, colleges and employers are required to accept this the same as a diploma from a public or private school.
I haven’t decided what my criteria will be yet, but if my kids put in the time and effort to work towards a future, and they learn key adult skills, that will be enough to earn it.
Q: What about a transcript?
A: The parent creates the transcript. And you can put whatever you want on it. “Auto repair” is just as valid as “algebra.” In fact, you can get quite creative with it, depending on what your child actually learns and needs!
You can also create the classes on the transcript however you want. My 13-year-old has taken quite a few short-term classes in different aspects of US history over the last year. He took 4 – 13 week series on different periods of time in history, watched several documentaries, and took a short civics course, too. I am going to consider the amalgamation of all of these shorter courses and activities to be a “US history course.” We didn’t use one formal curriculum for that, but we didn’t have to.
I’ll be doing this same thing as the kids’ knowledge unfolds. If they have the knowledge and put in the work — even if in ‘unusual’ ways — then they get the credit for it.
We’re still new in our foray into the high school years. But to me, it’s not a whole lot different than the middle school years. It’s a continuation of supporting my kids as they learn and grow, helping them achieve goals they set for themselves, and ensuring they are as prepared as they can be for adulthood.
If you have questions I haven’t answered, please feel free to ask!
I’m all for it! It worked very well for those of our 7 kids who did it at various times – even through high school! For example, my oldest daughter had the opportunity to intern with a doctor, go on several mission trips (one with said doctor), and attend college classes during that time. She also ended up getting a small college scholarship without a “diploma.” She got her GED and took the ACT. She earned an AA and is currently working towards a BA while being a mom and working from home. Our youngest is going into his 3rd year of college at our church campus where he has daily hands on experience. Each of our kids has had some great and unique experiences in part because of my philosophy about “unschooling.” Discovery and exploration is the best method for learning!
What if they have not a clue what they want to do after high school?
They can just explore random interests, try job shadowing, etc. to try to figure out what they might like to do. And they can also get a job at 16 and work part time, because not everyone is going to pick some big huge career…some just get whatever job works for their life at that time.