Unschooling Teenagers All The Way To University

Schooling isn't for everyone they keep telling me, but in my experience, it's school that isn't for everyone!

Unschooling Teenagers All The Way To University

When my daughter was ten, I pulled her out of school, and registered her to homeschool. Most of the people in our lives were horrified, but they assumed I’d faff about for a while, and then send her back to school. If not for the next year (year 6, the final year of primary school) most definitely for high school. Unschooling teenagers would be crazy! They didn’t think I’d cracked it quite that badly, but as it turns out, they were wrong. She started university this week, having never set foot in a school since that last day in year five.

To be honest, despite being committed to the idea of living without school, unschooling teenagers wasn’t something I could really fathom. When your eldest child is only ten, it’s slightly beyond the realms of your comprehension. However once we started, we never really looked back! There was no reason to because unschooling was just too successful.

There are a few reasons that put people off unschooling (or homeschooling) and, in particular,  unschooling teenagers. The main one is probably that families worry their kids will never be able to attend university. At any rate it’s the first one people tell me about when it comes up in conversation.

Clearly I can debunk that one now! (Yes, it’s supremely satisfying!)

A simple phone call to the university yielded all the information I needed on that front. I suppose that in the interests of disclosure, I should tell you that it actually took two, because the first person I spoke to was particularly obtuse. The next phone call I made was a cracker though, the woman not only gave me all the information I needed, she emailed me heaps of useful stuff so we could start planning.

Unschooling teenagers may have no certificate to showcase their education, but foreign students don’t have the same ones Australian hopefuls do, and many mature age students have nothing because they never finished high school, or because their documentation becomes irrelevant. Universities actually have set procedures for these circumstances. At our state university, applicants are asked to provide a “Statement Of Competence” which showcases why they believe they should be accepted. They also offer short bridging courses, through which the equivalent of a leaving certificate can be obtained. This allows students to enter their course of choice, showcasing their academic achievement in a similar way to schooled children.

The second concern people have about unchooling teenagers, is based on the perception of highschool as the venue for The. Most. Important. Learning. My personal perspective of that, is that it is a misguided belief, at best. At worst it’s a belief that was bred by a deliberate capitalist connivance, to keep children as consumers, but not earners, for longer. In his speech “Schooling: The Hidden Agenda” Daniel Quinn, a former curriculum designer, writes:

“…… Instead of becoming wage-earners at age twelve or fourteen, they {children} remain consumers only – and they consume billions of dollars worth of merchandise, using money that their parents earn. Just imagine what would happen to our economy if overnight the high schools closed their doors. Instead of having fifty million active consumers out there, we would suddenly have fifty million unemployed youth. It would be nothing short of an economic catastrophe.”

Quinn’s opinion aside, because I recognise that it won’t resonate with everyone, the undeniable truth is that primary school is actually where the most vital learning takes place, not high school. It is during the first years of schooling where children learn to read, write, construct basic grammar, to understand numeracy, fractions, and times tables.  From those most basic concepts all other learning flows. In fact without understanding those areas, no one can continue their higher education.

Someone who attends school from kindergarten to year twelve has no guarantee of success in those areas. Without learning more than basic reading or numeric skills it is impossible to succeed in university, and sadly there are no shortage of people who fit that criteria.

An interesting facet of this discussion is found in an article written by the writer Marion Brady, which she shared in a piece titled: “When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids”. She shared portions of correspondence between herself and a friend, both veteran teachers, administrators, and curriculum designers.

Marion writes that she received an email from a friend who she describes as “highly successful”. He himself states in the email that he has a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.”

However when he decided to try his hand at standardised exams, what did he find? Despite his extensive qualifications:

“The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a D.”

He said that he now believes that there are tremendous problems with the way curriculums are designed, and teachers are put to the guillotine based on the results of standardised testing.

My daughter was failing science and maths when she was in primary school, she was miserable and she thought she was stupid. The trouble was that she wanted to be a vet, or a scientist, and it just wasn’t going to happen. School had taken my intelligent child and told her she was stupid. As the man in the correspondence stated:

“If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.”

John Taylor Gatto, a veteran teacher of twenty-six years, was named New York City Teacher of the Year three times. New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, then won the Alexis de Tocqueville Award for Excellence in Advancement of Educational Freedom in 1997, stated in his essay “The Six Lesson School Teacher

My job is to make the kids like it — being locked in together, I mean — or at the minimum, endure it. If things go well, the kids can’t imagine themselves anywhere else; they envy and fear the better classes and have contempt for the dumber classes. So the class mostly keeps itself in good marching order. That’s the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place. ……. The lesson of numbered classes is that there is no way out of your class except by magic. Until that happens you must stay where you are put.

And I firmly believe that that is exactly where my daughter would have stayed, had I not removed her from school. She had no ambition to do better because standardised testing showed who the winners and losers were. In order to survive a system which constantly humiliates you, you must pretend not to care. You must pretend not to care so hard, that eventually you don’t care anymore. It’s a fake it til you accidentally make it blueprint.

As it stands, my daughter, who never spent a day in high school, worked for a year on chemistry using the internet and textbooks that we bought in secondhand shops. Then to ensure that she was up to scratch to apply for her science degree, she signed up for the university’s Summer school intense chemistry bridging course …… and breezed through it, eventually scoring a high distinction. That despite having taught herself chemistry? Using nothing but what she learnt in primary school, she managed to get herself into a university course.

It’s worth pointing out that the school, in a comfortable middle class area, was failing to teach her to read. I had to teach her that myself. Within a month of me starting to teach her to read at home, she went from the very bottom of the class to the top. So just to reiterate, there are guarantees from school, and it was HOME EDUCATION that resulted in my daughter being accepted into university.

I guess unschooling teenagers, or home education work after all.

Over the years I’ve had countless people tell me that it won’t work for everyone, and I don’t doubt that, but I also believe very firmly that it could work for a lot more people than realise. As John Taylor Gatto says:

It is the great triumph of schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best parents, there is only a small number who can imagine a different way to do things

Luckily for my daughter, I was one of the people who could imagine. Despite coming from a family of teachers, despite believing strongly in the public education system, when I saw it failing my daughter I found the courage to step outside of it. The rewards my daughter, and in turn, our whole family have reaped, are immeasurable!

Unschooling children, and unschooling teenagers, is NOT the end of their lives when it comes to academic success. In fact, if you ask my daughter, it is ONLY because she came to explore subjects like maths, and science outside of school, that she retained her interest in them – perhaps rediscovered is a better word. Unschooling teenagers can work, in fact for some it is the only path to university, because whilst many people think unschooling isn’t for everyone, it’s my experience that it’s schools that aren’t for everyone!

*NOTE ON SPELLING: This is an Australian article. It’s common for a US reader to perceive some of our nuances, maths, z in place of z in some words, learnt and not learned as mistakes. They aren’t. They are just how we spell things here. 

Graphic of child and animals on a book - unschooling teenagers
Unschooling teenagers – Give it a go!
License: Creative Commons CC0.



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One Response to "Unschooling Teenagers All The Way To University"

  1. Natalia Brown  15 July, 2016 at 8:11 pm

    Love it! Great! Thanks!


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