My Experience as an Unschooled Teen

Elisheva Hinkle | 04-01-2017

When you hear the word “unschooling”, what comes to mind? Weird, lazy, uncaring?

If you had told me three years ago that you were unschooling, I would have been very confused. What were your plans after high school? How would you get a job without a college degree, because obviously you can’t get into college without going to high school.

Today I’m going to tell you how I went from silently judging the unschooling community to proudly calling myself an unschooler—someone who learns by living.

For the first 12 years of my life, I was homeschooled, although for many months of the year my family unschooled for pragmatic reasons. My mother gets very sick while she’s pregnant and having twelve kids, she was sick a lot. When I was asked “Where do you go to school?” I would answer, “We homeschool and we’re a little behind.” I always felt a guilty happiness when mom was sick. I believed that I needed school to succeed in life, but I was relieved to not be doing it. Even with my unique educational experience, the culture around me had embedded this idea deep in my mind: college = success, and if you have the traditional five core subject schooling, you’ll make it to college.

My story

In eighth grade, I attended a two-day school called Arrows Academy. I got straight As and was well-liked by all of my teachers. But as I reached the end of that year, my enthusiasm dried up. I am a perfectionist procrastinator, and I tend to let details bog me down. School was consuming my life. I finished that year with several unfinished assignments, but I was glad to be free.

When I look back on my experience there, I can see what a waste it was. I made no valuable connections, I haven’t retained or used most of the information I “learned”, and I was so busy with school that I wasn’t able to fully pursue anything I loved. I couldn’t get a job or spend time outdoors. I loved it when teachers praised my work, but it was an unhealthy love. Instead of believing in my intrinsic worth, I was finding validation in good grades and nodding teachers. The social interactions I had were for the most part dull and meaningless.

Around this same time, I picked up a book by Grace Llewellyn called Real Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don’t Go to School Tell Their Own Stories. Llewellyn has authored many excellent books on unschooling, but this one was the most influential for me. I read about teenagers who all had an unusual schooling experience and then went on to become high-functioning, amazing adults. They were explorers and innovators and above all, they did things they liked and cared about. What my mother had been saying to me for years began to make sense: mindlessly following orders and trying to match the mediocre standard set for you by others would get you nowhere.

Learning needed to be individualized. A one-size-fits-all system is bound to fall apart sooner or later. The logic behind self-directed learning made perfect sense. Not only that, but I saw real life examples of people who dropped out of college or high school or were never forced to do school at any point. I found these people in books (see above) and blogs. These were not adults living in their parents’ garages with government assistance. In fact, many of them had high-paying jobs and spent their time doing what they enjoyed. Although they weren’t all wealthy, most were successful on their own terms. They were happy with their lives and how they had been educated.

After years of following a backward approach to learning, at age fourteen I made the conscious decision to adopt learning as a lifestyle. I started calling myself an unschooler.

Unschooling is not ‘doing nothing’

Unschooling does not mean you do nothing. It means that you learn what you want, when you want, and how you want. Sounds crazy, right? Why don’t you try it? Think about how motivated you are when you’re doing something you love and believe in. It’s not always easy and it won’t feel easy, but ease is not the point. If you allow yourself to pursue what you enjoy, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll give for it.

“And if I don’t know?” Explore. Create. Consume new information. Just don’t be stagnant for too long. When people, especially children, learn because of internal motivation, the results are stunning.

Whatever you choose to do—for yourself or for your children—don’t do it unthinkingly. Identify your big goals in life. How can you achieve them? Is there more than one way to get there? Which one is the most effective? These are decisions that will affect your future for years so don’t make them based off of conventional wisdom. Pick your own path.


Elisheva Hinkle

Elisheva tried traditional school for one year and realized that it was destroying the individuality and creativity in herself and others. She never went back and now spends her time reading, writing, dancing, playing and teaching music.


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