AMA: I was unschooled for most of my childhood, then voluntarily chose to leave to go to a large public high school.

by iceplant1 min read7th Jan 202241 comments

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I've seen a lot of discussion in the LW community about alternatives to traditional school for kids. Given how few kids actually get to experience the alternatives (<4% of kids in the US are homeschooled, <10% of those are unschooled), I think the success and failure modes are less well understood than for traditional schools. I want to offer myself as a datapoint to anyone interested in my subjective experience. Eventually, I want this to be a standalone blog post, but my thoughts still feel pretty disparate, so I'm hoping this will help me find a more cohesive narrative. 

About me: I'm now in my mid 20s, went to a "good college" and now have a "good job" in tech (despite a brief gap derping around as an artist...what can I say I was unschooled). I'm not a teacher. I don't have kids. I do feel that unschooling had a big impact on my life, and I'm hoping this will help me understand it better, and how it can empirically affect others. 

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An important factor that often goes unconsidered in these discussions are how much one size does not fit all.  Unschooling seems great for very smart kids with stable and conscientious parents.  How would you describe your background and capabilities, and do you think any aspect of your situation was more critical than others to your success?

At what point did you become involved in the decision to remain independent vs changing to a more traditional schooling?  Especially around high-school ages, what did you do to decide that continuing unschooling was better than other options, specifically for college prep.

I absolutely agree. My parents both have graduate degrees, worked part time throughout my childhood, and our family/housing unit was relatively stable. This helped a lot. If you look at r/HomeschoolerRecovery many stories there are of kids with parents who have no experience teaching and used homeschooling to justify controlling and often abusive behavior.  That said, I don't think this is a sufficient condition for homeschooling, especially unschooling, to work well. Like you said, I think the kid's learning style needs to be compatible with that level of independence, and the parents need to be confident in their abilities to provide the vast set of resources schools can provide.

What's the best part of unschooling that's missing in high school and vice versa?

I remember being shocked how many kids were totally disinterested and disengaged from the thing they were dedicating close to half of their waking hours. That never happened when I was homeschooled - if I wasn't interested in something, or didn't like how something was being taught, it could be done differently. I understand that's a very labor intensive way to teach, and I don't blame kids for being disengaged from the unpaid fulltime job they're being actively coherced into doing. I want to believe school shouldn't be mandatory, and that a lot of kids would benefit from dropping out and getting an apprenticeship in a field that interests them, traveling, or doing ANYTHING that actual engages them and gets them to develop some kind of expertise (even playing videogames or smoking weed all day can built a knowledge base that's useful for many careers). 

In my case, the lack of structure in unschooling hadn't exposed me to enough academic community to inspire me. Sure, we went on group trips to museums and did experiments, but that wasn't the same as having an actual program with a clear path to a field.  At 14 I wanted to be a chef or a massage therapist. After starting school, and getting into AP STEM classes with other motivated kids, I realized I actually do really enjoy math and science and ended up majoring in physics in college. 

I also think a lot of parents underestimate the amount of work and expertise that's required to homeschool, and that can strain the relationship kids have with their parents. For very independent, free-thinking kids who love to read it can work very well. For an anxious, distractible kid like me who needs a little more structure it was a frequent source of conflict. Schools can also act as a site for social workers to provide support in a way that's very difficult to emulate at home. Parents often miss psychological disorders like anxiety, depression, and ADHD in their kids that teachers can recognize right away (I'm having trouble finding the source I had for this, can anyone support or contradict this in an empirical way?) and I suspect I would have had access to medical interventions for some minor mental health problems much earlier on if I had been in school. 

Parents often miss psychological disorders like anxiety, depression, and ADHD in their kids that teachers can recognize right away (I'm having trouble finding the source I had for this, can anyone support or contradict this in an empirical way?)

Pediatricians and teachers sometimes pick up on that.

There's also more teachers that might recognize it. (That is, kids have more teachers than parents.) More eyeballs, and all that. (Though it might be more about being trained to recognize.)

I don't have data, on how common stuff is caught by a teacher versus a parent (versus a doctor).

So why'd you do that?

Long story short, I wanted more structure in my life and wanted to be around more kids my age for more of my day. I'd describe myself as a shy extrovert, so I enjoy when the logistics of my life put me around a lot of other people every day (I've really enjoyed cooperative living as an adult). I was also getting frustrated with the lack of structure and found the flexibility of not having a curriculum disorienting. 

In my country, once a child enters public school they don't have the option of switching to homeschooling anymore. So I've often thought once I have kids, I should definitely start with homeschooling to preserve the option, and if we/ the kid(s) find out it doesn't work, they can always switch to public schooling. With your experience being that second path, how do you feel about this chain of reasoning?

That's too bad you have to choose so early on. The kids I saw who seemed the most successful in homeschooling were the ones who started in traditional school, and then left for a specific reason (child actor, competitive figure skater, wanted to write a novel, got bullied, etc). Many kids went back and forth and seemed to do well. A lot of parents homeschool their kids because they want to engrain an ideology on them (whether that be religious or not). I'd encourage you to stay grounded in what's best for your kid and will make them happy and satisfied, and not what lifestyle you want your kid to live. 

One aspect of schooling which is not easily available in home schooling is peer/social learning. Did you find that being a problem? 

Thank you for bringing this personal perspective.

What was the reason for your parents to unschool you? Did you have siblings that were unschooled, how did they deal with it? How did you spend most of your time unschooling? How did you meet and play with age peers? What were the main drawbacks?

They both had pretty negative experiences in grade school, and felt that school was more about "warehousing" and "preparing kids to be cogs in the capitalist machine" than actually teaching and nurturing kids. I agree with that to an extent. 

I'm an only child, which may have exacerbated some of the problems I've mentioned in other comments. Growing up in the Bay Area, there was a pretty active community of unschoolers, and we'd meet up at "Park Days" once or twice a week. Unfortunately, the homeschooler community can be pretty fragmented based on which philosophy of homeschooling you follow. I remember there being many instances of clique-y-ness among the parents (less so among the children somehow), cases of parents not talking to other parents, and groups splintering off into other groups. The result was that the group my family was "in" with was pretty spread out. I had a community, most of them just lived 1hr+ away. 

I'm sorry to hear that, it sounds incredibly lonely.

I just wonder how things were/are curiosity-wise. Because it seems like conventional education system is a great curiosity killer (that's why it's a system). 

There were a lot of opportunities to dive deep when cool things presented themselves. For example, each year I got to go with my grandma to a natural products convention for two weeks and learned a lot about the supplement/vitamin industry. When I got Rosetta Stone I got to drop all other subjects and binge learn Spanish for a month. That definitely wouldn't have happened in a traditional school.

Yeah I can totally relate to yearning for one thing and wanting to drop everything else. However it's a luxury I can't afford :(

How does the job feel? Do you approach it with the same Feynman-like playfulness or does it feel more like a "system"?

I think there's definitely a middle path, and as much as I loved the flexibility to follow my nose I think I could have benefitted form a little more structure. 

As far as the job goes I feel like I'm missing a lot of intuition about how the corporate world operates. Something feels hollow about doing things for profit with minimal academic interest. There are certifications I could get that would give me a significant pay bump, but I keep putting them off because the material feels like corporate propaganda and I can't stand studying for them. Most of my experience before this was in research labs though, so maybe that explains my experience more so than my childhood. 

You said unschooling had a big impact on your life. Do you think it was positive or negative on net?

If you had kids of your own, would you unschool them, homeschool them, or do something else?

What differences have you noticed between yourself and non-unschooled peers?

Would you say you are traumatized/did unschooling traumatize you/did attending the public high school and college traumatize you?

What was the chain of events leading up to you discovering LessWrong/the rationality community?

A friend in college who was very involved in the community kept bring up interesting ideas/events he encountered. When I was commuting a lot, I started listening to the Rationally Speaking and SSC/ACX podcasts, then started following Zvi's covid updates and engaging with 80k hours career coaching. I still don't feel like I'm "part" of the community, and would like to be more involved!

What are the top useful experiences or learnings you suspect you have missed out on because of this (if at all any)?

I learned to read really late - at age 8 or 9 I think. I don't remember because there were no grade levels so a lot of experiences are in a blurry age range. This was because I didn't want to - English spelling seemed like a stupid and inefficient way to store information when we could just spell everything phonetically using the IPA or other system. I guess when your parents are willing to do radical things because of their beliefs that teaches you to do the same. I didn't enjoy reading for a very long time, and still find it somewhat tedious. I'd much rather listen to an audiobook at 3x speed while going on a run than sit down and look at a static piece of paper with black lines on it. I now understand this might have been a consequence of then undiagnosed ADHD. 

English spelling seemed like a stupid and inefficient way to store information when we could just spell everything phonetically using the IPA or other system

Was this reasoning you came up with as a kid? This seems like a complex thought, am trying visualize this :p

Thanks for the response!

I didn't know about the IPA itself but I imagined something like it must exist for people who study sounds or something and didn't understand why we couldn't just use that. Or just spell everything phonetically like in Spanish. Hell, even defining a single-valued mapping form letters to sounds would be better than the bullshit we have today that wastes thousands of productive human-hours and makes the defacto universal language less accessible (as you can see I still have strong feelings about this, though I now know how to read and write). 

Makes sense, I can definitely visualise it better now. Thanks.

--

As for whether phonetic languages are a good or optimal idea: I feel like the running cost of using a written language in practice should matter more than the one-time cost of learning it. Cause you can learn it in a few years but will use the language for a lifetime. Factors besides phonetics might dominate if you optimise for running cost, depending on which use case you optimise for (could be typing speed, better epistemics, recall/memorability etc).

(Agreed that today's languages may not be very well optimised by any measure.)

Keen on your thoughts.

I think a phonetic basis is probably an unusually poor design for a script, since it will either be drastically different for different speakers or will inevitably only be accurate for a small group of speakers. You can’t even say “just use General American English” since that has a number of variations. Some people pronounce “pen” and “pin” as the same (I do, for instance) while others pronounce them differently. And good luck convincing all of the English speakers around the world that you’ve chosen the optimal dialect for them to write!

On top of all of that, the way that we speak changes frequently. If we choose to change the script over time, it will be difficult for future readers to read the things written before them. On the other hand, if we keep it the same it will no longer be phonetic for future learners, so why bother changing systems!

It would definitely be possible to simplify the script though. Spanish is a lot simpler than English, but Spanish isn’t phonetic either.

Of course, that’s a lot to explain to a child who is overwhelmed by learning to read.

Wha';s called "phonetic" in the context of education is at least partly phonemic...ie, given systematic differences in the spoken language, the letters can be interpreted differently.

This is a good point that spelling everything phonetically is probably not a great/sustainable way of writing a language. I'm wondering if there's a word for "spelling system where each letter corresponds to exactly one sound but that sound can change with consistency based on regional dialect/inflection/other context". I think Spanish is a great example of a relatively straightforward spelling system with regional dialects that generally preserves the consistent mapping of letters to sounds. Granted it has some oddities (like "h" having no sound, the redundancy of "s" and "c", the "qu-" prefix, etc). I'm curious what historically caused languages like Spanish, and German to maintain much more logical spelling rules while neighboring languages from similar groups like English, French, and Danish do not. 

I’m wondering if there’s a word for “spelling system where each letter corresponds to exactly one sound but that sound can change with consistency based on regional dialect/inflection/other context”.

There's an implementation!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tengwar

I see.

I'm not a linguist, but from my experience with Hindi: there are minor differences in dialect depending on which region you're from, but this doesn't affect phonetic consistency. You can look at a word you've never seen and know with certainty a correct pronunciation for it (even if there exist other minorly different pronunciations for it that are also correct).

With english even within speakers of one dialect there's no phonetic consistency. You have to make an educated guess on how to pronounce new words, and your educated guess is based on an algorithm more complex that mapping symbols to sound 1-to-1.

What ages are best for unschooling, and which are worst? Would you, for example, recommend unschooling or homeschooling until age 10 or so and then regular schools thereafter?

I think there's potential for it to go well/poorly at any age, and I'd encourage shifting the focus on the specific way the kid can be unschooled, whether they want to or not, and how well suited to it they are.  A lot of parents in my community saw their decision to unschool as protecting the early childhoods of their kids from the stresses of a culture of "academic rigor" that they saw as stress inducing, mind-numbing, and turning kids into cogs of a capitalist machine, and then later allowed or encouraged their kids to go to more traditional or independent high schools. Other parents had kids who did well in traditional elementary school, and were then severely bullied once their peer group hit puberty, to the point their parents looked into radical alternatives. 

IMO the main consideration should be whether she wants it or not. If she's happy at school, great. If she's being bullied or is super bored all the time, take her out. But where to draw the line? I was reasonably happy at school I guess (it's hard to remember) but I bet if someone asked me whether I'd rather stay home and play all day I would have said yes.

Do you have a sense of where your anxiety/distractability/"minor mental health problems" came from?

I honestly don't know. I'm inclined to think there's a strong genetic component since almost all of my genetic first cousins have some level of clinical anxiety/depression/adhd traits. Possible the unschooling/family dynamic played a role too, but it's hard to tell.

I've been considering switching from traditional high school to homeschooling due to (what I perceive as) the draining energy/time commitments of high school for very little actual education. Any general advice/things to look out for? The current problem I'd need to solve before homeschooling becomes a viable option is the lack of socializing with people--how was that for you before you went to public HS?

Lack of socialization was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to traditional high school. Do you have any hobbies that you can commit to more seriously? Are there sports teams, arts programs, hacker spaces, internships you could do that would get you regularly out of the house and around other (young?) people? Many of my homeschooler friends started at city college half time at 14 instead of going to high school, did very well, and got to college way ahead of their peers. That might be a good middle ground if it's available to you.

Someone wrote a comment on the school format they endorsed on ShtetlOptimized:

https://scottaaronson.blog/?p=6146#comment-1919410

 

If you have time how do you feel about the proposal. It seems like it engages with problems with the Prussian inspired education system used in America by collecting the effective parts of charters, and un/home schooling, although it opposes charters but allows for un/home school to exist.

I grew up in California, and many of my friends chose to go to community college part-time instead of high school, and basically got this "modular" design the commenter discusses for later education. I think it worked really well for them. When I was 13 I really wanted an academically "normal" environment, probably irrationally so, maybe a little rebelliously so, which is why I didn't choose to do this. I think expanding California's already very high caliber and affordable community college network to provide a more independent alternative to high school could be a great option for a lot of kids. I have trouble fully understanding how this proposal would be implemented for earlier grades, though it sounds nice. I think decoupling the necessary from the enrichment in school would help a lot. I went to a large urban public high school, and remember seeing a lot of kids who were legally forced to learn a ton of math that had nothing to do with their very real material struggles that could optimistically take a decade to materialize into a tangible career from a teacher who also didn't care about math. I can't help but think these students would have been better served by dropping out of high school, doing a 3 month dev bootcamp, then applying to software engineering jobs, and potentially reentering the school systems once they had more stability in their lives. 

Unschooling generally lacks the rigid structure of a traditional school curriculum, and even less structure than many homeschooling experiences. So what were the advantages and disadvantages of having to teach yourself, without a fixed curriculum to follow? And I don't know about who helped or guided you, but did you/your mentors spend a lot of time over choosing effective learning materials once you decided what topic to study?

Also, do you think being a naturally curious person is necessary for unschooling to be effective?

When you finally went to a public school, did any aspect of it frustrate/confuse you which you thought unschooling did better?