Sunday, January 9, 2011

20 Characteristics I Wish School Had Helped Me Acquire

After reading the Profiles of Adults Who Were Passion Driven Students - Their Secret? They Didn’t Go To School I shared 20 Characteristics I’ve Discovered about Unschoolers and Why Innovative Educators Should Care. As I put these characteristics together, I was jealous, because these were characteristics I would have liked to have developed because of, rather than in spite of, school. I wish I could have spent my days exploring and discovering my passions, talents, and interests. As I often lament, this was not a part of my education experience. I raced through high school and college graduating at the top of my class at 19. I had a diploma in one hand, and my other hand was left scratching my head as I had not a clue as to what to do next. I had no idea what I was good at (other than school), or what I was interested in or passionate about and no one ever asked! My story is not unusual. I recently featured four, high-achieving students who appear to be going down the same path in my post When passion drives instruction no child is left behind. These are kids who love school.

On the other side are the drop out rates of up to 50% in some cities whose students never finish high school. Of those students who are motivated and get good grades they generally say they left school because it was irrelevant and boring. Then there are the kids (like me) who just didn’t like much of anything at all about school. For me I learned to dislike subjects, that I love in the real world. The socialization of the “clicks” just wasn’t for me. I usually couldn’t participate in those fun after school activities because both my parents worked. The misconception that school is great to expose students to sports didn’t work for me either. I was petite and younger than everyone else. Sports were for “certain” kids. Not me. Once I escaped school I played and organized many sports competitively playing beach and indoor volleyball, football, skiing, snowboarding, running. I thought of the people in school who told me I couldn’t play every time I won a tournament or organized a game. School helps the right people play sports. I had to wait to escape such constraints.

In school I never wrote for real audiences. No one even noticed I could write well. Yeah, I got “A’s” when writing about what other people wrote as we were required, but boring over-studied topics without passion or creativity rarely produces something worth noticing. Sometimes, I’d tried to push what was allowed, turning in creative work. I always got in trouble for that, so eventually I stopped. I loved reading outside of school where I could pick books I enjoyed. School sucked that out of me. Telling me what I had to read, then what I had to think about what I read. I stopped reading for pleasure. Schools are places that are supposed to teach you to read and write, but when you don't get to read about or write about what you are passionate about, well sadly, as a result, many learn in school that reading and writing are just not fun.

No one talked to me ever about my passions and interests. There was no room for that in the curriculum. I was VERY social and hungry to be pointed in the right direction. Nada. No accidental great teacher that changed everything...which by the way, shouldn’t be on accident. Nothing. In fact, I have no connections whatsoever to my those in my school life before graduating college. No friends, no teachers...I left that world behind and moved on to discover what I was passionate about and what I can do.

When I reflect on what characterized my school experience and I think about the characteristics of unschoolers, I see two very different experiences. Here is my comparison of what characterizes unschoolers verses my traditionally schooled self.

20 Characteristics Common Among Unschoolers
  1. They are driven by passion.
    1. No one asked or seemed to care.
  2. They have a love of learning.
    1. No one acknowledged or respected my learning as a person. I was more of a future score, number, or graduation rate tally.
  3. They want you to know that school isn’t the best place to learn lessons on socialization.
    1. I agree with this. I rarely socialized with others in my class at high school. I disliked the entire social structure.
  4. They are happy.
    1. I was bored out of my mind, stifled, and miserable in school.
  5. They have interesting careers that they enjoy.
    1. There was no time at school devoted to helping me figure out what career I would pursue, instead the focus was on what grade I might get.
  6. They are artistic in some way.
    1. There was not an opportunity to explore my artistic side at school. In fact, I think they preferred we believe we were not artistic as that would take away time from doing well on tests.
  7. They they are creative.
    1. Wasn’t time for this either. Teacher told us the assignment and we were assessed their way.
  8. They have a concern for the environment.
    1. Environment? What environment? Side note: There were cigarettes all over the smoking section (yep, we had a smoking section) at our school.
  9. They consider learning in the world far more authentic and valuable then learning in the school world.
    1. School is for learning. If you spend time living life, you’re being lazy. You should be studying.
  10. Those who are blogging and sharing their stories publicly are predominately white. At least all the ones I’ve read about. Looking to be proven wrong here.*
    Update: This refers to the blogs and stories I had discovered as of the writing of the original post. Since then I've collected several other online spaces in my post A More Diverse Sampling of Unschoolers where unschoolers from a variety of diverse ethnic backgrounds are sharing and connecting. I'm still searching for more links to grown unschoolers blogs and stories to share from all backgrounds so if you have any you'd like to share I invite you to share them in the comments.
    1. Many educators know what Kozol writes about so eloquently. Our schools are grotesquely segregated. I wish schools provided more opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds to learn, connect, and collaborate.
  11. They deeply consider whether college is the right choice for them rather than it being a given.
    1. College readiness was all I knew. Didn’t matter what I were interested in. Just that I were ready to go into debt to pay for more school.
  12. They have no problem getting in to college and many do so before they are 18.
    1. Yep. This was what I was groomed for. Started at 15 while in high school and finished at 19 with the golden diploma and no ideas what to do next.
  13. They appreciate some aspects of formalized schooling in college if they’ve decided to attend.
    1. I knew nothing else, so had no appreciation.
  14. They advocate for themselves and their right to a meaningful curriculum in college.
    1. I was trained to take the courses I was told and not question that.
  15. They don’t believe that they are an exception because they are especially self motivated, driven, or smart, though they like to be called that. Rather unschooling has empowered them to be this way.
    1. I was led to believe my motivation and drive were an exception because many just aren’t all that motivated to take classes they never even signed up for, but were handed down from the state. I was motivated because I was told I should do well so I did.
  16. They shrug off the criticism that they won’t be able to function in the real world. Unlike functioning in the school world, learning in the real world prepares you for the real world.
    1. I was told I was doing exactly what I needed to do to function in the real world by graduating from college. I never questioned that. It was just the way it was. They lied.
  17. They don’t expect learning to come just from a parent, adult, authority or teacher. They know how to independently tap into many resources for learning and discovery. Adults are just one resource.
    -->This nugget from a respected voice on the topic of unschooling, Sandra Dodd:
    Learning only happens inside the learner.
    I think your statement would be true if you said "They don't expect instruction..." or "They don't expect information..." But learning doesn't come from anyone outside the learner.
    1. Teachers distribute knowledge. Anything outside of school is a distraction.
  18. They are often defending the fact that they were unschooled, but know that if you knew what it was really like you might be jealous.
    1. If I had known it existed, at the time, I would be very jealous
  19. They are adventurous. For some that means local adventures, and others world adventures.
    1. Adventure takes time away from learning.
  20. They are grateful that they were unschooled for the most part.
    1. I think I would be too.
So, I’m jealous of those kids who were unschooled. As a society we’re led to believe not going to school is a terrible thing, but you know what? The unschooled are grown or growing up and they seem pretty happy, driven, and passionate.


*As noted in this post, this is based on my initial investigation of the blogs found here and stories found here. I am hopeful that a more diverse sampling can be found and encourage you to share your findings in the comments for inclusion in a future post. The lack of diversity in my initial exploration is something I plan to expand upon.


  1. Incontournable! Un modèle à suivre!

  2. erin.suddarth@yahoo.comJanuary 10, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    Please delete number 10 in your list of
    20 Characteristics Common Among Unschoolers. It is racist and untrue. I find it offensive, despite your statement of "looking to be proven wrong here". It is surprising that an "innovative educator" would have such a limited viewpoint and post something that is not based on research and facts.

    AfAmUnschool - 712 members
    African-American Unschooling
    National African-American Homeschoolers Alliance
    National Black Home Educators
    Afrocentric Homeschoolers Association

    "African Americans are the fastest growing segment of homeschoolers in America and currently make up about 5% of the general homeschooling population." -Helen Hegener

  3., I appreciate the resources you shared. I'm sure they will be helpful for people interested in this topic. I do want to clarify that homeschooling and unschooling are different with different philosophies at their core. I was familiar with several of the African American Homeschooling organizations, but when looking for profiles of grown unschoolers, I found none...and reported that as one of the characteristics I observed when looking at characteristics of unschoolers. Despite your accusation, sharing what I found based on the many profiles I read, is not racist and I think we must stop calling people who bring up race racist or we will never have important conversations.

    I don't have a limited viewpoint. I would like to know and share more. If you have profiles of non-white "unschoolers," please do share as I would love to have their profiles featured as well.

  4. I'm posting my response to the 20 Characteristics, and some thoughts to go along with it. Erin points out that a person is not racist simply because one talks about race. Very true. But if, when talking about race you use the phrase, "Our schools are grotesquely segregated...", that is a decidedly racist statement. Grotesquely? Dictionary definition: "grotesque
    1 a grotesque creature malformed, deformed, misshapen, misproportioned, distorted, twisted, gnarled, mangled, mutilated; ugly, unsightly, monstrous, hideous, freakish, unnatural, abnormal, strange, odd, peculiar; informal weird, freaky. antonym normal.
    2 grotesque mismanagement of funds outrageous, monstrous, shocking, appalling, preposterous; ridiculous, ludicrous, farcical, unbelievable, incredible."

    Point made.

    On to my comments: we are a family of unschoolers, radical unschoolers even. My husband is Japanese, and as he is the father of our two teenaged unschooled boys, I believe that makes them "non-white."

    For the record, my experience has shown me that it is not a smart decision to make blanket statements about any topic, particularly one with such a broad reach as "unschooling."

    Unschoolers, radical unschoolers, homeschoolers, and people are unique, we are all different, and try as we might, lumping people into neatly defined groups accomplishes very little.

  5. @Maggie Lesoing, you seem to misunderstand my statement about our schools be grotesquely segregated. I use the phrase that they are “grotesquely segregated,” because I think that is a bad thing. Thinking it is bad for schools to be segregated is not racist. Quite the contrary. It is a very unfortunate part of the American educational system which is often ignored. If you haven’t read Kozol, I suggest doing so if you are interested in the topic. You can start with this article

    I’m happy to have an unschooling parent like yourself join the conversation, and if you have a profile(s) of non-white unschoolers, I’d love to share. I agree that it is not a smart decision to make blanket statements about any topic. I have not made a blanket statement. I have only shared a finding that I think is worth exploring and that is that, I have not found any profiles of non-white unschoolers but I’d love to include them.

    I understand that unschoolers are unique, but after reading the experiences of the referenced few dozen unschoolers I could find and speaking with several as well, there are some commonalities that many seem to share.

  6. I'm with The Innovative Educator. It's not racist to talk about race. It's productive, as long as people can be respectful. I was unschooled. I didn't know very many non-white unschoolers growing up. Which is not to say that they don't exist. Even if there are plenty of non-white unschooling individuals and groups in the country, the fact that Lisa, after searching for them, hasn't found a significant number, is interesting and relevant.

    Also, I think people mostly agree that there's a distinction between unschoolers and homeschoolers, as Lisa mentions.

    I think this is worth talking about!

  7. Looking for, and not finding BLOGS by unschoolers of color is "limiting" in and of itself. Many unschoolers blogs are private, for many good reasons.

  8. @Anonymous, I looked at blogs and profiles of unschoolers and noticed that by-and-large they are white. It is clear that there may good good reasons for others to remain private. That fact that this may be the case is something worth talking about.

  9. Ah, but the lack of blogs does not a lack, in general make. Declaring otherwise is a hasty conclusion.

    There are valid discussions to be had, for sure.

  10. I like what I perceive as your intention here. Had I known of unschooling when I was in school, I'd have been over-the-top jealous, especially knowing what it's like now. I'm a medium brown-skinned mother married to a fair-skinned man, and we have two unschooling daughters with different shades of beige skin, 3 of us with at least a few freckles. I don't consider myself white, so I don't consider my children to be so, either. We are so much more than our skin pigment.

    I'm trying to understand your intention behind #10. I do believe that it's grossly overgeneralized, although I don't believe that was posted with negative intent. It does appear to me that you're implying that your supposition of the unschooling community being white is - well - what exactly are you trying to say about that presumed fact? At first glance, it seemed to me like you were listing that as a positive aspect of unschooling, albeit from a very limited viewpoint, as - really - you don't really think that every unschooler has a blog, do you? We do lots more than that during the course of a day...but I can't imagine that that would actually be the case.

    I know a lot of unschoolers. I'm thinking of at least a dozen or so families right now that I know only from Facebook - we haven't met yet IRL, although it's just a matter of time. We have many unschooling discussion lists with hundreds, thousands of members, and we rarely discuss our races, so I don't really know how many. No, I probably don't know as many unschooling families of color as white ones, but really - do most people still even pay attention to that stuff anymore?

    Maybe the way to meet more unschoolers and get a better cross-section of who we are is to become one. Learning doesn't stop once once reaches least not for unschoolers. Lucky us!

  11. @Stephanie J, thank you and I appreciate and agree with your insights. I am going to carve out time this week to share a more diverse sampling then I found in my initial exploration. You are right, I certainly don't believe all unschoolers blog, nor do I believe that all unschoolers stories are published. I was looking at blogs and stories of unschoolers and surprised to find a lack in diversity in what I found so far. As I shared and tried to clarify, this was what I found initially and hoped to be proven wrong. At this point I have discovered more of those missing voices and I look forward to providing a more accurate representation than I did initially. I know from working in a place like New York City that many of my readers would notice that what I shared was not representative of the backgrounds of many of them and/or their students/children. I think unschooling is a wonderful concept for people of all backgrounds and, I look forward to sharing profiles, blogs, and perhaps add discussion forums/communities too that represent a more diverse sampling. I’m happy you stopped by my blog and look forward to learning more with you and others.

  12. finding grown unschoolers is a bit hard to do, but they are indeed out there. is a great link to get you started. I also wanted to touch on the race issue here. No, it not racist to discuss race. but to assume, as you did, regarding all unschoolers being white, is...well, it's not at all logical. It's almost a falicy, isn't it, the way you have arrived at this conclusion? Take some more time, follow more links, look up more books, change your search terms - unschoolers are multicultural. My own radically unschooling family is not all white for that matter, so seeing that statement simply ignores my own situation. I truly wish you'd change that statement - it's false. Karen, mama de Julian y Julia

  13. @Karen, I have Idzie's blog and agree, it is fantastic. I also want to clarify, that I did not assume that unschoolers were white. I did my best to clarify that what I did was collect blogs and stories of grown unschoolers. As I read through them many common characteristics (or attributes emerged). That they were white was something I was surprised and disappointed to discover which is why I added that I was hoping to be proven wrong.

    Additionally, I agree that it makes sense to take more I do with much of what I share. In fact I addressed that in the post specifically indicating I'm new to this and look forward to learning more.

    The statement that the specific blogs and stories I discovered featured those who were predominately white is not false. It is indeed something worth talking about, looking into more deeply, and hopefully something that can be discussed constructively and with respect.

    I also want to point out that the post where I share these characteristics asks, "How'd I do?" From the response, it seems the other 19 characteristics were on track and this 1 is definitely something to talk about.

    I would love to share a more diverse selection and am including them as they are shared. If you have any you come across I do hope you'll comment here so I can share a more accurate reflection of the population.

  14. I am a homeschooling mom of both African and European descent, so my children are also multicultural. I grew up in Brooklyn, and went to a public high school that was horribly segregated.That is not a racist statement. That is a fact. It's one of the reasons I hated school and did my best to get out quickly, graduating early. Now, as a homeschooler, I find it disheartening that people feel they must segment themselves into homeschooling groups based on race. I would much rather have my children be part of a homeschool group that includes all kinds of people. I also find the distinction between "unschooling" and "homeschooling" irrelevant. Those of us who have chosen to take the education of our children into our own hands use all kinds of methods and materials. Some of us have teach our kids while traveling. (My family was on the road for a couple of years). I guess I'm just not fond of labels.