When unschooling means exams

What happens when an unschooler wants to go into higher education? How does a child who has spent years following their interests possibly get their head round formal study and exams? There’s plenty of evidence that they do just that, so, although we’re not quite there yet ourselves, I know that at first glance the answer is simple. Trust the process and the child or young person, and make sure they have the right information and tools when they want and need them. So, essentially, just stay on the same journey. Of course, it’s not necessarily that simple for many parents, because just as on every stage of this journey, our ingrained beliefs can pop up too easily and threaten to derail things. I’m finding that this is interesting new territory, and one that I’m not quite confident in yet.

Unschooling isn’t about shunning formal education. It’s about respecting autonomous choice and each individual’s unique learning process. In a study carried out by Peter Gray in Psychology Today of grown unschoolers (mostly in the US), 83% had gone on to some kind of higher education, including vocational training, community college courses or a degree. The percentage that had entered a degree programme was 44%. Interestingly, the more years they had been unschooled, the more likely they were to have studied for a degree. This makes sense to me. My own experience of education was that as my autonomy and choice increased, so did my enjoyment and motivation. In fact, it wasn’t until the sixth form that I enjoyed learning at school, and that’s because the classes were small and I could study only the things I wanted to and was interested in. Likewise, I loved university as I got to specialise even more. Until having children and thinking it through more carefully, my understanding was that the previous 12 years were a necessary evil to prepare me for the good part. Some kind of essential conveyer belt.

The first year we took the children out of school, the idea of not being able to get back onto the conveyor belt preyed on my mind and made it hard for me to relax. We lived in Spain at the time and our sons were about 10 and 9. Previously, they had attended an alternative school where lessons were not mandatory. The difficulty this school had (it was relatively new and still finding its way) was that all children in Spain had to take exams at the age of 12 in key subjects such as maths, Spanish and English. This posed a problem for the school, because whilst it tried to uphold the principal that the children could engage freely in what they wanted to, they still had to take these exams. If they didn’t, they were not legally permitted to pass into the secondary school. So, within this free school environment, there were also exam cramming lessons for children from the age of 10. It was confusing all round.

So, in the first year at home, it was very much on my mind that having jumped off the conveyor belt, there was no way back on without those exams. I did a lot of research around how we might access them later from outside of the system (not possible), then finally had to just accept that we would figure it all out when we got to it. Well, life is unpredictable, and we don’t live in Spain any more. So, I’m glad I let that go.

We’ve reached the point now where engaging back with formal education and exams will probably be on the cards in the near future, and it’s throwing up some interesting things for me. As our children grow older, things naturally evolve and change. If my 8-year-old tells me they would like to become a vet, I might find a good TV documentary or a book, or just chat with them about that. If I suggest anything it will be to facilitate their discovery and it will be something I hope is interesting and enjoyable. If my child in their teens tells me they’re thinking about becoming a vet, rather than staying curious about their thoughts, my mind is likely to head straight to the practicalities (exams and qualifications). Sometimes the information I offer is helpful. Other times, if the idea is just forming and would really benefit from a good chat, then my dull answer will land like a lead balloon and squash all the joy out of the conversation. A learning edge.

D is 14 and he does’t have any particular path in mind yet that requires specific qualifications. He sometimes ponders university, but for now that isn’t where his mind is. He feels strongly that he’ll work for himself and he has an entrepreneurial mind, so that may well be the direction he takes. He spends many hours a week learning about economics and politics, through books, videos and chats in the kitchen, but he sees no reason to turn these interests into qualifications. Learning for an exam is not the same as learning because you want to learn. Like any unschooled child, his is a journey of discovery that leads in all sorts of interesting directions and that he takes at his own pace. In order for him to leave his own learning path and be directed by someone else’s there will need to be a definite goal. And when he knows where he’d like to be headed, I know that he’ll do what he needs to do to get there, studying and exams included if they’re needed. As always, it comes back to intrinsic motivation.

E is nearly 13 and does have a definite goal. He wants to go to university when he’s 18 and has had this clear for some time. He’s done a lot of research about where he wants to go and what he wants to study and has set his sights high. In order to get where he wants to go, he would need to produce a lot of A grades at GCSE. Of course, he may well change his mind over the next few years and choose any other path. For now though, I’m aware that many children are spending their waking hours being trained to get to where my son wants to go. Whilst that seems an awful way to spend a childhood, it also lights a little fire in me! I want my son to have the same chance as everyone else. So, there’s a small part of me that wants to just seize his goal and turn it into a neat plan for him. If I did attempt that, I would get shut down pretty quickly, so happily that part of me is kept in check.

What is so interesting about this experience is how differently my children see life and learning from how I saw it at their age. I had little agency over my learning, few ways to make choices or to follow my own passions. The purpose, at least in secondary school, was to pass tests and exams, and it was mostly quite joyless. When my children choose to engage with exams and formal studies, they will see it all differently. They are outside of the system and have more self knowledge and experience of life than I had. They will know exactly when they are learning because it is meaningful to them, and when they are learning because that is what is needed to reach a specific outcome they have chosen. To be able to distinguish between what we truly value and what others value seems like an invaluable life skill. It took me many years into adulthood to even begin to figure this one out.

I had a little glimpse of this outsider perspective at work recently. E has dipped a tentative toe into the water with all this and started an online history GCSE course last week. It’s with a tutor that he had enjoyed doing a couple of other courses with during lockdown. The classes have up to ten children and they sound like fun. And because E loves the subject, he is very much learning for himself. If he wants to take the exam next year he can, but that’s up to him. He told me how the tutor has explained the way that you have to answer a question for examiners. He found it interesting that if he puts his learning into a certain format, he will get better marks.

That same day, I was talking about something with him. I can’t even remember what it was, but I remember it was something I felt quite strongly about, and E was listening and asking questions. Later, he asked if I had noticed what he’d done. Nope, I hadn’t. He explained that he had asked me questions in the exam format that he was learning. So, he had asked me for a clear explanation of the problem, then asked me the alternatives, and then to explain why I thought one was better than the other. Apparently it was an effective way to keep me to the point. I should probably stop worrying. I think they’ll always be a step ahead of me anyway.

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