My oldest son, who is 17, is considering his different options in life right now, in terms of studying and work. In a way, it’s tricky—he has so many diverse interests that the idea of studying or working in one specific area feels limiting. What would happen to all the other things that feel so important and meaningful to him? He has a pile of books he is working his way through on everything from politics to Old English to obscure martial arts, and he frequently gets frustrated that there is so much he wants to learn and so little time in the day.
It couldn’t be a more different perspective from the one I had growing up. My school days felt like an endless sea of subjects that didn’t spark me in the least bit, with the odd hour of relief provided by the couple of subjects I really enjoyed. As I worked my way through school, and I had more control over my choices, the more tolerable it became. I was beyond delighted at the age of 16 to be able to study only what I chose to study. Finally, I could stop spending hours a week on things I didn’t want to know! Later, university felt like a gift to me because I could narrow down my field of learning even more. But, it wasn’t until I got out of formal education completely that I started trying to figure out what job might be a good fit for me. My first jobs were not a great fit, because I really didn’t have much idea of what I enjoyed or was good at.
My son has done the opposite journey. Whereas I went through education anxious to get rid of the things I didn’t like, he has gone through life accumulating things he loves. My learning at school was restrictive and determined by someone else’s agenda, whereas his learning has been intuitive and expansive. Certain things that he was interested in when he was younger are still very much there, whereas others have come and gone. When something has piqued his interest, he has followed it as far as he has wanted to. Some interests have been satisfied by watching some videos on it, whereas others have turned into long conversations, the purchase of books, an Udemy course or a learning app. Some have stuck, and others have morphed into new interests. Even the ones that were seemingly left by the wayside served their purpose, perhaps by being the entry point to something else more interesting. Or maybe they simply helped him by showing him what he didn’t like.
For me, having a curriculum that included many subjects led me to quite a narrow view of myself and my capabilities. For my son, who has had total freedom over his learning, the lack of curriculum has led to a huge amount of interests and passions. This is certainly because one of the fundamental differences between self-directed learning and school learning is that a self-directed person can follow each learning journey as far as it takes them until they are satisfied. So, a quick dive into an interesting piece of history can easily become an exploration of geography, politics, ancient civilisations, languages etc. There is absolutely no knowing where something will lead. I remember seeing my younger son staring at his computer in frustration a year or so ago. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that he all he had wanted to do was look up one simple fact and now here he was, an hour later, deeply involved in learning about something entirely unrelated. He was bemused as to how he had moved so seamlessly from one place to the other.
This is their learning. Years and years of intuitive, immersive journeys into what they are curious about, with one thing leading to another. On a side note, they have naturally bumped into many things that are on the school curriculum and (unlike their mother back in the day) there are few topics that don’t interest them. Partly because everything they come across is in a context that is meaningful to them, and also, no doubt because they haven’t been scored, compared to their peers, or made to produce time-consuming evidence of their learning. An interesting case in point is the Industrial Revolution. Despite two years of study in my history class, from the age of 14 to 16, my knowledge of the Industrial Revolution is patchy at best. I have some odd specifics stored away, such as a fair understanding of James Hargreave’s Spinning Jenny, but these are facts I learned for an exam and they lack a coherent context in my mind. My sons’ knowledge of this period is far deeper and well-placed in their overall knowledge of world history, simply because it has cropped up many times in different contexts they have been interested in.
And so, back to my older son and the options he is looking at. Over the last couple of weeks, he has been putting together a list of possible jobs and careers that he thinks might be a good fit. Looking at this list, I am finding it simultaneously mind-blowing and glaringly obvious that what has happened is that by staying true to his interests and passions, his next steps are fairly clear to him. And, that what appeared to be an unrelated combination of activities and passions, such as Mandarin, politics, drama, medicine or martial arts, to name a few, are a perfect fit for these careers. I can see that in a few years time, I might look back on his childhood years, nodding, and thinking, “Of course!”. In fact, having spoken with many parents of adult unschooled children, this is perhaps the thing that most stands out. That all those meandering paths lead to something entirely coherent. As these children grow into adults, they simply carry on doing the things that spark them and bring them satisfaction. My younger son, who is 15, and who has similarly spent many years diving into the areas of knowledge that pique his interest, also mentioned a field of work that encompasses his deepest interests. It something I had never even heard of before, but it describes what he loves and spends his days on to a tee.
Everything has been learned for the joy and satisfaction of learning it. The journey is entirely personal and intrinsically meaningful, and it goes against everything that most of us have experienced ourselves of education. “How will they deal with real life?”, was a common question I would get when they were younger. They have been immersed in real life. And now, as they prepare to move out into the world in ways that make sense to them, I see that they are far wiser than I ever was.
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