Unschooling: It's Like Riding a Bicycle

Vickie Bergman
February 4, 2011

If being in school is like riding a train, then traditional homeschooling is like riding in a car. Your parents are driving and you get to sit with your brothers and sisters if you have any. But other than these two common elements, the details of the car ride can vary greatly, depending on your parents' views on education.

You might have parents who buy a curriculum, which resembles the timetable similar to the one used by the school train. Your mother might take on the role of "conductor," and insist that her car keep up with the train. She might not let you have much say as far as how fast to go or what the stops will look like. You might spend as much time in the car as schooled kids do on the train.

Or you might have parents who make up their own curriculum, accepting some level of input from you. They will take your interests into account when planning activities. They will adjust the pace if they think it is necessary. They might even stop the car sometimes when you point out something interesting you see out the window. You might spend a lot less time in the car than schooled kids do on the train.

But either way, you are still sitting in the backseat, having at least somewhat of a passive role in your educational journey and your life overall. The car, like the train, separates "learning time" from the real world, which you are still looking at through a window. The car follows streets, like the train follows tracks. There may be more than one path between two stops now, but you are still confined to the streets.

Now imagine you are in a family who gets around on bicycles instead of trains or cars...

Some days, your mom says, "Want to go for a ride? I have something cool I want to show you." If you want to go, you hop on the bike and go. Some days, you are the one who has something cool you want to explore, and your mom or siblings or dad ride along. And some days, one or some or all of you are tired and you stay home and watch movies or cook or read or play video games all day. But every day, you have the choice of what to do.

Your own bicycle is powered by your own legs, steered by your own hands. It stops when you stop, goes where you want to go. But it's not that you are always responsible for your own movement. You are not just left to figure it out for yourself. When you prefer to have some level of assistance getting where you want to go, you also have tandem bicycles and bike trailers available to you. You get to choose if you want help and what kind and how much. And your parents are ready to help whenever and however you want them to.

One more option: the family cycle

No matter which kind of bicycle you are on, there is no separation between you and the outside world. No window to look out. You can smell the real world, hear the real world, stop and touch the real world. You are part of the real world. There are paths to follow if you want to, but your rides are not limited to the paths.

In your family, no one is the teacher, but everyone learns from all the others. It is not that your time on your bicycle is your "education." Every day is your life, no matter how it is spent. Time on your bicycle is not valued more than time spent walking or running or sitting still. Your choosing to do something makes it valuable. You learn from all things you do, but the learning does not need to be measured. Your parents don't keep track of how fast or how far you go each day. You get to learn what you want at your own pace. You don't have to keep up with anyone else.

That is unschooling. It is not a model of education, but a way of life. It is recognizing that people learn from living, and there is no need to separate learning from living. Unschooling lets a family live together, learn together. It is built on trust among family members, and trust in human nature. Trust that children have a strong desire to learn about things, even if those things may not be on the short list of school subjects. Trust that, with your acceptance and support, your child will follow his own path, leading exactly where he wants to go.

Note from Sandra, 2/15/11:
How fun! I used a bicycle analogy yesterday (2/14), that you know when they're learning to ride a bike when you're holding the fender for them and they move faster than you can and they're gone.

You know they're learning something when they DO the thing (or know or use the thing).

Robyn Coburn wrote something train and bike related a few years ago. I'm not sure when (I've started dating things more carefully) but a few years, as it has a gate at the bottom rather than the four trees. SandraDodd.com/park

I would like to add yours to my site somewhere too, if that's okay with you.

Vickie responded:
Please feel free to put it or any of my posts on your site. It would be an honor!

The original is here on Vickie's blog, and this backup copy was posted with Vickie's permission.

Robyn Coburn's article The Beautiful Park, where unschooling is not like a bicycle 🙂

(Robyn's article might be more about discussions of unschooling, than about unschooling itself; see what you think.)

Getting It

Learning to See Differently

Three Stages of Unschooling by Kelly Lovejoy

Seeing a Day in an Unschooling Way by Ginny