Unschooling in the World: The Efficiency of Unschooling

Julie Daniel, interviewed by Sandra Dodd

Julie Daniel lives in Ashford, in Surrey, on the western outskirts of London, with her husband, James, and their son Adam, who was born in 2005. I've known the family since Adam was four. I invited him to be a presenter at the Always Learning Live Symposium in Albuquerque in 2011, and he spoke about all the things he had learned from Pokemon. Here's his bio from that event: Adam Daniel

Perhaps I should have interviewed Adam! But Julie has a wealth of thoughts and experiences from which I know readers can benefit.

Sandra: Julie, you're the owner of a company called "Personal Best." I know you teach workplace efficiency to individuals, and groups in companies, and even government employees. You once worked in the logistics of providing meals for British Airways flights, too, right? Have most of your jobs involved methodical logistics?
Julie: Yes, most of the jobs I have done (at British Airways, at Goldman Sachs, and then for the last twelve years running my own business) have required a high level of organisation and consequently I have developed some pretty good skills in that area… although I do have to say that I am not a naturally organised person. I don’t care a huge amount about organisation for its own sake but I do care about effectiveness and efficiency. Also I am very conscientious and I like to do a good job so I learned the organisational skills that were required to be good at my work.
Sandra: When you first looked into home education, did you see it as something you could organize efficiently? I think my real question was whether when you saw unschooling its seeming lack of efficiency caused you any bad dreams or sleep loss.

Julie: No, not even a little bit! When I first started to explore unschooling one of the things I found very exciting was how amazingly effective and efficient it is. My husband, James, says it is “shockingly efficient”. There isn’t any of the wasted effort that goes along with trying to entice someone to pay attention to something that they don’t care about. We notice what Adam is interested in and we think about what else he might find interesting and we provide opportunities to explore those things.

Mostly when people think about being “organised” they think about structure and predictability. For me the point of being organised is to achieve a particular objective. I actually really like that I don’t need to have a lot of structure to achieve the goals of exploring cool things, learning about the world and having fun. Of course some of the basic organisational skills that I have learned do come in handy, like knowing where to find things that I’ve saved and keeping track of our calendar so we know where to be and when. But in terms of Adam’s learning I don’t feel the need for structure and predictability because I can see how incredibly efficient his natural learning process is.

Sandra: When I met you, in 2009, you were intently interested in unschooling, and that was fun for me. I still have the first e-mail you wrote to me. Your enthusiasm was, and still is, energizing. I'm glad to know you.
Julie: And we are very glad to have had the opportunity to get to know you better. Your writing has made such a difference to our lives. James was married before and he has two grown up children from his first marriage. They went to school and had a much more conventional upbringing. So what we are doing with Adam was a complete shift for James. And his older children turned out pretty well so I think it was a big leap of faith for him to do something so radically different this time round.

You've seen unschooling families in and from several countries, and from different backgrounds. What qualities have you seen be beneficial?
Julie: I think there are a lot of dimensions to providing a good unschooling environment but the ones that spring most readily to mind are some things I have noticed that are common to all the families I believe are doing a good job of unschooling, irrespective of culture.

The first is that the parents are interested and interesting. They are curious about the world around them and they enjoy exploring and learning alongside their children. Another thing I have noticed is that where unschooling works well the parents have great relationships with their children but they aren’t afraid to take the lead when that’s needed. They involve their children in decisions, they let the children practice their own decision making and they model thoughtfulness and consideration of others in decision making processes. But they aren’t afraid of being the leader when that is required. Sometimes I have seen families where parents seem afraid to exercise any decision making at all for fear of seeming undemocratic. I don’t think that works so well.

Sandra: You gathered in Ireland with two other families I know. It was fascinating just to hear about it and see photos. Tell us how that went, and tell us about these Tesco vouchers and holiday rentals. None of those families live in Ireland.
Julie: That was great fun! Adam and I had met both families when we visited them with you – the first family from Northern Ireland we had met in 2011 and the family from the Netherlands we had met in 2012. But they hadn’t met each other and only one of the families had met James. I really liked both families though and I was sure they would like each other and that everyone would get on so I suggested that we all go on holiday together.

I buy most of my groceries from a supermarket that gives loyalty points every time I shop there. You can convert the loyalty points into money off your shopping or you can trade them for three times the value in vouchers for days out, restaurant vouchers or holidays. I had enough points saved up to pay for the rental of a six bedroomed house in Ireland for a week. So last May all three families headed off there for a week. We had a fabulous time. The children loved waking up in the morning with friends already there to play with and the adults had a lot of fun too. We’ll do it again sometime, when I’ve saved up enough points. Maybe in 2015.

Sandra: You guessed that the moms would like each other, but how did the dads do?
Julie: Actually I was pretty confident that the dads would like each other too. Whether or not the men get on with each other is always more of a risk I think, but if I hadn’t been fairly confident I wouldn’t have suggested a whole week together. I’d have started out with something a little less ambitious! As it turned out they did all get on very well indeed. The fact that we had shared principles about parenting made the week very easy. Sometimes it can be a bit tricky to go away with other families who have very different attitudes to food, meal times, sleep, computers etc. In this case we all approach those things in a similar way at home so it wasn’t a source of conflict. Everyone could just carry on, in the way they would at home… just with extra people about the place! Sarah, whose family came in the car, actually brought many of her kitchen things with her, including her fancy coffee machine and her sourdough bread starter, so the kitchen would feel like home.

Sandra: How many children were there altogether and what age range? What kinds of things were done or explored?
Julie: The children were aged from two to eight. We spent quite a few days at the house. It was very well equipped for children. There was a huge lawn where they could run about and play (and investigate the robot lawn mower) and there was a games room with table football, pool and air hockey. There was also a basket-ball hoop and a semi-resident dog. She belonged to a neighbour but she seemed to enjoy playing with the children so she came over for play dates whenever we were around! We had plenty of ipads and computers with us so the children enjoyed playing in a shared Minecraft world and exploring each other’s favourite apps and games. We downloaded quite a few new ones as a result. We watched several films and YouTube clips together.

I had taken various craft activities, and in the evenings we often did some craft – mostly the mums but sometimes the children joined in too. There was one craft which the children particularly enjoyed, which was Shrinkles where you colour in pictures on a special kind of plastic that you then put in the oven and it shrinks to be seven times smaller and several times thicker.

We shopped together and shared the cooking and Sarah taught me and Rippy how to make some fabulous curries.

We had a couple of days out exploring. One day we went to a local lake where we discovered an old fashioned water pump and we made some fishing rods out of some sticks and strings that we found. We didn’t catch anything but it was fun anyway and we managed to fit our picnic in before it started raining and we retreated home to play video games. Another day we went out for a pub lunch and played in the local playground and got ice cream. It was all very low-key and relaxed.

Sandra: Over the several times I've visited with your family I've seen Adam involved in Beaver and Cub Scouts, archery lessons, swim lessons and a musical theatre group. It seems to take a lot of time and energy, but he likes it, doesn't he?
Julie: He loves it! He is very sociable and he enjoys the variety of the different groups and having friends in different places.

It does take quite a lot of time. But we have a lot of time with no school to fill the day. And I suppose you could say that it takes a lot of energy but he *has* a lot of energy and those groups seem to be good places to use it! I think he actually gets energy from those places too. They seem to spark a lot of ideas and connections for him. We did a trip to Boston earlier this year to go whale watching. He was very excited about that - it was something he had wanted to do for a long time - but he wanted to make sure that we planned it so that he didn't miss too many of his group activities. Another activity he loves is the fortnightly home ed group that we attended. I jointly run that, along with another Julie, and Adam considers that he is one of the organisers too. When we have new children come to the group he takes responsibility for making sure that they are included in the games and he really enjoys that.
Sandra: Adam seems to enjoy being around other people. He's always been sweet to me, and I enjoy his company and his ideas.
Julie: Yes he loves chatting to people, sharing his interests with them and finding out what they are interested in. I enjoy his company too. I think that's one of the best things about home educating for me - I have had the opportunity and the privilege of spending all this time with my child. It's so interesting and so much fun. Last night he invented a new superhero and he spent the evening finding suitable clothes for the superhero to wear and designing a logo for the television series!
Sandra: When I met Adam he was four, extremely verbal and could read. Was the idea that he would have "been ahead" in school what caused you to consider home education? Did you know others who were involved in home ed already?
Julie: Yes that was definitely a part of it. He talked very early - individual words at nine months and full sentences by eighteen months. Just before his second birthday he surprised one of my friends by announcing "I don't usually have chocolate for breakfast but just today - as a special treat - I think I'd like a kit-kat". My friend just stared at him and said "Goodness, I'm shocked!" I wasn't sure if he was shocked at a not quite two year old stringing such a long sentence together or whether it was just the idea of chocolate for breakfast that bothered him! In any case Adam was already a chatty little person by that age. He started to recognise individual written words at around twenty months and I would say he was reading properly shortly after he was two. By the time he was three he could order food for himself from a menu in a restaurant and he was reading fluently - he liked to read stories to his cousins and his friends. And he did all of that without formal teaching. By the time he was four he was googling for information that he was interested in and was reading the Narnia books. Given all of that I just didn't think an ordinary classroom would work for him. A lot of my friends thought I should pay for a private education where he would be "pushed" and where the school would "maximise his potential". But I didn't want to "hot-house" him or have him fast tracked through the school system because I wanted him to have time to relax and play and enjoy his childhood. So I started to explore home education.

I didn't know anyone else who was home educating in the UK although I had met a family in the US who were home-schooling. So I had a lot to find out. But I like a good research project so I set about finding out everything I could - about different styles of learning and about local groups. My biggest concern was that Adam should have friends because his siblings are so much older than he is (they were 13 and 16 when he was born). So I was keen to find out if there were other families we could spend time with. We attended HesFes (a big home education camp) when Adam was three and a half and we discovered and started to attend a couple of local groups. I wanted Adam to know that when his local friends started school that he had other friends at the groups who weren't going to school. At this stage in my research I came across the idea of unschooling. I loved the ideas I read about. It just made so much sense to me that if Adam had managed to figure out how to read simply by being exposed to books and other written material then surely he could learn anything that interested him. I decided that my job would be to create an environment where he is surrounded by things that might interest him. At first I thought we might home educate for a year or two (just until the other children his age could read so he wouldn't be so unusual) and then I thought he could slot back into the school system. But we've been going for four years now and it suits our whole family so well that I think we'll carry on for some time yet!

One of the things that I really liked about the home education group was that the children were all different ages so Adam never realised that he was unusual in being able to read so early. Of course he knew that some children at the group could read and that some couldn't but in his mind that was just part of the concept that everyone is different - some children could run really fast and some were slow. Some children could go all the way across the monkey bars without letting go and some couldn't. Reading was like that. Some could, some couldn't. He didn't seem to notice until he was quite a lot older that he was an "early reader". And I liked that. It wouldn't have been possible in a school environment.

Being in the Beavers and the Cubs has sparked lots of other interests. They work towards various badges in the group and because we have a lot of time during the week we are able to follow up on the things they touch on there that interest him. So for example they did a Cub visit to a Space Laboratory. Off the back of that we talked a lot about the planets and the solar system, James took Adam to a space day at the Royal Institution in London and also to an event at Oxford University where some of the PhD students showed them the huge telescopes in their observatory and talked to them about all the research they are doing. I set up a activity for Adam and some other friends where we explored the scale of the universe. I explained that if the sun were the size of a basket ball then the Earth would be the size of a peppercorn. Mercury would be a mustard seed and Jupiter would be a brussel sprout! I collected up mustard seeds and peppercorns, hazelnuts, sprouts and yoghurt raisins to represent the individual planets. We then went outside and put the sun (the ball) on the ground and paced out how far away each of the planets would be and then put down our mustard seeds, peppercorns, hazelnuts, sprouts etc. at the relevant places. We kept going all the way out to Neptune and the children (and I!) were completely amazed at the distances involved. It's more than 770 paces to go from a football sized sun to a yoghurt raisin sized Neptune! I love that we have the time to do things like that and that Adam is interested and curious about the world.

Sandra: Adam is a great skier, for his age, right? Maybe for any age. Could you share how he learned and how he feels about a fairly solitary sport?
Julie: Yes Adam skis really well. There are four levels of ski slope grading in Europe - green is the easiest, then blue, then red and black is the hardest. Adam can ski black runs. He skis them really well too - with better style than I do—because he started learning when he was really young whereas I didn't learn until my mid-twenties.

James and I skied every winter before Adam was born and then we missed a few years when I was pregnant and when he was really small. The year he was three we decided to go on a ski trip with two other families we know who have older children. It was only a week or two after his third birthday and so I didn’t actually expect Adam to ski that year. I just wanted to give Adam the idea that at that time of year skiing is what happens! I wanted him to experience a holiday in the snow and to see how much fun it was. I expected that I wouldn’t do any skiing myself that year – that I would just spend the time playing in the snow with Adam… building snowmen, doing some sledging maybe. I didn’t expect that he would ski at all. But when we got there he saw the other older children skiing and he wanted to have a go too. There was another little girl, just slightly older than Adam and so the two of them did just a little bit of skiing. I think they only did maybe twenty or thirty minutes each day. But it was long enough for Adam to realise that he loved it and that he wanted to do more.

So the next year, the year he was four, we booked to go to France for three weeks. We booked some group ski lessons for him but when we arrived and met the instructor Adam didn’t want to go with him! The ski instructor had a very strong French accent and Adam couldn’t understand what he was saying and was very upset at the thought of skiing with him.

He doesn’t usually make a fuss about things and so when he does I take it seriously and so we booked for him to have some individual lessons – two hours a day – with a lovely instructor, Karen, who was absolutely amazing. Karen’s approach is to make the ski sessions fun. She thinks that children learn best when they are enjoying themselves (guess why I love her so much!) so she treats the ski lessons as “games on skis” and she plays all sorts of games that help with balance and technique – such as bending down and scooping up snow to throw at her as they go along. Or a game where she skis in front to make a Mario track and they have to follow exactly in her tracks so they don’t “fall off” the track she has made.

The second week we were there Adam did group lessons with an English instructor and a group of English children - but because he’d had a week of individual skiing with Karen he was already at too high a standard to fit into the group that was right for his age. He enjoyed being with the other children and playing snowballs in the break in the middle of the session but he spent a lot of the lesson waiting around for the others to catch up. He would ski down a section of slope really quickly and then have to wait ages for the others to come down. Basically we had created a problem for ourselves in that his technique was at a level that would be expected from much older children but he couldn’t go in their class because they ski longer and harder and although he was technically capable of skiing at their level he didn’t have the strength or the stamina to do a full lesson at their pace.

So the third week we went back to skiing with Karen for a couple of hours each day. The rest of the day we ski together as a family and with other friends and family who come too.

Now whenever we ski we take Karen with us! She is working in the UK these days but she takes time off to come skiing with us every year.

You say in your question that skiing is a solitary sport. That isn’t my experience. When I was younger I used to organise group skiing holidays. There would be about 30 of us there and it was the most sociable holiday I had all year! These days we go with fewer people – maybe just a couple of other families but it’s still very sociable. Well I think so anyway…

I just asked Adam how he feels about skiing/why he likes it and whether he thinks it is a “fairly solitary sport”. He said that he really enjoys it because he likes being out in the fresh air and he likes how it feels to glide across the snow, almost like flying. He says he loves being in that beautiful mountain scenery and being with all those people. And he doesn’t think it feels solitary. So I would say that our experience of skiing is that it’s a pretty sociable activity (at least the way we do it). We tend to go with other families and friends and everyone gets to hang out together in the evenings. We all meet up at lunchtime at a restaurant on the slopes. And even the actual skiing is a shared experience. We ride in the lifts together and decide which slopes we are going to ski and then as we come down we’ll all ski together. On the easy slopes we might even be close enough to chat as we are coming down. On the harder slopes we might need to concentrate more and so there isn’t as much chatting but we’ll pause from time to time and chat and make sure everyone is happy before we carry on.

Sandra: In 2012, James was in a skiing accident and had surgery in France for a broken neck. It didn't paralyze him, but he needed to wear a brace and be very still most of the time, so he played a video game about conquering the world. I sat and watched him a few times, and he told me stories. It was quite intricate. What game is that?
Julie: Empire Total War. It’s a great game. Adam is fascinated by it too although he doesn’t play it himself yet. He likes to sit and watch James play, like you did, and hear James tell him some history stories. He’s learned all sorts of things like that!
Sandra: Do you think playing that game for so long gave James more patience with Adam's hours spent with Pokémon online, and Minecraft? Or was he already fully accepting of video games before his season of recovery?
Julie: I think he was already fully accepting of that. Neither James nor I had our activities restricted when we were growing up so neither of us could see the value in restricting Adam. James was already familiar with the economic concept of marginal utility and so he knows that restricting things creates more desire for them. So video games and computers have always just been there as one of the many things that Adam has access to. He has books and toys, train track, board games, jigsaw puzzles, art supplies, people to chat to… none of those is restricted either.
Sandra: James was playing that game in your office instead of his. I'm guessing it was to be near food and family, so he didn't need to climb the stairs during the day. I like the way your office is set up, with a little table for Adam next to yours.
Julie: We set my office up the way we did before James had his accident so that all three of us could be in the same place working on our individual things but being with each other too. Originally the room was just for me to work in. Then we got Adam his own computer when he was two or three because he saw me doing things on my computer and he wanted to join in and play with my keyboard. Mine is a work computer and I didn’t want to risk letting Adam play on it so we got him his own computer, a cheap one from eBay. We also got him a wonderful table with adjustable height legs and set it up right next to my desk. So he has always had his own little space right there, where I can be with him, chat, help out with whatever he needs. When he was younger he did play a little bit on the computer but mostly he would sit and draw or colour pictures or do jigsaw puzzles. I would stop whenever he wanted me – some days that meant I didn’t get more than a minute at a time on my work and I would do it after he was in bed. Now he needs less input from me and I do more of my work during the day, but I still like to be there for when he does need me. He does lots of cool stuff on the computer now – he watches You Tube videos, plays Minecraft, does his “research” etc. But he’s still right there and so we can both chat about what we are doing and I can join in with him when he wants me to. That way I learn about the things that interest him. He has also learned quite a lot about our business by being there when I’m doing some of my client emails. Since we got the table we’ve raised the height of it several times and I’ve had a series of chairs that have got bigger each time. Now he has a proper office swivel chair like mine which makes him feel very grown up!

So then James was the only one who wasn’t in my office to do his computer things. We decided to get him a gaming computer for his birthday and Christmas present and to get another table (just opposite Adam’s) so we could all be with each other. So that was already in place before James broke his neck, which was great because we didn’t need to create it. It was an ideal place for him to be though. It meant he didn’t have to come up and down the stairs (except when he needed to nap) and he had company. It was also easier for me to keep him supplied with drinks and food. When James’s son Ollie lived with us he used to hang out in the office too so it was often a hive of activity with everyone doing their own things but pausing to chat and share thoughts from time to time. I love it!

(And just in case anyone is wondering – no, we don’t spend all our time in there! We play a lot of board games in the dining room, spend a lot of time outside and visiting interesting places and snuggle up on the sofa to read – all of those other lovely things that we like to do. It’s just that when we are in there doing our various computer things we can do them together.)

Sandra: James has a degree from Cambridge. Has that been an advantage to you? In the U.S. people "get the bye" and are hardly questioned about unschooling if one is a professor or engineer or former teacher. I'm wondering if there are things in the UK that do that for you, and whether maybe a Cambridge degree is one of them.
Julie: I think it probably does make a difference. Most people who know we are home educating don’t know the details of how we go about it. They assume (I think) that we are sitting Adam down and “teaching” him things. So I think that in their minds that fact that James and I are both well-educated causes them to object less than they might otherwise. James has his first degree from Cambridge and we both did an MBA at one of the top business schools (which is where we met) so I think people assume that we’ll know enough to be able to do the teaching “properly”. That’s only guesswork though. Mostly we don’t talk about our education and people haven’t said that explicitly.
Sandra: On the other hand, are there pressures involved with that "legacy"? Did either of James' parents attend that university?
Julie: No James was the first person in his family to go there so I don’t think there are any pressures. Not that I have felt in any case!
Kindness and generosity are some of Julie Daniel's strongest traits, and that helps learning flow in her family.
Sandra Dodd has spoken at manyHSC conferences, and lives in Albuquerque.

Photo credits:
Adam on a post smiling down at Julie, by Sandra Dodd

Adam, Hux and marmosets, by marmoset keeper (souvenir photo bought at the place)

Julie and James laughing, by Sarah Dickinson

Adam in Courchevel cap with snowball, 2009, by Julie

Adam skiing, by Julie in 2012

Adam speaking in Albuquerque in 2011, by Tim Mensch

A shorter version of this interview was published in the March 2014 issue of The HomeSchooler (now defunct).

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