The learning curve of unschoolers

The learning curve of unschoolers has a plateau in the middle, it seems. Don't worry.

photo by Belinda Dutch

Note on February 4, 2015: Someone asked in a chat if I had this in writing. I said I didn't, that I thought it had always been spoken. So today, people found two (one spoken, and one written) that I'll add below (there' a fifteen-minute sound file).

Below is some commentary on something I said in 2004, in an interview with Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko. That recorded/broadcast interview was later transcribed for Life Learning Magazine. I'll put links to the longer version at the bottom, but this is the portion referenced is this:

There's a learning curve that I see with unschooled kids and that is that they seem to be ahead [of their peers in school] for the first few years and then there's a period of time, roughly from about nine to 12 years of age, when they can seem behind. And then after they are 12 or 13, zoom! They look ahead! They seem to be ahead again.

In school, there is a period when children are 11 or 12 when they've just been crammed full of math facts, and geographical facts, and science terminology, and they just seem full to bursting with knowledge, and the kids at home might still be playing with Pokémon or coloring books, and they look up and the school kids are naming places and things that they don't know, they're reading text books and doing long division or writing in cursive—things that you can see from across the room.

"What are they doing? I don't know what they are doing. I can't do that!"

But then what seems to happen with the unschoolers I have met and talked with, is that when their kids got to be 13 or 14, a kind of maturity comes upon them and they say, "Oh! I guess if I want to learn cursive, I'll just practice it. Is that it?" And they do it! They look at something and they say, "Is that all?" And they figure out on their own how to do math. They start to develop their own map of the world and history of the universe and stuff; all their facts are starting to gel into a model of the universe. They are understanding a lot of things and making a lot of connections.

And about that time the kids at school get all burned out and realize that all the facts they are learning are only leading to another year of facts. It's like Rumpelstiltskin: "Oh, you turned that straw into gold? Next room. Bigger. More straw. Oh and by the way, you don't get to keep the gold." While the unschoolers are saying, "Oh yeah! This is cool. I'm glad I didn't go to school!"

Another thing I've noticed is that when they get to be 13 or 14, they've either gotten a job, gotten a really cool volunteer position, become involved in a hobby they have so that they are in a position of teaching whether it's karate, or horseback riding, or ice-skating. They've gotten to the point where they know enough that they are a senionr student and they are given a position of responsibility. If they are given something real and they are given the kind of responsibility that is given to an adult, in a way, it makes them an adult. They feel that shift of not being one of the kids anymore. And you see a change in their posture and their bearing and the way adults treat them.

And so, at a point when the kids at school are told, because they are just barely in high school and they are the youngest of the older kids, being bullied, their hope is to get good grades so they can go to college. They are at the point of greatest dismay with public schools while the kids their age who are unschooled are saying, "Huh! I wonder if I should go to horse camp or if I should take a college class. I wonder if I should go to karate three times a week so I can get a black belt or if I should go work at the gaming store." And the kids in school don't have any of these options. So at the same time that they are made small, the unschoolers have been made large.

If families can make it through that rough hump of "Oh, my kid doesn't know anything. He doesn't have cursive, he doesn't know the times tables and he's 12 and starting to get whiskers,"... Because it's just before a lot of the kids in school are saying, "This is crazy. Why am I doing this?"

the "rough hump"
Posted By: averyschmidt
Sat Jun 25, 2005 9:55 pm


I read your Living Unschooling interview today in Life Learning, and what you said about 9-12yo unschoolers going through a "rough hump" where they can appear to be behind their schooled peers jumped out at me. My middle son (10) seems to be going through this right now. I'm not at all worried about how things will turn out in the end- I couldn't be more proud of my children or more confident about the future. But I *am* a little concerned about getting through awkward moments in the meantime.

For example... one thing that all three of my boys, but my 10yo in particular, would be considered "behind" in is handwriting/spelling. I hesitate to use that word, even in quotes, but sometimes it's unexpectedly glaring. For example... he was sick with chicken pox not long ago, and his dear schooled friend from down the street, knowing my son was cooped up and itchy, came over with Mad Libs to cheer him up. Mad Libs are nothing new here, but when we're playing amongst ourselves I generally do the writing, which is the way my kids prefer it. When they *do* write they almost always ask me how to spell the words. Anyway, when our little friend (9) was doing the writing and my son was choosing the words, the friend dashed the words off quickly and effortlessly. I could see the tension in my son's face because he knew what was coming was "now you write for me," and those obvious comparisons (even if they're just in his own mind) make him uncomfortable.

To my son's relief, I suggested doing the writing myself so that both boys could come up with funny words together. But lately he's spending more and more time going off with other families and doing sleepovers and such, and I won't always be there to "cover" for him this way. Similar situations have happened with reading as he's not yet fluent and virtually all of his schooled friends are, even those considerably younger than him. The worst part is that *he* feels inferior when these situations come up, despite the fact that he's got all sorts of knowledge and experience and perspective that others his age don't have, and he knows it, and I know it, and we've talked about it all before. I honestly never expected my unschooled son to care so deeply about such comparisons, and I'm trying to strike a balance between wanting him to *not* care about what others think and at the same time wanting to honor and validate his feelings whatever they are.

It also bothers me on some level that there are many people in our lives who would jump on such "evidence" (seen through their school glasses) to conclude that our unconventional choices don't "work." I know that the answer, both for my son and vicariously for me, is patience and clarity. It's just hard sometimes, this hump... at least when it comes to Mad Libs and such. It's so much easier to see the bigger picture when he's playing his guitar, or surfing, or doing one of the many other things that make him gloriously himself.

Patti Schmidt
(on UnschoolingDiscussion in 2005)

Sandra's response:
Mine all did, too.

In any classroom in any school there are kids who are behind the others, who don't feel they can do what the others can do (or who have been tested and tutored and certified "not able to do"), but they blend into the wallpaper of school, at least in the perceptions of others. And school has a constant "If you just work harder, " and "maybe next year" so there's no one big examination by which the outside judges a schoolkid in the way that someone meeting his/her first unschooled kid will form an impression for all time from one meeting.

It's a problem, but there's not a lot we can do, except maybe be calmer by not being surprised and by knowing others have been there, and will be there.

I think some people's rough place comes from late puberty, or not finding a job when their other young-adult friends do, or not being married when their friends are, etc. It's just that those things are not government mandated, as "education" is. And really, lots of states revised their wording so it's no longer compulsory education, but compulsory attendance. I guess some were sued for having failed to educate. Now the compulsion is on the families and children, not on the state.

But as to learning curves, few have "the perfect curve" with no slumps their whole lives.


My eleven year old (boy) would be very behind schooled kids his age in writing, and probably has holes in what he knows about math, but I think would "catch up" to math very quickly. Although he reads mostly only cartoon books, he has an impressive vocabulary from spending so much time with talkative adults and sophisticated TV and movies. He's interested in "science" and has lots of points of contact with "history" to hang future information on. It's possible to imagine him becoming deeply informed about other pieces of history and science, even though he doesn't learn about them formally.

His negotiation skills are highly advanced. 🙂

Betsy (ecsamhill)

Here is a graph of my vision of this learning curve, made quickly with masking tape one day. 😊

photo by Jen Berger, Always Learning Live symposium, Rochester MN May 2013

It looks like Pam Laricchia's the only one there, but most people were on the other side of the room, near the kids' room and the food. (And it looks like Pam scared me, but I was acting out something about teens surprising people, I think.)

Chris Sanders found the image above, and some commentary in February 2015:

Sandra Dodd: There was discussion about my "graph."

Dan proposed that it was observable learning, and that's probably a factor, but what we were talking about was the kids' perception of their learning, in part. When they saw all the "fancy" things their friends were learning (things they could see over their shoulders as they were doing homework or things the schooled friends reported learning) they had a period of feeling "behind," of slight worry that maybe they weren't learning.

At the same time (the more observable thing) the parents are confident at first, and then as school kids are going to mid-school or Jr. High and are "changing classes" (moving around the building without a teacher, which is a big milestone for them) and "having electives" (choosing music or art or shop or something), the unschooled kids might be doing more of the same—playing with Lego, dolls, doing only slightly more sophisticated things than they were doing all along.

It can be a time that confidence in unschooling falters a bit.

But the third part of the graph was about schooled kids getting frustrated and bored and resentful of more of the same, same, little desks, same schedule, even though they're becoming adult in many ways.

Back at home, the unschoolers have synthesized their eight or ten years' of thoughts and ideas and when they become mobile they seem quickly to be "ahead" in many ways, and they have a chance to use their abilities in the real world.

I suppose I should save this somewhere now that I've written it.

I always want to save much more than I actually succeed in saving, and I appreciate the help!
Deb Lewis remembered and reported that I discussed this idea right at the beginning of a podcast on Teens, in Amy Childs' series.

"Up to nine years old, they're learning like crazy, and kids at school are being taken as a group on this slow little conveyor belt... "

A fifteen-minute podcast on Teens from December 9th, 2014. My description of this "lull" is just up to 4:42. Rose's section starts then, and it's pretty applicable to this, too. It veers away to other topics after a bit.

Podcast created by Amy Childs, with Sandra Dodd, Rose Sorooshian, and others
as part of a series called "The Unschooling Life," at Unschooling Support (a site no longer available).

In an online chat in 2009 (after the official chat was over, and a few moms were still in the room:

My unschooled children are much happier than their cousins, but since they're younger it doesn't show yet that they're as clever.
There comes a time in the middle when the schooled kids seem to be doing better.

Like when they're 9 to 12 or so.

I've been watching that with lots of kids.

me too
And not only can the parents of those other kids feel cocky, the (unschooled) kids themselves can feel nervous.
that is an interesting dilemma
But about 14, 15, the school kids start to get tired, and pissed off
yeah we're in that stage now, my oldest is still deschooling his traditional early childhood ..:-(
About the time the unschooled kids are blossoming
then they hit the teen years and unschooled kids are so much happier and relaxed and intuitive about themselves in ways that schooled kids aren't.

It's a beautiful thing to watch
and painful to see in our schooled kid friends
When they're 16, 17, the schooled kids are shut down or furious, getting sneaky, yelling at their parents, desperate to be people, and our kids are working real jobs, or getting attention in some other way from adults who are really impressed with them, while the school kids are being treated like babies and told "Good, you've spun high school into gold, now go and spin college."
That's great. I've had this picture of my kids' teenage years being of mutual understanding and good chats
We get that sometimes, not always mutual understanding, but definitely lots of chats and no yelling at each other Our whole society treats teens like babies.
Like BAD babies.
And they are adults.
They are sexually mature.

They have full-grown bodies in the flower of youth--they are IN BLOOM and people treat them like crap

it gives them all a bad rap, and it's hard for all the truly wonderful teens, which really are all of them to do anything wonderful. It's a wasted opportunity of creative energy, lost in closed doors of classrooms and boredom that grows into anger and spite and frustration
We can't save them all, but we can save our own.

Learning leaps and lingers

School creates the illusion that learning is a smooth curve, divided into hours, units, terms, years. Sometimes unschooling parents look for that.

Often, learning happens suddenly, like a flash. A person "gets it" or makes a connection between two things. It's fine to rest for a few days after that!

Folklorists who study traditional ballads say "A ballad leaps and lingers." Later, films did that, too. Though many ballads are ancient-old, they are a bit like movies. They might start in the middle of an action scene, or with a mysterious dilemma. A scene might be portrayed in great detail, and the next scene pick up six months or three years later in the story. Learning can be that way.

Doing something "in fits and starts" means there are stretches of quiet nothing, and then suddenly things are happening. Then nothing, again, for a while. Learning is like that.

In the novel Shogun, the character Mariko says early on:

We have a saying that time has no single measure, that time can be like frost, or lightning, or a tear, or siege, or storm, or sunset, or even like a rock.
Try not to measure.

photo by Karen James

Feeling kids are behind, when they're 11 or 12 or so...

the radio interview

Published transcript