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Unschooled adults flourish despite the stigmas

(Photo courtesy of cc image: Brenda Clarke)
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I recently did a story on unschooling, a type of home education where the children have full control to choose what they study. Lake Forest Park’s Stephanie Cutler says she doesn’t do any supplemental education. Her kids learn what they want to learn.

“My 9-year-old has been teaching herself how to do makeup,” says Cutler. “She wants to be a makeup artist, a singer, a dancer, and a guitar player. She’s been teaching herself electric guitar off of YouTube videos. There’s nothing specific that they’re interested in studying inside of books right now. It’s all hands-on learning.”

I interviewed two families, both with young children and many listeners criticized unschooling, saying the kids will grow up to be stupid and entitled.

So I thought it would be interesting to hear from adults who had gone through the unschooling process, to see how they turned out.

“We lived down in Kent and there was a junior high that we were going to be going to that there was a lot of problems at. So my mom really started looking into the whole unschooling thing. She wanted to take our education into her own hands and we could do it a different way. So she pulled us out,” says 33-year-old Mill Creek resident Cassandra Garwood Backman.

She was unschooled from 5th through 10th grade, her brother from 6th grade on, and her younger sister, 26-year-old Samantha Garwood, was unschooled from start to finish.

“I worked, actually, for horse trainers pretty much full time from the time I was 12 until I was about 19,” Samantha says. “There was a real emphasis on the real-life application. This is how you deal with your finances, farm management, assisting veterinarians. So life was more my classroom. Honestly, I thought that was going to be my chosen profession until I got a little bit older and realized, you know, I don’t really want to be a farm worker for the rest of my life. So I chose to go to college and I chose to get that formal degree.”

Samantha just graduated Cum Laude from Skidmore College in New York and she’s planning to get an MFA in costume design. Cassandra graduated Magna Cum Laude, with a degree in graphic design and owns a popular cafe in Bothell.

“I decided when I was a teenager that I wanted to have my own coffee shop one day,” Cassandra says. “I decided that I wanted to own my own home, hopefully by the time I was 30. I got my bachelor’s degree when I was 26, then bought my house when I was 29, then bought the business when I was 30. So things worked out pretty well!”

For this family, unschooling had excellent results, but Cassandra says her mom was still criticized.

“Most of the criticism came from people who didn’t understand at all. They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re going to pull your kids out of school. They’re not going to learn anything, they’re just going to sit around.’ It’s like, no, that’s not it at all. You’re not pulling out to just do nothing, you’re pulling out to do more. You’re actually making more use of that time. Instead of having to sit in a chair and fill your day up with busy work just so you can say you were in that chair for so long. You end up learning a lot more, really.”

Their mom did give them workbooks to do and made sure Cassandra learned geography through songs, math through baking and science through watching a hot air balloon take off. Both women say they loved college; the routine was kind of a novelty and they weren’t burnt out from high school. And unschooling helped them to zero in on what they were passionate about.

“I think unschooling gives kids a lot of freedom to spark that love of learning,” says Samantha. “And hey, if you gotta let math slide for a year, it’s not the end of the world. You can always catch up.”

Of course, this is just the story of one family. But I think learning about unschooling can help us open our minds to the fact that everyone learns differently. And just because going to school is most common, it doesn’t mean it’s the most effective for everyone.

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