Unschooling: The Educational Movement More Black Parents Are Joining
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Some families are leaving schools and turning to unschooling, a form of self-directed learning that puts children in control of their education.
“What does it take to raise a free Black child?” It’s a question that is top of mind for many parents watching as horror after horror plays out in local and national news.
Some are finding an answer by focusing on their children’s education. Similarly to the race-based workplace microaggressions adults face, kids can be subject to upsetting (and at times dangerous) encounters with classmates and teachers. Black children are more likely to be disciplined—and face harsher punishments—than their white classmates for the same or lesser infractions. And even in spaces that support Black children, Eurocentric curriculums can leave something to be desired.
That’s why more Black families are turning to homeschooling. An estimated 220,000 Black children are being homeschooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute, and “Black families have become one of the fastest-growing demographics in homeschooling,” according to a 2015 piece in the Atlantic. The National Black Home Educators organization has noted an uptick in interest and participation in their events as well.
Black kids won’t experience belief gap—the gap between what their teachers believe they can achieve and what students can actually achieve—under the encouraging watch of their parents.
Homeschooling appears to also lead to educational gains not seen in public school settings: According to a 2015 study referenced by the National Home Education Research Institute, Black homeschooled students scored “23 to 42 percentile points above Black public school students.”
There’s another movement happening, often considered as being under the umbrella of homeschooling, that’s caught Black parents’ attention: unschooling. While homeschooling is defined as parent-led home-based education, unschooling (also known as self-directed learning) lets children direct their learning. Rather than following a set curriculum, unschoolers are led by their interests, and those interests inform how and what they learn—with parents and surrounding community members there to provide kids with the resources they need.
One of the most visible Black unschoolers is Akilah S. Richards. Along with her husband Kris, the author, entrepreneur, and mother of two daughters—Marley (13) and Sage (11)—has been unschooling for six years, and are currently living in Atlanta. She shares her and other people of color’s experiences with Self-Directed Education on her podcast Fare of the Free Child, and runs a workshop called Raising Free People.
I spoke to Akilah to get more insight on what exactly unschooling is and isn’t, why she thinks unschooling is integral to Black liberation, and offers a few resources for those interested in unschooling their families. (She also shares her path to unschooling here.)
What is unschooling?
Unschooling is child-centered living and learning. If you’re a child that tends to be into drawing, a part of your childhood experience should be [being] able to dive all the way into drawing. Maybe you only like a certain style of art and you want to spend four hours a day perfecting the shading of an eye the way my youngest used to do.
Psychologically and biologically, human beings want to manipulate their environment and curiosity is innate. Unschoolers believe that we want to nurture that skill, and allow those skills to be developed and applied to any area of interest for a child. Because it’s not just about learning, it’s about confident autonomy—sovereignty.
Unschooling tends to start out being about education—an alternative to something problematic in school. But it’s really about so much more than that; it really is about what it is to own yourself.
A lot of us end up as adults realizing that we don’t have good personal leadership skills. We don’t make the best choices for ourselves, we don’t trust ourselves, we don’t expect other people to trust us fully. A lot of [these things] come from the lack of practice with autonomy growing up. Then we turn 18 and we’re expected to make a bunch of grown decisions with no practice. None.
Why do you think these skills are even more important for Black kids to have?
I think for us in particular it’s a civil rights issue.
We have a history—particularly in America—of being oppressed as people of color. And so we parent from a survivalist lens. We need to be twice as good to get half as much. We’re gonna know that people expect us to be subservient and less than and we’re gonna play the game anyway.
We’re parented from that space, and that imprint is still there. So now, even though we have the resources to become the CEO of a company, or form our own and boss that out, we’re still doing [it] with a lot of the same personal and emotional trauma of not trusting ourselves, of not feeling like we deserve something or that we’re valid. And a lot of that starts in childhood.
So if we can develop more egalitarian, more partnership-centered relationships with our younger people, they lose that imprint of feeling like they have to be smaller in order to be safe.
Something you said the first time we spoke that I really loved was that the struggle for equality in education has made us blind to how education is still one of the structures of supremacy…
Can you talk more about that?
Brown v. The Board of Education—we know these things that happened, what they cost us, what they cost the people before us, what it means to be a first-generation college graduate and these sorts of things.
But now we need to expand the vision to look beyond that. [For] millions of us, a college education is…something that not only costs us on the front end [by] getting it, it costs us so much on the back end because we’re in debt. But that degree doesn’t equal more money!
We spend so much time out of the marketplace, preparing for the marketplace. After we get the debt, we have to start at the basic level in the marketplace—but the things we have to pay for doesn’t start at that base level.
We have to look at these things! We have to look at the skills that are now available that we don’t have to spend that money to get. We spend this time also focusing on getting money for college. “Ok, well if my kid gets a full scholarship…” Yes, but what is your child interested in? How many of us have multiple degrees that we’ve never used?
We need to understand how to solve problems in our communities, we need to understand how to play to our strengths, we need to understand how to communicate with each other from different backgrounds… Self-Directed Education allows that in a way that the structured, newer version [doesn’t].
We need to understand how learning happens, and we need to give young people the space to apply those skills in our community, [to] understand what’s going on around them, [to] play into their strengths, [to] self-organize... We’re just hindering that process for young people.
This resonates with me so much. I think a lot of my own issues comes from not knowing how to manage without the structure and guideposts that come from school or a traditional office.
I think it’s amazing that you’re creating that kind of confidence in your children that the school system may not provide. If anything, it makes you look for external validation.
Exactly. I know that resonates with [so many of] us. When the guideposts are there, we know how to hit them, and then that becomes a form of validation. So being able to get that for ourselves…
It starts out being about education, but then it ends up being about sovereignty, and then it really just ends up being about us—the adults. The more we can manage ourselves, the less we need to try to control our children, and the less we see backing up and allowing [kids to self-direct as] negligent the way we’ve been taught to see it.
[You may think], “No, I gotta be in the mix.” Of course you’re in the mix, just not in the same way as “schoolishness” teaches you to be in the mix. You have to partner with [your children] because you have to see who they are. You have to see how their brilliance is showing up, you have to understand their language, their version of genius. You have to understand it so you can support it—not provide it, just support it.
Support can look as simple as making sure that there’s wifi access in the house because a big part of what they do is [connecting] with people in Tokyo.
What are some common arguments against unschooling and how do you respond?
One of the ones that comes up a lot is “Well not my kid. Maybe your kid can do that because they’re smart or assertive or fill in the blank, but not my kid. I’ve seen my kid, and they’re not going to self-direct. They’re going to play video games all day or sleep.” [Laughs]
If you had a child in typical school—public, private, charter—and then you said, “Unschooling, I’m feeling it. I want to try it.” And for the first month your kid just wants to take naps and play video games, they needed to do that. That’s called deschooling, and that’s an ongoing process and that’s normal. If you were trapped somewhere and all of a sudden you had the time to do whatever you want to do, you’d do things like that too. Those are just practices that we don’t understand because what they’re doing in that instance is giving themselves the mental quiet they need to tap into “Ok, what is it that I want to do with my time?”
Or even if they’re playing a game, they can understand it at a different level, to be like, “Yo, I don’t like the way that when I shoot here, there’s a .3 second delay—I feel like I can solve that.” Then they go into coding.
These are the things that [can] happen quite organically when children are allowed to be bored. That’s a big part of unschooling, encouraging boredom, because it also says, “Ok, so what are you going to do with it? And how can I help you?”
There’s the stereotype I’ve heard of homeschooled kids being awkward weirdos. Is there socialization with unschooling?
That’s just a myth or, at best, one of those single story situations.
I’ve met schooled kids of all ages who were very socially awkward. Sometimes people equate correlation with causation—“Oh, you’re a homeschooler and your awkward. Homeschoolers are awkward.” No, that kid was awkward. They would be awkward wherever they were, and that’s ok.
Many, many unschoolers create community all over. They may not be at the park each day—my girls prefer to go when other kids are not there—but they’re also talking to people online from all over the world at all hours of the day making very deep connections. Then when we travel to those places, they know people there because they’ve been talking for two years.
They also tend to be selective socializers as opposed to performance socializers. With schooled kids, if you’re sitting in a corner, some adult is going to say, “Go and play!” as opposed to saying “Are you good? Are you ok?”, whereas unschoolers know that they don’t have to perform, they can just chill if they want to.
What does this mean for the idea of college and traditional schooling if they want to go back?
The process is really, really easy. Many many homeschoolers and unschoolers do it. You just test in, and tests aren’t really that hard to study for, especially for unschoolers because they’re so self-directed, they’re so goal-driven. So if they decide they want to study music or science or whatever, they know this is the process that comes with it.
A lot of the schools now tend to really welcome homeschoolers and unschoolers because [of the] critical thinking skills that traditionally schooled kids go into the marketplace lacking.
What advice would you give someone who is interested in Self-Directed Education and unschooling?
First of all, I would say, “Wonderful!” because it means that you’re looking past what you’re seeing there and allowing yourself to really go down a road that’s really scary for a lot of us. So I would say double high five, first of all. [Laughs] And keep going.
Second of all, of course I’m going to say start listening to my podcast Fare of the Free Child, because you’re going to hear different examples of how people of color in particular are living in Self-Directed Education spaces, how they’re embracing that and some of the challenges.
I would also say the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, of which I’m a proud organizing board member. It’s a wonderful place to start because it breaks it down. What the hell is it? Who does it? Where are they doing it? What does it look like? Why? Is there research around it? What happened this year? There are forums, so when you become a member, you can be a part of a forum and ask your own question.
If you go into Facebook and type in “unschooling,” you’ll see that there are a lot of groups.
I went into it thinking that everybody was going to be all progressive and forward thinking [laughs], because everybody was coming to this realization. Nah. You have the same prejudices, the same -isms in the space, so just keep that in mind. If you go into one unschooling space and you don’t feel comfortable there, leave and find another, because there are plenty of options.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want to talk about?
Self-Directed Education is something that I think is liberatory for people of color in particular.
I believe that a lot of the systems and structures that are in place look like systemic racism, and then there are others that are the shrapnel from it. I really believe that the educational system as it is now is a part of that shrapnel.
When we realize our options outside of it, that is really when we can start to build things independent of the system and really learn ourselves so we can stand in our power as a people.