STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
As an eighth-grader, Matt Leggett wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. He was miserable, bored and unmotivated at school. So his parents let him quit.
Now he spends his days learning about whatever he wants, from making bread to exploring film techniques.
“It gave me the time that I needed to focus on the skills I find valuable for myself and what I see will be valuable in my future,” said Matt, a 14-year-old with floppy black hair whose mature but mellow demeanor defies his age.
“I’m never really not schooling,” he said of his experience, generally known as unschooling.
Almost a year after he decided to pursue his own brand of learning, Matt is delving into his passions in comic-book writing, website design and filmmaking. He is working with the Bayfield library to start a teenage book club, he has started his own blog and he helped his mother build a wood-fired outdoor oven made of adobe.
Free from anyone else’s schedule or agenda, he sees his world as one of endless opportunities.
Though unschooling is still a burgeoning idea, Matt and the small handful of other unschoolers in the area see the practice, and hope to promote it, as a viable alternative to the more rigid structure of the traditional public education system.
Creating learning outside of school
Of about 2 million students who are homeschooled in the United States, experts estimate that 10 percent are unschooled.
When a traditional school day isn’t involved, the lines between work and play, free time and learning are blurred, unschoolers say. Anything from chores to trips with the family constitutes a learning experience.
Unschooling also emphasizes the power of passion. Adherents of the concept say that because unschoolers are free to do whatever they want, they gravitate toward and more easily discover their natural passions. Once they find these, learning is fast and easy because it is something the child is interested in. Eventually, opportunities emerge to connect a young person’s passion to almost every subject area taught in regular schools, they say.
That was the case with Kerry Costelloe’s daughter. Costelloe let her daughter, now 23, switch to unschooling after six months of struggling to get her to go to school each day. When she was allowed to explore learning for herself, the then-13-year-old discovered a rabid interest in Japanese anime and, subsequently, all things Japanese.
The girl enrolled in Japanese classes at Fort Lewis College, and, after getting her GED and scoring in the top 10 percent on ACT and SAT tests, she enrolled in the college at 16. A year later, she won a one-year scholarship to Japan and now is in her senior year at the University of Hawaii, her mother said.
“The minute she found something she was passionate about, she went after it,” Costelloe said of her daughter. Whatever the subject matter, as long as she could relate it to Japanese culture, “she was cool,” Costelloe said.
Matt also has plans for college. To get there, he must pass a standardized test for home-schooled students once every other year and will have to earn a GED.
Over the last few years, FLC has seen a growing number of home-schooled students, and among them, unschooling seems to be a growing phenomena, said Andy Burns, director of admission and advising at the college. State policy that guides admissions allows colleges some flexibility to accept students who follow different paths and may not have GPAs or class ranks to qualify them academically, Burns said.
Embracing unschooling in a school
Unschooling isn’t limited to inside the home. A number of schools worldwide embody the philosophy of student-directed learning.
Locally, the idea has gained enough traction to spur the creation of a school based on the principals of unschooling. The Durango Community School, which plans to open in September, is centered around student-directed learning. Zahra Lightway, a longtime educator and founder of Light Way Schools, is heading up planning for the school.
“In traditional school, they don’t give reasons for learning besides that it is what you need to know,” Lightway said. The community school will let students choose the lessons they attend and pursue learning that fulfills them personally, she said.
Planning meetings for the school have attracted support from about 30 educators, parents and students, Lightway said.
There are many arguments supporting the unschooling model as better preparation for young people to succeed in today’s world, Lightway said. Without a teacher’s guidance, unschoolers become self-directed learners, who grow into self-directed leaders. Unschooling also fosters a valuable entrepreneurial spirit, Lightway said.
Finding inner motivation
Letting a children or teens take responsibility for their learning takes a lot of trust from the parents, unschoolers and their families said. The process of unschooling requires parent involvement, but adults are there as facilitators rather than teachers, said Jess Martin, Matt’s mother.
“It’s quite an interesting journey when you let the child lead,” Martin said.
Going from a traditional school to unschooling takes some time though, Martin said. It took Matt several months of “detox” in order to adjust to a life without a scheduled school day, find his inner motivation and rediscover his natural curiosity.
Now, his drive and focus is rooted in things other than passing tests and earning good grades, he said.
“My motivation is me and what I want to become,” Matt said.
Joey Ernst, a former unschooler who now owns Velorution Cycles on Main Avenue, focused on that idea, as well.
“It’s the difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation,” Ernst said.
Unschooling is about building on and encouraging the innate curiosity all children are born with, Ernst said. The unschooling process is driven by questions. As a young people seek answers to those questions, they go through a natural learning process, rather than one that is forced by standardized curriculum, he said.
Ernst learned to read by listening and following along as his parents read to him. Eventually, he wanted to do it on his own and was churning through books by himself at age 4.
Rather than a radical new idea, unschooling taps into the way humans have learned for generations before schools were established, unschoolers said.
“It took a while to show people that I was doing something and not being a dropout,” Matt said. “I heard a quote that unschooling kids is like planting a garden. For first couple of months, you won’t see much, but after that, it will explode.”