Unschooling the World: What Thomas and Friends Taught me about Digital Democracy

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My oldest son is five years old and is reading in two languages.  Impressive?  Well, as much as I always find my kids amazing, not really.  Most kindergarteners in North America can read by the time they’re ready for first grade.  But what if I told you my son isn’t in kindergarten?   He’s never attended school at all.  I don’t have him enrolled in some extra-curricular program, nor are we one of those aggressive homeschooling families following some ambitious mail-order curriculum.  Some might object, “But you and your wife have been teachers; you can teach him without school.”  But the fact is he’s never been “taught” to read at all.  All we’ve done is keep an actively reading family, and answer any questions he’s ever asked about how to read.

Are we just lazy parents?  No.  (I may be lazy, but not with my parenting.)  It’s an approach called unschooling.  And while it’s certainly not without controversy, my experience so far has borne it out to be a very effective and natural way to learn.  The name “unschooling” is one many parents find unfortunate.  It suggests that the methodology is conceived as in direct opposition to school, and nothing more.  It further suggests that people, including parents, have been somehow “programmed” by schooling, and must be “deprogrammed.”   I, with my kneejerk leftist tendencies, sometimes find myself leaning in those directions, but that’s not what unschooling is about.  Some parents prefer terms like “child-directed education” or “free-schooling,” but I’ll leave that debate to others.  I just care about what it is, not what it’s called.

The fundamental premise of unschooling is that life and the world present the best classroom any parent or child could ever want.  The unschooled child chooses what he or she wants to “study,” and throws himself into it as deeply as he or she likes.  Parents act as door-openers, but the child sets the curriculum, and life is the teacher.  We all recognize that this is how babies learn to talk and do everything they learn in the first years of life.  Babies don’t get enrolled in talking classes.  They don’t have to study for walking exams.  Unschooling parents say, “if it works so perfectly in the first two years of life, why change.”   I very much believe that humans are hardwired to learn what we need to learn at particular points in our development; you’d have to seriously stand in a child’s way to keep him or her from learning these things when ready, and you could permanently turn them off if you force them to learn it too early.  Teachers/parents should just open the door and get out of the way when they see a child intellectually coming.

Opening that door requires a combination of closely listening to your child and taking seriously what they say on one hand, while providing plentiful opportunities, like trips to zoos, science centers and museums, as well as involvement in volunteer and business opportunities on the other.  As an example, my son is a huge fan of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, the storybook/cartoon characters.  He spends hours every day on “Thomas” and never seems to tire of it.  The desire to read his Thomas storybooks himself has helped drive his learning to read.  Building elaborate tracks has developed an intuitive understanding of basic physics and engineering principles, as well as problem-solving skills.  Saving his allowance to buy more tracks and engines is teaching him addition and subtraction, as well as economic principles like value and saving.  And the amazingly fanciful stories he creates as he plays with his engines develop his creativity and narrative abilities.  Later this summer, “Thomas” will be making an appearance in a community near where we live.  My son will play a leading role in planning our trip to see him.  As a result, he is at or above “grade-level” in all indicators, not that we particularly care about that.  All we care about is that he’s turning out to be this wonderful, clever, unique, and confident little person.

I’m obviously on-board with unschooling, but my purpose here is not to convert you.  Rather, I want to insert some of these ideas into the dialogue on sustainable education and digital literacy, and let them contribute to how we understand what we’re doing here at Film AnnexBlogging is the perfect example of “child-directed education,” even when the “child” is an adult.  We learn a tremendous amount about all aspects of our worlds and societies when we undertake blogging—lessons that could never be taught in a classroom.  And while the establishment of internet classrooms for young women in Afghanistan is a fantastic model I hope we can expand and develop, let’s not fool ourselves that instructing girls in social media techniques is what makes these programs so special.  No.  The revolutionary thing about them is that they put the internet, and an empowering platform, in the hands of girls who might otherwise have no access.   The girls take care of the rest.

At a time when many countries and their governments use education as a tool to keep their citizens in line, a little “unschooling” is very much in order to “teach” the people of the world—especially its youth—what freedom is, and how to be/create a new kind of global community.  Film Annex doesn’t need to teach these young people a thing.  All we need to do is open the door, and get out of the way.  And that is exactly what we do.


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About the author


I’m an American-born Canadian writer, father and small-businessman. I write on topics as diverse as contemporary Islam, education, human rights, culture, political economy, and the promises and perils of digital literacy. A Muslim convert, ex-Marxist, and former teacher, with a degree in Philosophy and South Asian Studies, as well as…

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