A staggering 1.4 billion children around the world are now at home instead of school, and will remain there until the danger of coronavirus eases in their respective countries. That could be weeks, or months. And their parents are stressed.
Worry about fulfilling their professional responsibilities—and about the repercussions if they don’t—is vying with worry about their kids’ education. There’s the obvious concern about the time children are spending out of school, with the class work and social interaction they’re missing even if they’re now learning remotely. But this can balloon into a fear that they might fall behind, and even suffer life-changing damage to their educational attainment.
I want to suggest, from a particular perspective, that for a lot of these kids, missing months of school will be the opposite of a hinderance—that in fact, it’s an opportunity.
I’m not a teacher. Nor am I a very experienced parent. (My partner and I both have jobs that can be done at home, and we have a two-year-old son, meaning we’re also juggling, but our child is under school age.) What I do have is this: I was “unschooled” for the first 12 years of my life, meaning in that time I had no formal education, took no tests, and followed no curricula. Looking back, I have no doubt it’s one of the best educations I could have had.
When I was growing up in the UK in the 1980s, my siblings and I didn’t use the term “homeschooling,” because it conjured up things we didn’t have, like tutors and lessons. (Also because we thought lots of the homeschooled kids we met were “weird.” Like many children, we were judgmental.) When people asked, we simply said we didn’t go to school, and often enjoyed their puzzlement and interest. Today we might call it “unschooling,” a term now applied to a form of education that eschews formal structures for more individual or organic ones, tailored to a family or small group.
My older brother chose to start school when he was 12. Two years later, I made the same choice at about the same age. My younger brother, left alone, started younger, at around age nine. Of course, our parents were involved in these choices, but we truly made them, and were always given the option that we could reverse our decisions at any point.
Until then, we spent our time doing things that perhaps now sound idyllic or, on the flipside, limited: reading, talking, playing, spending time outdoors, making things, drawing. We also “studied,” but only if we were interested to do so. We experimented with chemistry sets, made models, looked after stray animals, cooked, played chess. We were sometimes, but not often, bored. We had a TV and, later, video-game consoles which we used sometimes. When I was about 10, we got a family computer, but the internet as we know it didn’t yet exist.
People always ask me what it was like to enter school, eventually, after so long outside the system. It’s a complex answer, but in a nutshell: It was familiar, because images and stories of school are everywhere. I found the social aspects challenging, but so, it seemed, did most people in my year. In the state-funded school environment I entered, in which being a “geek” was uncool, I felt the need to play down the fact that I was exceptionally good at everything. (I’m embarrassed to write this but it’s true—and since this is meant to be an essay of reassurance, it’s perhaps even appreciated.)
Math was the biggest challenge. I could do the basics, like multiplication and division, when I arrived at school. The rest of the subject was new to me, and I had to learn it, essentially, from first principles. I found it stressful. I also loved it at times, like the moment when something finally clicked and I could sail through lists of quadratic equations with ease. I wasn’t top of the class, but I was always in the highest set. To explain my relationship with the subject, I would say that because I was good at learning, I was able to learn math even though I hadn’t done much of it before.
In most other subjects, meanwhile, like English and science, I excelled. At 16, I took my GCSE exams and did very well, and then switched to a selective school for my final two years. I took A Levels (advanced standardized tests taken by many students in the UK), then a gap year, during which I was accepted to Cambridge University.
Of course, my childhood was different from today’s situation in material ways. We lived in the countryside and there was no restriction to going out, so we did so often. (We had a car, but not a lot of money, so favorite excursions were to the woods to build dens, the beach to climb on concrete tank traps left over from World War II, and to the library.)
My parents chose to keep us at home. They both worked in creative fields (my mother is a visual artist, while my father co-founded a theater company the year I was born), which were flexible though not lucrative. Neither of them was a teacher, but they had time to spend with us doing whatever activity was our current obsession, and that’s how learning happened. If we wanted to paint for hours, that’s what we did. I remember whole days of reading and talking about periods in history that fascinated me: the Spanish Armada, the wives of King Henry VIII.
Families in coronavirus quarantine, by contrast, were thrown into this situation. They have severe restrictions on movement and, often, parents are trying to work. School has changed to become more exam-oriented. Though I took class tests in school, I never really took an exam until the “mocks” (practice exams before the UK’s GCSEs) but four years of unbroken school certainly trained me to pass those qualifications when the time arrived. Kids in lockdown are no doubt fearful that when they come to next be tested, they’ll fall short. (In the UK, key exams like GCSEs and A-Levels have been canceled amid coronavirus, but students still will receive grades based on the rest of their work.)
But there is also overlap between now and then. For many children, this will be the first time in their lives they haven’t been schooled in a formal institution, or tied to someone else’s schedule. (Yes, kids thrive with some routine. At home, my family always had breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. But a schedule doesn’t have to look like a grid of hours mapped out for the day, week, or month ahead.) As parents, we could use this time to try and replicate “normality.” Or we can let it be something else: Something abnormal. Something wilder.
School isn’t just a place, it’s a mindset: a belief that education has to happen in a particular way for it to be effective. Increasingly, we seem to be obsessed with exactly how effective. We test kids often to check what they’ve absorbed and compare them to one another. We want to know not just that they’re learning, but that they’re learning in the best and most efficient way possible.
Meanwhile, people who think deeply about education know that individuals have different ways of learning. They recognize the importance of qualities that haven’t traditionally shown up on curricula and are frankly hard to measure, like creativity, kindness, and resilience. But our systems often give little space to the kinds of activity that might actually help children develop them. What if we allowed kids to choose not just what to study, but how long to do it for and with what outcome? An hour leading to a discussion? A week leading to a woven tapestry?
I’m not a strong advocate for unschooling and probably won’t do it with my kids, principally because I want and need to work. But things which break up the rigidity of the school system—one that has become much more rigid over the years, so that parents are fined for absences—could well be net positive for learning.
Perhaps one silver lining of this disruption is that it’s happening to everyone, at essentially the same time, so parents don’t need to feel the same pressure that they might if a child’s peer group was together somewhere, following a formal structure geared towards attainment. Families on lockdown might not have easy access to the countryside, as we did. But they do have the internet, a vast resource of ideas and information.
Is it going to affect where children get to in their lives? From my own experience, no. They’re missing a few months of school. I missed eight years. With parents that love and support them, they’ll be fine.
What I learned when I wasn’t learning
I can’t measure what being home all those years gave to me, or prove it was a good way to learn, unless you count my eventual academic attainment, which of course isn’t “proof.” (Plus times have changed: Cambridge and other good universities are more competitive now for undergraduates, and more expensive.)
But I can look back and see clearly some of the things that came out of my childhood. I learned to think independently, to question systems and dogma, and to make my own choices. Focus and concentration were skills I didn’t even know I possessed, but following my interest for many uninterrupted hours meant I’ve never had a problem with either (though remain as guilty as most, now, of checking my phone and social media too often.)
Creativity was a kind of free-flowing medium in which we swam; it didn’t have to be taught. We cultivated what we loved, became good at those things, and wove them into our eventual careers. We were all, I think, probably too empathetic when we reached school, and had to learn about thick skins and not showing too much emotion—a hard lesson that I wish could be softened for all our kids, but probably can’t.
Above all, I learned to love learning. We didn’t call reading hundreds of novels, both aloud and to ourselves, learning. When our parents discussed ideas with us, we didn’t notice wisdom being imparted. Building fires in the garden, studying maps, writing stories, growing seeds, and dressing up didn’t feel like lessons. But they were.
Whether you plan a whole curriculum now, give into the increased screen time, or a mixture of the two, the lessons that children are learning today—about coping, about resilience, about finding workarounds and trusted sources of information, and about both leaning on and helping their families through a difficult time—will stay with them. Amid the worry, there’s also time for new kinds of discovery. We only have to be open to it.