On Pirates, and Learning (and Learning about Pirates)


Homeschooling is a thing. Unschooling is a thing. The first term has a considerably easier time in Oregon than it does in certain other parts of the country (or the world). That second word, “unschooling,” is both less familiar and more troublesome. For one thing, my spell check keeps giving it a squiggly underline. For another, it seems to suggest an opposition to school, or even to learning; it “undoes” schooling, right? It’s against school?

That conclusion makes sense because it’s an arbitrary, and I think rather silly, word. What it means, though, is that children (people) tend to learn, always, all the time, naturally and without any external influence. In fact, we sort of have to work to put barriers in front of learning (I would argue that in many areas of our society we work very hard at this, but that’s a subject for a different post).

I can’t claim that what my wife does with her homeschooling is under this umbrella. She seems to spend much of her time putting chunks of theory and methods together to see what works. But the ideas behind “unschooling” come up a lot, and I think it describes what parents do when we let our children learn about what interests them.

John Holt, one of the principle thinkers in the movement, describes unschooling simply as the act of supporting a child’s tendency to learn. Author Pat Farenga expands on this view:

“When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear. The advantage of this method is that it doesn’t require you, the parent, to become someone else, i.e. a professional teacher pouring knowledge into child-vessels on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an ‘on demand’ basis, if at all. This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work. So, for instance, a young child’s interest in hot rods can lead him to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner.”

How do we support learning? By following the child’s lead and taking opportunities for them to turn their interests into skills and knowledge. Here’s an example:

My six year-old daughter is into pirates. Like, really into them. Her favorite book (via audio) is Treasure Island, and she prefers it to the Muppets’ version although the Muppets are pretty funny. We indulge this interest in the usual ways: her birthday was pirate-themed; she received a toy pirate ship and a piratical hat. Her birthday ice cream had tiny cutlasses sticking out of it.

But I enjoyed talking with her about pirates so much that I set out to learn more for myself. I read pirate histories (Colin Woodard’s excellent The Republic of Pirates) and quizzed myself on sails, masts and rigging with the help of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series. My daughter, on her end, brought home every book on pirates and sailing ships that the library offered. Sharing this interest with one another was edifying for us both. Soon she could tell her bow from her stern and her port from her starboard, and her dubloons from her pieces of eight. She can name all the known female pirates (Anne Bonnie is her favorite). And aside from her “actual” lessons, she has been learning denominations of coins (counting treasure) and asking questions like, “Are all the seas connected?” and “How do ships stay floating?” and “Where does gold come from?”

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Newport, and to our great pleasure were able to board and tour two authentic rigged sailing ships that were anchored in the bay. I can’t tell you which of us were more excited, but I was glad to be there with her.