Meeting Taylor Swift, Earning $2,000, and more: How Nicole Olson’s Family Does Unschooling

How We Outschool Jul 6, 2020

Today, we’re sharing our first piece in a series called #HowWeOutschool. In this series, you’ll learn the stories of parents in the Outschool community. In each interview, you’ll get the details of these parents’ approach to learning at home with their children. These brave parents will share the struggles, the wins, and the stories they’ve collected along the way.

To kick-off the series we spoke to Outschool parent and mother Nicole Olson. Nicole and her family practice “Unschooling,” which she explains is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “self-directed learning.”

Self-directed learning is one a core tenet of Outschool’s philosophy, which make Nicole’s story and Outschool a perfect match!

We think you’ll love Nicole’s story of navigating the challenges and wonders of working with each of her kids as they truly hop in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Hi Nicole, tell us about yourself!

Hi! I’m Nicole and I have four kids ages 17, twins who are 15, and then my youngest just turned 11. None of them have ever been to school. We live in Massachusetts.

We happily “Unschool” in our house. We have used self-directed learning since the kids became school age. I’m an author of several children's books that talk about Unschooling. Before I had kids, I was a teacher at a brick and mortar school. Once I started homeschooling, I started teaching other homeschool kids and have also taught on Outschool. I’ve been a speaker at Unschooling conferences and have been a featured guest on many podcasts articles on the topic. I also blog about Unschooling.

So, I've been thinking about Unschooling and reading about it and practicing it for a long time.

Nicole's son Thomas poses with his dad before martial arts.

What is Unschooling?

If you ask six people what Unschooling is, you'll probably get six different answers because it's a big umbrella. But there I'd say there are four things that everybody agrees on.

The first is the children are hardwired to learn. And we see this when as babies come into the world. They're constantly exploring and testing things and making theories and learning.

The second is that when you're interested in something, learning takes place. When something captures our fancy, we are primed to learn.

The third, and probably biggest one, is that learning is a side effect of playing, pursuing interests and developing passions. Rather than give content to children, people who practice Unschooling closely observe what a child is already interested in, what they're passionate about, or what they're playing, and then bring more of that into their world. That might be through books, toys, or equipment, or it might be through connecting them with other people who share that interest.

The fourth shared belief is that learning is centered within the learner and is not a direct result of external teaching. As a teacher, we think about the content we want to deliver. The expectation is, you've received it. You have it. The truth is that if I give the same content to a class of five kids, and if I were able to open their brains and take a snapshot of what learning took place, it would look entirely different for each one of those five kids. They're coming with different background knowledge and different interests.

What was it like to begin Unschooling?

We did one year of formal homeschooling. I set up a little classroom, and I proceeded to deliver kindergarten at home to a class of one.It was a very traditional approach, and the reason that we shifted was because my son refused to do it. He was like, This is ridiculous. I don't know why you're making me count spider's legs. Why can't we just play?

That was the thing he said to me every day and it took me until February to hear it. Then it took me the rest of the school year to explore what that might look like.

By the following September, I had been introduced to the Unschooling philosophy and had gotten comfortable enough thinking about it that I was like, Well, it's only first grade. How bad can it be if I mess it up? So we tried it, and we never looked back because it was just such a perfect fit for him and for my other kids when they came along.

Nicole's daughter Maggie practicing her ninja training.

What are some common misconceptions or things you'd like others to know about self-directed learning or Unschooling?

People who practice self-directed education or Unschooling don't all fall into one neat little category. There is a spectrum.

On one side of the spectrum, it’s almost like relaxed homeschooling. On the other side of the spectrum, we have what's sometimes known as “radical Unschooling” or “free range parenting,” where the philosophy is also applied to other aspects of children's lives, such as bedtime, food choices, screen time, etc.

It's also really important to remember that somebody may label themselves as an Unschooler and not actually be one. Sometimes I think this philosophy has gotten a bad reputation because people who have gone way past radical Unschooling to almost like unparenting or neglect, say they're practicing Unschooling, but they're not.

So it's important for us to kind of know the boundaries around Unschooling and where it ends.

Nicole's daughter Maggie shares her science curriculum with her dad.

What are those boundaries of Unschooling, in your view?

There is a critically important distinction we must make between Unschooling and neglectful parenting. The difference is shared power, intentionality and involvement. Unschoolers share power to best meet the needs of everyone. This means giving children a wide degree of control within an overall structure or rhythm that is intentionally put into place by parents.

What are some of the challenges of Unschooling?

The first concern is about the subjects that kids need, but might not be automatically interested in. Math is the subject that always comes up. The reason for that, at least partly, is because we define math rather narrowly.

So we think, Well, they need their times tables. They need their fractions. What about Algebra? What about the higher forms of math?

It's helpful to know that the research shows that kids quickly pick up those kinds of subjects once they either perceive a need to learn those subjects or when they see learning math as a means to something else.

So, how did your kids learn math?

My daughter, Katy [15] has never been one to take formal classes.

She decided a couple years ago that she really wanted to start a dog walking business, but she didn't know how to go about it. We went on Outschool, and we found a class called How to Start Your Own Business. The class required writing up a business plan and a budget -- stuff that she wasn't previously interested in.

Nicole’s daughter Katy with Lucky.

She quickly became interested in these subjects and was able to quickly do it because it was going to get her where she wanted to go. If I had sat her down and said, let's learn how to figure out percentages.  She would’ve said no, thank you!

But when her teacher said, you need to figure out the percentage of earnings you're going to put back into your business, suddenly, there was a reason for her to learn that math.

What do you do about potential asymmetric learning in children who are really interested in some topics and not others?

I think it's good for us to remember that asymmetric learning is not necessarily a negative.

It's often the natural way that we learned based on our developmental readiness and our goals. And again, if you think of babies, some like my son, his goal was to be mobile, and he spent a lot of time on that. He walked early, but he talked later. My daughter was the opposite. It's a natural thing for us to learn asymmetrically. My life is certainly asymmetric. I'm heavy in language arts and weaker in the sciences. But that's okay.

I think another thing that's important for us to remember is that symmetric teaching doesn't equal symmetric learning. We could present a curriculum where everything is equally covered, but that doesn't mean a child is going to assimilate that in a symmetric way.

What happens if Unschoolers want to get a high school diploma and/or go to college?

Unschooled kids tend to be very attractive to colleges because they’ve had such unique experiences and are self-motivated learners. Some Unschoolers also choose to go through their state's process to earn a formal credential at the end of high school.

My older three kids are having to document the hours that they put in so that they can have a certificate at the end of high school. They need to have a certain amount of hours.

Nicole’s four kids pose with relatives.

Can you share some other interesting examples of your kids' success with Unschooling?

I can share many interesting stories of how my kids have followed their interests, created awesome projects, and learned a ton along the way. Here are a few brief examples:

  • My son Thomas created a popular fan page for Taylor Swift, which eventually led him to earning an invite to a private meet and greet with Taylor!
  • My daughter Katy (a twin) has launched her own pet care business, earning over $2,000 to date
  • Faith, Katy’s twin sister, launched our town’s first ever Christmas tree lighting, which still runs to this day
  • My daughter Maggie has created her own science curriculum, and even led my husband through the curriculum - he’s currently in 4th grade!

So that's kind of what our house looks like from day to day.

To learn more about Unschooling:

Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson is a teacher, parent and writer for Outschool.