March 26, 2010

Peter's Spring Break Interview or An Unschooled Graduate Looks Back on Life

Hey everybody! This is Peter. Mom gave me complete control over this post; she hasn't even read it yet.

You guys asked a lot of questions, so this is a pretty long post. Sorry about that! It also skips around quite a bit, since I just answered the questions in the order they came in. Hopefully there is enough of interest in there to make it worth it. With no further ado:



How did the rhythm of your day change from preschool until you went to college?

Well, I've rarely had a set rhythm for the day. There were a couple of years in middle school when we tried to do some sort of daily schooling, but that never consistently happened. As I got older, I got more involved in various extracurricular activities, rather than just sitting and reading all the time. Other than that, it's hard to pinpoint any particular trends.

Mom's comment: Peter doesn't remember a "rhythm" because I always tried to make it as unobtrusive as possible. We had a daily routine, and that included lots of reading, outings, and discussions about what they were learning. But we didn't do "traditional" school that ran by the clock. Maybe that's what he means. 

When you were younger, did you focus on many things at once and then specialize when you became older, or are you still interested in doing many different things?

As far as I can remember, I've always had obsessions. They just change on a regular basis. I would be obsessed with codes for a few months, then with some book series or other, then with legos or something else entirely. Right now my non-academic obsession is with tabletop roleplaying games and game design in general, but last summer it was conspiracy theories, and I'm sure I'll move on to something else entirely sooner or later.

This doesn't mean that there haven't been some consistent things. I've always liked fantasy and science fiction, for instance, and I probably always will. I'm also really happy with my college major (History and Philosophy of Science) and I don't see myself losing that focus. I enjoy having something to focus on and become an expert in, while also staying interested in everything else.

At what age did you start to set projects or goals for youself that you'd like to accomplish, be it completing a Lego set to creating a computer program, and were these goals mostly self-directed or did your parents help you along with your projects

This question is somewhat hard for me to answer, because as long as I can remember I would try to accomplish things that I wanted to accomplish. Why wouldn't I? I can't remember any examples of my parents getting directly involved, but I'm sure they did sometimes.

Mom's comment: Peter is the type of person that just keeps going until he's done. He doesn't make a conscious effort or "make a plan" to finish by a certain time. He just goes at it all the time, until he's done. I have to remind him to eat, you know, that sort of person. My other kids are less intensely focused on their interests. We are all different, and that's the beauty of homeschooling--the ability to adapt to each learner.


How does the Christian view of the sinful nature of man relate to "interest led learning." Aren't children too sinful to want to learn on their own? Aren't parental authorities supposed to make sure they learn what they are supposed to learn.

Well, there are a couple ways to answer this. I guess I would first say that if our theology contradicts reality, then our theology needs to change. Reality isn't going to. Interest-led learning works, in my experience, so if our theology says it shouldn't then we've gotten something wrong.

In terms of how to reconcile the doctrine of original sin with interest-led learning, I have a couple of responses.

First, adults have original sin just as much as children do. It seems at least as problematic to give an inherently sinful adult authority over a child as it does to give that child autonomy. This is the easiest answer, but perhaps not entirely satisfying.

More importantly, we need to look at the nature of original sin itself, and see whether the conclusion that children would not want to learn actually follows. Original sin is supposed to be the result of the fall, right? Specifically, man's choice of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil over the Tree of Life, in rejection of God's command. Because of this, man is inherently sinful and prideful, and does not follow God the way he should.

So what is the nature of the fall? It is pursuit of knowledge that man ought not have. In other words, curiosity and the desire to learn are among the causes of the fall, not something eliminated by it! I see no evidence, either in theology or in my experience, that would suggest that sinful humans should be expected to not be curious.

Now, it's definitely true that there is a role for parental encouragement and guidance. Kids aren't going to get things right without someone with more experience and knowledge to point them in the right direction. But the driving force comes from the kids, not from outside.


how do you desire to influence and encourage those in your generation and younger, in regards to different forms and styles? What would you say to them regarding: following their gifting, interests and passions to make a contribution in their families, communities and the nation.

Phew, there're a lot of ways I could answer this question. There is a whole lot wrong with the way we approach education in this country, and it's hard to pick out any specific pieces of advice to emphasize. I would certainly tell them to think carefully about the education of their own children, and to try to encourage and give space for their children's interests in whatever ways they can. (I realize that homeschooling is not always feasible, and that there aren't a lot of good interest-led schools around, so it's hard to be more specific than that.)

If the question is about how people should approach their own education, then my answer would be a little different. I would say to try to find your own interests, and not to assume that institutionalized schooling will teach you everything you need to know. Decide what you want to do with your life, and figure out what you'll have to do in order to accomplish that. Don't assume that you have to do anything just because it's what people always do, but also realize that you may have to jump through a lot of hoops to accomplish your goals. Most importantly, get excited about something, and have fun. None of it is worth it without that.


What are his thoughts on his experience of homeschooling while a teenager?

It was pretty great. I got to do all sorts of things my peers couldn't, like working at a professional theatre during school hours, or listening to college lectures online while playing video games. There are so many more opportunities when you don't have to spend half your life in a school building.


Have you found that your fellow students at Chicago take learning seriously? Has anything about the university surprised you, either pleasantly or not?

UChicago is wonderful. Certainly not everyone takes learning seriously, but enough of them do that we can have a pretty amazing community. In fact, in my dorm we started a lecture series for the express purpose of letting us share our academic obsessions with each other. (Most of them are online on YouTube; I've given one on pre-Copernican astronomy, and one on “Being and Time” by Martin Heidegger.) The level of academic intensity at UChicago, or at least among my circle of friends, is pretty excellent.

That said, there's a pretty substantial number of people there who aren't that way, and UChicago is known for being extraordinarily nerdy, so I'm sure it's different at other places.

The one thing that occasionally surprises me is how I have a very different perspective on learning, even among such brilliant and motivated people. I'm constantly seeking out graduate workshops and conferences to attend, and finding time to read books on weird subjects that come up tangentially in my classes. I get the impression that a lot of my peers still think of their classes as the main way they get an education, which seems obviously wrong to me.

(Of course, there are exceptions to even that. I have a friend who is already doing original research in mathematical logic, and who was also one of the founders of the lecture series I mentioned. There are some amazing people at UChicago.)

What would you advise a teen who's drifting, who doesn't have any passion that drives his learning?

I would be very skeptical of the claim that he wasn't interested in anything. Everyone has interests and passions, it's a part of being human. The problem comes when those interests are discouraged or labeled as “uneducational” or even “dumb”. I would encourage him to find what he's actually interested in, and to pursue goals relating to those things. There are so many potential careers, many of which are pretty unconnected to the academic path. The world is an interesting place, and I'm pretty confident that everyone can find their own niche.

If that doesn't work, and there's absolutely nothing that excites him at all, then I would suggest that he needs to be exposed to a lot more things. Find organizations doing interesting things, even if its something he's never done before, or find internet resources on whatever topic seems vaguely interesting. Act in a play, take a woodworking class, write for a local publication, work at a soup kitchen, get a ham radio license, take up boxing, learn how to make websites, or study ancient Asian religions. Something will eventually keep his interest.

Of course, this might not work if there is some deeper reason for his drifting. If there is some underlying emotional disorder, then that needs to be addressed first. But assuming that is not the case, I'm pretty confident that the world is interesting enough that something in it will catch his interest.


Peter, what role does technology play in your education, and how has that changed over the years?

The internet is amazing. You can find resources on just about anything you can imagine. Whenever I'm interested in a topic, my first stop is Wikipedia, which is a great way to get a general overview. If I want to dig deeper, there are plenty of places to do that. UC Berkeley has a bunch of college lectures online. Through my university, I also have access to all sorts of academic journals online.

Over the past ten or so years, the internet has really come into its own. But things are still changing. I am excited to see what sorts of resources will be available in ten more years.

Do you have any recommendations for a parent who worries where the line is between 'education' and 'game' in terms of technology? Is there even such a line, to your way of thinking?
This is a very interesting question. I think that you can definitely say that some things are “more educational” than others, so I wouldn't want to claim it was a meaningless distinction. But I would also suggest that it may not be obvious how things fall into each category. Building the social skills to be successful as a crew leader in Puzzle Pirates might well be more useful than anything a kid could learn from a textbook.

Because of this, I would definitely err on the side of letting kids follow their interests. If, despite this, it still seems like kids are wasting most of their time, then the best solution is probably to present them with other things that capture their interest. Trying to stop them from doing what they want to is going to be counterproductive. Instead, show them more educational things that you think they might enjoy. Finally, realize that it's fine for kids to waste some time. Even at college I occasionally just need to take a break and do something mindless for a while.


Do you feel that homeschooling prepared you well for post-secondary studies: are there a couple of particular strengths it has afforded you?

Definitely! Probably the biggest one is simply that I'm not burned out. I still have the energy and motivation to take school seriously, whereas many of my peers stopped doing that years ago. In addition, it's given me the ability to be self-motivated, as I mentioned earlier, and find opportunities for myself instead of just waiting for them to happen.

Another advantage is that I had the opportunity in high school to really start preparing for college, especially in the areas I'm interested in. I'm finding a lot of the introductory classes very easy, because I had already covered the basics on my own. There aren't any philosophy classes at the local public school, but with my interest-led education I was able to get into some pretty advanced philosophical topics before I even went to college.

Are you experiencing any 'weaker' areas that may have been a result of homeschooling- areas that you'd encourage other families to work on?

I wish I had a little more experience in math and the hard sciences. That way, I could have started with higher level classes instead of taking the more basic ones. It's really difficult (for me at least) to learn math and hard science without someone to teach it. So, I would suggest that if other people have the same experience, then they should consider taking a few math/science classes at community colleges or even local public schools.

Mom's comment: He took one semester of Physics at the community college when he was a high school senior, and even with home schooled math, he placed into second semester Calculus at college.

Are there any other homeschooled kids in your program and, if so, do you observe particular strengths/weaknesses in these people (as a result of their being homeschooled?!)

There are a surprising number of homeschoolers at UChicago (a testament to how successful homeschooling can be!). It would require a very long and detailed post to tease out the similarities and differences between all of them, but on the whole I think they support my general claim about the advantages of homschooling. The one trend that I think I see is that the kids who had the least pressure and structure and the most encouragement and freedom do the best. That might just be me confirming my own biases, though.


I am constantly feeling the tug between interest-led learning and parent-guided (more structured) learning, and wondering which is better preparation for life. I'd love to know what Peter thinks -- whether following his own interests resulted in enough balance in his education, and whether he was able to push himself, challenge himself, beyond his natural inclinations.

My answers to the previous questions are pretty much all relevant to this. I want to answer the last part specifically, though.

What does it mean to ask whether I was able to “push [my]self … beyond [my] natural inclinations”? Why would I even want to? The most fulfilling lives are ones in which natural inclinations are followed rather than stifled. Sure, you have to stretch yourself to accomplish your goals, everything won't come easily, but it should all be in pursuit of your own goals and your own inclinations.

Was my education balanced? Of course not! I know a lot about philosophy, psychology, the conceptual (as opposed to mathematical) parts of science, Christianity (especially post-Reformation), theatre, filmmaking, and several other things. I know almost nothing about woodworking, sign language, music composition, Shintoism, higher mathematics, horseback riding, or any number of other things. This is simply a part of being a finite human being, one incapable of knowing everything.

The difference is that the list was generated by my own interests, rather than the graduation requirements of my school. Which means that all of those things are relevant in some way to my life! Instead of learning about things I would promptly forget after I graduated, I've spent time learning about things that I care about and plan on pursuing further later in life.


I'm wondering how you have found managing the college workload, keeping to the college's learning schedule, and keeping up your grades. Coming from a "good" public high school, I was totally overwhelmed my first year at a rather selective college, and frankly I worry about how my son will do in the college atmosphere. Always learning, but definitely on his own schedule. Any advice?

I haven't had too many problems, personally. It was my own choice to go to college, and especially to go to such a difficult one. Therefore, I am motivated to do well. If I weren't prepared to pay the costs, why would I have done it in the first place? In addition, I'm not burned out. I'm still motivated to do well, since I haven't been doing this for the past thirteen years.

I'm not sure that my experience in this case is universal. I read pretty fast and am able to get by with a pretty reasonable amount of free time, and I don't know how I would react if that weren't true. But it definitely shows that homeschooling is not necessarily a disadvantage for doing well in college.


Was it a difficult transition from the freedom in learning you experienced to the lecture based learning of college classrooms?

It depends a lot on the professor and the class. Sometimes I feel like I could teach myself better than the professor could. Other times, however, I really appreciate the brilliance and experience of my professors, and really enjoy the chance to share the benefits of their knowledge. Actually, it's pretty similar to the way I approach books or websites or any other type of media. The only difference between a bad lecturer and a bad book is that I have to deal with the lecturer for a little longer.

I'm sure it would be different if I didn't want to be in college at all, or if I didn't get to choose what classes to take. In that case, it would be difficult to pretend to care about something that didn't interest me. But since it's something I'm choosing to do, I actually look forward to the chance to listen to lectures by people who know more about a subject than I do.

On the social side, did you ever feel that you missed out on things such as proms, dances, sporting events, etc?

Definitely not! I feel like I had a lot more opportunity to be social as a homeschooler. The public school idea of socialization seems to be to attend classes you hate together and then attend generic school events together. Instead, I got to do community theatre with a host of interesting people of all ages, learn how to actually dance, and generally just socialize with the people that interested me in ways that interested me. In addition, I got to do all the ordinary public school things too, since I was friends with a lot of the kids who went there. I even took my girlfriend to the public school prom. It wasn't particularly exciting compared to the English Country Dances we went to a couple times (and even hosted occasionally!), or to the college ballroom dance class I took, but I got to do it.

(Sports are a little harder, since it can be hard to find sports leagues that aren't connected to schools. That's actually the main reason my sister Melissa goes to public high school.)


If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and thanks for all the great questions! Good luck with your educational endeavors.



renee @ FIMBY said...

Peter, I am a homeschooling mom to three kids 10, 9 & 7 and we are on the interest-led learning path (with minor interventions from mom in practicing math and communication). Of course as their mother I am the one supporting all they learning, finding the resources they need, taking them to the library each, letting them litter the floor with fabrics, legos, hammer and nails - you get the idea.

Thank you, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. It greatly encourages those of us who are walking this path trusting it will all work out.

I appreciate you taking the time to answer those questions so thoughtfully. I am encouraged.

And you know I had never even considered that my children's sinful nature would keep them from learning what they need to know. On the contrary! It is our made in the image of God characteristic that I believe drives us to learn & create. To be inquisitive, to be curious and to contribute something of value to this world. You a
answered that question much better than I could of. I am no theology expert but I know that God made us to learn, how could it be any other way?

Unknown said...

Jena and Peter, thanks so much for sharing. This is great!

Jena said...

Thanks Peter! Well said. Maybe YOU should write this blog. :)

Aimee said...

This was a fantastic interview! Thanks Peter for taking the time to give such thoughtful answers.

Do you think that all personality types do well with interest-led learning?? My oldest son has ALWAYS been this way and always has obsessive interests and follows his own path. My daughter who is 2 years younger than him is not this way at all. She always seems a bit lost when left to her own learning and really enjoys lots of guidance, hand-holding, and "being told what to do".

Monique said...

Thanks Jena and Peter. It was great to read everything. I don't know if either of you have read Ken Robinson's, the finding your passion changes everything. I am reading it right now...very good. Thnx again for all you shared.

Peter said...

Aimee: If your child is actively seeking out guidance, and you oblige her, that counts as interest-led in my book. There's nothing wrong with getting some expert guidance; that's why I'm at college. The problem comes when guidance is imposed, and when it doesn't take into account the child's own interests.

Hannah said...

Hi Peter! Thanks for taking the time to address all our questions, including mine. Maybe I should clarify what I meant by going beyond our natural inclinations. That was simply a reflection on the fact that as adults, we have to take responsibility for endeavors that we may not feel like doing (I'm thinking along the lines of housework, paying taxes, keeping a budget, going to work on days when we'd rather stay home, etc.) but are necessary in order for the family to function and succeed. (I'm guessing your mom addressed that by teaching you to do chores, like it or not! :-))

I'm also thinking that there were subjects I was required to learn in high school that I would not have chosen, but once I got into them, I discovered that they weren't so bad, in fact I enjoyed them to a certain degree in and of themselves, and to a certain degree because mastery inspires a feeling of competence and breeds further interest.

So my question was more, how did you feel like you learned self-discipline, "eating your spinach," so to speak, while being so free to follow your own interests?

I hope this doesn't put you on the defensive. I'm genuinely interested. If you don't have time or inclination to answer, I understand. If you want to answer but prefer to do it privately, email is fine.

Thanks so much -- you wrote a great post!

~beautyandjoy~ said...

Jena and Peter, Thank you so much for this. It's fascinating, helpful, wise, insightful and I highly recommend that you pitch it as a freelance article to some publications. Peter is clearly very articulate and this is so well-written. Thank you for so graciously sharing this with us!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, Peter, for taking the time to answer these questions. It is more than just a little insightful to see interest-led learning from your perspective!! I've bookmarked this post, because I want to share it with as many people as possible!!

Peter said...

Hannah: Ah, I see what you are saying. Thank you for the great question, by the way!

I would say that responsibility is a very natural consequence of pursuing your goals. I go to work and pay my taxes because those things are necessary to live the kind of life I want to live. I can't pursue my interests if I die of starvation or am in prison for tax evasion!

Of course, that perspective requires some amount of maturity and concern for the future, which kids might not have. At that point, it's important for adults to step in and explain why things that seem unnecessary are in fact necessary. Again, freedom doesn't mean lack of guidance.

My parents could probably tell you more about what that actually did to try to inculcate responsibility in us kids, but I hope that I've at least partially answered the question.

Thanks again!

Peter said...

Oh, and with regard to subjects that are not obviously interesting, I agree! I love getting excited about fields I wasn't previously interested in. But for that very reason, I don't think it's necessary to coerce kids into studying new subjects. It seems like it should be sufficient to introduce such things to them, and explain the benefits of mastering them. If kids aren't forced to do things, they are much more likely to take them seriously!

Karen said...

Peter, wow. Just, wow, this is so impressive! Your reasoning, your thoughtfulness in answering all our questions, and your answers themselves all give me hope for the future.

It's funny, I would not have chosen interest-led learning as a style for my boys, but my oldest, now nine, was made so ill from the anxiety of being on somebody else's schedule in school that we felt the only way to help him was to encourage his interests. And thank goodness we did! It was your Mom's blog that helped give me the courage to get started, a little over two years ago, and now my son (and his younger brother) are thriving, truly thriving.

Thanks again - I will be pondering the line between 'educational' and 'game' on our computer, I sense it just got a little blurrier...

Lindsay said...

Jena and Peter,

Thanks so much. I'm not sure you've calmed my particular worries, but it was great reading your well thought out answers.

Also, pleased to see you have enjoyed English Country Dancing! I've led a homeschoolers workshop which has recently become a 4-H club for years and in the last year it has just blossomed -- Teens really growing beautifully!

I hate to admit it, but 6 years ago when we began I coerced my son with threats of no computer games if he didn't try! But I also had a pretty good idea, that once he got into it, a fascination with the music and the geometry involved would have him hooked! And if he didn't try, he would turn into one of those men who hide behind something when dancing is suggested!

This winter he devised a more complicated version of "Female Saylor," and when I suggested that we might cancel 4-H this week to have more time to get ready for Easter...well, too much disappointment for me to go through with it!

So. I hope that counts as parental guidance rather than something more ominous!

Great thing is that the kids are involved in community dances, with adults, and some other teens. What a joy to watch the youngest help a 60-something newcomer through a dance! And, they have a hobby they can do for the rest of their lives!

Thanks again, and thanks for letting me ramble on. Keep up the dancing -- maybe we'll see you on the dance floor someday!

Jena said...


I reminded Peter that he didn't want to do theater when we first started. He was a sophomore in HS and the girls were going to try out, so I told him he should try out too since we'd be driving to rehearsals all the time, this could be a fun family activity. So he did, and now he doesn't even remember that he wasn't too excited about it at first! He's been in one production after another, ever since.

Sometimes we just have to give them that push to get them to try something new.

And Melissa? She was NOT going to try out. We were at tears, and I said, "OK, if you feel that strongly, you don't have to." Then an hour later, she changed her mind and decided to do it. Sometimes mom and dad need to let go, give them the choice, and often they come around. Now she's like Peter, in every production she can possibly do.

English Country Dancing is a great way to get teens dancing. It's like a refined square dance. You see it Pride and Prejudice. The girls love the dressing up and graceful movements, and the guys like the predictability.

carole said...

Hi! I just found your blog via Simple Homeschool.

I love the idea of unschooling but have a really hard time of envisioning it. It sounds to me like you don't "plan" any thing and you don't do any "formal" lessons. But you mentioned getting into level 2 calculus "even with home school math." (or something like that) So you did do math? Was it a text book? Was that because you wanted to learn math or because your mom said you had to? ;)

And a question for your mom, what do you do about reporting to the school district? (Or maybe that's answered in another post. I'll look around some more!)

Jena said...

Hi Carole,

Peter had math books he worked through, but I was never heavy-handed about his progress. He knew he had to get to a certain level for the ACT/SAT scores he wanted.

As a freshman in HS, he attended a private school and had a wonderful teacher. He was retired and taught a class of three kids. So it was almost a tutoring situation.

Peter says he wishes he'd taken math at the community college while he was in high school. So, besides the textbooks he read and worked through, he also listened to lectures online and from The Teaching Company. This was all with a little advice from mom, but mostly based on his own desire to get into a good college.

Reporting to schools depends on what they want. You can research your state's laws at School subjects can be taught many different ways, so as long as you know what they want, you can be collecting evidence and "translating" your school into their language.

I did more formal school once in awhile, just because we all liked it, but if it ever became a burden, we'd lay it aside for more interesting things.

Every year I'd think through goals and make plans (with their input) for what materials or lessons they wanted/needed to reach their unique potential.

I hope that answers your questions a little. Thanks for asking!!

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