Unlearning…. A Journey

Lyndall Thomas

So much of our homeschooling journey is about learning. But for me, it’s also about unlearning. 

Unlearning is an academic concept about undoing the bonds of institutionalised learning. It’s a very close cousin to deschooling. You might have been engaging in unlearning without even knowing it. You might have chosen it with all of your free will behind you. Or, if you’re like me, you might have been forced into it – somewhat kicking and screaming – by some particularly strong-willed children and a system that refused to bend for them. 

Here’s how Monash University describes unlearning: “Learning is mostly understood in terms of accumulative knowledge and deals with institutionally driven conceptions. Alternatively, unlearning integrates processes of de-instituting and is directed towards embodied knowledge and unconsciously-operating ways of thinking. Learning anything new in fact necessitates unlearning.”1 

In February, I had the fortuitous experience of attending a talk by Annette Krauss – an artist based in the Netherlands who places unlearning at the centre of her work. She uses art institutions to help her do this – she goes into the institutions and helps them look closely at what they are doing, why they do it and what they really want to be doing. The talk I saw was at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) and I checked out the exhibition about unlearning afterwards. 

I had a total blast. Firstly, because I got to listen to Ms Krauss – she’s an energetic and engaging speaker with some pretty amazing ideas that tackle the norm. Secondly, I got to take home two pieces of art from the wall — one of the exhibits had giant pads of paper with art printed on them stuck to the wall. And I got to walk up and tear pieces off! I have to say, at first this was a very tentative experience for me. Haven’t we all been taught not to touch the art? In this case, I was being invited to walk up and tear it off! And take it home. For free! I treasure those two pieces of printed art – they are now a metaphor for unlearning what school, middle- class Melbourne in the 70s and 80s and a long working life have taught me. In a word: conform. 

I was a pretty good student – bar 1988 when I kind of wagged Year 11 (there was a lot going on at home). Until then, it was all As and Bs. I knuckled down again in Year12andgotmyAsandBs back. I particularly remember an assignment about the oceans in Year 9 Geography when I spent an entire weekend filling a scrapbook with essays, diagrams and a collage picture of a fish. I didn’t really have an interest in  the oceans per se, but I was really proud of that assignment and I got an A+. I sought approval through my work, and putting a lot of effort into those subjects where I excelled so that I could make the adults like me. I never really believed that I was truly intelligent. 

I kind of thought my kids would be the same. You know – high achieving students who want to get on in life by doing what’s required. 

Turns out that they are not the types who seek approval from others. They are amazingly independent creatures who pursue their unique passions without fear of reprisal, without toeing the line in whatever school we attempted to make work for our family and without any real deference for peer pressure. On those occasions when they have met others who share their passions, they’ve formed strong friendships. And if they haven’t met people who share their passions, they’ve continued to pursue those passions wholeheartedly anyway. 

Seriously, I thought we’d have a conventional life. I worked hard with the goal of putting them in a ‘good’ school and assumed that they’d go on to uni and get good jobs. They’re still teenagers, so the potential for university and employment lies ahead, but school kind of fell apart for us. 

There was a point in this unfortunate process where, in a meeting with school principal, my husband pointed to a sign on the wall outlining the school’s vision and mission and said: “It says up there that you want creative and critical thinkers.” And the principal replied: “Well, up to a point.” 

When my kids stopped going to school, it was like an earthquake happened in my family life and I took it hard. I had to undo all of my underlying concepts of what I thought an education was. I lost faith in an education system that I had genuinely believed in. And I had to unlearn what I thought success was. 

At around the same time, I was doing a lot of spiritual and psychological work, unpicking the mental habits of a lifetime and taking full responsibility for my own thoughts and my own happiness. 

And, with the glorious benefit of hindsight, I can see that the two processes went hand in hand. Letting go of a conventional vision of educational success enabled me to let go of so much of the institutionalised baggage that my upbringing, education and career to date had given me. Understanding the limits that we put on ourselves by striving to fit in has been an extraordinary experience and I’m ever so grateful for having kids that pushed me forward in my process of waking up. 

As a caveat, my eldest daughter (15) is back in school now (she wants an ATAR) but we are continuing to homeschool our youngest (13) and have been doing this for over two years. 

I’m still unlearning. Oh, the control freak in me is still finding it hard to let things go. That young woman who excelled so much wants to reign. And she wants evidence! She wants posters and print outs and drawings and assignments. Not learning by video, using online resource platforms and Minecraft, so much Minecraft. 

And it’s not over yet. I’ve got to let them have the vocations that they design. And I’ve got to stop nagging. I really, really do. 

I’m so in awe of those of you who knew this all along. I take my hat off to those families that choose to homeschool from the beginning because you know that, by doing this, you get to start them off without so much to unpick psychologically in the teen years or later in adulthood. 

My unlearning journey took another unexpected turn a few months ago. My daughter and I went with a home ed group on a fabulous excursion to the Aboriginal Heritage Walk at the Royal Botanical Gardens. An Aboriginal guide told us about the plants and wildlife connected to the culture of the Kulin Nation. And he told us something that blew my mind: the Kulin Nation have six or seven seasons. Other groups have eight seasons. Not four seasons. Not winter, spring, 2 summer and fall like in the song. Not autumn like in the UK. Six, seven or eight seasons! And people would know that a season had arrived because a particular blossom appeared. And, when that blossom appeared, that meant the eels would be ready to migrate, so they’d be really fat and ready for good hunting. This is ancient wisdom that was passed on from generation to generation. 

Here I was, living in a world of four seasons because our education system’s version of history taught us that. And here is someone representing the world’s oldest living culture telling me that’s not necessarily so. I’ve since learned that the Bardi Jawi community in north-west Western Australia have six seasons too. Six seasons, not four. 


The underlying message here – that many people wiser than me knew already – is that the pervading dominant culture isn’t always right. And it isn’t always the only way. Like Donald Rumsfeld famously said, we don’t know what we don’t know. We might never know. But we don’t have to live with blinkers on. We can live lives that are open to new knowledge and new experiences and new definitions of success, even if that happens to be based on ancient knowledge. 

It’s an exciting time to be alive. The kids are striking from school and they’re marching in the streets in their millions, all around the world. Political institutions are imploding (Brexit anyone?). And we’re here, still in possession of the freedom to choose what we learn and what we don’t, what we hold onto and what we let go of. Many are not so fortunate. Those of us who can raise our kids with independent minds and a freedom of heart are blessed. Here’s to the kids and the families that crack out of the shell of the mainstream. Go be you. 

From Otherways 163 (Feb 2020)

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