DESCHOOLING OURSELVES: what, why and how

You can download this post as a pdf here, or read the full post below.

Conventionally, deschooling has been the domain of home educators and radical thinkers. I believe it can benefit everyone. 

Even more conventionally, it has referred to the adjustment period for a child between taking them out of school and starting to home educate. This is valuable, and important. It is this concept that led John Holt to coin the term unschooling – hoping it would be a clearer term (debatable). In this post, I’m only going to look at deschooling ourselves (the adults).

I will give detailed, but also relatively succinct, information on what deschooling is, why do it and how to go about it. It is by no means a definitive account (that might be a book! In like, 10 years’ time!), nor is it personalized to you – pick and choose the bits that work for you, and look deeper for what is missing.

Deschooling, defined

What is deschooling and how do we define it? Many people have written on this, so I will offer up several opinions and theories, and link to things you can read, listen to and watch to take you deeper. 

As far as I’m concerned, deschooling is the process of beginning to question the “education” we have received growing up and living in the world – from our families, friends, communities, school, society at large and online platforms. 

It is a journey, not a destination. You are always deschooling, you are never deschooled. It is a dynamic process that shifts its focus and goes beyond the thinking and questioning stage, to a place where you start to work out how you want to live, and what you’d like society to look like.

It is a chance to heal and reparent yourself, work on your relationship to yourself and others in your life, re-discover your own potential. It is a chance to find different ways to relate to your children and other people in your life that are compassionate, authentic and non-hierarchical.

The person who coined the term deschooling was Ivan Illich, in his book Deschooling Society, published in 1971. He claimed that schools, based on an antiquated system, were responsible for perpetuating a “schooled” mentality whose ultimate aim was obedient, unquestioning workers. 

Whether you agree with this original view or not, I think deschooling can be a lot broader and far-reaching than that, both on an individual and societal level, as well as more nuanced, and supportive of school transformation rather than abolition, as Illich advocated.

Deschooling, what on earth is it

Deschooling is ultimately all-pervasive and ongoing to it’s quite hard to pin down. And it can be very personal. In the end you will have to pick and choose the bits that serve you.

Here are some things others have said about it.

“Deschooling is the work of adjusting to a new reality, one in which a young person now possesses an extremely high level of freedom and a correspondingly high level of responsibility” Blake Boles, Why are you still sending your kids to school?

“I define [deschooling] as shedding the programming and and habits that resulted from other people’s agency over your time, body, thoughts and actions.” Akilah S. Richards, Raising Free People

Deschooling is “an intentional time to forgo any formal studies and give your child time to rediscover the love of learning, as they did when they were little” Ainsley Arment, The Call of the Wild & Free (this quote also applies to us adults!)

John Holt on what a deschooled society would look like: “It would be a society in which there were many paths to learning and advancement, instead of one school path as we have now . . . a path far too narrow for everyone, and one too easily and too often blocked off from the poor”

Education is a compulsory, forcible action of one person upon another for the purpose of forming a man such as will appear tp us to be good; but culture is the free relation of people, having for its basis the need of one man to acquire knowledge, and of the other to impart that which he has acquired.. Education is culture under restraint. Culture is free.” Leo Tolstoy

“Deschooling demands egalitarian relations between parent and kids – a family organization which accommodates the radical curiosity of childhood, even (perhaps especially) when it challenges authority. Parenting, in the deschooling family, becomes a revolutionary activity.” 


“Deschooling aspires to develop not only the free individual, but ultimately a free society” Geraldine & Gus Lyn-Piluso

“Colonisation works to bring us all into line. It insists that there is one knowledge stream, one way of doing things, one value system for understanding success. It enforces this agenda to the detriment of all ancestral knowledge, all other ways of knowing and doing, and leaves us with a narrow vision of what life is and can be. An education that does not actively dismantle this process perpetuates systems of oppression throughout the rest of society.” Adele Jarrett-Kerr

Deschooling, why do it


The biggest reason why you should start on a deschooling journey, is because IT IS FOR EVERYONE. 

It is especially for those who don’t think they need it. 

It is for school-going families AND home educators. For anyone who works for an organization or institution of any kind. For anyone who has ever felt diminished or put-down as a child or adult. For anyone who has felt oppressed, or is part of an oppressed or marginalized group, or has been the cause of oppression. For anyone who calls themselves a leader, teacher or parent. For anyone who has anything to do with children, in any capacity. 


It is not only about school. School is and was a huge part of most people’s lives – so processing that and understanding the powerful dynamics at play are important. But, it is absolutely not limited to school.

Everyone’s deschooling journey will be different.


Deschooling is about questioning hierarchical structures of power, and the influence they wield on our lives. You may start with the adult-child relationship and the concept of adultism, and then find that this same dynamic is replicated in so many other spheres. Deschooling is about calling out and tackling oppressive systems, beginning (but definitely not ending) with your relationship with your child(ren).


It is about healing ourselves – from our childhoods, from trauma, from influences that may have been less than positive or constructive in our lives. With this, comes the realization that until we have started loving and accepting ourselves, it will be virtually impossible to practice unconditional love and acceptance with our children (and others, for that matter.) 


It is about relationships – the one with your children, but also the ones with partners, friends, family members and the wider community. What, ultimately, matters more than this?


Deschooling is ultimately about re-imagining what we would like the world to look like. I know, huge. But that is literally how big this is. It’s political, and it matters.

Deschooling, how to do it 

There is no ‘how-to’ in deschooling, but this is more or less how I approach it. 

First, the intellectual part.

Read some books

How children learn, John Holt (I recommend all his books!)

Inner Child Journeys, Robin Grille (also his book Parenting for a Peaceful World)

Changing our Minds, Naomi Fischer

Everywhere all the Time: A New Deschooling Reader, Matt Hern

Raising Free People, Akilah S. Richards

Parenting from the Inside Out, Daniel J Siegel and Mary Hartzell

Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn

Untigering, Iris Chen

Daring Greatly, Brene Brown

(this last one, and all Brene Brown’s books, are not really about education but a lot of the concepts in her books have helped me see myself and others differently, and ultimately informed my deschooling process).

When Things Fall Apart & The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron (and all of her books!)

There are so many more books! This is not an exhaustive list at all – but I will post more at some point.

.. and some articles & blogs

The School Wound

Unschooling for decolonization


Deschooling 101 (by me!)

Carol Black’s essays

Peter Gray’s column

Racheous blog

Happiness is here – if you are home educating, I highly recommed this blog and Sarah’s Instagram account

Listen to some good chats..

Grounded Families podcast – I loved the episodes with Eloise Rickman, Nicola Rae-Wickam and Sas Petherick but they are all so valuable, and every time I listen I come away with new inspiration

The Unschool Space on Deschooling

Fare of the free child podcast (all episodes are worth a listen!)

Revillaging podcast

Off-trail learning podcast (also all episodes)

.. and watch some juicy videos

Life without school Youtube channel:

Kristin Folts TedX talk on inner child healing

Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk

Liz Gilbert TED talk

Are you sold yet? 

Now is the hard part – the processing, healing and practicing part. Also, the most revolutionarily beautiful part of all.

This part is in your hands. It is a long, mostly slow journey. And it is so worth taking. 

There is no one way to do it, in fact there are infinite ways to go about it. It’s going to look different for everyone.

I’m only going to speak about ways I have approached this personally, because it’s all I can genuinely speak on.


  • Inner Child journeys and reparenting. Consider seeing a therapist, counsellor or healer if you think it might help to process. I have at several moments in my life. 
  • Start or join a group you can lean on. Do Find someone who you trust that can hold you accountable without shame or blame. Community is important, most of us can’t do this alone.
  • Figure out who you are. Staying true to myself – I realized after cancer that I had not done that, for such a long time (if ever). The first step was figuring out who I actually was, what I genuinely wanted and needed, and what I didn’t. I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. I also needed the help of people – friends, therapists, writers and thinkers, my husband and my children. We can’t do this alone.
  • Meet courage, fear, vulnerability and shame – Brene Brown writes a lot about this (her quote below). These are big themes for me, they may not be for you. 


Create new habits.

  • Following joy – finding joy in small things; making joy, rather than success and productivity, an integral part of every day.
  • Journaling & writing: this is the way I express myself best, the way I figure things out. Yours might be something else entirely – painting, movement, time alone, time around others. Make time for whatever it is that helps you figure things out.
  • Start a regular practice that helps you stay focused and grounded. Some things I have tried are: meditation, yoga, running, long walks, being out in nature, affirmations, just a few minutes alone with no distractions. 
  • Praying (the secular kind). I’m not a praying person, like, at all. But one extremely challenging day, I found myself summoning the strength to get through it, from somewhere – anywhere! So I came up with my secular prayer idea. I write this myself, and it’s always evolving/changing. As soon as I wake up, I pick up my notebook and take a minute to slowly read this out to myself. It has helped. 
  • Radical self-love. This is not self-care, it is re-learning how to speak to and treat yourself in an unconditionally loving way. It takes time and conscious, daily awareness and effort.
  • Rest – rest is radical. We are told we must be doing, producing, and busy all the time. If you’re not busy there must be something wrong with you. Making time for rest is nothing short of revolutionary.
  • Boundaries – Brene Brown writes eloquently about this. I’ve been working on expressing my boundaries in terms of my needs, rather than as limits that exist independently of me, and owning them. Boundaries are okay – we all have them, because we all have needs! It’s time we honoured them. Learning to express my needs has been crucial (I loved Non-Violent Communication – it works for me, but I know there are issues with the method when it is championed as a one-size-fits-all method, or “the only way”. It is neither of those things.) 
  • Stop caring what everyone thinks, and start caring what a select few people think. I listened to The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson, it was fun and interesting)
  • Make a commitment to your children: I wrote mine a pledge, and they are fully aware of what we are trying to do as a family, and as such they are invested in it, and hold me accountable. They also know that there will be struggles and failure, and that’s okay. Make time to talk about these things openly; ask questions, solicit feedback, express feelings.

Keep learning.

  • I actively work to give back power to my children, and let go of control. A great book if you’re starting off is The Self-Driven Child by Ned Johnson and William Stixrud. It’s mainly aimed at school-going families and in my opinion, it doesn’t go far enough, but it’s a great start. If you’re a bit further into deschooling, try Anarchist Pedagogies ed. Robert H. Haworth.
  • Start learning again – is there something you’ve always wanted to learn but never got around to? Or never found a compelling reason to? Now’s the time. Do it just because. 
  • Anti-racism and decolonization work. I am not the person to speak on this, but if you are white, I believe it is important to tackle this stuff. There are several Instagram accounts I would recommend:

  • Fuck Beauty Standards. This is a big one for me, and I have only just begun scraping the surface of this. I enjoyed Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay a while back. Start questioning the things you do to conform to what we’ve been told is desirable. Practice mini acts of rebellion, that defy these things. Learn more about Feminism – I’m currently on an really inspiring Feminist Summer Camp!


  • Re-image education – my focus is on normalizing home education, and also normalizing the concept of learning spaces that are not school, but are accessible to everyone. I also want to campaign for transformation in schools but I’m still figuring how to go about this. It has helped me to find a cause or purpose, and follow it, ever so slowly.
  • Rethink Capitalism – start to reframe a lot of what we believe and do as a product of our economic system. This can be confronting, especially if you have benefited from capitalism (which, let’s face it, many of us have). 
  • Rethinking concepts of freedom, autonomy, what it means to live communally – I read a lot of political philosophy at university, and I love talking and thinking about this stuff. Recently I’ve been listening to Talking Politics, History of Ideas podcast. Loads of food for thought.


  • Normalise that what you are doing (raising children) is valuable and important. The way you do it matters. Raising and educating children is political. 
  • Beyond my own family, it has helped me to make lists of things I can actually do to make a difference, however small. I get easily overwhelmed by the every-changing news cycle, and to avoid paralysis I prefer to jump in and figure out what I can actually do to help, however small (and it always, inevitably, feels small). Things like donations (if you can, make a list of organisations you will regularly donate to), spreading the word, volunteering time or resources, writing to local and national representatives, signing petitions, talking to friends and families about the issues you care about. 

There is so much more, and I could go on.

Can you add to this list?

What will you be doing to deschool & heal yourself? 

I’d love to hear. Thanks for reading and come find me @bigmothering 

Normalize learning to read at vastly different ages: here’s why

Learning to read is made out to be such a huge thing. 

I suppose it is, in a way, because if your child attends school there comes a point when they literally won’t be able to keep up with the work if their reading is not at the right “level”. The whole idea of this is just ridiculous.

It simply makes no sense to me because it takes the child out of the process entirely, and makes an arbitrary decision about what would serve an adult-led system better: that children should all be reading at the same level at the same time.

What are we doing? Are we supporting our children to love and get pleasure out of reading, to use it as a medium or a way to reach their goals, or are we pushing them to read so they can complete specific schoolwork at a specific time?

This question might seem confrontational, but I feel like it needs to be asked.

Are we respecting our children’s right to learn at their own pace, and to have some say in their own learning?

My two children learned to read in completely different ways, at completely different times. Everything was different about their reading journey. 

My daughter just didn’t seem to get it for what felt like months, but she was desperate to. She pretended to read books over and over and learned them by heart, but was still not really reading the words. She learned partially through the Montessori method, and partially through sheer repetition. She loved the early reader books. Once she’d got the hang of it, she was off on her own and within a few months she was reading proficiently. She was 6 (in some countries, this might be considered ‘late’). She’s 9 now and has never stopped – she can read pretty much anything now, her comprehension is amazing, and she will often be found curled up with a book.

My son loves to be read to, but was never that interested in reading himself. I’m not really sure how he learned the alphabet – probably partially from school (he did kindergarten), and partially from us pointing out letters. He learns a lot from books, but I’m the one reading them. We never did phonics because I knew it would be a disaster – he just doesn’t have the patience to work through it, and nor do I frankly. I just kept reading to him. He listens to lots of audiobooks and claimed, up until recently, that he just didn’t care about learning to read. We discovered Reading Eggs and that seems to have given him a bit of a boost and some confidence that he can, actually, read, if he sits still enough to try.

That last sentence is crucial. He struggles to sit through something that can initially be excruciating, in order to master it. This is not lack of determination. He has mastered many challenging things in his life, through sheer determination and practice. He knows how to reach goals, he know what being driven, what practice, means. It’s just that he’s never been particularly interested in applying these skills to reading, and sitting still is just not his thing. At least not for now. He’s 7 years old. 

He asked me to buy a chapter book he could read. He has never wanted to try Early Reader books, they’re dull and make no sense to him. Recently, we tried Magic Treehouse book 1, and he’s on Chapter 2 now. He’s reading quietly to himself, not aloud to me. He asks me about words occasionally and I tell him. I know better than to ask him to sound them out – I’ve tried before, he just finds it frustrating that I’m not answering his question, as I would I suppose if I asked someone what a word meant and they told me to look it up, or sound it out. He can read The Magic Treehouse, so I guess I can assume he is somewhere on the reading spectrum now. But I have no expectations about where he’ll go with this. Who knows, he might not persevere with it, and he might put it down and not pick it up for weeks; or, he might steamroll through the series and progress quickly. Or somewhere in between. 

The reason it doesn’t really matter how my children learn to read, or when, is that we home educate. I am letting them find their own enjoyment and delight in reading, so that every time they pick up a book, I will know and they will know that it is not out of a sense of duty, but because they genuinely want to know what it’s about. There will be a purpose, and a sense of joy, around reading.

Reading is important in our family, my husband and I are big readers, we value reading and it makes up the fabric of our lives. We are often reading, we read to each other, we discuss things we’ve read, we give books importance in our lives. This is enough. I know deep inside that my children will eventually know how to do it. They’d have to be living under a rock not to.

Children absorb information about their environment and the culture they grow up in. If reading is part of your family culture, then it’s very likely your child will learn to read. Maybe not when you think they ‘should’, but it will happen.

(I want to say that my children did not have any difficulties that made reading harder than it typically might be. Of course it will be different if your child does. )

I reckon there are as many ways of learning to read as there are children. I recently enjoyed reading Harriet Pattison’s study of home educated children and how they learned to read, which among many other things, questions teaching as a primary way that children learn to read. It’s worth mentioning that, when reading is mostly child-led, or self-directed in some cases, there is a huge range in ages when children learn to read, but also in approaches to reading and ways it is achieved. The end result, however, is the same. The child learns to read, in the end. 

We need more of this. 

So in honour of this sentiment, here are a few reading resources that we have personally used, at one point or another. This is a limited selection because I won’t recommend something that we didn’t try, or didn’t work for us. I think everyone needs to do whatever works for their child. Only you can know this.

We are consent-based and self-directed in our learning, so none of these resources were used in a systematic way. It was more about making them available and occasionally suggesting they might enjoy them, but never about forcing them to do it.

That said, a combination of these things worked for both us:

Montessori moveable alphabet. These come in all shapes and sizes but the traditional one is fairly large, and often pricey. Both my children used this to make words before they were confident writing, and also to play around with letters. I should mention that in Montessori practice, children often learn to write before reading, and then the two sort of progress hand in hand. This can make sense, for some children. You may notice your child is writing (not correctly spelling words, but writing nonetheless) well before they have learned to read proficiently.

Early Reader books

My daughter loved the BOB books, and the Berenstein Bears books

Montessori literacy materials (these are also easy to make at home, I sometimes did that rather than buy them) – Pink series, Blue series, etc. I got some from here too.


We have always read aloud a lot, and I’m guessing most people do this anyway. But I think it’s worth mentioning that the past year of home education I’ve been reading a novel a month aloud to the children. It’s usually something aimed at age 8-10 or so, because it needs to be suitable for both children. It’s sometimes a little much for my 7 year old but I feel like it’s really improved his comprehension and his vocabulary. The novel we read is discussed often and I love how it exposes kids to the amazingness of storytelling and beautiful writing, even if they are not reading it themselves. I read a chapter or two almost every day.

We also read a variety of non-fiction books each week, as well as books of poetry for children. I really care about finding books that are representative of a wide diversity of people and ways of life, so that is something I always look out for. I get lots inspiration from instagram – great accounts to follow on this are @educatingella and @weneeddiversebooks, for starters. I also look out for ‘living books’, which is a Charlotte Mason idea. You can find more about that here.


Similarly to readalouds, this works on comprehension, vocab and general appreciation of literature and storytelling. Listening to audiobooks has made my children appreciative of what a good book feels like. Once you know how it feels to listen to a book, it’s not a huge mental leap to wanting to read that book yourself.

Reading Eggs

My daughter never did this, but my son does and although we’ve never used any “educational” apps and I’ve been pretty resistant to this when it comes to reading, Reading eggs has really helped boost his confidence with reading, given that he was never into the Early Reader books. It’s basically a substitute for reading the very simple books he finds too boring to persevere with. 

I’d love to hear how your child or children are learning or learned to read!

Deschooling: what is it good for?

In short, everything.

Deschooling is what many home educators and unschoolers choose to do when they embark on home education, particularly if their children have been to school.

My children were in school for 3 years before we started home education, so there was a lot of deschooling to do.

But mostly, the one who needed deschooling was me. I went to school for 15 years, then university, then into the workforce so I’m pretty much as “schooled” as they get.

Deschooling should really be called something else because it’s so much bigger than gradually shedding our schooled beliefs and behaviors; it’s really about developing a growing awareness of our underlying assumptions that we’ve absorbed from living in society, and exploring whether there might be another way.

This happens first intellectually, but it only really starts to come alive once we’ve done the inner work and healing.

I’ve written in detail about our deschooling journey and the what, why and how of deschooling in this article.

No Book, No Way: when children love the things we love

A few days ago, my daughter said, “Do you know what my motto is? No book, no way!”

It reminded me of how I can’t help but feel warm inside when my child loves the things I love, and also how uncomfortable it can be when they don’t.

I think it’s okay to acknowledge this – it’s probably a normal human emotion, right? We feel a bond with people who share our passions and interests.

But I think what we do with it is in a way more crucial – do we praise them for it, in the hopes that this will encourage them? Do we expect them to always love reading, because they do right now? How do we manage our approval?

I find this kind of manipulation doesn’t sit so well with me. I love sharing my love of reading with my child, but I’m also cautious to not have expectations about where she is going to go with it. I’ll always support her but I don’t want to take over her interest with my own agenda.

I’m not sure this is something I’ve always been very good at. I’m working on it.

I will always aim to give equal value to all my children’s interests and to always support them, no matter whether I can personally relate or not.

I not only want to do this, but I want them to feel like that’s what I do – these are two separate things, and the distinction is everything.

I watch myself react to “no books no way” and wonder whether I did the same when I asked my son what his goal was for the next few months, and he said “land a tail whip on my scooter.”

I’d like to think I was equally as supportive and enthusiastic, even though I may not have felt the same as I felt after the “No book, no way!” comment, but how did he experience it?

Sure, it’s easier to be excited about things you already find joy and inspiration in, but how much more mind-opening and challenging (in a good way!) is it to be a child’s champion even if you don’t really relate to their passions at all?

Childhood is not a build-up to adulthood, and you may never find your “one thing”. And that’s okay.

Today over dinner my daughter said: When I grow up I don’t want to be one thing, but many. Some I’ll get paid for, some I won’t. Things like a baker, an activist, a book illustrator and a babysitter. And other things.

As someone who for a big chunk of my life believed I had to find the one thing I was meant to be doing, this was such an amazing moment.

Some of us do find one, true passion in life. But I wish someone had told me, growing up, that many of us don’t. And that that’s okay.

I wish I’d known sooner that doing a bit of many things is also a legitimate use of my one previous life. And that I hadn’t spent so much time fruitlessly searching, never finding, and feeling like I’d failed at something I never even began.

I’m so relieved my child already knows this. And that this feels intuitively right for her, because no-one is making her entire childhood about the one thing she’s going to be.

And that’s the other side of this – childhood is not a race to an end point, that point being your adult job.

Childhood is a beautiful phase in itself, and if we keep focusing on what our children are going to become rather than what they are right now, we’ll be missing an opportunity to truly see them, to truly appreciate and enjoy them as they are now.

We’ll also be robbing them of the chance to feel like they are enough, right now.

On top of this, life isn’t all about work. It’s an incredibly narrow viewpoint to focus most of our efforts as humans on the goal of getting “a good job.” Not only does this set many of us up to fail, but it also fails to acknowledge that there is so much more to life than what we do to make ends meet.

I recognise that shifting our attention away from making a living can be a privilege, and even raising a child who knows they have the option to do many things in life, or to not constantly work hard towards the goal of a job, is an enormous privilege, in some ways.

But maybe if we all allowed ourselves to do this – to see the years of our life as individual years where we might find our passions, we might think about work, and we might also grow a garden, travel the world, raise money for a cause, or whatever, rather than a build-up to something – then it may benefit even those who may not have as many options, who may have to work several jobs, who may never even have entered the race to the top that so many of us seem to be taking part in.

Maybe small changes like this could actually have big repercussions – less obsessing over what our children will become, and less worrying about whether we’re fulfilling our potential and society’s view of what success should looks like.

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