Unschooling: The Weekly Mentor


By Oliver DeMille

Took Me By Surprise


“Why don’t you ever tell stories about me in your books and blogs, Dad?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I tell stories about all the kids.”

“Not me,” Sara said. “At least not very much. You tell only a few minor things about me.”

I stared at her in surprise. But it’s not what you think.

I was a little surprised that I hadn’t told more stories about her, but the big shocker was that Sara even cared.

I mean, this was Sara.

Sara, who over the years studied at least as much as any of the other youth in our family but who hardly ever did an academic assignment if a parent or mentor gave it to her.

Sara, who loved to learn on her own, but through Scholar Phase and Depth Phase usually got up and left if she was invited to attend a class or event.

Sara, who went to seminars, bought the books by all the authors and then left the lectures and read all the books in the hallway before the seminar ended—and who knew the material far better than anyone else as we discussed details during the drive home.

Sara, who since she was fourteen or fifteen continues to read more books than pretty much anyone I know, who’s on a first-name basis with practically every librarian or bookstore employee in the valley, who remembers almost everything she reads, but who gets frustrated with the pace in every formal class setting she’s ever tried.

“The standards of the class are just so shallow,” I’ve heard her say a dozen times. “I want to really learn this topic in depth, not just play around with it.”

That’s TJEd

Perhaps the greatest thing about TJEd is that it is personalized and individualized.

Thus, if a student learns best by just reading math classics, that’s what we use—but if she does better with Saxon or A Beka or other math books, that’s what we use.

If she excels with worksheets, or books by Danica McKellar, we use these.

If a student does best in a Montessori setting or, in contrast, a highly-structured program, that’s what his mentors use.

If the student flourishes in one curriculum, that’s what we utilize.

If he doesn’t learn effectively in a certain educational style, we find a new one.

If private or public school works best, we use it. If home brings the best results, that’s our focus.

That’s TJEd.

And for some students, the most effective method is unschooling.

In this model, the parents or teachers set an example of learning (which is effective in all styles and systems), and otherwise let the student pick and choose his own books, materials, projects and studies.

 Who’s in Charge?

“Wow, Sara,” I said. “I’m surprised that you, of all people, are surprised by this.”

“What do you mean?” She asked.

“Well, think about it. What stories would I tell? Should I share that when we gave you assignments you genuinely tried to care about them­­—but lost interest almost as soon as we made it an ‘assignment’? It was almost as if the very fact that it was an assignment caused you to lose interest.”

Sara laughed good-naturedly. “That did happen,” she said with a smirk.

“Or should I tell stories about how you saw us mentoring your brothers and sisters on a certain topic, dozens of times, and asked to be excused from our classes and meetings, then went and studied the topic yourself, your own way, and at the end of the class you knew the subject than as well as those in the class? I mean, I’m not sure I want to tell that story. It makes it seem like our class wasn’t very good.”

“I see your point,” Sara replied in good humor.

“Or maybe I should tell stories about you sitting in the back of the car as your mother and I drove somewhere, and when we started talking about some topic of interest to us, like mythology or psychology, you suddenly piped up added to the conversation details that we’d missed or misstated?”

“Actually,” Sara said half-seriously, “I think you should tell that story.”

It was my turn to laugh. “You know, you’re right,” I responded.

Sara’s smile returned. “Dad, the truth is, I think you should share all these stories, because there are a lot of students like me, self-starters and self-learners who need the freedom to really pursue our own passions and interests—and you haven’t said much about true unschooling. I mean, you mention it occasionally as a good option for some students, but I’ve never heard you really promote it.”

“Actually, I have strongly supported it on a number of occasions. I mean, TJEd is all about personalizing every education to the individual student’s needs, styles, abilities and interests, and unschooling is absolutely the best model for some students…”

“Yes,” Sara interrupted, “But don’t you think you’ve missed out on a great opportunity? You have a daughter who learns more the less you try to push and teach her—and you’ve had many years of working with me that way. You should share these experiences.” She smiled widely. “Or not. It’s up to you. I’m just sayin’…”

Free to Learn

Sara picked up her books and walked to the door. “I’ve got to go read, Dad.”

“What are you reading right now?” I asked before she could leave.

“Well,” she held up the top book in her arms. “This is The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy, and this,” she put down the book and lifted another, “is The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom.”

The third book was the current issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy and the fourth was The Scarlet Pimpernel.

“I just saw this movie,” she said as she held up the fifth book, The Host by Stephanie Meyer, so I’m re-reading the book.”

“Oh,” she hefted the last item in her arms, a file folder full of loose papers, “and this is a manuscript of a book by one of the students I’m mentoring in my writing class. It’s really good. I can’t wait for her to get me the next chapter.”

After she left, I smiled and pulled out my laptop.

“I really should tell more stories about the great education she got though the unschooling approach,” I told myself.

I mean, we always held the weekly interviews with her (furtive and informal as they usually were), as well as the six month inventories, and we went out of our way to include her in every invitation and empower her in getting every resource she wanted.

In fact, feeding her learning passion cost more money on books and materials than all our other youth combined.

I went to the blank page on my laptop and wrote:

If you have a student who learns best through unschooling, don’t try to push him to change his style. Instead, get comfortable with changing your style in order to empower the best options for your student.

Different styles and different curricula work better with different students. Find the best one for your youth.

That’s what TJEd is all about.


Note: If you have a student who might thrive in a “unschooled” environment, read the chapters on Core & Love of Learning Phases in our book Leadership Education, and apply the principles to mentoring your unschooling-style students in Scholar Phase and even Depth Phase. The Student Whisperer helps in connecting with gifted, challenging or struggling students, and in refining your best mentoring techniques.

For more on Unschooling, read anything by John Holt, Peter Gray’s Free to Learn and the excellent book Unschooling Rules by Clark Aldrich.


Image Oliver DeMille is the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd. He is the NY Times Bestselling co-author of LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through Leadership Education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

About the Author:

Rachel is the co-author of Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning and the audio series Core and Love of Learning: A Recipe for Success, and the author of the award-winning educational resource, This Week in History. She is an accomplished musician, writer, literary editor, public speaker, consultant and momschool organizer.


  1. Michelle June 14, 2013 at 8:55 am - Reply

    Thank you a million times for writing that today of all days. I fell in love with the TJEd model about 9 years ago when my boys were 5 and 4 years old. I’ve focused on my own education mostly and worked along side my sons to inspire them to their own greatness. I’ve always identified with unschooling ideas but I always felt that the TJEd model and unschooling would go hand in hand and that’s how we’ve lived. But I’ve never found another person who felt that way.

  2. Loretta Chase June 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm - Reply

    I didn’t realize that unschooling methods were effective in scholar and depth phases. My love of learner is moving into scholar and it looks very different from our first scholar. He seems to be more of an unschooler all the way. The more we push, the more he pulls away. At 13, he has very few scholar skills, but laser focus on a couple of interests he chose on his own. We’re still going on faith that this is the best approach for him, and your article is very encouraging. Thanks!

  3. Celeste Batchelor June 14, 2013 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    I’m with Sara. It is a story that needs to be told. I have a son who is like Sara in many ways, but then again, he’s not. He looks at the lists of books and can’t find any that interest him. What he does instead is review all the different resources available on a topic that interests him and chooses ones that are usually NOT the ones I suggested or put on his shelf (which is how I handle book suggestions).

    I learned to stop putting books on his shelf.

    I learned that this boy is bright, funny, and a deep thinker. He doesn’t take anyone’s word for it on a subject. He researches on his own and forms his own opinion. What I find astounding is that he usually comes to the conclusion that I hoped he would…and even some conclusions that I have never thought of, but are right and true.

    Everything I did with my other children I threw out the window for this son. None of it worked. What did work was just letting him go. Letting him figure it out and letting him explore.

    This has been hard for some outsiders to watch and is even hard for my husband. Many people near and close to us think I’m not doing anything with him, and in reality, they would be somewhat right. I’m not doing the same things I’ve done before because they weren’t working!

    I appreciate this article and I know that there are many unschoolers that love the principles of Leadership Education. I’ve been leaning towards unschooling for my son for awhile, but even in the back of mind, I still question if it is the right thing to do.

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