School’s Out: Unschool Yourself

Listen to "School’s Out: Unschool Yourself"


Cartoon courtesy of Gustavo Rodriguez

In honor of the recent occasion of the full moon in July, the auspicious day of Guru Purnima, India’s ancient tradition of “teacher’s day”, I pay homage to all the guides, gurus, teachers, professors, lecturers, mentors, coaches, instructors, trainers, advisors, counselors, tutors, and parents in the world, appointed, self-proclaimed, or incognito, who are dedicated to cultivating knowledge, reasoning, creativity, intuition, wisdom, and liberation.

Urmila Samson has been on the path of revolutionizing our approach to education since the age of 16. She was first influenced by her father and grandfather who believed that schools robbed humans of the opportunity for realizing their fullest potential.  Her own thoughts on education started to take shape after she finished her secondary education and was then exposed to classic works on the topic:  Summer Hill by A.S. Neill, Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich, and the ideas of Paulo Freire.

Neill was a Scottish author and educator and the founder of Summerhill School, based on the principles of freedom from adult authority and community self-governance. Illich, a Croatian-Austrian philosopher was a thoughtful critic of many Western cultural institutions and practices in education, medicine, and economics. Freire was a Brazilian philosopher and educator best known for Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he advocates for treating student and teachers as co-creators of knowledge. While exploring these classics she came to feel that schools are the worst place for children to grow up. Schools are not an environment in which young people can easily learn, grow, and experience life in such a way to become fully self-expressed human beings.

Urmila actually really enjoyed her convent school education. She was the first in and the last out as she enjoyed the atmosphere and all the activities, such as sports, drama, elocution, art, music, and the like. Her parents didn’t pressure her during her school years about homework or achievements and accomplishments.  She recognizes that for the majority of parents and the majority of children, mainstream schools are a necessity to participate in the current socioeconomic system. For many people, a diploma, degree, or certificate from a standardized, industrialized, institution is the exact ticket to the empowerment and employment they need to flourish, or at least just survive.

In this intimate interview, without being critical of any method, Urmila elucidates the differences between mainstream education, alternative schools, homeschooling, and unschooling.

Mainstream schools are public or private schools which follow a standardized curriculum and are meant to prepare students to participate as cooperative citizens in the mainstream economy. Class sizes are generally larger than in the other methods, which has its pros and cons. With larger classes comes less control by the adults in positions of authority. Discipline and structure can suffer, and sometimes students who need more attention in order to succeed do not receive it. On the other hand, with less control comes more freedom, with the space for children to just “be children” for some time. Teachers aren’t generally afforded much flexibility in the curriculum, and as their own creativity is somewhat stifled, the children also suffer the same. As teachers are often overloaded, and less satisfied, their investment in teaching may also decline over time. Those who succeed in the system generally proceed to higher education or professional training. Contrary to popular belief, there is hope for those who don’t blossom in the system. 

Cartoon courtesy of Gustavo Rodriguez

Alternative schools are not terribly different from mainstream schools. Class sizes are smaller and teachers are, in general, more passionate and invested in teaching. There is more flexibility in the curriculum. The smaller class size affords the opportunity for giving each student the attention they need. On the other hand, the impact of each person in the group, whether it is the teacher or a student, is much greater. So, unless it’s a great fit, it can be uncomfortable. The analogy is the difference between a nuclear family and a joint family. In the latter, the influence of any one person on the child gets diffused, along with any dysfunctional dynamics. Small class size offers more opportunities for experiential, hands-on, creative group or individual projects.

Homeschooling is very similar to alternative schooling; it is essentially school at home. Parents who feel they know their children well, and know what is best for them, choose a curriculum that suits their child’s needs and interests. Students are spared tedious, repetitive tasks, and are able to proceed at their own pace. There is flexibility in how a student approaches a subject, and other homeschooling children and parents share their learning experiences and teaching responsibilities. Students get a diploma and emerge prepared for the board exams required for higher education, and, at least in India, almost universally plan to go on to university or college. International homeschooling statistics vary widely around the globe, ranging from 2.5 million students in the USA to homeschooling being illegal in some countries.

Cartoon courtesy of Gustavo Rodriguez

Unschooling is completely different from all of the above. Children grow up in complete freedom. They choose what they want to learn, and how. Parents approach the education of their children as if they do not know their children better than their children know themselves. Parents don’t necessarily know what is best for the children, or what the future holds for their progeny. The philosophy is that each human being has their own in-built curriculum which nobody else can dictate to them. Space and time are created for those natural proclivities to reveal themselves, evolve, and bloom. Every moment is a learning experience. There is no differentiation between living and learning. There is no hierarchy of what is more or less important to learn.  Everything tangible and intangible contributes to our evolution, including everyday conversations and experiences, classes, creativity, relationships, diet, play, arguments, anything and everything, all inclusive. Unschooling is so radically different from mainstream education that it has the potential to completely transform society. Urmila intends to play her part in encouraging and allowing that revolution to happen over the next 300-500 years.

Urmila and her husband John Samson raised their three children without sending them to mainstream schools. They “unschooled” their children and in the process discovered they had to also “unschool” their own minds. Urmila shares the intimacies and struggles involved with taking an “extreme” path of freedom from convention and the boundless beauty of what she discovered along the way.  It wasn’t easy at all. She grappled with the delicate balance between her notions of structure, discipline, punctuality, and the idealism of freedom for each individual to choose and create their own life path. She was forced to reflect on her needs for affirmation from her family, relatives, and socioeconomic peers. She still recognizes her pride when the achievements of her children align with the expectations of and rewards society offers them.

Cartoon courtesy of Gustavo Rodriguez

Her three children are now grown and engaging with life in their unique ways. Her daughter went to England and became a Eurythmist. Urmila describes her has balanced, artistic, and deeply spiritual. Urmila’s middle child has decided to give up his passion for football/soccer as he wants to pursue higher education. He performed well on his board exams and is feeling confident about studying at the university level. He also is involved with an organization, ThinQ, dedicated to promoting deep understanding, inquiry, and integration of transdisciplinary concepts. Urmila says he is balanced, unruffled, grounded, and confident. And Urmila’s youngest child has decided to apply for a non-traditional program of higher education at Swaraj University in Udaipur, Rajasthan. This is a two-year program, which requires no diploma for admission, and no degree or certificate is issued upon completion. The mission is to cultivate the heart’s calling, and to experience how individual actions are interconnected and impact communities and nature. Each person’s curriculum is individualized and self-designed with the purpose of developing the skills and practices they need to manifest their vision. Urmila shares that he is adventurous, and has chosen this path as a product of the “happiness crisis” he passed through at age 11, when he felt he was too privileged and developed a strong urge to be of service to those less fortunate than him. She notes all three of her children are very well-loved by their peers, teachers, and relatives.

Urmila and her husband have grown closer as they respond to the challenges of unschooling their children, and themselves. John took 9 years off from his practice of dentistry to explore his artistic interests which include theater, storytelling, and creative writing. Urmila feels a deep faith and trust has grown in herself and life and more. Our conversation is deep, meaningful, rich, and touching. I managed to edit our conversation down to 25 minutes from one hour. I just couldn’t bear to cut any more content. So, listen to it in short chunks as your time and attention permit. Enjoy and be inspired.


p.s. As promised in the last podcast, Look Ma, One Hand!, I’ve re-recorded the intro with my new set of tablas made by Somnath Kakade Bhai, the one-handed tabla maker in Pune.


Homeschool Legal Defense Association
Homeschool Foundation
National Association for Child Development
Swashikshan – Association of Indian Homeschoolers

Sandra Dodd: on Unschooling and Parenting
Living Joyfully with Unschooling-a podcast

Episode: Guest Bios & Individual Clips

Urmila Samson
Urmila Samson is an unschooling mother of three in Pune, Maharashtra, India. She is developing programs for mainstream and alternative schools that encourage more opportunities
for deep thinking and feeling.

Listen to "School's Out: Unschool Yourself"