How I Removed an Engine from a Car

Or the Value of Self-Directed Learning

Callum arrives home from town. He stops by my bedroom to say hello. I glance up from my computer and say, “Callum! You could have changed your clothes before going out!”

Callum grins. His long shorts are streaked with grease. His fingers are black. He has a smudge on his face.

“What will people think?” I am smiling. I don’t really care what people think.

“You’re a reflection of your family,” I tease my son. “Everyone will say, ‘Didn’t Callum’s mother teach him anything?’”

“You taught me how to get an engine out of a car.”

I don’t remember giving Callum any car mechanic lessons so I say, “Huh? What do you mean?”

“You taught me all that maths and how to develop my fine motor skills.” He thinks for a moment because this isn’t really what I taught him and what he wants to say. “You taught me to be a self-directed learner.”

Yes, that’s better. I didn’t actually teach Callum much at all. I just encouraged him to follow his interests and he taught himself.

Callum is a classic example of an unschooler. He has passions. His one huge passion is cars. Over the past several years he has bought himself three old cars and has taught himself car mechanics. He’s had lots of opportunity to work on many different types of problem. His cars are old. What could go wrong, does go wrong. As he fixes one problem, something else breaks. It’s never-ending. It’s a never-ending learning experience.

Callum hasn’t done any mechanics courses but he has read books, joined online discussion forums and most importantly, he’s gets his hands dirty (very dirty!) while he tries things out.

The doorbell rings. It’s the postman. “Parcel for Callum Elvis.” I sigh. The mail is never for me. Heavy parcels, small parcels, odd shaped parcels: It’s all for Callum. It’s always spare car parts.

“Hey Mum! Look at this.” Callum shows me a piece of metal and rubber. “Doesn’t that look good?”

“Oh yes!” I agree. I have no idea what I am looking at, but Callum’s enthusiasm is infectious.

“What do you like best, my camshaft or this?”

“Definitely the camshaft,” I say. “Poetry in motion.” We both smile. I think Callum likes how I take the time to look and listen even though I haven’t much idea about things to do with cars. I’m always exclaiming over the beauty of some part or other. (Have you ever noticed the excellent design and engineering that goes into every single piece of a car?) It’s our bit of fun, but it’s not only fun. It’s serious too. We share a lot. Callum is always talking over his plans, his dreams and his ideas with me.

Callum has been working full time as a trainee manager at a local big chain supermarket for the last few years. It’s a good job. It’s well paying. It’s a job with prospects. But it no longer excites him. He has bigger and better ideas.

“I’ve found out about that welding course,” Callum announces one day. “I can fit it in around my work shifts.” His eyes are glowing. “When I can weld, I can…”

Yes, one day Callum hopes to restore and modify cars. Welding, spray painting, mechanics, engineering, a business of his own… yes, he has plans.

I really love watching Callum involved with his interest. He’s always encountering problems but he works doggedly away at them until he has solved them. It’s hard work. Sometimes it’s frustrating. But it’s satisfying. It’s what he loves doing.

There’s only one downside to having a child (even an adult one) with a huge passion: the mess.

“The engine is out of my ute,” grins Callum. He’s replacing it with a new one. “Do you want to see?” So I go outside and there’s this huge engine attached to an engine crane, sitting on our driveway.

“Where are you going to put that?” I ask. I already know the answer. Soon it’ll be a feature of our garden, together with his other spare engine… and all the extra bits and pieces scattered here and there. I remind myself: No one learns unless they make a mess.

You got that engine out of the car, Mum.”

“I did?”

“Yes, if it wasn’t for you, I never would have learnt the skills to do it.”

Isn’t that nice? Isn’t that encouraging? I didn’t have to teach Callum a single thing about car mechanics. All I had to do was let him follow his passion.

You got that engine out of the car, Mum.”

You didn’t know I can remove car engines, did you?

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  1. Reply

    Great post, Sue! I love the way your big boy gives his acknowledgement to you (and you to him). Isn't it nice to have all these diffrent talents and interests under the same roof.

    1. Reply


      I was quite surprised when Callum said that it was ME who'd removed the engine! Yes, it is good having lots of different interests under one roof. Cars aren't really my thing but I'm happy to listen when Callum wants to tell me about them. I think our kids need to know we take their interests seriously and value what they enjoy doing.

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. Reply

    What lucky – no, what BLESSED children you have, Sue – to have you and Andy for their parents!!

    1. Reply


      We're far from perfect, but I do appreciate your encouraging words. Actually I think it's Andy and I who have been overly blessed!

    • Gina
    • December 5, 2013

    A question for you to ponder….do you think your son would have pursued a different career or path if you had used a structured, school at home curriculum with him? Sometimes I wonder that about one of my sons. I used to think he would be an engineer when he grew up but now I see his dislike of math and his leanings to a path less academic and more hands on. Would he be different if I was using a classical program? Or am I just allowing him to be himself by educating him in a more relaxed way?

    1. Reply


      Maybe if we'd used a structured school-at-home curriculum Callum wouldn't have had as much opportunity to explore his interests. I think it can take a lot of time to discover exactly what our talents are and how we should be using them. Callum initially thought he wanted to be a nurse and actually completed a couple of part time years at university. He used to be a St John Ambulance cadet and he liked the hands-on aspect of helping people. But then he changed his mind and has been working full time for a couple of years now while he's been teaching himself car mechanics. Perhaps it's the attitude towards learning that's the most important. If a child loves learning and knows how to go about it, and has the opportunity to do it, amazing things can happen.

      "… allowing him to be himself…" Oh I do like this! Yes, all our children have their particular talents and unschooling allows them to develop them.

  3. Reply

    That was beautiful. I loved it.

    1. Reply


      Thank you for reading my post and stopping by to write these kind words. I hope you will say hello again some time!

  4. Reply

    Sue, LOVE your way with "unschooling" Love it…I see what you have listed here in the sidebar and honestly, the resourcs you expose your kids to are invaluable! I am so impressed by your method and by how the kids are pursuing their own interests and loves. To me, it seems that you are giving them such an amazing wealth of info, by what you expose them to……I guess I never really understood Unschooling until I saw what you use and how you approach learning with them.
    Lately, I am doing a lot of rethinking methods, time, resources, curriculum in general. I think once Christmas is over and we get back into a "real" schedule( as now we are spending so much time doing music, advent studies, additional time spent at ministries on our parish, and such and then as Christmas grows closer, we'll just spend time doing that all plus baking, more decorating, wrapping, etc….) I have several adjustments to make in the what/how, when of our day and our resources.
    I am definitely the queen of drill and kill…but I completely see the benefits of being relaxed about certain subjects and allowing them to explore and develop interests.
    Also, I have found that they "find" creative pursuits when they're "bored." Artsy stuff plus music-y pursuits tend to "happen….." Just this afternoon, Timmy began "whittling" a bar of soap after reading the Christmas Miracle of Jonathon Toomey! His little creation is pretty darn cute….not a huge creative thing, but a nice way to independently spend a little while and give his brain a rest, as he said, after so much violin practice. Maybe I should allow them some time to delve like that in other subject areas.
    I guess I have a hard time "letting go" of the control over their specific learning outcomes. I'm learning to find a balance, but it's taking me long time and I guess I'll just have to call myself "eclectic," bc I'm not sure how else to define our "style!"

    Sue, great post….love the pics too…and how you say you don't care what people think!! Good for you! Agreed.
    Your son is so handsome! And is that water in the background behind the car? Your area seems gorgeous!

    I'll be in touch, Sue!

    Be well and enjoy advent!

    1. Reply


      Oh my! What a lovely long comment for me to enjoy. Thank you!

      I never really understood unschooling either for a long time. Actually I was put off at one stage, assuming it was something it's not. The whole philosophy of unschooling has become clearer over the years as we've lived the unschooling life. Still learning and appreciating this way of life!

      Your sons seem to have loads of interests. I always enjoy hearing about everything they're doing, I was so impressed by Kev's code work and his online articles. He is already following one of his passions by the sounds of it. And then there's all the drama your boys are involved with. And music too… I bet they learn heaps just by doing things they really enjoy. I like your whittling a bar of soap story! I have always found that given the opportunity kids will find lots of things to do and get involved with, and they are all good learning experiences.

      Callum was quite happy to pose next to his engine. He feels very satisfied having got it out of the car. Now he has to get the new one into the ute, and the car going again! That's the next challenge. No doubt that will keep Callum busy for some time.

      We don't live near water. The blue is just the sky. The trees in the background form part of the native bushland which is extensive near us. It is a beautiful spot to live. It's interesting to see photos of each other's homes, isn't it?

      Thank you so much for your kind words.

      I hope you're having a great Advent too!

  5. Reply

    I love your blog because it gives me such hope. I am swimming upstream here, against all the negatives being thrown at me regarding unschooling 3 of our kids. Hardest for me is that hubby sees no value in this way of living and is constantly telling me he's sure they are "falling behind". I can see that they are absorbing every day, that they are happy, and that eventually we'll see the end result, but for now I find encouragement here. So thank-you. 🙂

    1. Reply


      Thank you for your kind words. Yes, some people found it hard to see the value in unschooling. I guess unschooling is a whole new way of thinking for them, and sometimes it seems safer to continue doing things the old way.

      It must be hard not having the support of your husband. Would reading about and discussing the concept of unschooling help?

      Getting behind… Oh yes! That can be a big worry at first. "I can see that they are absorbing every day, that they are happy, and that eventually we'll see the end result." Yes, we need to trust!

      Maybe unschoolers get criticised more than other homeschoolers. We all need encouragement and support to do what we feel is right for our children. Sharing through our blogs is a wonderful way to share ideas and friendships. I am so glad you stopped by to say hello and I hope we can chat again another time. Thank you so much for visiting my blog!

  6. Reply

    I love the idea that "you" taught him to take the engine out! While I wasn't formally home schooled, my parents modeled a hands on fearless approach to learning things. If they didn't know how to do something, they got a book or took a class, and then, likely, they brought us over and showed us how to do it. My parents directly taught me how to pour concrete this way, but they indirectly taught me artisan bread baking, for example. Really, they taught me to try new things fearlessly and follow wherever God led me. They were teaching me how to home school!

    1. Reply


      It sounds like you had a wonderful education. Your love of learning just shines out from your blog posts. Your parents certainly were very encouraging. "They were teaching me how to home school!" I agree! What a gift they gave you.

      Wouldn't it be good if I really could take out an engine from a car? That would impress a few car enthusiasts!

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