WE’VE all heard of the phrase “home-schooled”. It’s quite self-explanatory, really. Even if you’re not familiar with the phrase, you could easily guess what it means. But what about “unschooling”? Ever heard of that word?
Is it “not going to school” or “removing school from the equation”? Unschooling is actually a movement and an educational approach whereby the child is the one who decides what topics or subjects he wants to focus on.
Karen Leong is an “unschooler” whose parents took her out of the education system after Primary 2 when they noticed that she wasn’t interested in her classes. Far from becoming a couch potato, Leong thrived under the new approach and pursued various interests.
When she was 11, she stumbled upon cake design while on YouTube and became hooked. She went on to take courses in cake design which allowed her to eventually pursue this activity commercially. Today, at 19, Leong is a successful custom cake designer with her own business.
Below, she shares her unschooling journey.
WASN’T IT A DRASTIC CHANGE GOING FROM SCHOOLING TO UNSCHOOLING?
We actually did a year of home-schooling first but that didn’t work out so well. I managed to cram a lot in that one year and actually finished two years’ worth of the academic syllabus. So academically I was doing well but I wasn’t any happier than before.
SO YOU SWITCHED TO UNSCHOOLING?
Before unschooling, there was another year of what my mum called “de-schooling”. She basically gave me free reign to pursue whatever non-academic activities I wanted. So, for that one year there was zero academic work.
I liked writing so my mum arranged for me to have some pen-pals whom I corresponded with frequently. I’m still in touch with many of them.
She also organised field trips for me to places like a sewage plant and a bread factory. She enrolled me in activities that I was interested in such as Aikido and robotics. I wasn’t studying per se but I was very busy and learning new things all the time.
ARE YOU A COMPLETELY SELF-TAUGHT CAKE DESIGNER?
No, I learnt the basics from YouTube but later on I enrolled in a cake decorating course that lasted five months and a French pastry art course that lasted nine months. There’s only so much you can learn from YouTube. I wanted to learn some proper techniques.
DID YOU KNOW ALL ALONG THAT YOU WOULD GO INTO CAKE DESIGN AS A CAREER?
I was at a crossroad when I was 15. I was really into cake design but I was also interested in the fields of psychology and medicine. I was seriously considering going to university so I began studying for the O-Levels.
Before I turned 18, I had to make a choice and I ended up choosing cake design because it’s something I really love doing and I didn’t want to have any “what if” questions later on. I felt I had to give it a shot.
IT HAS BEEN SLIGHTLY OVER A YEAR SINCE YOU STARTED YOUR BUSINESS. ARE YOU PROFITABLE ALREADY?
Yes, I was able to break even after two months and started making profits by the third month. But I have to say I have pretty low overheads. I work out of a home studio and I already have all the equipment I need because I’ve been doing cake design since I was 11. So my costs are not high. That helps a lot.
WHAT’S THE MOST INTERESTING CAKE DESIGN YOU’VE DONE SO FAR?
Last year, I did a 1.5-metre-tall, hand-painted, royal icing wedding cake inspired by the Gothic interior facade of the 11th century Windsor Castle. It involved using 85kg of English fruit cake coated with Belgian marzipan and 410 handcrafted sugar flowers. It took me three whole weeks to complete it.
YOU ALSO OFFER CAKE DESIGN CLASSES. WHAT ARE THOSE LIKE?
My children’s classes are pretty unique. Most children’s classes offer very basic baking instruction but I actually teach them how to bake and design the cakes. Some people think children lack the motor skills to do beautiful designs but I know they can do it because I myself started when I was 11.
The adult classes are meant for those who wish to do cake design professionally and I teach advanced techniques all the way up to competition level.
WHERE DO YOU GO FROM HERE?
I’m planning to move out of my home studio to a proper commercial studio next month so I guess it’s an expansion of the business. But I’m not aiming to grow the business into something very big. That’s not my ambition. I like travelling and I want to be able to have time for that.
Last year, there were busy months when I earned a lot of money but I wasn’t happy because I was just working non-stop. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve hired an assistant. I need to have some time for myself even if it means earning less. I’m still very young and I want to experience more things and visit more places.
WHAT SORT OF TRAVELLING DO YOU DO?
Most of the time I travel alone, back-packing or couch-surfing. I don’t like to go somewhere and just see things. I want to really get to know the locals and experience the life they live. I actually make it a point to interview the people I meet and write it all down in my journal.
IS YOUR JOURNAL A BLOG?
No, it’s not online but an actual physical journal. I used to blog when I was younger but I don’t have time to do that anymore. When I blog, I would literally spend four or five hours writing and I just can’t do that anymore now that I have a business to run. But journaling is okay because I just jot down my thoughts without having to worry about composing it for public consumption. Maybe in the future I will write a travel book based on my notes.
AS A PRODUCT OF UNSCHOOLING, YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY AN ADVOCATE OF THIS APPROACH. DO YOU THINK UNSCHOOLING IS SUITABLE FOR EVERYONE?
I believe in this system but I do realise that it’s not the ideal approach for every family.
Parents need to be very hands-on for this to work. My parents were very involved in my unschooling. I wouldn’t say that I always made the right choices growing up but when I made mistakes, my parents were always there to guide and point me towards better options.
It’s essential that parents are very proactive in their child’s unschooling journey, maintain open communications and have a strong relationship with their child.