Homeschooling, Unschooling…

Sharon April 22nd, 2010

Note, somehow a draft version of this post went up before it was supposed to – apologies for the weird bit.

Crunchy Chicken is exploring the topic of Unschooling at her blog, with a lively discussion in the comments thread.  Her questions about unschooling, (which for the most part seem to go unanswered in favor of easier answers from the unschooling advocates) are whether it is possible for most children to consistently get a good education in some subjects without the discipline of some kind of driving adult force behind them.

The relevant question that underlies this seems to me to be “what are the ultimate limits of auto-didactism for most kids.”  IMHO, neither attacks on bad public schools (which may make the case for some kind of homeschooling or alternative, but don’t make the case for unschooling per se) nor the occasional genius offers a really compelling answer to the question of whether we can ultimately trust kids to lead their own education.

I say this as a homeschooler who uses some elements of unschooling, but who wouldn’t call herself a full unschooler. My own take is that some subjects – music, math, language chief among them – are subjects that can be difficult for older children or adults to pick up without routine and habitual practice.  Moreover, with some of them, there’s an intellectual window at which it is easier to learn them. It is manifestly easier to learn languages when you are young than when you are older – so if they don’t come your way until you suddenly realize their utility later in life, you’ve missed an opportunity.

There are also elements of my life that I simply don’t have a problem with making non-optional.  My kids are part of a Jewish community, and like all the kids in that community will be expected to have a level of Jewish literacy.  I’m glad my kids are interested, but if they weren’t, that wouldn’t matter, because not learning this stuff isn’t optional, and IMHO, it shouldn’t be.  I don’t feel, for example, that a child not required to learn the language, prayers and culture of their people can make a fully rational choice about whether they consider that knoweldge to be of value. 

On the other hand, I’m an auto-didact in some respects – certainly my field of expertise now, environmentalism, is nothing I was ever trained in.  My research and learning curve involved apprenticeships (informal) to other people who knew more and independent research.  Eventually, I started out participating casually and later, wrote as someone with some small expertise. 

My children continually astound me at how huge a range of material they cover on their own – my eight year old reads Arabic and Hindi  and is learning Mandarin- because he thinks they are cool. We require him to learn Spanish and Hebrew, but he picked up the others on his own.  Many things that we might believe he wouldn’t be interested in are of interest to him – in part, I think because he’s never gone to school and joined into the culture of disdain that goes with them.  So I’ve heard my child actually ask my mother, with some excitement “Nana, what’s your favorite punctuation mark?”

There’s something important to be said about preserving children’s enthusiasm and energy in teaching.  And something also to be said about encouraging discipline and participation. I honestly don’t have a dog in this hunt, so I’m curious – what do you think?

35 Responses to “Homeschooling, Unschooling…”

  1. knutty knitter says:

    I think I said most of it on the site of La Chicken but I can add that we have had issues with some schools but not with others. Some stuff isn’t optional, some is. Fortunately disdain hasn’t been too much of an issue so far and now the kids are interested in most stuff anyhow just for its own sake.

    Round here community is all about schools too – they don’t exist in a vacuum and its a great way to meet all and sundry and get to know them. I would feel rather isolated if we didn’t belong to one or other of these groups and they do lead on to other things too.

    So much depends on who is doing the teaching to whom. It simply isn’t a case of one form being better or worse than another. Life is much more complex than that !

    viv in nz

  2. Joey Barker says:

    I “unschooled” my kids for several years. We did do some regular math and reading, but never as much as my husband wanted. When my oldest was 9, we had to put them in school for 1.5 years for financial reasons. Despite our lack of “schooling”, she tested ahead of grade level in a few subjects, and behind in a few subjects–just like kids who have been in school their whole lives.

    The question about whether unschoolers are limited in professions like math and science (Crunchy’s question) presumes that the only way to learn math and science is through endless drudgery and daily work. It also presumes that a person would never be motivated to learn math and science simply because they were interested, or because they were trying to reach a goal they set for themselves.

    That mindset–that children have to be forced to learn–comes from a traditional school experience. But for a child who does not see learning as drudgery, who is simply asking questions and answering them, that is just not the case.

    There are numerous anecdotal stories about unschooled teenagers covering an entire K-8 math curriculum in less than a year. If a person is motivated and ready, there is no need for the endless repetition and constant re-teaching of material that happens in a traditional school because the fundamental understanding is missing.

    People are generally driven to ask questions, to seek to understand, to further their knowledge (and I imagine the readers of this blog are a testament to that). That is just part of being human. Unschooling (for me) is just a philosophy that respects a child’s innate desire to learn about their world. And my job as a parent is simply to see that they are exposed to the world around them, and help them answer their inevitable questions. For me, that doesn’t preclude having some “non-negotiable” subjects that kids need to learn — I just think there are a lot fewer of them than most people.

  3. Sue Sullivan says:

    We are unschoolers, what other homeschoolers who sort of unschool would call radical unschoolers, in that we carry the principles of non-coercion and respect for the autonomy of children through all aspects of parenting. I have two immediate thoughts regarding your questions, and this is without reading the discussion at Crunchy Chicken’s blog yet.

    First, we unschool because it the only option that fits our parenting principles and convictions — that human beings live happier, more creative, more self-directed and fulfilling lives when they are not coercing themselves or others, or are being coerced. We have found so far (11 years into the process) that it’s entirely possible to raise children who eventually choose to brush their teeth regularly, choose a better-than-average-American diet, learn to read and spell and acquire a growing body of math skills and an eclectic but broad base of other knowledge without forcing, haranguing (okay, sometimes my conditioning causes me to harangue more than I would like, but I try) or bribing. We choose to parent this way to strengthen our children’s connections to their inner drives, desires and knowledge, to minimize their conditioning to seek outside approval and to be unconditional in our love and acceptance of them. So, unschooling for us is as much a parenting choice as an educational choice.

    My second thought is, who defines what education children need and is that based on a radically changing world or a dying paradigm? The more I understand about social, economic and environmental shifts underway, the more I think it’s vastly more important that my children learn how to identify what they need to know and understand how to acquire the information or skillset they need, than it is for them to learn a pre-determined package of knowledge, much of which they will not use in their daily life or careers, if my experience and of those around me is any gauge. I’m always answering questions, helping them to find information they need, helping them to build, to create, to communicate, to problem-solve, to find connections. That can happen in the context of stories that they are writing about the characters in video games that they like to play or in the 1,001 questions about the natural world, human history, word origins or myriad other topics that arise in fertile young minds every day.

    My ultimate goal as a parent is for my children to grow up to be compassionate, creative and self-directed. I could tell them that they have to drill math facts or read about American history whether they are interested in it or not right now, but I’d be creating resistance to the very information that they will, at their own pace, acquire as they are ready and as they find the use for it in their lives. (The question also arises, what happens when they say no? Do I threaten them? Do I punish them? Do I withhold approval until they do what I want them to do? DH and I have thought long and hard about how that style of parenting has shaped who we are as adults, and we do not wish to perpetuate it.)

    You ask, can unschooled children get a consistently good education, and as I try to answer that, I find that I don’t know what you mean by that. Do you mean, can they score well on college admission tests? As someone for whom university was a given, I’ve considered this a great deal in the last 11 years. As you have pointed out, will college even be an attainable goal going forward for most American kids? I expect my kids will grow up, find what they want to do in this world and be internally motivated to achieve it. They may not be out the door to a four-year university at 16 like I was and that would not be a bad thing. (College was far more about socializing, budding independence and earning the As, which is entirely possible to do without genuinely deep learning, I discovered, and I think I would have been a much more focused student had I waited several years.) They may find they need to spend a year or two filling out their knowledge base to get admitted to college, if that’s required for their desired avocation. There are test prep books and programs to help them jump through those hoops, if they wish, and of course there’s community college. I’ve grown to appreciate how meaningful, well-rounded and contributory so-called “blue collar” jobs can be. It’s possible that the homesteading skills I’m suddenly and passionately moved to acquire will be of far more value in the next 40 years than a four-year degree. Who knows? The world is breathtakingly mutable right now, or so it seems.


  4. Sharon says:

    I guess this is some of what bothers me about the assumptions of unschooling – the conversation always comes back to language of violence and coercion and comparisons with dreadful schools and assumptions. But those aren’t the only choices – that is, there are lots of ways of homeschooling, lots of school options that aren’t one mold. I’m not opposed to unschooling, but I don’t think requiring my kids to brush their teeth every morning is the equivalent of coercion in the sense you use it – it is simply what we do. Just as your family has things you simply do, including letting children be autonomous. We don’t get our kids to practice music with violent coercion, we remind them “it is music time now” and because everyone has music time, including parents, we all go practice.


  5. ctdaffodil says:

    we send our kids to public school but the summers and school breaks are unschooled time….meaning – they are still learning – especially in the summer – they aren’t just sitting around with video games – Both my kids have a summer reading list, they attend camp, both church and scout. The TV is only on during the summer if there are 2 or more days of rain (monsoon type).

    Everyone has to find what works for their kids – what works for their families and ensures that their kids learn what they need to become constructive, productive and positive members of society as a whole. Judging one group against the other could be counter productive and might breed a little intollerance

  6. Kate says:

    We try to parent in a non-coercive way, but I do get frustrated when people imply that you can raise your children without any coercion what-so-ever. Maybe some children, but not every one, in every situation. Take the teeth brushing; our son hates to brush his teeth, I have to make him do it under threat of punishment. But he (and I) hated more to get two large cavities filled at age 3, and letting his teeth rot out of his mouth would involve CPS, which I’d suspect he’d hate much more than either of the above. (And, no, we do not have much sugar available at all, no juice, etc., just a family history of very bad teeth.)

    We are largely unschoolers, but I agree that some things come easier with lots of repetition at an early age, like math and languages, so those we do daily.

  7. Jennie says:

    I think there are very strong feelings surrounding homeschooling/unschooling. My mother works as the secretary for the home school assistance program in an Eastern Iowa city. There are members of the school board who think that all homeschooling is ‘crazy christians using tax payer money to teach a religious doctrine’ and they believe unschoolers are synonomous with no-schooling. They’ve run a smear campaign against the whole home-schooling program and slashed all the funding they can get their hands on.
    I think the act of homeschooling sends implicit messages about the state of the public schools and it can put people on the defensive if they’re associated with those schools. Add in all the mis-information, propagated by pieces like the GMA thing and it becomes a really highly charged issue.
    I think homeschooling definitely has a place at the table as we go forward into an era of depletion. Public schools have become large and bulky and expensive. Consolidation of rural schools has left many small communities busing kids miles and miles to the consolidated schools, which may get really expensive really fast. Smaller and local is definitely going to see a resurgence and nothing is smaller or more local than homeschooling.
    I really want to homeschool my son, he’s just now 1, so I have some time to decide how to do it. I just remember being really bored at school, I mostly survived by voraciously reading. I was lucky enough to have teachers that encouraged it, but I don’t want my son to have to depend on luck.

    Speaking of teachers… thread hijack a little here.. teacher’s unions aren’t winning any brownie points lately. Every district I have contacts in, the admins and support presonel are all taking pay cuts during the budget shortfalls and the teachers unions are all pushing for pay increases. Anybody else seeing this? Any teachers want to enlighten me with some justification?

    Goddes Bless

  8. Sue Sullivan says:

    I rarely talk about how I parent or school or why, unless I’m asked by someone who seems genuinely curious, because I fully understand the subtext of criticism or rejection of the opposite choice that quickly comes up. I wasn’t talking about violence in my post. Coercion and violence are different and I’m clear that anyone genuinely asking about this topic already rejects violence in relationships with others.

    I find it very interesting to ask myself what happens if we don’t coerce. If we don’t coerce our children, can we ask, ask again later, patiently explain the whys, point out (truly natural, not parent-created) consequences and explain again until the child comes to an internal realization of why s/he would want to do something that s/he is initially resistant to? Yes, it takes much more time than just insisting (and as I consider it, I think insisting is at its base an implied use of force. There is no saying no to that parental insistance. Can you remember the feeling that arose in you as a child when a parent insisted you had to do something right now that you did not want to do? For me, it was a burning, rage-y impotence that had to be kept bottled up inside.) Yes, I can understand why many people would find my approach an utter waste of time. And yet I have found it fascinating to explore what it means to act from an internally arising motivation (that is genuine and not a product of past coercion).

    I’ve come to question in what ways do I coerce myself and what would happen if I stopped? Would nothing get done? Would important things fall through the cracks? I’ve come to notice when I’m feeling cranky and resentful, maybe very subtly, because I’m telling myself I should do something I don’t want to do right then (and I attribute that sub-conscious coercion to how I was raised). I ask myself what are the real consequences of not doing it now? Can I absolutely know that will happen? I’ve been fascinated to notice the change in my experience of my life, the lightening and increase in ease that occurs when I stop pushing myself. I notice that I’m often later quite willing to do what I was forcing myself to do earlier. I notice that sometimes that apparent chore or obligation goes away or the work I would have done would eventually have been undone by forces outside my control. I notice that we still seem to have a reasonably together life and I know for certain that I am a happier, more connected and more playful parent and partner than I used to be.

    I’m operating out of a fundamentally different orientation than I once did and I think my original orientation arose from childhood conditioning through parenting and schooling. The idea that humans must be pressed into doing what others want them to do or society doesn’t cohere as well is one of the underlying beliefs of that paradigm, I think. And that is not my experience anymore. I’m willing to do more for others because I have freed up a huge layer of personal energy bound up in subconscious resistance to the self-coercion I had adopted.

    And I understand how having certain assumptions about how family life will go does not seem like coercion. I get that. I have had those very same assumptions. And I have been asking, what happens if I try to be as respectful of my children as I would want anyone to be of me? What happens if I choose mentor and advocate instead of authority figure? (Now there’s a loaded word, on both sides of this debate. The power of the phrase authority figure makes me very curious about how we react to it, both negatively and championing it.) This is getting, in some sense, off-topic from unschooling, but it’s how we come to be unschoolers. Other unschoolers I’m sure approach it down different avenues.


  9. Edward Bryant says:

    I home school both of my children and I have entirely different techniques with each child. One essentially self-educates herself with some help from me and together we work on her “curriculum”. She would unschool herself successfully; that is essentially her nature and years of Montessori with excellent guides has taught her how to teach herself.

    My other child requires more attention and help focusing on what he should be doing. He is allowed to pick some of his “curriculum” but certain parts are not optional; I feel as though I would be irresponsible if I failed to assure that he was capable of doing basic skills such as reading, writing and mathematics sufficient to get a GED.

    That said, he has never been very interested, nor inclined to academics, nor does he seem much interested in anything else – except anime :) . I keep hoping he will “spark”, but not so far. His forays into public school were a disaster, despite the school being excellent. His Montessori elementary school was awesome, but even here he was completely unmotivated. I shudder to think what he would achieve in an unschooling setting; when I let him work independently he mostly doesn’t.

    I am constitutionally a non-coercive parent, but with him, I see no real alternative. I love him too much to let him founder.

  10. rdheather says:

    I have nothing to give to the unschool questions because I’m unchild-ed(I just had to phrase it that way ;) ), but Sue, your non-coercion with yourself has made me go hmmmm. I’m going to have to think on that a while.

  11. Rebecca Kilde says:

    I’m a homeschooling mom of three great kids, we’re part of an active homeschool cooperative, and I’m the contact person for the homeschooling association in my state. In my 16 years of raising kids, I’ve listened to innumerable stories from parents (homeschooled, unschooled, public-schooled, whatever), and have a few of my own.

    I’ll start by saying that public education, with all its problems, is an amazing populist attempt to provide access to all our country offers to a wide range of people. The fact that it doesn’t work all the time isn’t all that surprising, really. What is surprising to me is the number of gifted and committed teachers that continue to slog through the administrative slough and show up to teach and inspire so many kids. I have learned a lot, and continue to learn a lot, from those excellent teaching professionals.

    Of course, I’m also inspired by the thoughtfulness and dedication of parents who are homeschooling their kids, often in the face of disapproval and outright hostility from neighbors and family members. I always leave conversations with these folks filled with energy and joy at what a wonderful gift it is to be able to hang out with my kids and explore the world with them.

    Labels, like “unschooling”, aren’t very useful to me. It can give you a general idea of approach, but isn’t much help with the specifics. Take reading, for instance. My oldest hated the Reading Book, and most days the reading task came to tears. We still read out loud and enjoyed books together. We picked it up a year later–still lots of frustration and resistance. Then, one day, out and about, my then 5-year old said, “Mom, why is that store called an International Shoppie.” Not half-way through the boring book, and she was reading.

    My middle one slogged through the whole book. (Yes, the same dreaded book, because it was supposed to be “easy and effective.”) I found out later she thought the book was pretty stupid, but whatever…

    I abandoned the book for my youngest. But then she wasn’t reading. And wasn’t reading. I resurrected that book, but she hated it with a passion, and it didn’t seem to help much with her reading. (On her own, that is. We continued to read out loud as a family, and listen to audio books.) Then one day, at nine, she sat down and started reading Tin Tin. My hesitant reader who has trouble telling the difference between “the” and “then” has no trouble figuring out “expedition” and “observatory”. Go figure.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that parenting is a lot like gardening–it’s personal and local. I can’t grow carrots in my heavy clay-loam the same way my neighbor grows them in her sandy soil. In the same way, I can’t teach my kids the same way someone else does, no matter how much I admire (or dislike) what they do. As the previous poster mentioned, I can’t teach all my kids the same way, or even the same kid the same way over time. What I can do is share my tools, add a lot of good organic matter, and pay attention.

    So thank you to all you parents telling great stories about your good work. Keep ‘em coming!

  12. Sue Sullivan says:

    We love the TinTin books too! Those and Calvin & Hobbes were my kids’ leap into reading.

    I don’t expect all parents to unschool, though I do think that all children could benefit from it and I’m pretty certain that most parents would disagree with me. That’s okay. I accept how others parent; I get concerned when there isn’t the same acceptance extended towards radical unschooling.

    I have never seen it discussed with much if any acceptance from non-unschoolers as a viable alternative or even with just frank curiosity; there are always multiple comments insisting that it is neglectful and deleterious and that’s what motivates me to post about it from time to time.

    I am not trying to convince others to unschool. I am simply trying to correct misapprehensions about it, to defuse some frighteningly reactive opinions. I’m a conscious parent too. I watch my children’s development, alert for any signs that they might be needing something different. I don’t want child protective services knocking on my door because unschooling is so misunderstood and so maligned. That’s all.

    I think we all are, as conscious parents, raising a generation of humans who will have different aims, aspirations and interests and that heterogeneity is crucial to a healthy society. I’m completely committed to my style of parenting. I’m sure we’d change the world if we could all raise our kids this way. And I could be wrong. We could end up with a bunch of wild individualists who can’t put together a symphony orchestra or an army. Who knows? My kids might not become desk jockeys or soldiers or police officers. They may become writers, farmers, inventors or barristas/musicians. It takes all kinds, and I simply want to reassure the rest of society that I’m not raising deadbeat underachievers, as many comments about unschooling would have it (I did finally read through the thread at Crunchy Chicken’s blog).

  13. Jen says:

    It’s very helpful to read this post and comments, and I look forward to reading the thread over at Crunchy’s blog. I’m planning on homeschooling my 3-year-old (or rather, we’re already learning together all the time) and hearing about different approaches and philosophies is extremely useful, particularly in the context of the range of topics that Sharon usually writes about. I have a feeling I will not be a radical unschooler, but will adopt some unschooling approaches along with other approaches, depending on what seems to make sense at any given time.

  14. Brad K. says:

    Remember the Goldie Hawn movie “Overboard”? The part where she steps up and turns the boy’s school experience around?

    It seems to me that it is the parents, their discipline (will to complete a task), their attentive care and creative access to resources, that make education – public, private, homeschool or unschool – work for their children.

    Unschooling children seems to start with unschooling – educating – the parents.

    I think skilled parents can make about any approach work well. Learning cannot happen without resources and motivation. Motivation includes role models and hints that create interest in a topic. The parents are completely able to stifle interest at the “been there, done that” level, or support delving into the background and interconnections of a topic with the rest of society, community, and life. Competition as a motivator is a cheap win for authority – it is easy to measure. Effectiveness of competition as motivation is seldom questioned – but we all know exceptions where it fails this student or that one.

    @ Edward Bryant – does your son get to see his father regularly studying, considering the math and physics behind everyday experiences and choices? Are his academic role models intact? Is he intimidated by the accolades of his sister’s successes, and reluctant to even compete?

    @ Kate – about the family history of cavities. Do you also have a history of upset stomach, as in gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) aka frequent heartburn? When reflux happens at night, you may notice the chronic sinus infections (from acid burns from stomach acids rising in the throat) and sore throat. It can also “wash” away the protective layers of enamel off the teeth, especially the molars. Next visit, you might ask your dentist if there is evidence of reflux-related enamel erosion.

  15. Rebecca Kilde says:

    I always assume that people are doing what they feel is good and important for their kids; I didn’t mean to make it sound otherwise.

    It is interesting that unschooling meets with such hostility, as well as most unstructured learning systems. I’ve never really gotten that. It’s an amazing commitment and a leap of faith. As parents, we have to really believe that our children are hard-wired to learn, and respect them enough to find their own path.

    I’ve read that European settlers of this continent were amazed by the non-violent way that some native people raised their children. Most people certainly don’t believe that sparing the rod will spoil the child anymore, but I wonder if our view of how people learn could be related to that same school of thought about human behavior: that’s we’re basically sinful, lazy and selfish, and it takes constant vigilance to stamp that out.

    At our house, we also practice music almost every day. We insist on tooth-brushing. And we limit screen time. The kids have chores that they are responsible for, and we expect help in the garden and with heating the house. We all have intellectual projects we’re working on. That’s not coerced so much as expected–it’s part of what it means to live in our house.

    But can anybody tell me why so many people think learning cursive is so important? Hmmm.

  16. P.J. Grath says:

    Public, private or homeschooling? No children, only one, replace both parents (two) or big families? Live in the city (take up less space, commute less) or country (grown your own food, raise kids in fresh air)? Practice a religion or not? All these—and this is by no means the end of the list—are issues that get people hot under the collar. Voices are raised, and everyone has examples to offer. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be like that. All I want to observe, after reflecting on this phenomenon for a long time, is that democratic freedom seems to carry with a lot of insecurity. We have so much freedom in this society—and each important choice like this made by an American is a pragmatic experiment in living—that we also seem to feel somewhat besieged by others who make different choices. “How can my choice be the right one if someone else has chosen differently?” I appreciate the comment from the reader with two children who observed that one method wouldn’t do for both of them. I decided when my one and only child was about eight years old that if he were always allowed to choose whether he would visit friends with me or stay home, he would never leave the house. I stopped offering the choice, and he managed to get along pretty well being coerced. Maybe he would have emerged from his cave on his own. I’ll never know. We live, we do our best, we learn, and, if our minds remain open, we keep wondering.

    Best to all with the challenges of child-raising and education.

  17. KiwiRach says:

    I think children do learn what they *need* to know if left to their own devices, but you have to be careful how you define ‘need’. If I always did everything for my boys (2,5 &7) then they’d need to know hardly anything. They’ve learnt to build lego sets following the instructions because this is something *really* important to them and Mum keeps saying ‘I’ll help you in a bit when I’ve finished my chores’, so they’ve just got on with it. The eldest is learning to read and the middle one getting there, because it’s becoming inconvenient to them personally not to be able to read, in part because my willingness to read aloud is more limited than their appetite for books. They can navigate around sites on the internet (even the 2yo) because waiting for me to do it for them was mutually annoying. Maths crops up all the time if you look for it and discuss it — saving up pocket money for lego, timing how long you can dangle by one arm from the climbing frame etc… The boys always see me looking things up, writing things down & figuring things out, so these are not strange ‘school’ activities to them just everyday life. I sometimes say that unschooling is about structuring the environment not the child. For instance we learnt Roman numerals a few weeks ago. Not because I said ‘ok guys it would be handy for you to know this’, but because I bought a game where the dice was in Roman numerals and suddenly they *needed* to know them. Right now Mummy. In our house these things seem to happen before breakfast. So there we were in our pjs making a list of all the different roman numerals on a card. I think it helps that I’m a total learning addict. History, Geography, Science and Natural History are unpreventable in our house rather than chores to be got through. We read atlases and history books for bed time stories. Now I really like work books. I love the ordered progression of tasks and knowledge. The kids just aren’t as keen on them as I am. We have them, but I fairly relaxed about them. I’d love it if the kids liked to learn from them because it’s a way of learning that was easier for the world at large to understand. I’d also love it if when I said ‘this is the way your write this particular letter’ they didn’t invariable come back with ‘but *I* do it this way Mummy’. I just have to wait for them to *need* (in their own opinions) to be able to write legibly and fast. That’s not to say I won’t try and hasten them feeling to learn something (as I’ve done by refusing to read things on screen for them)

  18. GeekyGardener says:

    My thought is that at some point, different careers require traditional schooling. If a child grows up and wants to design bridges, large buildings, be a surgeon, or fly commercial planes there are standards that require that child to be able to sit in a class room, learn at the structured pace, and pass the exams. Period. No exceptions.

    There are many other careers where you don’t have to do such things. You can be a music teacher, an artist, a brilliant home builder, own your own plane, or be a natural healer. So if your goals are more flexible (I want to build things, heal people, or fly) then you can still achieve them. But if you want something specific there is a good chance there are specific requirements to get there.

    IF un-schooling does not prepare a child to learn in a structured way then it is doing a disservice to the child.

    The other concern I have is that every job I’m aware of (except for maybe starting your own business) requires a person to do things that they don’t particularly want to do and things you might even think of as pointless. There is a level of drudgery or boredom in every job – even CEOs have to do stuff they don’t enjoy or look forward to! If a child is raised in an environment where they never learn how to have that feeling of “Idoanwanna” but do the job anyways … well, hell, I don’t want them working for me. Because that could be a rude awakening. Ideally, this kind of undesirable work is minimized by choosing a good career, good work environment, and good job path. But it will always be there – that’s part of why we get paid to show up & push forward.

    On a farm it’s easy to learn that this kind of “not fun” work is important & take pride in getting it done regardless of how much fun it is. But in suburban or urban life? I don’t know what experiences provide that background.

    Last thought – as an engineer I am happy that I went to school & learned calculus, physics, and electronics. That may be part of my bias – if I’d been unschooled I doubt I’d be in the job/field I am today. And that would be unfortunate.

  19. MamaElijah says:

    I can really appreciate everyone’s viewpoints, and it’s really part of the reason why I enjoy reading Sharon’s blog so much. However, the term “preaching to the choir” does come to mind in this discussion. I think, for the most part, readers of this blog have already schooled themselves in issues of climate change, political and social change, and other issues that will likely crop up in the future. Included in that would be the concept that we may not be able to count on any kind of social services, including public education. As a prudent measure, we look into schooling alternatives for the present and future.
    I would love to homeschool my children–I have three, only one who is school aged right now. I have mentally dallied with the concept of unschooling as well. We have many, many friends who homeschool, but most use a curriculum. Homeschooling is encouraged and embraced in my social circle.
    But, I am a public school teacher. My family relies on my income and benefits at this point in time….regardless, I think, to put it plainly, some of ya’ll need to get your heads out of the clouds.
    I teach special ed. I teach in a school that is 65% free and reduced lunches. Half of our kids are ESL or limited English proficient. I have taught in a third world country in the past. The city I live in has the lowest census return rate in our very large county.
    From this point of view, I see a circular cause and effect, and public school has a huge impact. One could say that public education has failed in the American experiment. Otherwise, why would my native English speakers, parents of my students, not be able to write a grammatically correct note to excuse their children when absent? Why is filling out positive and negative integers on a number line “too hard” when parents do attempt to help with homework? Why do I have parents who can’t attend conferences because they are working two minimum wage jobs in order to make rent that month?
    Conversely, why are parents in developing nations so enthusiastic about public education? Why do entire villages hold community fundraisers to create schools? Why do families go without meat in order to free money for school fees for their sons and daughters?
    A couple of thoughts on this…..sadly, and this truly sounds bad but I believe it is true–without public education much of our nation would be chronically, irreversibly, functionally illiterate. Many parents do not have the skills they need to “school” their child in basic academics. They are good people who love their children and want the best for them. They know, in this case, that in order for their children to learn, they need to go to someone who “knows.” And yes, that grieves me.
    Parents in developing countries also know that education is the door to upward social movement and hopefully some financial security in their old age. If they sacrifice now, maybe the child will eventually go to university and get a “good job” later.
    We are here because someone, somewhere, was taught how to read, write, and think critically. They may have been in public schools. It may not have been. But, I think the basic fact is, someone needs to have been formally educated at some point to pass those skills on to the next generation.

    FWIW–I can’t wait to see my MIL (one of those third world parents) and learn some native herbology from her…even if she can barely write a sentence in her native language, she has much knowledge I can gain.

  20. KiwiRach says:

    unschooling doesn’t necessarily mean no formal schooling. It may mean a teen choosing to do the courses and exams necessary to gain entrance to the university of their choice. I myself decided to return to my home country (my parents were missionaries in SE Asia) for my final year of schooling because I knew that the MK school I attended would in no way prepare me for Uni in NZ, especially not for the professional course I wanted to study. I think unschooled children can make similar choices.

    I absolutely appreciate that homeschooling my children is a luxury. If both parents in our family had to work full time to make ends meet, then we couldn’t do it, even if one or both of us was working from home.

    The other thing to realise, obvious as it is, is that any form of homeschooling doesn’t have to be for a childs entire education career. Some families home-educate until 7, some until 12 or 13, some until the last two years of high-school needed for A-levels, some all the way through, some just homeschool for a few years in the middle to get over some ‘hump’ of awkward childhood development or a crisis. I imagine that for our family we will unschool until the boys reach their teenage years and then we will start to seriously evaluate what qualifications they want to gain and set about gaining them in the way that’s best for them, which may mean sending them to school, or studying a curriculum by correspondance, or something else they think of themselves.

  21. Sharon says:

    Sue, I think the problem I have is that coercion does imply force. Don’t get me wrong, I think your approach to parenting is fascinating and what you’ve said about self-coercion interesting. I have no doubt some kids could do extremely well that way. I also have a disabled child who would not, and an able bodied child who would not. I guess I find it hard to have someone use the language of coercion, rather than something more neutral, while claiming they aren’t being judgemental – but maybe I’m being judgemental as well, and perhaps unfairly so.

    All of us, for example, have coerced our children to walk upright, wear clothing at least some of the time, and probably show certain social standards (I don’t mean to assume anything, but I’m guessing there are public acts your children are not permitted to engage in, right?) We know for a fact that not all human societies require these things, or assume them. Coercion, though, isn’t the right word, I don’t think – or perhaps sometimes it is.


  22. Sharon says:

    MamaElijah – I guess I don’t see that anyone here has suggested that these kinds of parenting should be universal. In _Depletion and Abundance_ when I write about schooling, one of the things I point out is that the continuum of home and public schooling is just that, and given an unstable society, it is important to note both that any homeschooler may want or need to enter formal schooling, but also, more on topic for this blog, individuals and communities (with emphasis on the latter) need to recognize that large scale busable school systems with huge energy intensive requirements may not last forever, and have plans for homeschool/community schooling.

    I agree with what you say – I think public education has vast flaws and some deep advantages. That said, however, I do think that virtually every school in the US and probably in most developed countries suffers from the wrong assumptions about what the future holds – they are preparing for a globalized industrial future. I take Sue’s point about needing different skills seriously – there’s no empirical reason why it is more important to learn calculus than plant identification and uses. That said, however, I’d like to think there’s really no meaningful barrier to doing both.


  23. MamaElijah says:

    Sharon, I completely agree that our schools are not preparing children for the future that we believe will be. In my specialization, I work on basic reading skills and critical thinking in literature; that is some comfort to me that these skills will always be very necessary. I wish that there was a greater focus on real skills–getting raised beds growing at our middle school this year was a real challenge, and even they are looking quite sick. There is a huge disconnect, but of course we hold the minority view.
    I think the real trigger for me, as a frequent reader but never commenter–was Sue’s comment that she believes all children could benefit from unschooling. And in that, I totally disagree. Sadly.

  24. Christina says:

    MamaElijah “We are here because someone, somewhere, was taught how to read, write, and think critically. They may have been in public schools. It may not have been. But, I think the basic fact is, someone needs to have been formally educated at some point to pass those skills on to the next generation. “

    I have read in many places that the literacy rate in the United States prior to the institution of public education was over 90%, and many feel that the correlation (or even causation) is very strong between the high literacy rate and the success of our political revolution in 1776. What you call “formal education” may have looked like modern teaching – but it may also have looked like Ben Franklin, living a life full of books and experiences and mentors.

    That “formal education” (whatever the manifestation) was successful because it had extraordinarily high value to individuals and within the culture. Nowadays, it seems very clear that what is held in high esteem is merely the appearance or process of education, over the substance. The formalized system of public schooling was established for very specific motives of economics: something needed to be done with children of the lower classes so that their parents could work (in factories, etc.), and also so that the children themselves were not taking jobs from adults. Child labor laws and public schooling are a hand-in-hand development. (See JT Gatto’s Underground History of American Education.)

    I agree with both you and Sue about unschooling. I do truly believe that all children would seriously benefit from unschooling – the geniuses, the delayed, the “lazy”, the average, the kinesthetic, the artists – ALL of them. But I agree with what I think you are saying – and I think Sue and other unschoolers also agree – that not all parents would be able to unschool their children. The parents themselves need to be at some fundamental level of both education and parental intelligence – not degrees or diplomas, but literacy and numeracy and the ability to nurture and strew. I don’t think any unschooler would argue that there are self-named unschoolers out there who are truly unparenting and uneducating, who by their presence perpetuate this stereotype and who cause damage to the wider unschooling movement. The compounding tragedy is that most people can’t get past the perception that visibility, no matter how small the minority, makes something representative: If I can see it, it must be universal.

  25. Sharon says:

    Christina, how would a child like my severely autistic eldest benefit from unschooling. He would be one of all children, right? And his parents are neither illiterate nor innumerate? He’s a kid who would happily bounce his ball all day and play the same music over and over again – not until he gets bored and decides to learn other things, but every day.

    The implication that all parents who are not illiterate or innumerate and all children would benefit from homeschooling seems to be problematic to me. I don’t feel the need to attack unschooling, but I am wary of one solution for everyone strategies.


  26. Christina says:

    Sharon, I think Eli would benefit along with all the other kids because unschooling is not the same as unparenting or uneducating. It’s a philosophy or a principle, not a technique. I may be off base, but I don’t believe that Eli’s teachers (or his parents) actually coerce him into doing the things he does, which are not bouncing a ball all day? Rather, his life was/is structured so that other things are normal, are part of the rhythm of his day?

    I see unschooling simply as believing that the child is the agent of their own destiny, a full individual, rather than an offshoot of the parents. The parents have the task of nurturing the child as they are, rather than fitting them into a preconceived mold of education (or anything else). You have a story about Eli as a flower, and I think that story perfectly describes what unschooling is about. There are plenty of families unschooling autistic children and children with other special needs.

    I have to get back to packing for the road home, but I wanted to point out that I did not say that all kids should be unschooled, that other choices should be taken away, etc. I simply said I believed that all kids would benefit from unschooling, that it was a principle which application was limited by the parents and not by the children. I’ve no doubt that in some other reality, Sandra Dodd, arbiter of unschooling, could be Eli’s mother and unschool him successfully as she has her developmentally normal kids. But you don’t, you chose something else that works for your family and works for Eli, and I think that’s fine. I didn’t choose that path either; I’m just a plain ol’ eclectic homeschooler who’s gotta get the cargo box loaded before the rain starts :-)

  27. Sharon says:

    In the case of my son, he is at times required to do things he doesn’t want to do. For example, Eli doesn’t speak easily – we try and find ways to let him communicate without spoken language, but there are skills that are needed by him for safety, and good health, and also as a matter of courtesy, so that other people don’t come to resent his failures of politeness. As someone who will probably always need the aid of others, it is really important that those others don’t find him to be a burden, because quite honestly, the quality of their response to him is totally different when people don’t like you. In most people’s case this may be a quality of life issue in some measure, but for a disabled person who may someday live under the care of others (I hope it will always be someone who loves him, but parents don’t live forever and I don’t know the future), I’ve seen exactly how unrewarding disabled people are treated vs. those who can master social skills. Eli doesn’t perceive the need for this – but I’m not willing to sacrifice his safety and health in the future because other people do the absolute minimum for him – or even abuse him, which does happen.

    My son feels no need to toilet train – on the other hand, I’d really like him to be toilet trained, for both his sake (both in a social and physical sense it would be easier on him) and also for mine (because I don’t really love changing him). It has been a long transition, but is simply one that wouldn’t have happened without parental insistence. Again, this is also an investment in long term health and safety, both because of skin breakdown issues, and also because incontinent disabled people are harder to place and employ.

    Whenever possible we work with incentives, his own enthusiasms, etc… but there are times when he must be constrained. And Eli, while an extreme example in some ways, is just a variation of the child spectrum – I believe strongly in granting children as much independence and autonomy as you can and as is safe, but I don’t have a problem constraining that autonomy when I can see things my kids can’t.


  28. Rebekka says:

    I find this a very interesting topic, but from perhaps a slightly different perspective. Sharon, you’re lucky enough to have work that means you can combine it with homeschooling. But most people don’t, and (I know you’re not doing this, but some of the commenters are) I find it entirely problematic to assume that children are better off with a (almost always female) parent focused on their education instead of on using their own education.

    To me, that puts children at the centre of their world, which I don’t believe is a healthy place for a child, and it makes an educated adult into a satellite of a child. I’m deeply uncomfortable with this as a concept. Should a mother who loves her job – or a father, for that matter, but it’s usually the mother – give it up because “all children would benefit from unschooling”? What makes her wants and needs and benefit so unimportant??

    I think it’s a lovely idea if you can combine it with work that’s important to you, and model for your children the importance of useful work that you enjoy, but if not… it’s modelling for children the relative unimportance of women, and that women should sacrifice their own needs for others. And that’s a lesson I personally wouldn’t want to be teaching.

  29. Sharon says:

    Rebekka – There are a number of things in your argument I don’t necessarily agree with. The first is that the parents should always be – and always are – female. I think one of the fascinating things I see is that in many liberal homeschooling families (the Christian homeschooler’s movement is rather different) there’s a great range of gender role division – and a lot of male homeschoolers. I see more fathers doing the work of homeschooling than I see fathers doing the work of transporting their kids to school in my area.

    I also think the idea that only professional, paid work “uses” education is a really false one – we live in a culture that tends to see the end point of education is remuneration, but that’s a comparatively recent worldview, and it is not, I think, inherently true. Many people don’t use their education in their professional endeavors, and many people who don’t engage in professional endeavors make fine use of their education – the idea that education exists purely for economic value is wrong, I think.

    I think this comes back, for me, to the larger question of whether women and men are more free when they work for corporate america, or when they work for their own benefit. It is conventional, of course, to argue the former – that women’s freedom is primarily about economic issues, and best expressed in the formal workforce. But I’ve been arguing for years (and so have many feminists – see, for example Mies and Thomas’s _The Subsistence Perspective_ and Shiva’s _Ecofeminism_ and Shannon Hayes’ _Radical Homemakers_) that that’s not really true, that it is a by-product of corporate culture.

    So I don’t think that subsistence and domestic labor, of which a portion might be unschooling or some other form of homeschooling does necessarily either involve the subsumation of all parental desires, nor the placing of children in a position that they don’t require. The idea that the needs of children and their parents are fundamentally always in conflict – that caring for them and educating them is mind-numbing drudgery from which women and men must be freed is, I think, a compelling argument by corporations for the externalization of the costs of parenting, and it may be true in a world where most subsistence and domestic labor have been erased or outsourced to machines and the poor, but it isn’t inherently true, if you recompose your life to include those elements.

    Yes, as Barbara Ehrenreich rightly points out, there’s no society in the world that has ever been able to give women only the work of raising their children – but that doesn’t mean that homeschoolers only do that work.


  30. Rebekka says:

    I think I have not communicated my concerns very clearly.

    I don’t think working for corporate America (or indeed corporate anywhere else, since I’m not in America) is particularly important. And I *certainly* don’t think education is all about economic value. If I did, I probably wouldn’t have studied (or still be studying) history.

    And I definitely agree with you that you have more freedom when you work for yourself. And I don’t have a problem with home schooling in itself, where it can be combined with a parent doing other meaningful work (and by meaningful work, I guess when I think about it, I include food production, but don’t really include dusting or ironing!)

    And I certainly don’t think that the needs of children and parents are or should be in conflict. Definitely, absolutely not.

    What I don’t think is that children should be the centre of a household around which everything revolves, because I don’t think that’s a psychologically healthy position for a child. The adults in a household should be its centre. That doesn’t mean I think anyone’s needs are in conflict.

  31. Naomi says:

    I don’t really like the labelling in the home education arena – whether thats unschooling, “school at home”, montessori, pick your poision ;) I think it creates a devisiveness that only ever puts all families seeking to educate their children at home at a disadvantage.

    I prefer the term “free-range learning” :) We provide information, opportunity and encouragement, and the kids take full advantage of it. It works for our kids so far – the eldest in public school (not our, or her, wish), and the babies who are free-ranging as we speak :)

    Rebekka, I strongly disagree that the adults should be the centre of the household. I don’t think the child should be either. It is the FAMILY that should be the centre of the household – this means that everyone, including the adults, have to compromise at times to make sure the needs of the entire family are met.

    I don’t consider it a waste of my education to be part of the learning experiences of my children. To me, and I think to many home learning families, that *is* productive, meaningful work. Of course, if I didn’t feel that way, I doubt I would choose to do it ;) so perhaps there is an inherent bias amongst home learning families in that regard. I also find “homemaking” productive and meaningful. Not always enjoyable, but certainly productive, and a valuable learning tool. You may not find it so (I have many friends who don’t lol), but *I* do – so free range learning here IS combined with “meaningful” work. It’s just that your idea of meaningful and mine differ. There isn’t anything wrong with that, unless one of us decides that the other one should change their ways simply to fit with our own ideas, of course…

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