“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” – Plato
When you were young, were you completely psyched about going to school every day? Were you chomping at the bit to learn more of what the schools were teaching you? Unless you went to a very different kind of school, your experience was probably a lot like mine.
I was bored. There were very few topics that I could get excited about. In high school I remember drinking copious amounts of Coke and taking NoDoz (caffeine in a pill) to make it through the day.
The Easy Path
At some point I learned that the easiest way to get through school successfully (I was an A student) wasn’t to read all the books and study hard. That was a complete waste of a lot of time.
I learned to read the teachers. What does that mean? I taught myself how to take notes in class (in almost perfect outline form) that boiled down what the teacher thought we should know. What a teacher writes on the board is only about a quarter of what they think is important. I could tell by the way they expressed themselves what they thought was important. What was in the books and our interpretations of that information were completely irrelevant. For tests, I would study my abbreviated notes and pass with flying colors.
At the same time, my younger brother struggled to do all of his assigned reading and other homework and got C’s. He didn’t pay attention in class very well.
I graduated high school near the top of my class and only remember reading one book (Catcher in the Rye). I didn’t like to read until I was well into my 30’s.
It wasn’t until college that I realized what I had been doing (learning teachers and not subjects). Realizing how crazy it was, I tested my theory in a couple classes. I read the books and took the tests based on my interpretations. I got a C- and a D. Fortunately one of the professors realized that this was an aberration and allowed me to take the test again. This time I answered the questions based on the notes I had taken in class. I got an A.
Because of these and a number of other similar experiences throughout my schooling adventures, I thought I would take a different route with my own children. I didn’t want to subject them to these kinds of experiences in their early, formative years.
Finding a Better Way
My husband and I spent tons of time discussing what we don’t like about the schooling system in America. We knew there had to be a better way so I started some extremely in-depth research into homeschooling. I read all I could (and continue to). I joined local homeschooling groups and talked with many of the parents and homeschooled children. I had found our better way.
One thing that jumped out at me during this research phase and later that was consistent with all the homeschooled children I spoke with or observed: They all had a way of speaking and expressing themselves that seemed unusual to me initially. They were excited. They were comfortable around adults and kids of all ages. They were supportive of others. They generally used vocabulary that seemed a bit ahead of what kids their age (whatever age they were) should use. There was just something about them that I couldn’t put my finger on that made them stand out.
Unlike traditional schooling, homeschooling offers unlimited variety in how to teach and learn. On one end of the spectrum are programs offered by schools (many public school systems offer them) which is basically “school at home.” The school provides a computer, internet connection, all the books, lessons and supplies and access to a teacher. Students are tested with written or oral tests on a regular basis and progress through the grades. These programs are great for parents who are new to homeschooling who don’t want to “mess things up” and need some guidance. They’re also great for kids who thrive on lots of structure.
A Different Approach
On the other end of the spectrum is unschooling. This is what we chose. Technically, unschooling is (according to Wikipedia):
A range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience, and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities, often initiated by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. The term “unschooling” was coined in the 1970’s and used by educator John Holt, widely regarded as the “father” of unschooling.
A simpler definition is child-directed education.
What??? Let kids direct their own education! Are you crazy!?!? They’ll sit around and play video games all day, if you let them!
I beg to differ.
You’re Not Qualified to Teach
Many parents feel like they aren’t qualified to teach their own children. Only someone with a teaching degree (obtained from another school) could possibly know how to teach. That’s complete BS.
Before kids are put in a school, how do they learn? They spend years with their parents and caregivers who work with them as they happily learn how to crawl, walk, speak and, sometimes, read. They learn hand-eye coordination. They learn so much. And who taught them all of this? They didn’t sit at a desk to learn it. There wasn’t a licensed teacher present.
They played and experimented and tried new things. They fell down and got back up with a smile on their face after falling for the zillionth time. Their parents were there with them, helping them along the way. The kids try different ways until they find a way that works for them and the parents guide and support them. Unschooling.
As a side note, I find it quite interesting how many teachers homeschool their children.
What’s The Point of School Anyway?
OK, that’s great for babies and toddlers but what about older kids? They have to know certain things to get by in the world.
How much of what you learned in school do you actively use today? Probably very little yet you spent countless hours being taught mind-numbing amounts of facts, statistics and other information. And how much fun was that? Yes, there’s a correlation between what’s fun and what you retain.
Let’s step back for a minute and question what the point of going to school really is. Given how schools and the education process work, I think schools train little people how to be good little employees. There’s a great article at Deliberate Receiving that covers this which I highly recommend. And some teachers chimed in with comments there.
As soon as kids start kindergarten, they’re taught to sit down, shut up, speak when spoken to, give the right answers, don’t screw up, don’t take risks and generally do as they’re told. Tell me if I missed something but that sounds like my last 20+ years in corporate America.
The Dawn of a New Era
As an adult I’m discovering that there are much better, happier, more free ways of living. I’m realizing that I need to empower my kids to live in this happier world and live on their own terms. I don’t want them to live their lives in accordance with anyone else’s expectations, like I did. I want them to have fun trying and learning new things that they’re interested in. I want them to enjoy “failing” because it’s a critical part of the learning process.
There’s another great article at Zen Habits where Leo Babauta talks about why he’s unschooling his six children.
The world is changing too fast for schools to keep up. Colleges acknowledge that, when someone chooses a major their freshman year, most of what they learn over the ensuing four or five years is obsolete by the time they graduate.
Instead of learning about things, we and our children need to learn how to learn and how to solve problems. Because that’s what really happens in life. The most successful people are those who discover problems and then come up with creative ways to solve those problems.
Many adults feel like they’re stuck in a career track that they chose when they were twenty. Read this to see what I think of that idea. In case you’re wondering how you could completely change course in midlife, read this amazing article by Michael Ellsberg, author of The Education of Millionaires. I think this approach should replace college.
How To Unschool
Back to unschooling. You’re probably asking yourself: OK, this sounds like a great idea but how do you do it? Basically, you just do life. It’s that simple.
Our kids are 2, 6 and 8 years old. They are each very different. They think differently, act differently, have different levels of energy and learn differently. As their parents, my husband and I are in the best position to know how to work with each of them in ways that will draw out their unique skills, passions and abilities.
We don’t use any set curriculum or guidance. We go with the flow and trust that we’re doing our best. We’re both very intelligent people who have accomplished much in our lives. Why wouldn’t we be their best teachers?
How do we gauge success? By the smiles and excitement from our kids. Seeing how happy they are to learn and solve problems every day.
Our 8 year old son LOVES dinosaurs. I lost count when he exceeded 100 life-like dinosaur figures. He has had this passion for years. He knows the proper name for all of his dinos. He made dino footprints in clay with about 15 of his figures and put the dried bits of clay in a bowl. The next day he pulled each of them out and correctly identified which footprint went with which dino and why. He scoffs at toy makers who put the wrong number of claws on their T Rex toys (there should only be two). He learns to read by sitting with us as we read his dino books to him. I certainly have to question the concept of using phonics to learn to read because he could read names like ‘brachiosaurus’ before he could read ‘dog.’
He’s learning to read a calendar and count by counting down to memorable days (Christmas, birthdays and ‘toy days’), something he’s always excited about.
Today he asked me why people don’t fall out of their seats on a roller coaster when it goes upside down. Instant physics class as I explain the concept of centrifugal force to him.
We don’t have cable or satellite hooked up to our TV. Instead we have a laptop hooked up with Netflix. When the kids want to watch a certain movie, they have to spell and write it out in the search bar. When our 6 year old daughter wants to watch something but doesn’t know how to spell it, she’ll ask me for help. I turn to my 8 year old and ask him to help her. He loves helping and they’re learning together.
We watch lots of educational shows on Netflix and talk about them as we’re watching them.
All the kids love to help me with baking (breads, pancakes, muffins, etc.). They’re learning math, fractions and a little chemistry as we assemble the ingredients. And they’re learning how to cook and enjoy it.
We take them to the library and let them pick out books that interest them. Our 6 year old loves horses and big cats. She loves to draw and paint horses and is getting to be quite good.
Our kids are learning about nature and biology simply through their love of animals and a desire to know more. They ask endless questions when we take hikes through the woods around our house. These are our biology, geology and other science classes.
Remember earlier in this post where I said that I noticed something different about the speech and mannerisms of homeschooled kids? About a year ago I started to notice the exact same things in my son. He’s energetic, excited, articulate, interested. It’s a beautiful thing.
There are times when we’ve tried to sit our son down at a table with paper and pen and have him write or read in the ways most traditional schools do. With him, it doesn’t work. He has too much great energy to sit still like that and, as soon as he’s ‘contained’ this way, his brain tends to shut down. Instead, he learns while he’s moving and talking and excited. And it’s amazing how much he absorbs.
On the other hand, our 6 year old daughter loves to sit in front of a blank Word document on the computer. She usually starts spelling everyone’s names followed by words like horse, cougar and pony. When I asked her to teach me a few things, I was amazed at her powers of perception when she started showing me how letters and words looked and sounded alike or not alike and how they worked together in her mind. I was amazed.
And what about socialization? The kids are out and about almost every day. My husband usually brings the 6 and 8 year olds with him to work (he’s a therapeutic farrier – basically a vet for horse’s feet). They comfortably interact with kids and adults everywhere they go. There’s no peer pressure or bullying because they come from a place of love and acceptance and they’re happy with themselves.
My Vision for a Happier Future
All of this may be too weird, too unstructured for most. There are definitely kids who need more structure but this is what works best for us.
Our goals for our kids are different than the goals our parents had for us. Growing up, I felt that the expectations for me were to get good grades, go to college and get a good education so I could get a good job. And that’s what I did. And seven years into that “good job” I started to question everything. It didn’t feel right.
I don’t want our kids to get that far down the path and realize they’ve been living up to someone else’s expectations. I want them to know that they can truly do anything they want any way they want. I want them to be excited about life. I want them to live the lifestyles that work for them. I want them to be passionate about whatever it is they choose to do. I want them to be Who They Are. I want them to be happy being themselves.
If you would like to learn more about homeschooling and unschooling, there are endless resources across the internet. One site that I like is The Natural Child Project. I would also recommend any book by John Hunt (Teach Your Own is a classic).
Here’s an awesome post on unschooling at Zen Habits with a comprehensive list of resources at the end of it: The Beginner’s Guide to Unschooling
For single and working parents out there, homeschooling is definitely an option. It doesn’t take nearly as much time as you think and the older the kids are, the more learning they do on their own. Back when I was initially educating myself I found a number of sites and forums on that specific topic. I won’t list any as I know they’ve changed and I’m sure there are many more now.
If you have experience with homeschooling or unschooling, I would love to hear from you! And if you’re curious, post a question and I’ll do my best to answer it.