If you're like me and I'm guessing lots of other homeschool parents, the idea of unschooling (not following a formalized approach to learning) may fill you with both intrigue and panic -- it sounds great, but do I really trust the process, and if it's my responsibility to educate this kid, am I letting him or her down? Will friends or family think I'm lazy, or worse, will they think my kid is lazy, or just not smart?
After many years of pondering these questions, and in some cases agonizing over whether or not unschooling is even a good idea, I have come to a couple of conclusions which I will share with you here in the hopes that it may help someone else think through the potential pros and cons.
It depends on the child. For me, this became the key to evaluating unschooling for my children. Years of watching at very close range how my two boys live and learn was critical to my understanding of how human beings learn in general, and how different one person can be from another.
The older one is a very visual, linear thinker. He likes order and he doesn't mind structure, in fact he prefers it. If he doesn't have structure, he'll create it for himself. He learns by charts and graphs and reading...he loves to read.
The younger one is a kinesthetic learner -- he likes to move around a lot. Sitting still for more than thirty-minutes becomes painful. If he were in school that might be called ADHD. He doesn't have ADHD because he can concentrate on tasks for hours -- as long as it's something that interests him. I wonder how many children, in particular boys, have been branded and drugged for this very same "problem."
It depends on how you think about learning. Do you believe learning is life-long and on-going and that most things of value that you have learned actually occurred outside of a classroom or at a later time in your life? If so, why not apply this to children? Why should they have to wait until they are 30 or 40 years old to figure out what their dreams are? Maturity is often delayed in our society because we have a tendency to infantilize our children, believing that they "shouldn't grow up too fast."
Even universities are realizing that students don't retain information well, or really even learn anything, by sitting in lectures. A trend toward "active learning" is threatening to topple a 600 year style of teaching, as profiled in Harvard Magazine's Twilight of the Lecture (March-April 2012). The article goes on to state that an Arizona professor had devised a test which checked students' understanding of one of the most fundamental concepts (of physics) and astonishingly the results revealed that their introductory courses had taught them "next to nothing." Why? Because the information was never applied to anything concrete -- it was only fact memorization.
It's ok to re-evaluate your decisions about homeschooling any time you think it may be having a negative effect on your child. Let me talk about my youngest again to give you an idea of what I mean by this. I could tell early on that he was a candidate for unschooling. He was not interested in sitting down and doing formal lessons at age four -- something my oldest only occasionally resisted at the same age. I was really bummed that first year of pre-k when he would rather be playing than going through our pre-school curriculum (yes, pre-school curriculum, the term makes me shudder now).
Thankfully, I let my instincts be my guide, and we rarely "did" formal pre-school that first year. Kindergarten was a little different, he seemed willing to go through some of the workbooks, but phonics frustrated him and he didn't read fluently until he was six. But when he began to read, he never looked back. I didn't freak out and worry that he didn't read at four and I decided that if we only worked on reading for 10 minutes a day for a year that it was just fine by me. Formal math lessons have also elicited frustration and tears, and that is something that we continue to work on...changing approach and backing off when I hear things like, "I can't do this, I'm stupid."
This summer, he started drawing, just out of the blue, drawing and drawing pretty well for a 10 year old. For a couple of weeks he drew every day, sometimes not looking up from his sketch pad for hours (see Lessons From the Library).
Within a few weeks of the drawing he became interested in making stop-motion videos using Legos and Lego mini-figs and a light went off in my brain that made everything I've been witnessing the last six years make ever so much more sense. Something he has always done is imaginary play with figures...he will act out elaborate scenes in his head and can do this quietly and uninterrupted for hours. At some point, maybe within the last year or so, I decided that as long as he was creatively engaged in an activity of this type, that I would never force him to "do school." Eventually, he would tire of the movie-making in his mind and wander over and start his math. I just wasn't going to insist that he break his concentration and start to do something else that I deemed more valuable. To me, the video making just became a natural extension of the imaginary play, and through the play he is learning.
His latest video prompted math ("If a frame is so many seconds and I want my video to be so many minutes long, how many frames do I need?"), script-writing and document creation (he normally detests writing, but happily sat down on a Saturday to write a one-page script for his 1:36 minute video), and use of movie-making software, including inserting voice overs and sound effects. I wonder if I had made him stop his free-play to "come do school" if he would have arrived at this same place? It's a question that's probably impossible to answer with any degree of certainty.
The important lesson for me has been to honor the unschooling tendencies of my youngest child. I don't need to feel good about myself by forcing an agenda on him that doesn't work.
Will we continue to re-evaluate as he grows older? I'm sure we will. I know I'm looking forward to watching the next big thing un-fold.
Infographics by www.onlinecollege.org and can be found in its entirety at Homeschool World.