Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The First of Three Conversations: Unschooling?

The subject of our children's education has come up a lot recently. We are considering moving and often the possible location comes down to the school district, which inevitably leads to these words escaping my lips, "I could homeschool."  My husband knows exactly what this means - I want to homeschool, and I'm slowly getting him used to the idea.  And as always, he is supportive with one caveat - he's concerned about my organization.  To be honest, I am as well.  In my mind, I have 2 years before I have to get started, but let's face it there is no start date when you educate at home.  So I have started thinking about it, picking up books, etc.

One of the issues I am most interested in is homeschooling v. unschooling.  I have a hard time setting a strict curriculum and yet, the idea of completely going with the flow is daunting.  Initially I perceived unschooling as homeschooling without the rigid structure of a homeschool curriculum, but this segment on ABC got me thinking:  Unschooling: No Tests, No Books, No Bedtime

I'm not thrilled with the incredibly negative undertone to the piece, but I'll admit that I understand the skepticism.  The Martins certainly didn't meet my expectation of unschooling.  Now it could be the poor journalism at play, but it strikes me that this radical form of unschooling may prove as detrimental as the hidden curriculum of traditional schooling.  The featured family promotes no discipline, no structure, and no schooling, arguing that children don't learn best when rigidly structured.  I agree and disagree.

I don't think this is the best way for kids to learn.  Sitting in desks, reading the same books, completing workbooks, and watching videos.  I know because I used to try to teach those kids, and, as Wendy Priesnitz points out, "the reality is that (contrary to what most people prefer to believe) even school kids decide what they want to learn and when. They can’t help it; it’s a prerequisite of learning. Oh, they might memorize some stuff in order to pass a test or otherwise regurgitate on demand, but that’s not learning."  Putting 30+ kids in a small room and throwing info at them doesn't really teach them much.  Expecting that you can create a structured curriculum that meets the learning needs of every student is foolish.  Educators know they don't teach every student their classroom, because interest in any particular subject or lesson has to be intrinsically driven at least in part.  I can have the most fascinating lesson plan ever planned.  It can engage 19 out of 20 students, but one will still be daydreaming or texting, or drawing in a notebook.

But do we throw structure out completely as in the above segment?  No.  Structure does not mean rigidity.  It means foundation.  We can allow our children to explore their interests within a simply structured education - planning activities, participating in co-ops, creating "lessons" based on their interests.  There is no need to buy an entire homeschool series or give home tests on biology.  But it is imperative that we educate our children according to their needs and interests.

My own interest in unschooling and self-education is practical.  My college experience was spent exploring different subjects, taking a smattering of this and that.  My husband, possibly the most intelligent person I know, got a useless degree in a subject that was interesting to him at the time.  If we had approached college with a stronger sense of self and a greater level of experience in the world, we might not have squandered those years.  College shouldn't be the first time a person exerts true control over their education.  It's too damn expensive for one thing.  All that said, I probably still wouldn't have wound up with a practical degree but I would have rounded out my education to better encompass my interests.  College is essentially paying for unschooling after all, which is probably why so many walk away without degrees or, worse yet, liberal arts degrees.

So as the country engages in a debate over the validity of unschooling, I'd argue the heart of the problem lies both in the labels and the expectations.  The very term unschooling is problematic, because the prefix "un" can mean non as well as indicate a reversion.  So are we nonschooling our children, or are we trying to undo our own educations?  Our own educational baggage can play a role in the decision to unschool but it shouldn't dictate their actual education.  Taking charge of a child's education is a huge responsibility.  As a former teacher, I wanted the best for all my students.  I wanted them to stand on their desks and proclaim their admiration for my sacrifices with Whitman.  And every year I was rewarded with a few students I really reached.  I only reached them because they were open to the subject though.  I expect the backlash against unschooling we see from the media and main stream society is directly related to this responsibility and pressure.

I suspect more people want a better education for their children and recognize that schools are failing them, but taking on a child's education is no small matter.  There are jobs and paychecks and bills that all seem to come first.  After all, we don't want to be unhoming.  But at the end of the day, the majority of us could choose to teach our children but it requires sacrifice of time, money, ourselves if we are to do it right.  Would you be willing to give up a family vacation or drive an old car to stay home and teach your kids?  Probably not, because we have been programmed to believe kids belong in school and we belong at work so we can live the dream of owning our own cookie cutter house in the suburbs.  And while we do this we complain about hating our jobs and cubicles and mourn the what-if's of our lives, and what we need to recognize is that this is all part of the same vicious cycle of institutionalization.  You are teaching your children regardless of how they are schooled.  We are telling them where to fit, but what if we could teach them to carve a space for themselves that was uniquely theirs?  What if we could break the cycle of institutionalization and inspire individuality thus allowing our children truly fulfilling lives?  This should be our motivation when considering our children's educations.  And it will involve structure and sacrifice, but it will be worth it.

Disclaimer: I have two liberal arts degrees.


Kelly Hogaboom said... [Reply to comment]

Would you be willing to give up a family vacation or drive an old car to stay home and teach your kids?

Yup, and we do. :-)

Jenn said... [Reply to comment]

I'm not even sure what vacation is and I rock my Previa :)

mamapoekie said... [Reply to comment]

Why would it involve sacrifice? That's such a kyriarchical view of parenting again.
Is it a sacrifice to stop adhering to the detriments of develloped society? I beg to differ.

And what do you mean by structure? Every person, even without being forced, falls into a structure of his own. Now that may not be the one society expects you too, but it will be yours, is that not infinately better than being dominated from the womb onward

Another little note, the notion that parents 'teach' their children anything is again a remains of institutionalized society. We do not teach them. We model and guide, they choose what they learn.

And yes, I would be willing to give up almost anything to ensure my children a better future and maybe change the world in the process

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

why do you say "worse yet, to have liberal arts degree" when you have two? I am working towards a liberal arts degree and I think it's great.

Kelly Hogaboom said... [Reply to comment]

I super-like what you have to say here. The idea we U/Sers or H/Sers "sacrifice" a bunch of stuff is a bit off. Esp. given most parents/carers are "sacrificing" by the very decision of birthing, raising, feeding etc. their kids. Why draw the line in the sand that hints it's sort of "too far" to homeschool?

Jenn said... [Reply to comment]

Londonstar, it's called sarcasm. But, you'll get the joke in 5 years or so.

I think its hard to convey tone on the internet. I'm really working through my thoughts and addressing what the reaction is going to be from well meaning friends/family. If you knew me in real life, you would understand we don't fit into any type of mainstream, cookie cutter mold but I do believe t live that lifestyle we have given up some things we would like to have. I would really like to own my own home, but that is simply not possible unless I go to work. I understand how thinking of this as a sacrifice is reminiscent of institutionalization, but wanting a stable homestead for a garden and clothesline is one of my few dreams in life.

And I'm looking at this from a philosophical viewpoint and asking what prevents most people from h/sing and u/sing. You may not view it as a sacrifice or a matter of choice, but it is your choice.

In terms of the use of the term teaching - it means to give instruction or to model/guide. You are absolutely right that they choose what they learn, but I think we are teaching them whether it is purposeful or not.

It seems like some are reading this as an attack on unschooling when it is actually supporting it.

My Feminine Mind said... [Reply to comment]

I actually loved the part about sacrifice. Trying to live simply with a one-income salary can be tough sometimes, just because of the pressure to keep up with the Joneses. Like Jen, I really want to own our own home, but not possible right now. Even though I don't want to value such superficial things, there is still that pressure from the predominant culture. So this was a reminder of all the things I have that many others sacrifice: a lot of quality time with my children, an excellent marriage, space in my life to reflect and pursue my passions.

mamapoekie said... [Reply to comment]

Oh dear, I hope you didn't take my initial comment wrong. I love what you write.
To me it seems as if you are still searching. I just wanted to point out that some of the language you were using was rather biased, just as sth to think about. I didn't mean to offend you or be defensive

mamapoekie said... [Reply to comment]

Hi Kelly (are you South African?)
I think the general concept of parenting as sacrifice is wrong, it is something invented by our society. Traditional societies do not see parenting as choice or sacrifice, rather as life. What is a person without a child
and indeed home- and unschooling is a natural thing to do so why would it be more sacrificing than putting your child in school (which IS artificial).

All these ideas are just confirmations of capitalism and hasn't that system already proven that it doesn't make people happy?

Kelly Hogaboom said... [Reply to comment]

Hello! & no, I'm not South African. I added your blog to my feed reader as I like the way you think!

mamapoekie said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks Kelly

Jenn said... [Reply to comment]

Oh, I know how hard it is to convey tone on the internet. I am definitely still searching. It's sort of a catch 22, you know? I know inherently the way we are educating children is flawed but as a trained educator it's harder to let go of certain biases even when I'm trying to, they are sort of ingrained. I wish it was a little easier, but I'm working on it.

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