June 12, 2008

To Alistair (An Argument In Favor Of Unschooling)

I started writing a response to Alistair, who was kind enough to come back and elaborate on his earlier comment about unschooling being “woefully irresponsible” in his eyes, but then I realized I was running out of space and (on a more exciting note) I sounded like I knew what I was talking about, so I decided I’d better make it a regular post. (I really have got to take advantage of those moments when I sound like I know what I'm talking about!) I've struggled with explaining unschooling to people this past year. Usually I direct them to the web sites or blogs of more experienced, and more eloquent, people. I just can't seem to put into words why I think it's a great way to live--and a smart way to "teach." But Alistair seems to have helped me find my voice.

So here goes:
Thanks, Alistair, for coming back and explaining your views a bit more. I can see how you would think that. Honestly, I was very wary when we began this journey (it wasn’t even a year ago) and I'm only just starting to see how full Jerry’s education might be (very full indeed!), without looking like Education at all.

You wrote that by allowing Jerry to focus on the interests he already has (video games, animation, computers, etc.) he wouldn’t be exposed to other subjects and ideas. What's amazing is how all of the things he's interested in somehow link to ideas, concepts and subjects that are totally unrelated. For example, one online game he likes right now allows him to create volcanoes, tidal waves, and all kinds of other natural disasters (he could probably create other things but he prefers disasters...) and this brings up all kinds of questions about geology. He's reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series right now, which relates to the Greek Gods and mythology (with some architecture and history thrown in). He’s crazy about manga, which leads to art and drawing and Japanese history (he’s learning Japanese). I happen to be completely gaga over physics at the moment (an unexpected turn of events, I assure you!) so I'm constantly sharing what I'm learning with him and my excitement is contagious. We have a book called "Backyard Ballistics" with instructions for how to make rockets and potato cannons and other (kind of scary!) contraptions that all deal in some way with science. We’re really into this book right now and often find ourselves doing experiments where we create theories and hypotheses (though we just call it playing and talking). Even every day conversations or just listening to the radio brings up questions. We heard an ad on the radio yesterday that claimed "energy can't be stored" and Jerry wondered if that was true so we're finding out.

And do you really think school (I mean pre-university) is the best place to be exposed to new ideas? Really? It may seem that way if you think about it on a surface level, but if you go deeper and spend more time thinking about where and how you discovered the ideas and concepts that have shaped your life, my guess is they didn’t come from school. Or if they did happen to be things you discovered in school it was probably outside of school (or maybe at university) where your interest in those ideas and concepts was allowed to flourish.

You said understanding the concepts of competition and testing is important to adult life. As far as I can tell, in the adult world, tests seem to be restricted to university classrooms and the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles, for you foreigners!). And I’m not sure what there is to understand about them. There’s a question and you answer it. I think he already gets that. I know I’m being a little glib here but I honestly don’t think a kid needs to go to school to understand the concepts of testing. Competition abounds in school so maybe he’d get a competitive edge by being there but I doubt it. He’s not a very competitive kid and I’d be surprised if he turned into a very competitive adult. I don’t think going to school would change that. And really, I think he’ll garner all he needs to know about competition through his regular everyday interactions with people. Some people are competitive, some aren’t. Sometimes you have to step up and compete, sometimes you don’t. I’m confident he’ll figure that one out.


As far as school being an essential part of emotional development goes, I think interacting with people is very important. Less important is where that interaction takes place. In school, children spend a good deal of their time at desks, listening to teachers, with short bursts of time for real interaction in between classes and at lunch or recess. The interaction that comes from schooling at home is much more natural and much more similar to the interactions that take place in the adult world: there’s no segregation by age; no school bell to signal the end of an intriguing conversation (or game of tag); and people generally don’t pigeon-hole you into a role or social position that has little to do with who you are as a person and more to do with playground politics.

As far as the decision to keep a child home as a selfish act caused by separation anxiety goes: I guess there could be some mothers out there like that, but I’ve never met one. The homeschooling mothers I know don’t feel any more separation anxiety than the mothers I know who send their kids to school. But they do seem to relish their kids company a little more. There’s not as much of a separation between kid and parents. There’s more of a feeling that the family is a team. I think part of that comes from the fact that since the kids aren’t in school, there’s no pressure to think of parents as uncool. The homeschooled kids I’ve met enjoy their parents company but they also enjoy being with their friends. They seem to find a balance without deeming one or the other unfit. I think that’s pretty cool.

You mentioned that Steiner Schools practice the unschooling philosophy in a classroom setting. Believe it or not, my son went to a Steiner school for five years before we started homeschooling. It’s a common misconception that Steiner (or Waldorf, as they’re called in the States) schools allow a progressive, child-led style of learning. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, the concepts are taught based on where the children are developmentally but the school is extremely structured. There are lots of things I like about the Steiner philosophy but it’s very different from unschooling--very different! Completely bonzo different! But that is an entire post in and of itself!!

Thanks again, Alistair, for coming back and helping me to find my voice. And thanks readers (have I said lately that I love you guys?) for not verbally attacking Alistair for his differing opinion.

Now we are off to make taffy!!

1 comment:

Missy said...

When my daughter and I started becoming really interested in home/un schooling, our whole family was against it, everyone was saying my daughter would be stupid and a 'social outcast.' But since we started this I've seen how much interaction with kids she gets and how much learning she gets out of just watching her favorite T.V shows.
Although we are still trying to contact a homeschooling family, I believe she will get a good education, as good as any child in school, and as the smart people on this planet say: everyone has gaps in their education!