Saturday, November 14, 2009

Some Thoughts About Homeschooling, Unschooling and Gaps

I have some thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for years that I want to write into a cohesive essay that wraps it all up nicely and makes sense. Since I keep procrastinating writing it, it hasn't happened yet. So today I decided to post something short and just state my ponderings. I fear if I don't just write this in a rough form and publish it, it will be one of those ever-being-edited pieces.

I used to fear that saying some of this might offend some people, may anger them or may bring criticism and stress to me. However, I'm not certain that is the case.

I invite your thoughts about this topic. I await your feedback in the comments.


A fallacy of American public education is that the students get a thorough (and deep) education of what they need to know before adulthood. It seems that just about everyone realizes that there are gaps or that some material jumps from here to there, covers things too shallowly or fails to connect the dots. However the same people who know this tell themselves and others that the education system is a very good one. Not many parents think their school system is sub-par. Everyone thinks their schools are "one of the best". Yet when I ask some parents what their schools have taught their kids that year, they usually don't know, or can list just a couple of topics.

The same people who think the public school has gaps fear that homeschoolers will have gaps. The most troubling are the teachers, school administrators and the legislators and others with government jobs. I think they want to hold homeschoolers to a higher standard then the public schools. Most would be happier if homeschooled kids were enrolled into public school so they could "ensure" that a high quality education was being given, while out of the other side of their mouth they state the inadequacies of that same system. They are happy to accept gaps, shallow teaching "a mile wide and an inch deep" and "teaching to the test" yet don't want this to happen to homeschoolers. I find this double-standard odd.

The only sense I can make of it is that more trust is put in the "expert" professional teachers who have training to teach, so if gaps or an imperfect education occurs at their hands, it is acceptable to them. This makes no sense to me. Some of them consider it dangerous to risk that a homeschool parent-teacher has full control of the child's home education and that the child may have gaps. Often their concerns are based on imagined outcomes of imagined homeschooled students that exist "out there" rather than looking at real information about individual children.

I saw examples of proof of this mindset at a public hearing in Connecticut. Legislators heard stories from homeschooled students and their parents about what their home education consisted of and they grilled them about their experiences. Some replied that while that person's individual story is wonderful, surely they are the exception not the norm. Even when hearing story after story, some people still clung to a fear about vague homeschoolers that must exist "out there". I've come to believe this is in their imagination only. I bet that the few cases of real educational neglect are rare. And the 'just average' or failing students in public school are real statistics known to the schools and the government.

Few homeschoolers want to have gaps in their children's education. Gaps may occur due to pure oversight, ignorance on the parent's part. Sometimes a gap may occur because the parent didn't place much stock in teaching that topic. Or maybe they just run out of time. Or they think they have covered a topic deeply enough but someone else begs to differ.

Most homeschoolers and unschoolers say they want their children to learn how to learn. Some say they want their children to enjoy learning. Some say they want their children to have a curious mind. Most probably want their children to know how to research things they want and need to know about (extending this practice into adulthood ideally).

Some homeschoolers and unschoolers know the joy that can happen with deep learning on a topic. If this is in line with the child's own curiosity and if this is learner-driven then it seems like seventh heaven. This is the stuff that unschoolers dream about. Some homeschoolers pull their children back a bit. A parent recently shared a story about wanting to do Ancient History in one year but the entire year could have been only about Ancient Egypt due to her child's passion. After spending many months on it she pulled the child back and moved on with the homeschool lessons to other topics in history, leaving additional Egypt studies to the spare time. I had a very similar experience with my older son in his Kindergarten and First Grade year.

I have heard stories from unschoolers about some odd or obscure topics their children wanted to learn about and were allowed to spend tons of time doing. These have been things like teaching themselves Japanese and fully researching anime and manga at first but sometimes winding up more interested in Japanese culture and history in the end (way more than any public high school teaches). A teen I know has studied Japanese and is now learning Chinese and Hindi. Some of these homeschooled or unschooled kids may not be learning other topics that are typical for kids of that grade level compared to public school's scope and sequence. I have repeatedly heard a story of a local unschooled boy who spent years making origami and turned out just fine. Yet some who did this have gone on to attend good colleges and have good productive adult lives. How?

My latest theory is that a child with intense interests and deep curiosities does "learn how to learn". By being allowed to study what they want, to almost obsess on a topic, when this is internally driven, they teach themselves how to learn or have a little guidance from the parent on how to research or access information or opportunities. Sometimes in pursuit of this information or by seeking to do real work in the community these children and teenagers interact with subject matter experts in niche fields. In this way they interact with adults on a level that most middle school or high school students do not do at that age. If able to mentor or apprentice under adults, they learn specialized information as well as important social skills and indeed learn "how the real world works" as it relates to that field. A child who loves history and works at a living history museum with the public will learn a lot about mainstream Americans in their interactions with the visitors, for example!

Taking it to the next level, my theory about unschoolers in particular is that while they may have begun learning about topic X at a later age (reading, math, writing composition or something else typically taught in public school), but they do learn some of it, however much must be learned to get them to the place they want to be. That could be college or it could be some other life path. Some of what they may have struggled to learn in their homeschool or unschooling experience if the parent forced it on them was avoided. All negativity surrounding coercion to learn that topic was avoided. This allowed a more positive 'mental state' (for lack of a better descriptor) which may help the child's continued pursuit of learning in a positive way.

Unschoolers and homeschoolers who have a gap in a certain topic may never need that information. Depending on what the gap is, some things are good to know, some might be helpful to know, but some things may never be used in a practical way in one's adult life. Some topics may help a person better understand something else but are not always recognized as being problematic. For example if a student is weak on history or parts of history they may not realize that something happening in the US Government today is a violation of the US Constitution so they may not question the government's authority to do this new thing that some people oppose. Lacking information about the Crusades, a person may not realize that some people in today's world are still fighting that war, and that they themselves are seen as the enemy just for residing in a Christian nation.

Again I don't think any parents set out to have gaps intentionally.

In order to have time and energy to learn deeply and intensely about subjects, whether they are a more mainstream topic or something obscure, strange, or just go so deep as to be accused of being a 'nerd' or 'geek' by some people, it is a fair bet that the person will have gaps in some other area. There is only so much time in the day. When trying to live a normal life with family, extended family, having friends, doing Scouts and/or sports, and just living life, there is just so much time. So the thing is, I think gaps are inevitable.

The only way to try to avoid gaps is to force everything to be learned in a shallow manner. This brings us to the discussion about who decided what should be taught, how deeply and at what age or grade? There are many opinions of this. The more rigorous academic plans almost seem impossible to do comprehensively. Classical home education comes to mind.

Homeschooling parents sometimes find their children don't fit the mold of the ideal homeschooling method they chose for their children. Is it fair for me to push a classical home education focusing on a liberal arts education, heavy literature and an in-depth study of history on a son with a knack for science who desires to be an engineer? I have found that making time for special things like the FIRST LEGO League and the Science Olympiad with its bridge engineering competition got in the way of 'the basics". So what gives? Which thing should be focused on? Should we not build on our children's strengths, nurture their talents and use our homeschooling freedom to do such great educational experiences?

This brings me to unschoolers. The question of who is unschooling is problematic for me. An unschooler I know who wears the label proudly is doing heavy academics with curriculums, online classes and community college courses because the teen wants to work in computer science. Why does she get to use that label? Why is she welcomed with open arms into the unschooling community?

With my engineer wanna-be son, when I put a course in place for him to get him on track for college admissions for that major I have been told by others that I'm a "school at-homer" and a "traditional homeschooler" and that I'm doing "classical homeschooling". If we are going to be so strict with labels I don't think I'm living up to the classical homeschooling model enough and would have to hide for cover as an eclectic homeschooler.

When my three year old was teaching himself to read and wanted help at age four and begged for me to use "Alpha Phonics". An unschooler told me that because I was helping my child to read we were not unschooling. She also said that the age was too young for a child to read and that I may damage my son by letting him read, harming his eyes, specifically. What she must not understand is it is nearly impossible to stop a child from learning when they are learning things they want to learn.

I think what I'm doing is straddling the fence between unschooling and traditional schooling. I'm trying to give my kids a decent home education so they can function in society, such as being able to read, analyze what they read, have logical and critical thinking. I want a firm foundation in the three R's. Yet I want my kids to love learning, learn how to learn, and to have time to pursue their own interests (no matter how obscure or weird).

I want my kids to be able to pursue the path of their desire and if that includes college I need to explain to them the pathways, some take years. Rather than wait for my child at age 16 to teach himself what the path to an engineering degree is, I found out and told him. I'm structuring his home education in a way to pace out this learning to a reasonable and do-able, easier pace rather than a frantic scramble at the end. I'm trying to craft a unique education for my kids yet still meet the expectations of outside parties (colleges). I live in a state lenient about homeschool government monitoring--if it was tighter I'd have to deal with all that too.

If I am helping my son pursue his dream, am I not aiding him in unschooling? Only one of my friends said to me that she thinks I'm really an unschooler. Indeed that is the path I started out on when my kids were younger. I had read about unschooling and was greatly inspired to begin homeschooling by the most radical of unschoolers.

Some of the unschoolers I know are the most judgmental people I know in the homeschooling community. They like to pigeon-hole and label others, especially those they have decided are not in their circle. Some have told me they feel that certain other people in my local community are judgmental about them being unschoolers and they say they hate feeling judged. They say they want tolerance. Yet they judge the others and they are intolerant of the others. I honestly don't think they realize their hypocrisy.

This labeling and pigeon holing and casting out, excluding and including is all negative in my eyes. I wish it could all end. This is why I usually speak about homeschooling in a general way. When I say the word homeschool I mean everyone who is home educating, no matter what the method. I don’t' care how others homeschool, but would like their children to be functioning members of society as adults, not a burden on society. So whatever path they take, whatever they teach and why is up to them so long as they can function and so long as the children are not being neglected or harmed in any way in the process.

I like educational freedom. I want people to have choices. Yet those working toward a goal like college admissions for a certain degree have to straddle the fence between custom designing a life that includes taking full responsibility for the child's education with its myriad of options for different learning experiences and also fulfilling the expectations of others in the real world.

I find trying to straddle the fence very difficult. I have just two children with very different goals and learning abilities, different strengths and weaknesses. To have a customized experience for both is time consuming and takes a lot of energy. Past attempts to do the same work for both kids has not been good for either child so I don't know how larger families manage this to be honest. I believe in identifying weak areas and trying to boost them up. I believe in finding the strengths and talents and nurturing those too. I want my children to have their own interests and have time to pursue those. I want to cover the basics. I want my kids to do some unique things that schooled kids cannot do due to the limitations of the institutional schooling they attend.

It is hard to do all the basics in a thorough way plus have time for a child's own interests and then to do great extra stuff like have my children attend filmmaking classes, script and film a short movie with a team of kids. I want a harmonious home life with a laid back atmosphere, where home is a sanctuary from the nutty world outside our door. Yet trying to do all that I want lends itself to a more hectic, crazed life that I'm trying to avoid.

There is a lot of give and take with homeschooling. If we do this, we can't do that. This takes time, we don't have time for that. This thing costs a lot of money, we don't have money then to do that. Must this thing be done now, or can it wait until next year? But if the program doesn't have good attendance this year, maybe it won't be available next year. If we don't get in with the new FIRST LEGO League team now we will be shut out of that team next year. Is it necessary to do four things now or is choosing just two more reasonable? The poetry writing class is unique, but now we lost time on practicing writing a basic book report which seems to be the public school's obsession for years. My child practices drawing and is a master with collage but his spelling stinks, and the poetry writer teacher may be horrified to see my homeschooled child's spelling and wonder if that is a reflection on an overall sub-par homeschooling experience.

And that last thing is the kicker: the judgment. The judgment of outsiders that we have to contend with all the time. We are being judged by other homeschoolers in our local area, judged by our relative and neighbors, or the teachers we pay to teach some of our kid’s unique topics. We need encouragement while on this path so we'd all help the homeschooling cause if we stopped judging each other. And the biggest and most important judges are the ones who hold the gates to more important things in our children's future: the colleges and the employers. What they will think of our kids when judgment day comes is something that is on our mind for years beforehand, for some, even in the preschool-at-home years.

I'm not sure if I'll ever find the balance while straddling the fence. What's even harder is trying to find the balance when I know I'm being watched. Some days it feels like I'm under a magnifying glass. Every move my children and I make is being evaluated and judged by many people. Others often hold my kids to a higher standard for academics and also for their behavior. The judgment can be on a minute to minute basis, not based on a once a week test score, or a quarterly report card. Judgment can be on something years into the future, such as wondering which colleges wind up admitting our children.

To handle all the judgment, we homeschoolers need support and encourage each other. One way homeschooling parents can help other homeschooling parents is to reduce judgment and increase tolerance for the ways we choose to use our educational freedoms within our unique home-schools. If I promise to not assume that your child didn't know the answer to the question of which years the Renaissance was because they didn't raise their hand in the homeschool field trip to a museum will you promise not to think my twelve year old child is stupid due to his sloppy penmanship? Can we make that deal?


Katie said...

The debates about unschooling remind me a lot of the same debates about attachment parenting. There are the people who want to make it a very narrow, specific thing and say anyone who deviates from it aren't doing it. And other people who like some of the ideas, but not all of them work so they modify it. Or people who try to do it 100% but find their kids have another idea. ;)

Should you force your child to be swaddled if they don't like it? Should you prevent them from reading if they want to?

Both philosophies are really supposed to be about what the child needs, and if the child doesn't need whatever the rules are, it seems pretty silly to me to do them anyway...

Karen said...

I hear you Christine. I don't have any good answers - the issues you raise are why I never joined any attachment parenting groups - I'd already seen the judgment going on in usenet groups. I was doing what was right for my family and didn't want to deal with the side issues that some people were getting very vocal about.

As far as gaps go - we've all got them. There's not a person out there who knows it all. :) The gaps I see in the science and math knowledge of many of the people who question us about potential shortcoming often make me laugh.

I can give you an example of how a deep interest can lead to other areas. I was one of those kids who had such an interest. Among the things that I learned in following that muse:

- history (via historical fiction, learning about the history of breeds and horsemanship and equipment and reading translated Greek writings on horsemanship). My brother called me to ask questions while working on his graduate degree in history :)

- geometry - understanding the bascule of a jumping horse and how to layout jumping courses, understanding dressage figures

-chemistry - to understand more about the medications used with horses as well as nutrition and to understand pasture management

botany - understanding more about the feedstuffs and management of pasture

-geology - the nutrient profile of hay and grains is impacted by where they are grown - this affects supplementation of minerals, awareness of site considerations in property management

biology - various aspects of biology from systems of the horse to parasitology, waste management systems

general math - calculations of feed needs on an individual and stable-wide basis, dosage by body mass

physics - understanding the application of forces in various types of bits and their interaction with other types of tack

psychology - learning theory for both people and horses

architecture - what is needed to build a safe barn and what is needed to make it work for the people and horses who use it.

Many of these also lead me to delving further into the subject area in general. There is so much more as well, and it all gets expanded out to apply to other areas of my life.

I've was driven by a desire to learn that was given a direction by my interest. Formal classes have been but one small tool in my learning kit. While I was schooled, I was always aware that school was not the limit of learning and that my teachers did not have all of the answers. (Thanks Mom!)

AFwife99 said...

A very thoughtful article. There does seem to be quite a bit of judgement on whether or not you are unschooling. I was questioned about it as well.

I am with you, each homeschooling family chooses the methods and paths that will provide what they want for their children. What that looks like is different for each family, and can be different from year to year or even day to day for that family.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

AF Wife99

LivingByLearning said...

Deal! I'm very grateful to share this experience with you, as you clearly understand what it's like balancing all the needs and the possibilities while being bombarded by judgments from all sides. The worst, for me, is having to justify my education choices to close friends, family, but also to other homeschoolers (who should be on our side!)

I keep trying to remember that education should be child-centered, not derived from everyone else's expectations. Some days, I even convince myself.

Rana said...

Our family is fairly new to the homeschooling/unshcooling world. I consider us unschoolers, but I feel like you if my child wants to use a curriculum for a certain part of his learning then that's what we use.

I don't understand why people are judging other people about how their children learn. What works for my family might not work for your family so what, be happy that your family has found something that works for you. I thought this was a great post and I'm saving this with my favorite homeschooling articles.