Thursday, October 13, 2011

Another Reason Why Unschooling Can't Work for My Son

In his Kindergarten homeschool year my older son asked to stop unschooling. He wanted to know what was expected of him and to a sense of satisfaction and "feel free" when his work was done. I followed his lead and we switched to the Charlotte Mason method blending with classical with some recommendations from The Well Trained Mind. Later we switched to what I guess is more eclectic as I tailor the learning to each child's abilities while aiming for a college prep level of coursework.

I love the concept of unschooling but over the years have seen it done with success by certain types of individuals. My opinion is that certain types of learners or people with certain personalities are better suited to unschooling or radical unschooling. Others do not thrive with unschooling, period.

At the time I'm writing this my older son is now fourteen years old and in ninth grade. In the last couple of weeks a few things have happened to make me realize a few more reasons why unschooling would never work for this son of mine.

There can be a mismatch of the estimation in how easy a goal is to accomplish. My son may think something is easy and he may block out a small amount of time to get the work done but the work can't get done in that time. If my description confuses you I'll say it another way. He will set a goal to do X by the end of the week. He will poorly plot his time and will leave things to the last minute. When he tries to get the work done in the short amount of time, he cannot get it done. Thus, he failed to achieve his own goal. If this happened once or a few times it would be no big deal but for him this has been a constant challenge for years which has not changed the older and more mature he gets. The natural consequence of over and over failing at that method has not led him to change his ways. Yet, if I make up the schedule and say to spend an hour a day doing science reading then the job gets done. He has not been able to set the schedule himself and get it to work.

There can be a temptation to work to get something done rather than to work to mastery. At present he is struggling with some concepts in math. I left my son on his own to do work with an online class. I was giving little oversight, leaving him to be in charge of monitoring his assignments, turning them in on time and so forth. Instead of sticking to the assignments that were given online he explored the website and switched the focus of his work to topics not being covered in the class (you may think that was good as he was following his curiosity and enjoying learning). He enjoyed doing those math operations. However when I went to check his work a week later I found him behind in four content areas but ahead in content areas that were not assigned in this course!

Once I realized that my son was about ten days behind with the online class, I had to start to work one on one with him to figure out what was going wrong. Now I realized he was not just behind in work but struggling to understand the content. He had to work double time to catch up while trying to get current with the course's content. (How kids in school can stay afloat if they get a bit behind is beyond my comprehension.)

I identified he was lacking mastery in content areas that were back at the beginning of the class a few weeks ago. He could not do current work as errors were being made with foundational areas. We had to backtrack to the beginning and work on the more basic concepts. He was unable to realize where he was going wrong and what needed fixing. It too a separate set of eyes to help him see it. If an unschooler is behind how do they know? If an unschooler thinks they get it but they don't then what?

Lastly with the math he is stubborn about practicing things over and over in order to learn them. Yet he is not getting it and is not able to master all the concepts with just a few practice examples. Unfortunately the curriculum we are using gives few practice examples so I have to make up  more work on my own for him to practice. He has been fighting me on this as he insists this is not necessary yet when 2/3 of the work is incorrect that is glaringly obvious that he can't do that type of work!0

 He begged to go forward and go faster and to "get the chapters done" as "he had a goal to finish Algebra I". His inability to recognize when he is struggling is a problem if he were left to be the designer of his own course and his goal to finish the course and to know the information was not meshing with the reality that he was not really learning the information!

Even when this son has something he really, really, really wants to accomplish he can't seem to figure out what it takes to get it done or he messes up on the timeframes and deadlines. Thus the case that "if a child or teen really wants to do something they will figure out how to get it done or what needs doing" is not true for all kids and teens. Good intentions and wishes do not always result in something getting accomplished or finished.

Unschooling and radical unschooling, I believe, are right for a certain type of person, it is not right for everyone. Exactly what type of mind jives with unschooling is something we could discuss and debate.

What I want is for my kids to learn and to have success at their attempts to learn. I want my kids prepared to do what they want with their adult lives, at this point that is college attendance. I need to do what helps my kids meet their goal and so far neither of my kids seems to jive with unschooling. No matter how much I admire unschooling I am not forcing it on my kids when it isn't what works for them and when it is something they flounder with rather than flourish with. If unschooling works for you, I'm a bit envious of your situation!


Xa Lynn said...

I have often wondered if that whole "concept of time" is something some people just don't have... Like my husband, who for the last 18 years has severely underestimated the amount of time it takes to complete any task, or to get anywhere. This was exacerbated by the advent of children in our family... the idea that one must include in one's estimates the extra time it takes to get the children ready to go anywhere is utterly foreign to him. Can you tell this is a pet peeve of mine? I tell him to make his best guess, then triple it, because that will be the accurate answer... but he doesn't do that. Sigh.

I have probably made things more difficult for my daughters to learn good estimating skills by telling them they have one minute before it is time to leave the playground, and then giving them 15... so we will be doing a "telling time" review, and some stopwatch activities in hopes of improving this. And I'll start being more accurate with my directions to them!

Xa Lynn said...

We don't do unschooling. I think it is a grand idea in theory, but it doesn't work for us. I do not actually care if my children attend college, trade school, volunteer for the armed services, or become entrepreneurs straight out of homeschool - but I want them to have ALL those options, so our schooling has to be built around that. It means a college prep program, at least until they are mature enough to understand what they are giving up (and/or gaining) when they give up that option.

Crimson Wife said...

Unschooling would work probably just fine for my oldest. She's my kid who reads the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and the Life of Fred series "for fun" in her leisure time. I don't "unschool" her because my DH is still a bit skeptical about HS in general. But if I were to allow her complete freedom to direct her studies, I really think she'd do fine with it.

My 2nd child is not someone I think well-suited for "unschooling". He is bright but seems to need more systematic and explicit teaching than his big sister does.

Ben Sayer said...

I think you're still unschooling. Unschooling, in my mind, is about child-led learning. As long as your son is learning the way he wants, he's unschooling.

It takes respect, love, and faith to unschool a child. It takes those same traits for you to help your son have learning experiences they way he prefers. That's unschooling my friend. Kudos to you!

----Ben >@<

Kim said...

I'm sorry, but what you described was NOT unschooling. During the whole article, you talk about deadlines, and goals. That's exactly what unschooling is not about. Of course no child is going to be self-motivated to set goal and deadlines and follow some kind of self-imposed curriculum.

To really do homeschooling right, you have to take a deep breath, and *let go*. Stop worrying about whether he'll learn algebra this year (or at all), or whether he is studying every single day. Your job is simply to make sure he can go to the library as much as he wants to, that he has a good computer with fast internet, and any other access to information. Then, sit back and let him get to a state of complete boredom. It will be scary at first, because he will probably appear to be doing nothing at first. In fact, he may spend a few months playing games, socializing, etc. But eventually, something WILL pique his curiosity, and then he will want to know more about whatever it is. Your job is to give him the help and information he needs...but ONLY when he asks for it. He may not need much help at all.

Why does unschooling work? Because it's curiosity-driven, information, once learned, is not forgotten. He will be learning the exact same way that Leonardo DaVinci learned how to Pythagoras learned how to do Sir Issac Newton learned physics. They learned these complex things not because some teacher forced them to read textbooks, but because they WANTED to. They were passionately interested in it. Now, sometimes it freaks people out, because a child may want to know everything about one subject, and nothing about another. But specialization is nothing to be afraid of. Was Mozart a great scientist? Was Einstein a brilliant painter? Was Plato a mathematician? No. Did it matter? Of course not. They each spent their days passionately pursuing their own interests.

Unschooling CAN work for everyone. It simply requires a leap of faith and nerves of steel on your part.

ChristineMM said...

Kim, are you saying an unschooler kid (not the parent) cannot set goals for themselves?

I have heard former unschooled kids talk about their lives and nearly all included goals by the teen years and definately young adult years.

If a person was unschooling then has a goal they want to achieve are you saying they divorce themself from using the term unschooler?

If an unschooler wants to learn an instrument and chooses to do a recital on a date which means they have to practice more leading up to that date, they then are no longer an unschooler?

Truly curious about your logic. Hope you reply.

ChristineMM said...

The following blog comment was accidentially deleted when I tried to publish it via iPhone but the tiny link that was activiated was "reject".


Meiling Chong

I don't think Kim is saying that a child (or the parent) CANNOT set goals at all. But I agree with Kim that what you described is not QUITE what unschooling is all about.

Example 1: You wrote a lot about your son's goals and how, in a nutshell, he has problems attaining them. How did he come up with these goals? Did he just wake up one day and said, "I want to learn such and such by next week"? Or talked about it with you? Or the goals were set by the online learning sites that you subscribe to?

Example 2: You wrote that "...a week later I found him behind in four content areas ..." Behind according to whose standards? Or, for that matter, ahead according to whose standards?

The purpose of unschooling is for the child to learn at his own pace and to learn because, when and where he wants to. That said, unschooling does not mean that the parents practise a hands-off approach to the education of the child. On the contrary, the parents, who are usually equipped with a treasure trove of resources, knowledge and experience, can nurture the child by by facilitating his needs and guiding him towards self-reflection, etc.

ChristineMM said...

Hello Mieling,

My son set a goal to attend engineering school. This is based on an interest in building things, problem solving since age 2. It ia also based on the positive experience he had last year doing engineering work with the FIRST robotics team.

I honestly don't know if he has the tenacity and study skills to handle what IMO and in the opinion of my engineering friends as a tough program requiring lots of study time. I say this only to make it clear that engineering is his goal not something I am pushing on him. I want him to succeed at what he wants to do. I don't know if he really is willing to do what it takes to be an engineer but he'll have to figure that out when he is in college, if he can get admitted to an engineering school, that is.

The concrete goals that need to be met are college prerequisites. With passing grades.

We also are supposed to be fulfilling Texas state graduation requirements to comply with Texas education law for homeschoolers! And failing grades in courses is not "passing" the classes...

To get through so much content for college pre-requisites in high school takes time. Some of it he cannot teach himself nor can I teach him. The more he gets behind the harder it is to keep up, if he is trying for traditional timing of graduation at about age 18.

Example: the chemistry class at a homeschool co-op that he takes is a help to him, he cannot and will not do the work under his own guidance only. However there are deadlines to adhere to for assignments and there is testing. He hates the deadlines but recently said if they were not there he'd never do the work. So he sees the purpose of a deadline.

Another goal my son has is to do his sport in college. If he is to do that where he goes to college will be a 4 year school not the alternative path to do some years in community college first then go to some 4 year school later to get the bachelor of science in engineering.

If he is to do the sport he must comply with NCAA regulations to study certain topics in high school. This alters our plans for what to study in homeschool high school!

I am curious how you would answer to specific goals and requirements such as these.

I am tired of generalized discussion of unschooling. Some people portray unschooling as a thing that can happen only if an individual has shirked all association with groups (i.e. never takes a class at a co-op or at a community college in the high school years).

Unschooling in what I call the radical sense of the term seems to work best for individuals who are living a life similar to living "off the grid", learning for learning's sake with no testing and no standards of having to have studied topics XYZ in bioloy in order to say "did high school level biology".

The ones who can keep it most radical are those who are not seeking college admittance at age 18 for or who are not seeking very specific college majors with rigorous requirements. Getting a degree in education has different prerequisites than engineering, for example.

If my son were seeking to attend a vocational technical school he could relax and we could do a very different course of high school homeschool study. He'd be happier in the moment but as of right now that is not what he wants to do with his life. I am following his lead on his goals.

He also still begs to homeschool and does not want to go to public school.

Meiling Chong said...

Hi Christine,

From reading more of what you wrote, I suppose (if we must coin a term for it) the system that you have is HOMEschooling, and not so much UNschooling.

I quite agree with you that unschooling is radical in a conventional society, and that it is probably not for everyone. No

millerunschool said...

You say that your son asked not to be "unschooled" at 5 and that you instituted a "classical" approach with him. Then you go on to say that unschooling would never work for him because he is unable to set his own goals and follow through. From your own admission, he is not setting his own goals through the context of unschooling, so his inability to "unschool" within your "classical homeschool" does not disprove that some students "can't" unschool.

If you choose a different path, that's fine ~ but to say it doesn't work is like taking the wheels off your car and saying it won't roll the way you drive it.

On a different note, in the comments you say,

"We also are supposed to be fulfilling Texas state graduation requirements to comply with Texas education law for homeschoolers!"

Where did you get this information? There are no "graduation requirements" for homeschoolers.

Best wishes on your son's Engineering endeavors.

ChristineMM said...


It's hard to summarize 15 years of homeschooling in one post where that is not the main topic.

I think you are trying to say that if not living a pure unschooling lifestyle that you can't know if it works?

We have had a very relaxed homeschool. We had pure unschooling from birth through first half of Kindgergarten. For grade 1 we did a strict Charlotte Mason method which was largely listening to read alouds and nature study, that took less than 3 hours a day and the rest of the day was interest led learning & good childhood play. That one year of strict CM was just one year.

After that it was loose classical but a heavy leaning on interest led stuff. My kids spent less than 3 hours of school-ish work per day, I mean, mom-led lessons. They also spent a day a week at a wildnerness school in which they played group games and hiked and built cabins and did stuff outdoors all day like learn edible plants and build Native American boats and structures.

Believe me what we have lived is an alternative education. I know you don't want to believe it probably as it is then easier to judge us.

I still believe that radical unschooling is not for everyone.

I also know families doing very structured school at home who claim to be radical unschoolers.

I am sick of all the labeling and sick of people saying that if you only try unschooling it will be wonderful for all, it's just not for everyone.

ChristineMM said...

I read the link you gave me to THSC.

Here is one quote:

"6. What if I work? Remember that home schools are private schools and there is no requirement for hours or the time when education must take place. The only requirement is that a written curriculum covering the basic areas must be pursued in a bona fide (not a sham) manner."

I have a concern with this since we do not use a school in a box curriculum, we do not use, except for math and outsourced classes "a written curriculum covering the basic areas". Since I design the curriculum or pick and choose to use this or that program for various subjects, if in my opinion they are not being done in a complete manner that would qualify as a "sham" and thus would not be in compliance with the TX law.

This is why, due to my son's medical problems and lost time from studies, he may have to take 5 years to graduate high school to do what I feel is something that's high quality and not a sham.