Addressing some legitimate questions concerning unschooling

Once again unschooling has found it’s way into mainstream media.

Overall I felt this was a good representation of an unschooling family while raising some interesting points and legitimate questions about what may be perceived as drawbacks of this educational choice. Because I believe that when you’ve made a well thought out and reasoned choice it is best to acknowledge the concerns of others instead of being defensive or dismissive, I’d like to address some of these concerns.

Assessment:

I understand why this question continues to arise; we’ve been conditioned through traditional schooling to believe that written tests are the best way to assess learning. However, this is simply not true. When I was in college (studying elementary education) we were encouraged to develop a variety of assessments for our students which included performance assessments (where students complete a project that demonstrates how skills will be applied in real world situations) and observation (usually with a checklist of desired behaviors to observe). These were touted as the optimal way to assess students; written tests were the inferior but often necessary choice due to time and teacher/student ratio constraints. There are no such constraints in my home. I observe on a regular basis through conversation, projects, interests and activities the things which my children are learning. There is no need for me to create artificial performance assessments to observe how my children will apply knowledge in the real world because everything they do takes place in the “real” world.

I am often tempted to ask people how they know that their child can use a toilet, eat on their own, talk, walk, dress themselves, make a sandwich, make their bed or a variety of other skills if they haven’t given them a test. The answer is that they are involved and observing their child use these skills on a regular basis. We do the same with ALL skills.

Motivation:

In the interview it was expressed that unschooling is only for highly self-motivated kids. In my experience ALL children have the capability to be self motivated when given the opportunity. Nearly all children enter school excited at the prospect of going to a place where people will help them learn every day. Yet somehow many of these same children lose that enthusiasm along the way. This isn’t because it’s natural to stop loving to learn, it’s because it is unnatural to try to control learning and force everyone to do the same things at the same time simply because they are similar in age. Many kids who’ve been exposed to rote learning in school will lose their motivation and will need time to find it again but in my experience they do find it when given the time and space to do so.

Parental Involvement:

One important point in this video which I agree with whole heartedly is that parental involvement is key to unschooling success. I was extremely pleased that it was pointed out that facilitating learning is NOT a hands-off approach to education and that unschooling parents actually need to be MORE involved with their children. I am not relying on a curriculum or lesson plan to teach my kids so I have to make sure that I’m available and ready to answer their questions, discuss the things they’re interested in, take them to activities, etc. whenever the desire is fresh. The question may not be relevant tomorrow or even in an hour so I do my best to be there, in the moment.

To be honest it can be exhausting at times but, for me at least, it is worth it. I do believe that all children can be unschooled successfully but I don’t believe all parents can facilitate successfully. That is not a judgement and it doesn’t hinge on level of education but it is instead a realistic observation about the importance of parental motivation and involvement in unschooling.

Money:

It is suggested in this segment that unschooling is only for the wealthy. Travel seems to be a big factor that the family profiled depends on for their unschooling experience. I will admit that travel is important for us as well and we try to take a vacation once a year. But it isn’t necessary for a successful unschooling experience. Travel may provide some great learning opportunities but that doesn’t mean they are vital experiences that only traditional schooling can replicate. Unschooling on limited resources definitely takes creativity and innovation but it IS possible.Even in our rural mid-west area we have found many free and cheap activities for the kids to both enjoy and learn from. Beyond local travel conversation, meeting new people, books and even television (especially when used as a catalyst for conversation) can be just as valuable as travel and cost very little.

College and beyond:

Many in the media (and in the general population) are hearing about unschooling for the first time and therefore assume that this is a new trend and we are experimenting with our children’s futures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unschooling is a term that was coined more than half a century ago and was being practiced without a label for generations before that. I know (both personally and online) grown unschoolers, grown homeschoolers and grown schoolers.. I honestly can’t find a discernable pattern as far as financial or academic success is concerned but I absolutely can find a pattern for how work and learning fit into every day life. Those who have been unschooled (and, to a lesser degree, many who have been more traditionally homeschooled) often view work and learning as a conducive part of life as opposed to a necessary chore. Work (both paid and unpaid) and learning aren’t something to balance with the pleasurable aspects of life, they are part of life’s pleasure. This doesn’t mean everyone always loves their work any more than it means fisherman always have a good day on the lake. It simply means work isn’t something to dread but another opportunity for pleasurable challenges, at least most of the time.

Final thoughts:

I would like to point out one more thing that both the journalists and unschooling families stated that is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to unschooling discussions. Unschooling is not simply about learning what you want when you want; that is only one aspect of it. It is also about learning what you NEED when you NEED to. I doubt many of us would sit down to learn long division or converting fractions to decimals just for the fun of it (though I know a few math nuts who do this sort of thing). But my children have come across the NEED for these skills in order to accomplish other goals and when that happens I help them figure out what they need in that moment and then move on. Critics often latch onto the “doing what they want” description and erroneously believe that we are raising a generation of children who won’t be able to do the work necessary for the desired end result. On the contrary, unschooling helps them see the direct link for the work and the payoff instead of the often arbitrary, vague link between the work of traditional schooling and a far-off future payoff that may or may not materialize.

As a skeptic and lover of science I feel compelled to point out that my observations are purely anecdotal and most likely colored by my own bias. However, they are convincing enough that I don’t feel I’m gambling with my children’s futures- in fact I feel traditional schooling would be a far greater gamble.

For a more in depth look at how a grown unschooler views her childhood and how it prepared her for adulthood read my friend Molly’s post about her experience.

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