This is the second of two unrelated “mini-essays”. Read them or not… I know they are longer and denser than my usual fare. Here’s the first.
If you don’t know what unschooling is, it’s not QUITE what it sounds like, and it looks different in different families. It doesn’t mean ignoring your child or letting them run wild and do whatever they want.
However it looks in different homes, all unschoolers basically take their cues from the child’s interest: if a child wants to learn a particular subject, that’s what they’ll spend time doing. And if a child has no interest in swimming lessons, or math, it won’t happen – yet, though the child is free develop an interest later.
To traditional schoolers and textbooky homeschoolers, it sounds like a nightmare, but it works: I have SEEN it work. Kids DO learn to read; they do learn math and history, politics, geography, and, should they need it, higher math and science at any level they would normally. They can definitely be just as articulate and well-written as conventionally-schooled people.
Basically, motivation makes up in the later years for any lack of early foundation – and I know from experience that a child who’s interested in a subject can pursue it single-mindedly to a very advanced level.
When my big kids were little, they often came and gave me the classic line, “so-and-so’s parents let them…” (do whatever). And my response was the same (they hate my predictability sometimes): “Hashem chooses the right mommy for each child – all the mommies are different.”
(At the time, I was a single parent, so we didn’t have to deal with situations where mommies and abbas differ; a situation I STILL don’t really handle gracefully!)And as my kids’ mommy, I have decided we’re NOT unschooling. Thinking about it after listening in on a discussion today, I think it’s because my style, my mommy-hood, is deeply bound up in sharing my own interests and values with my kids.
Hubris? Well, sure, but I’m allowed to brag a little: Hashem entrusted me with their neshamas, after all – he must think I’m up to the job. So when I think about curriculum, when I think about field trips, when I think about our future, I have my eye on that goal: sharing the things that I hold absolutely true, truths I believe my children will gain from having understood.
Charlotte Mason believed that education, in the early years, is largely about habit formation: content is not unimportant, but it’s secondary to developing habits like paying attention for extended periods, reading for pleasure, and observing nature.
On the way to the homeschool drop-in today, the kids asked me to play “Brahms” – that’s what they call the soundtrack of the concert we went to a few weeks ago.
And here’s what I realized: after only about six months of casually listening to classical music, following Ambleside’s composer rotation, they can now sit through a 10-minute classical piece just as easily as a 2-minute kiddie song. Not always at home, but in the car, when we’re on the go – they listen to the music and it holds their attention. At the concert itself, they not only sat through the whole one-hour programme, they both (including the 3-year-old) paid attention and remember most of the scenes.
The authors of The Well-Trained Mind and other proponents of the “trivium” –a three-stage approach to education – assert that these early years are best for filling the brain with information from good sources. It assures parents that kids WILL make the connections later on – they don’t have to be deep philosophers in second grade.
This takes the pressure off: snuggle up and read stories of ancient history, but don’t worry if all they remember is a few names, a memorable battle here and there. Show them maps and globes and compasses and figure out where countries are at, but don’t worry them trying to solve global problems like population control and climate change.
Irrelevant side note: it always astonishes me that the greatest minds of our generation don’t have easy answers to these questions – yet we throw them at elementary-school kids and expect them to grow up cheerful and optimistic. I don’t want the FIRST THING my kids find out about the earth to be that it is in peril, but if you look in the kids’ geography section of any big bookstore, there are tons of “green guides” and “global warming” and “kids in poor countries” manuals that present kids with the most bleak picture possible of the state of our world.
So it’s not unschooling – but it absolutely IS all about my children: their needs, and yes, their interests as well. A Charlotte Mason parent I was reading compared it to inviting your children to a banquet: education as a feast.
You wouldn’t call them in for supper if there was nothing on the table, nothing to serve – though an unschooler might call them in to COOK supper, which I believe is a fine and character-building thing all on its own.
The kind of education I want to provide PREPARES the table with a lavish banquet. And yes, because they are kids, I ask that they taste everything before they decide what they want for their main course.
Actually, as a parent educator at our childbirth class suggested, kids need to try a food 13 times (I think it was 13 – some high number) before they decide they don’t like it… sometimes, all it takes is getting used to it.
So I don’t know if my kids will be math geniuses, or history geniuses, or artists or composers, but I figure if I don’t help them get used to it… we may never know.
How is the way I homeschool influenced by the way my father exposed us to the things he valued? I started including that section in the middle here, but realized it should be in a post of its own. Read it here.
EDITED TO ADD: A few comments by actual unschoolers and my sheepish response might help clarify this topic even further! Let’s let them speak for themselves…
- Shira said...
Jennifer, I respect what you wrote about why you homeschool the way you do. And I think it works well for you, and will definitely ease well into school for them in Israel.
I think that there were a few misconceptions about unschooling in your post, however, that I would like to clarify.
"However it looks in different homes, all unschoolers basically take their cues from the child’s interest..."
Its not so simple as child-led learning. Unschooling isn't about waiting for children to decide they want to pursue something. Its about making their lives so full of opportunities, fun, activities, positive experiences and relationships, that they can't help but learn, not as a goal, but as a byproduct of living a wonderful life. Its about taking a genuine and personal interest in THEIR interests, and welcoming them to join you in your interests when they want to.
When you wrote, "This takes the pressure off: snuggle up and read stories of ancient history, but don’t worry if all they remember is a few names, a memorable battle here and there," I didn't feel like you were so off from unschooling. We definitely snuggle up with many How the Earth Works and Dinosaur-type books. The difference is that when we do it, its because the content is interesting and we want to read it, to learn, to explore the world, spurred on by a visit to the museum or a discussion or something from a TV show. The difference is that I didn't take that book out of the library with a plan to educate about dinosaurs. I focus on creating a rich learning environment, without the idea of education. I don't worry that dinosaurs are an essential piece of early child education.
I didn't like this part very much,
"You wouldn’t call them in for supper if there was nothing on the table, nothing to serve – though an unschooler might call them in to COOK supper, which I believe is a fine and character-building thing all on its own."
I think schoolers and conventional homeschoolers would be more likely to call their kids in to cook dinner, to teach a variety of lessons (math, helping how, art of cooking, character). Unschoolers might invite their kids to help cook, because its a joy to be together and learning - and the kids might say no, they might be doing something more interesting. The wonderful thing is that I can nourish their bodies, learning, and our relationships, whether they want to cook or continue with their current activity.
"The kind of education I want to provide PREPARES the table with a lavish banquet."
This is exactly the type of imagery unschoolers use all the time to describe what we do. Except it would be more like, "I want to create a rich learning environment by preparing a lavish banquet of learning opportunities for my children."
At a real banquet, do you really try everything before you choose your main course? Or do you eye things, nibble some interesting looking things, and then choose according to your taste? That's what I do, anyhow. And, I think that's how I think my kids will experience life.
I guess I wrote an essay too. I need my own blog...
Another interesting thing, in the religious Jewish world, what do we call serious studying of Talmud? Learning. Not education. And the model used is one of partnership in learning, not teacher/student. And this model predates current models of education! I think its a great model for all areas of learning, not just Talmud.
February 17, 2011 8:42 PM
Jennifer in MamaLand said...
Yes! To the last bit.
I think finding a model of learning which is non-didactic is what it's all about, either way. Not being the wise scholar dispensing droplets of knowledge but SHARING and learning together.
You definitely need a blog of your own!
And I should definitely watch how I say "all." I always get in trouble when I do that!!! :-)))
Certainly, if you are offering explicit educational content, that's different from some unschoolers I've heard of.
I suspect some (many? but not ALL!) would argue that the whole world is educational and we shouldn't express value judgments - why are dinosaurs, or pioneers, more inherently more valuable to learn about than anything else? - but just let children follow their natural inclinations and nibble where they like.
Thank you for the clarifications, and sorry about the cooking bit. I was just stretching the metaphor a bit - suggesting that an unschooling family would perhaps involve a child in creating his or her own curriculum. I didn't say it well. Drat. :-(
This is ALL an education, that's for sure... and not just for the kids. :-)
February 17, 2011 9:49 PM
Shady Lady said...
Well said, Shira. I had some issues with the same things, but you have cleared up the confusion about unschooling. :)
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