Monday, May 04, 2009

Why I won't unschool

Joanne Rendell published an "Education" piece in the May 3rd Toronto Star, called "Why I Won't Send My Son to School." A note at the end states that a longer version of the piece appears on, and yes, it does.

The comments on the article are, both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, largely negative. I find it surprising because of the large number of unschoolers who would probably post some support for Rendell after reading the article. Unsurprising because of the general public's somewhat mistrusting take on homeschooling in general, much less the kind of unschooling that Rendell describes.

Now given that this is still a very young child, I have no issue with most...well, some...of her "uncurriculum." Playing in the dirt with other kids--natural thing for a little boy to be doing. Going out to a bar with his mother and her partner late at night--not so much.

But I would never want to "unschool" my own children. To each his own, as one of the homeschoolers commenting on the article said. But I couldn't do it, and I take issue with some unschoolers' position (implied or explicit) that unschooling is the Great Step Beyond Regular Homeschooling that the rest of us haven't been savvy enough to catch onto. Much like the idea that Regular Vegetarians aren't vegetarian enough for vegans and all the rest of the very-specific-dieters.

Yeah, I've read John Holt. In fact, I pretty much started with his books. I can understand why he got frustrated with teaching and schools. I survived all the fads and experiments and weaknesses of 1970's public elementary schools. Old books, new books, no books, desks in rows, classrooms without walls, headphone listening centers, smelly tempera paints, the first VCRs, repeating what you already knew, kids getting the belt, activity cards, kids getting their mouths washed out with soap...tell me why schools shouldn't work and I probably lived through it.

I'm a fairly flexible homeschool teacher myself, especially now that I only have one at home full time. We spent way longer than I'd planned today working on a math activity that Crayons especially enjoyed. And we'll catch up on all my great plans, another day.

But if I unschooled...or, if you prefer, I let my children self-direct their own education, picking and choosing all or most of what they learned and when...I'd miss the small coincidences like finding a book about our term's artist at Winners. I'd miss the satisfaction that comes when someone's given me their best exam narration ever.

They'd miss out on Hidden Rods,Hidden Numbers, unless I left it where they would sprain an ankle falling over it. It's not the kind of book that screams "pick me up and use me." No cute graphics, just a tiny-print introduction and three series of student-created Cuisenaire rod logic puzzles. Crayons and I are going to be working through a couple of them every day until the end of the school year.

They'd miss out on some of the great but ugly books we have. Our copy of Cue for Treason looks like the old one shown here on Amazon. What kid would pick that up without major coercion? But it's a great adventure story--a bit too violent maybe for Crayons, yet, but sooner or later.

I doubt they'd find their way to Plutarch without some help, or perhaps even find their way out of the kids' fiction section at all. I loved to read when I was young, but when I was Allowed The Adult Card in around the eighth grade, I had absolutely no idea where to start, what to read, how to read it. The first two books I brought home turned out to be an adult-content education in themselves although probably not what my parents would have expected.

How shall we then expect our children to find their way through what's out there without some nudging and even some direct "Here, I want you to read this," or even better, "Here, let's read this together?" I have no doubt that many unschoolers say those same things and still consider themselves unschoolers. Maybe the only difference is that I write it down six months ahead of time. Maybe.

I might not ever get to let my kids know that they should be "Still achieving, still pursuing, / Learn[ing] to labor and to wait." I have no doubt that many unschoolers read those lines too, and interpret them in their own ways. Maybe the only difference is that I have no philosophical problem with helping the labour along a bit.



Tori said...

I mostly agree with your post. I like the way you put it, too.

I actually REALLY like the theory and idea (philosophy, even, maybe) of unschooling... but I don't trust it entirely (or much at all). I'm definitely an eclectic homeschool Mama, but unschool? Maybe a day or two a week (read: Saturday and Sunday), but more than that and I feel anxious!

Katie said...

An interesting thought: In one of the books on homeschooling that I read this year, _College Prep Homeschooling_, the authors said that even unschoolers are engineering their children's education, simply by the fact that they have chosen unschooling. The child didn't pick that method.

Tammy Takahashi said...

It's interesting how different people have different ideas of what unschoooling even is. It's hard to get a handle on.

Generally, I guess I'm an unschooler, but it depends who you ask. I'm not even close according to some, and way radical according to others. So I don't know if I am or not.

But for sure, in asking the question, it forces us to think about what we do and what works. So whether or not we self identify with the word "unschooler", if going through the process of trying to understand it makes us better homeschoolers, parents and teachers, then it's worth it, whichever side of the fence we end up on.

Great post!