Just got an article published at Life Learning Magazine today! If you have or get a subscription, my piece is titled “Secondary – School’s damaging priority paradigm.” It’s about how school, especially high school, appears to leave kids with too little time to follow their passions—and how society thinks this is okay.
I suppose I ought to mention that I was unschooled. Have I mentioned that? Hold on while I search my archives… Nope, not once.
In case you don’t know what unschooling is, it’s life learning. But that doesn’t tell you much either, does it? Hopefully, a longer-than-usual blog post will explain it better.
(Note—if at any point you experience an uncomfortable, hater-like burning sensation in your heart or stomach, please consult your doctor before reading further. You may be prone to posting vicious comments or starting flame wars.)
So. Unschooling. I have my own definition, but out of curiosity, I’ll turn to Urban Dictionary. Here’s the example they list:
“An example of unschooling would be your child learn about math, science, history, and language arts through their interest in Yugioh (the most random thing I could think of). For math they would learn about the thousands of duel monsters out there and the complex math rules of the card game (trust me that some serious math there). The science would come from learning about television and the technology that goes into making a show. Also they would learn about biomes by learning about how different monsters live and do better (in both the game and show) in different environments and then discussing with them how that relates to animals in real life. History would come from learning about the Japanese culture and the history of television, card games and their impact on society, Language arts could come from writing to a Japanese pen pal about anime they have their and the societal differences such as America’s censorship of material allowed in Japan.”
That’s a reasonable definition, but it lacks one major point: none of that happens unless the child wants to do it. No way to kill an interest in Yugioh like saying “OMG WHAT A LEARNING OPPORTUNITY! Here, have twenty thousand books on Japanese culture and history! Sweetie, I found you a foreign pen-paaaaal! :D!”
It’s an incredibly hands-off method. (If you want an extreme example of hands-off education, check this out.) And from what my mom has said, it can be very frightening to keep one’s hands so thoroughly off of one’s child’s learning experience. All she did was make quiet suggestions, and fully support whatever directions I followed.
For instance, she knows I love Scotland, so she’ll nab any interesting articles or books (from the library; no monetary investment) she noticed that had to do with Scotland, and leave them for me to pick up—or not. By the way, I always picked those up.
The thing about an entire country is that there’s a lot involved in studying it. History, etymology, botany, zoology, social studies, its current and historical relationships with other countries, poetry, literature, the lives of specific historical figures, music, and I’m sure you’ve already grown bored with this list. Guess what? I didn’t grow bored at all, because I was passionate about the items listed.
Of course, some say, that’s great for some things, but what about… math? *Cue spooky music*
Mom suggested various math books and courses, and while I tried a few of them, I was never really interested. She didn’t force the issue. Then one day a guy we knew mentioned a couple math books specifically for girls, and she got them from the library and set them on the kitchen table. “Here are the books Mike mentioned,” was all she said, and I spent the next few days holed up in my room, occasionally popping out to exclaim things like, “Wow! No one ever explained why flip-and-multiply works for dividing fractions!”
So yeah, whether it’s the application of math in Yugioh, or a class they want to take, or a book they love, kids who are gently guided towards math without being forced into anything will find something that clicks with them. The key: just keep trying new things, and don’t try them too hard. Some people would say, “But that’s just you! You’re unique.” Yeah, but you know what? So is every kid, once you take them off the knowledge-packaging assembly line.
Well that’s great for the academic ones, say others, but what about… kids who just sit and play ____ games? *Cue gunfire sound-effects*
At another point, I think I was about ten, I was obsessed with online pet sites. Neopets, mainly. For a full two years. It took a lot of work for Mom to let go of the fact that I was spending as many hours a day as I could on such a useless activity. But she did let go of it, and I’m glad she did. When I was about twelve, they changed the graphics, and I was very upset that none of my pets looked as I’d worked to get them. “What’s the point,” I wondered then, “of working so hard for things that can change at the whim of a graphic designer? No thanks; I’ll work a real business instead.”
Because, whadda ya know, I’d actually gotten some virtual business experience over those two years. So Mom and I found a business that worked for me (selling candles), and when I discovered fencing at fourteen, that’s the income that funded it.
And so on. That’s how unschooling works. Give the child responsibility for their own education, support their pursuits, make pressure-free suggestions, and see what you get.
Be careful, though… you might wind up with a writer.
A few notes:
Yes, there were rules. Unschooling means freedom of education; it does not mean freedom from familial codes of conduct. Say please-and-thank-you. No lying, no hitting. Offer to help with dishes when you’re at a friend’s house. And no, you may not have an incredibly sugary treat right now.
Yes, there were limits on screen time. That’s a matter of health. And I personally think TV should be off-limits except for special occasions.
Yes, there were chores, yes, there were lots of them, and yes, they were required. This is a matter of contributing to the household, and I do think children should be required to contribute to the household. Not everything kids hate is bad for them, sadly, and there’s no evidence of a couple hours of yard work killing individuality or the creative drive.