Friday, December 03, 2010


We're trying an experiment. Traditional homeschooling wasn't working well for us. While I enjoy having a set "school time" and a pre-made plan and little boxes to check off, Jonathan surely does not. And if I want him to love to read and discover and learn, then I need to find a way to help him enjoy his learning. It isn't my turn; it isn't about me.

I'm sure everyone has heard horror stories about "unschooled" children never learning anything at all. Trust me, I've heard them too. But it turns out that there is some very real and carefully considered philosophy behind the concept of unschooling, and much of it is very appealing.

It actually follows very easily from the education philosophies I'd already fallen in love with. Montessori education is what I always sort of wished I could create in my home. I read blogs like my friend Meg's and think "oh, come to my house and do that for me!" I also love Charlotte Mason style education, especially what I read on Elizabeth Foss' website and in her book (available in her online shop).

Montessori theory (in a very tiny nutshell) blends lots of hands-on activities with student-led learning. And Charlotte Mason believed in a complete lack of "twaddle", relying instead on "living books" as well as lots of time outdoors as a base for a good education. Unschooling is founded on a belief that children have an innate ability and desire to learn, and that if allowed to do so, and helped to follow their interests and passions, they will learn far more effectively than in a typical "school" setting. Do you see how these could all kind of work together? That's what I'm aiming for!

I think that the large, underlying problem that we were encountering with traditional homeschool was this: it blended parenting with education. (Hear me out; I can just see you all falling off your chairs!) I'm not abdicating my parenting role. Of course I want my children to grow up with stellar character. I want them to be able to persevere through difficult or unpleasant tasks. I want them to be obedient and kind and respectful. We work on all those things in our daily life as we do chores, play together kindly, obey instructions, etc. These are issues of parenting. I would work on them with my children no matter where they were getting their education.

What I found is that if parenting got mixed up with education/learning, we had lots of parenting/character based battles in the midst of our reading or art study. Which made the learning no fun at all, for either of us! And you know what? There is plenty of regular life outside of school to use for necessary character training.

So what are we doing now? Well, a variety of things. I've changed the way a lot of our supplies are organized, so they're much more easily accessible now. There are all kinds of art supplies, a box of beads, matching cards, math blocks, letter tracing cards, perler fusion beads, etc. all on the kids' level. They don't need my help or permission to get things out. We have always had books all over the house, and that certainly hasn't changed. :) There is a child-friendly piano book out that both Jonathan and Thomas are learning to use on their own.

I still have Jonathan's school folder stocked with math worksheets, science pages/ideas, handwriting sheets, etc. In fact, there is more in it now than before. But now, instead of saying "time for school!" I'll ask "what do you think you'd like to learn about today?" Often I don't even have to ask, because he's already off and running on a fascinating idea.
Unschooling doesn't mean no formal learning: it just means no uninvited teaching." - Nurtured By Love
This is a much harder way for me to homeschool, because it requires more of me. It requires a careful attention to his interests, so that I can be proactive in having helpful supplies and books available. It requires my willingness to set aside whatever I'm doing (such as writing this post, as has happened already!) and look up answers to his questions or help him with a project. Basically it requires that I set aside my own affinity for schedules and timetables. This is hard.

And of course I have all the typical fears, like "Can it possibly really work this way?" and "What if my son never learns to read!!!" and "What if my kids would rather play than learn math?" I know, personally, that I can easily tend to laziness. I read novels, not theology texts. Then again, my husband reads theology texts instead of novels! And to be fair to myself, I also read tons of books on parenting and education and nutrition, all those things which I find needful and helpful in my life right now. When I was teaching music I read a lot of books about music and classroom education. Which is what proponents of unschooling stress: the child will learn what is needful, important, and helpful for the life he wants to live.
"I've also not found that my kids need much if any prodding to challenge themselves. Occasionally (rarely) they have needed some substantial support from me in following through on their desire to challenge themselves. But for the most part when they know that they are fully in charge of their own learning their ambition and motivation rises up and propel them forward. In fact they often challenge themselves far more than I would ever have thought of expecting of them." - Nurtured By Love
Today has been an interesting example of this kind of self-challenge. Jonathan started out the day chanting multiplication facts with Starfall. I've never introduced multiplication; he found these on his own and enjoys them. At some point when he wants to understand the concept, it will probably be a lot easier having "4 times 4 is 16" already stuck in his head! Later in the morning he asked for my help with a self-portrait.

He got his photo down, found the fancy art paper and colored pencils, and look at the result!

(We definitely worked together on this one - I did the outline and he did the coloring.)

During quiet time he took his school folder with him, emerging with a completed math page and handwriting page (of course he reminded me that he should get chocolate chips for the handwriting!) ;)

As quiet time was ending, I discovered Thomas "reading" The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear to Josiah. Charmed, I asked him to read it to me, which he did! Yay for books that lend themselves to memorization! Not to be outdone, Jonathan also "read" the book to me, but since he hadn't memorized it quite as well, he actually had to sound out some words to remind himself where he was. :) We followed this with a book about the various legends of St. Nicholas.

And now the kids are all outside eating lunch and playing with friends. We've all had a great morning, tons of learning has happened, and there have been no arguments or tears.

I think this experiment just might work for us.


Elena said...

That sounds lovely! I like your articulation of (academically rigorous) unschooling philosophy.

Blessings as you try to find a learning style that fits your family well!

Diana J. said...

Hi, Emily! I started reading your blog because I always loved what you had to say on my friend Jen's blog. I loved this article - thanks so much for writing. I am in the process of considering whether-or-not to homeschool, and also, if we homeschool, which philosophy to adopt. Unschooling has a lot of appeal for me, so I'm glad to see that it is working for you... Please keep us updated! I always appreciate wisdom from parents who are a few steps ahead of me in the journey. We've decided to wait till our son is 6 before starting any formal schooling, whether in-school or at-home, so we have one more year to consider everything. Thanks for writing!

Amber said...

Good for you, Emily! I think it is great that you're willing to give this a go and see how it works in your family. I think the main place where unschooling breaks down is where the parents are staying ahead of the curve and providing the types of learning experiences and opportunities that you are trying to provide for Jonathan.

But I'm confused about something - why does this post come up on the top of my feed reader, but yet it has a 11/16 date on the post? Weird.

A very good post though, nicely written, reasoned, and documented. :-) And it has made me realize how much I am following an unschooling sort of approach with Gregory. But why oh why can't I loosen the reins and do that with Emma as well??

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Amber, I think I started the draft of the post on Nov. 16th, and then forgot to change the date when I actually posted it in December. This one took me quite a bit of effort to write well. :)

And thank you, everyone, for your kind comments!

Ma Torg said...

I think that one of the most important things for a homeschooling parent is learning what way homeschooling works for the parent (and this doesn't necessarily mean it is the 'easy' way). But, like you said, being able to be teacher and not mom is important. For our family, that just meant having a separate school place that didn't involve the kitchen table, but that won't work for all families.

My main concern about un-schooling is that, although I understand some kids don't like structure, I think a part of character building is learning that structure and duties are often necessary even when we don't like them. Adults have to go to work every day, even if they don't want to. I understand how having a whole day of structured lessons is too much for a child, but I think it is important to have a portion of the day that is a 'duty', if that makes sense.

Education isn't just fun (talk to my graduate student husband), but a love of learning isn't just based on fun. There are times when it is grueling, but then times when all that effort is totally worth it.

I understand that the battle might just be too much now, but that makes me think maybe you should wait a couple months and try again, not scrap traditional education all together.

I hope that all came across okay! Un-schooling is very popular where I live, and I observe that with little kids (who honestly might just not be ready for school because of immaturity--in the natural sense) it works fine, but with older children, well, they are mostly wild and undisciplined. But then, that could just be Bizz-erkeley.

Kristine said...

My daughter is only two, but I love your ideas about "unschooling". We use lesson plans from for toddlers with her right now. Now, I am going to use "unschooling" ideas during our learning times as well.
Thanks for the ideas, your blog is great!

Elena said...

Kelly, I think you make some very good points about discipline and duty--one way or another, those are lessons that kids NEED if they're ever going to be productive members of society.

In our family, though, we find that it works best when we separate out those lessons from academics. Reading is a privilege--it's something that you get to do after your chores are done. Of course, there's also hard work involved, but we use household chores to teach hard work and discipline, and let academics just be academics.

In the same way that learning discipline in an academic context translates out into real life, discipline learned in real life translates out into academic discipline, too.

And I find that when I focus on teaching them to be disciplined about chores, and let them decide what learning they want to do, we're all happier. The kids make better academic progress--they've taken to giving one another arithmetic lessons with no adult prompting!--and as an extra bonus, the house gets cleaner, and mommy is less stressed out. =)

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Thank you, Elena, that is just about exactly what I was going to say. :)

Ma Torg said...

Thanks for the clarification. I suppose it is good to distinguish the examples of unschooling I've seen here from you fine ladies! I just get sad when I see wild children running around up here not really doing "anything" because they are being 'un-schooled'. But then, I have to remember context and Berkeley really is a world of its own.

Your approach sounds much more academic in the 'true' sense than what I've experienced here.

I'm glad you both found a way that works for you!

Amber said...

Ma Torg - I've seen the type you are talking about too as I live in a rather *ahem* interesting area too. But I sometimes think that are more being kept home from school rather than unschooling or anything else. Feral children is really what they are - and yes, it is definitely not a good thing! But I also think there can be a lot more to the philosophy than what they are doing.

Elena - in our family, reading is a privilege too! I grew up in a family where if I had my nose in a book I was often off the hook - and that was definitely not a good thing for my development!

Emily, I'm glad you wrote this post. Your post and the comments are very interesting! (Although that letter of the week site from one of your commenters made me feel very inadequate... *grin*)

watching kereru said...

Miranda has inspired how we unschool also. I think the issue is what family culture you create in your home. A base value of ours is that the children contribute to the family and so they contribute. We also fundamentally value respectfulness..and so, guess what, my girls are very respectful. This has not been enforced, coerced nor punished when they have tripped up. It is just how we behave and so the girls do too.

sarah marie said...

Emily, I wanted to comment on this post back when you wrote it, but didn't have time in the midst of final exams, etc.

I'm so glad you wrote this, and glad that you've found Miranda's blog helpful -- I believe I pointed you to her a while ago. She is so inspiring and has such interesting thoughts. It's really changed how I thought about the idea of "unschooling."

Regarding Ma Torg's first comment, while I think the things she said are true, remember that we're talking about very young kids here. They are already learning structure and the necessity of doing things they don't want to every day - it could be things as simple as taking baths, or brushing teeth, or sharing toys. Why make learning one of these "you don't want to, but you still have to" things so early on if it doesn't have to be? If there is a way to make it more enjoyable then I'm all for that! And I love how Miranda seems able to raise kids and cultivate a learning environment for them where they seek out educational opportunities of their own accords.

I'm also tempted to argue slightly with her assertion that "adults have to go to work every day, even if they don't want to." Again, true at face value, but delving a bit deeper, wouldn't you like to raise kids that enjoy learning, enjoy both the process and the rewards of hard work, and then end up working in fields they love? I don't dread going to work -- I love what I do! Now, I do have the discipline to maintain my responsibilities even on days when I don't feel like working (how this responsibility grew in me, and whether or not it was through doing duties I disliked is another matter I'd have to think about), but overall I'm glad my career is something I view with eagerness rather than something I'm resigned to doing until I'm 65, and I think if we can instill a similar eagerness in kids about learning then that might be putting them on the right track, if that makes any sense.

All that to say, I'm not sure I agree that kids need a part of their learning time that is a "duty," since they already have many, many little duties that seem small to us but may be about all they can handle.

I love your boys and would love to hear an update on how things are going!