Unschooled, and finding out together
My annotated bibliography focuses on how various educational theories work in our particular homeschool setting in order to document, or map out, our educational journey.
McDonald, Kerry. (2019). Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom.
I have to confess that it took me over a month to read Kerry McDonald’s book, Unschooled. I would pick it up, read a few pages and then have to set it aside for awhile; and not always because of life interrupting. I came away with a love/hate feeling about unschooling.
Let me explain.
McDonald provides a wonderful overview of the history of school and what unschooling looks like today, offering a plethora of citations ranging from case studies to surveys to educational philosophy and more. Moreover, she provides a great resource list at the end of the book. I love authors who think about a range of engagement with their writing – the folks who want to dive deep into a topic and follow all those rabbit holes and those who just need a practical shove in the right direction with some easy to use resources.
At times, I felt like I was watching a doomsday film. Don’t get me wrong, I have a guilty love of the earth is about to end because of an impending meteor that thousands of scientists just didn’t see coming and we have mere weeks and three teenagers to save life as we know it. After reading the examples McDonald provides of what the structure of school is doing to our children, it’s a wonder that any of us have survived the educational system: increased anxiety, decreased abilities to think creatively. And those are just two! It brings to mind all my concerns about bullying, hypersexualization, developmentally inappropriate benchmarks, the lack of play, the overuse of technology, the list goes on. Like I said, doomsday.
But, I hesitate to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Unschooling has some basic ideas: student-led learning in which there is no curriculum, no adult teacher, and the freedom to say no. There is a spectrum of unschooling, which is discussed in terms of freedom versus license and the role parents play in parenting. It seems that unschooling is as much about a student-led education as it is reconsidering the role of adults in that education.
We are all for student-led learning, so I venture to say I’m somewhere on the unschooling spectrum. I consider my role in homeschooling as a facilitator, much like McDonald suggests. But I hesitate to throw out curriculum. Curriculum is, after all, simply a plan for education. I have goals for my children’s overall education (which I wrote about in a previous post). I have some things that I want to make sure they know how to do: like take care of their home, their selves, and their community, read, understand numbers and the role math plays in everyday life, opportunities for their life’s work. I want them to learn good habits of learning: reading, what resources are available for attaining knowledge (libraries, museums, people who do things in our community, the internet, nature, their own creations), observation, creative thinking, logic (steps), creativity, and technical skills (from using scissors to painting to woodwork to whatever they need to know to do the things they want to do).
But, much of that is dependent on what they are interested in at the time and how they learn. I view my role as a facilitator as knowing how to direct my children to good resources, when to step in (and present information, typically resulting in either a discussion or an, "Ok, Mom. I get it. Now let me work!”) and when to stay out of the way.
A good facilitator knows how to read people and what they need. For example, my son loves plans. He loves following steps. Reading instructions. Reading labels. Making sure everything is there. Itemizing things. I’ve purchased craft kits over the years, and he is a stickler for putting everything away in their place how they were packaged and hates it when I consolidate supplies. He’s the one who will build and rebuild Lego sets according to the directions. And then he’ll create his own. My daughter, on the other hand, focuses intently on working puzzles and imaginative play. Though she is only four, there is already a marked difference in the way they each approach the world and learn. Knowing that, capitalizing on that, but also working on skills that don’t come as easily to them, all make up what we learn and how we approach it.
So, I am left with the question of what is useful for us from unschooling?
Definitely a consideration of the language we use at home about school and education, including what my children consider “school” and what they just want to learn and do. I am working hard this year to tear down the distinction between school and life. Just today, we were looking up magnified images of various germs, a project started a few weeks back that my son has told me many times, “This is not for school.” But, really….
So, instead of labeling parts of the day, “school,” I try to talk about our work. And when he asks why we don’t put magnets on the chore chart I use for tracking his work during the week on Sundays, I tell him, we try as a family not to work on Sundays.
From a practical perspective, it is difficult to maintain records that are acceptable to our local and state education homeschool laws. How do I count and document 900 hours of required school time without setting aside “school time”? One way I’ve approached it is keeping a Monday through Friday work week with the kids and documenting what we do for two weeks. I mark the days we are explicitly working together on a school year calendar and calculate the hours averaged from those two weeks.
How does unschooling fit in with our faith and belief in the importance of obedience? McDonald quotes an unschooling mom that “the best way to reconcile unschooling views with strong religious beliefs, or other lifestyle convictions (like veganism) is to approach these ideologies from a place of openness and assurance rather than fear and coercion” (p. 63). This is a helpful reminder that adults do not have to have all the answers, and in fact are learning right alongside their children.
As I often tell my kids, “I don’t know the answer. Let’s find out together.”
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Ruth M. Smith
Community arts educator and researcher. Drinking coffee. Home educating. Making art. Listening intentionally.