From the time our daughters were very young, Bob and I had an articulated educational goal for them: to be autodidactic, able to teach themselves. Along that path, we chose to homeschool, and once on that trajectory, the philosophy that we most intuitively embraced was unschooling, an educational theory that dispels with the conventional idea of lessons and curriculum, of coercion of the learner into the rote memorization of facts. In the unschooling home, the child charts their own course. The parent doesn’t direct learning; rather, he or she makes resources available to the child based on his or her interests. Unschooled children are typically have a great deal of control over their time and the subjects they choose to study, or even if they will choose to study. The philosophy suggests that, when it is important to the child to learn something, he or she will embrace the necessary learning with a voracious intellectual appetite. We’d read about articulate, well-educated children coming through this system of education, and we chose to embrace it.
We allowed the kids to watch movies in the evening that seemed educational; we made no demands on their time other than asking that they participate in the family farm and home. The only other personal agenda item I imposed was taking advantage of their love of bedtime stories. I chose those books. I refused to read Harry Potter (they could depend on their grandparents for that), and instead we read about King Arthur, Greek mythology, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Narnia, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Anne of Green Gables and more.
Maybe my co-optation of story time was the first clue that unschooling wasn’t the best choice for our family. Further conflict with the philosophy arose in Bob and me when it came to allowing the kids unmitigated access to media. We began to observe that the kids would passively watch but not really engage their brains with active problem solving. Going against a lot of unschooling beliefs (that kids allowed unmitigated access to media will self-regulate their use of it), we removed all screens from the family side of our home (we keep the computer in my office). Then, we resumed our unschooling path. Saoirse blossomed into a phenomenal reader. Ula’s imagination flourished. Our daughters’ knowledge of science and social studies seemed adequate for their age, owing to Bob’s and my natural inclinations to explore these subjects in conversation and daily life. But by the age of 8, Saoirse’s writing and math skills left a lot to be desired. My understanding was that, if I didn’t harp on these subjects, she would eventually come around to them
But it was Bob who began asking the bigger questions. He pointed out that Saoirse and Ula seemed to be learning a lot about what we knew…but if we didn’t suggest a broader field, and we didn’t push them to look farther beyond what we ourselves could imagine, did we stand the chance of raising successive generations of scholars who were increasingly myopic in their understanding of the world?
I brushed him off. We have a life that will expose them to many things: we travel, we meet many different people. Life was still the best classroom.
But then I started observing something in Saoirse that troubled me. She would read prolifically, but she couldn’t write to save her life. She relied on “kid writing,” sounding-out of words to express her ideas without worrying about spelling or grammar. I was comfortable with that at the age of 5. At the age of 8, it was beginning to make me grumpy. I would suggest the dictionary. I would suggest correcting words. I was rebuked by my own kid with my own earlier wisdom “it doesn’t matter, as long as you can understand it.” Unschooling suggests that a point in time might come when Saoirse would decide to care about spelling, grammar and the like, but as her primary audience, and a writer, I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with her willingness to dismiss the mechanics of good writing and communication.
I noted similar problems in math. If I sat her down to do sums, she could slowly plod through with sufficient accuracy. But in real life, I was witnessing greater problems. Saoirse lacked confidence in math. Our lives are filled with practical math: reading recipes, counting eggs, handling change, planning and creating new craft projects. She loved all these things, but I noticed that she would be prevented from moving herself forward independently with them; if she didn’t have the confidence in her math skills to complete a project, she would simply quit. Rather than taking an interest in learning what she needed in order to pursue her goals, she was abandoning projects as soon as they presented a challenge.
Unschoolers might argue that Saoirse, at the age of 8, is still young, and that these basic skills of math and writing would eventually come to her when she was ready to embrace them. I am inclined to agree. But part of me suspected that her inability to tackle things that were important to her (writing a decent, legible letter; tackling a new craft project) was partly sheer laziness. I feared laziness, if not addressed, could result in increasing insecurity about exploring new ideas. I began to consider using a curriculum.
As a homeschooling parent, I have been part of many conversations with other homeschoolers where we discuss how good education is “all about the child.” The failure to make it this way is, after all, one of our biggest complaints about the public school system. It forces children to adhere to an artificial schedule of learning that fails to accommodate for individual readiness. The unschooling philosophy is very in tune with this criticism.
In my investigation of homeschool curriculum, I was keenly aware of this criticism. And I realized that my interest in adopting curriculum wasn’t really about Saoirse. It was about me. Upon making that discovery, I promptly dismissed the idea as wrong, and we continued with our unschooling.
And I continued to grow annoyed at her dismissive attitude about writing, about her unwillingness to allow mathematics to enrich her life.
Maybe education is supposed to be about the child, but why is it that I, as the parent, should relinquish my own voice? I’ve been on this planet for 37 years, and while I think my 8 year old is pretty smart, to assume that children innately know best how or if they should learn is dismissive of the experience that I could bring to the table. Call me selfish, but damn it, I felt I deserved to try imposing a little of my own educational agenda.
So this fall, we began with a curriculum. To my shock and horror, the parent manuals suggested that we spend an appalling 5-6 hours a day on the core subjects of language arts, math, social studies and science, and then an additional two hours on music, physical education and art. That was just way too confining. We limited our involvement with formal curriculum to two hours per day. As many other homeschoolers- turned-unschoolers report, it wasn’t pretty. There were tears -- on her part, and mine. She called the work stupid. I told her that her current academic achievement was unacceptable, that it was keeping her from moving forward with the stuff she seemed to want to do.
We were miserable…but only for about 2 weeks. Then, something clicked. I’d come in to start homeschooling, and she would already be waiting at her place at the table. Our conversations deepened; she began writing terrific essays that she would read aloud with pride to anyone willing to listen. Saoirse began doing math in the kitchen, at dinner, on the farm. We took the language arts skills we were learning in the curriculum and began applying them to the literature we read together at night. Our 2 hour schooling sessions stretched into 4 hour sessions with lots of smiles, with afternoons free for independent pursuits.
I have not abandoned unschooling. I still believe life presents the greatest lessons. When the weather is cold and the skies are gray, sitting around the kitchen table with worksheets and notebooks and an abacus is fun. But we abandon the books when Saoirse wants to work on her new homemade dog biscuit business, when there’s a great place to go visit, when there is something pressing at the farm, when the growing season is in full swing, or when the weather is just too beautiful to stay indoors.
I think it is very possible that, had I continued exclusively on the unschooling path, Saoirse would turn out just fine. But it was also very possible that she would become insecure and self-limiting, reluctant to tackle new challenges. Maybe unschooling is all about the learner, but as the teacher, I am also an important part of the equation. I wasn’t liking what I was seeing, and that was interfering with my relationship with my kid. My choice to use a curriculum has improved our relationship, and has broadened our approach to education. I don’t know if we’ll stick with it forever, but for now, I really like it, and while Saoirse likes to poke fun at it, she seems to love the time we spend working on it together.
As a Radical Homemaker I know that my job is to challenge everything…and sometimes that means challenging our own radical ideas.
Shannon Hayes is the host of grassfedcooking.com and the author of The Farmer and the Grill and The Grassfed Gourmet and Radical Homemakers. She works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York. Her newest book, Long Way on a Little: An earth lovers’ companion for enjoying meats, pinching pennies and living deliciously is due out in September 2012.