Sunday, August 10, 2008

Am I An Unschooler with a Math Book? (Or, my educational philosophy)

I’ve been grappling with the labels of homeschooling. Am I an unschooler with a math workbook? Do I have to keep it hidden? Am I eclectic? Am I relaxed classical? Do we practice child-led learning? What’s the difference between homeschooling and school-at-home? Self-definition is always overwhelming, especially with so many choices. The Internet has made self-definition much more complicated than it used to be. In the end, or rather, at the beginning, I’ve realized that labels are irrelevant. What I’ve really been grappling with is my educational philosophy; identifying my reasons for homeschooling, what I hope to achieve and what path is best for us on the journey.

Unschooling has a wide range of definitions, ranging from radical unschooling to what many would describe as child-led learning. I am not a radical unschooler. I set limits for my children in areas where I think excess can be detrimental. We limit (but don’t deny) television, video games, junk food, violence, etc. I hope, though, that we educating more than we are controlling. We discuss the reasons for the limitations and that, to me, is considerably different than limits without explanation. I believe we are planting seeds and I see it come to fruition as my children choose books over television and apples over cookies (at least some of the time.)

I’m not a radical unschooler but am I an unschooler? In short, I think unschooling is following the interests and needs of the child. With that definition, I’m an unschooler… with a math book. I’m also a relaxed homeschooler with leanings toward classical education. Can I be both? There are things I want my children to learn. I want them to have a firm grasp of mathematics. I want them to understand history, and not just the short history of the United States. I want them to read quality literature for their own enjoyment and also as a model for quality writing and language. I want them to be able to think and problem-solve, to express themselves in different ways, and to form and test their own hypotheses. Above all, I want them to have a deep-routed, intrinsic love of learning that will last them a lifetime. That is a primary reason why we are homeschooling. It is also the reason we don’t school-at-home.

When many people think of homeschooling, they picture a school-at-home scenario, a day that mimics those found throughout public schools across the country, but without the peer groups, bullies and pad-lock combinations. The “schooling” is scheduled, happens within “normal” school hours (as defined by the public school system), and is, in essence, instructor driven. Perhaps the children are expected to be up by a certain time, be sitting at a desk, and following a list of assignments that will later be graded or tested upon. Or, perhaps they are learning from instructional DVDs or the Internet. I know that these methods of homeschooling work very well for a lot of families. I don’t think it is in the best interest of my children and family (but, my motto for homeschooling is, “never say never.”)

Our new “workroom” has a math curriculum (two actually), a history curriculum, science, writing, and even art. Yet I still consider us to be, in the wider definition of the term, unschoolers. I choose the curriculum we are using in partnership with my son. I talked with him about his interests, what he hoped to learn, and how he wanted to learn it. Honestly, he is an ideal candidate for “true” unschooling but I wasn’t able to keep up with the breadth and intensity of his interests. He truly is a natural learner and I wish I had the energy and resources to help him pursue each branch of his interests. I don’t see this as personal failture but as an honest appraisal of who I am and what my skills and strengths are. I don’t expect my children to be anyone other than who they are and I hope to model that by remaining true to myself. Perhaps “true” unschooling is an option we will consider together in the future (remember, never say never.)

I know I wasn’t meeting his intellectual needs and, as an unschooler at heart, it is my desire to follow the needs and interests of my children. Having more (but still not a lot of) structure in our day and having a plan to follow seems to be the best way to meet the Monkey’s intellectual interests. (For now, the Duckling is still thriving with a lot of imaginative play, art supplies, puzzles and books.) Now, when he asks me one of his 100 daily questions, I am able to answer, at least for some of them, “we’re going to cover that soon in history” (or science, math, writing, etc.). I think he likes that answer a lot more than “I don’t know.” Of course, in an ideal world, every “I don’t know” would be “I don’t know. Let’s look into that together.” For us, that only worked for the first 10 or so questions of the day and then the dishes in the sink started to smell. Of course, this will only work if the subjects we have planned are ones that he is interested in. We discussed what he wanted to learn and what I wanted him to learn, I researched, I talked with him and we made our decisions together. He said he wanted to learn grammar so I bought an excellent grammar program. Upon further discussion, I realized that he really wanted to learn about writing (punctuation, specifically) so the grammar program has been put away (I’ll write another day about my process of de-schooling myself in order to put it away!) I thought he needed phonics but he said it was boring (which makes perfect sense since he is reading proficiently.) Nothing is set in stone.

We had a trial run during the summer. We studied pre-history, from the Big Bang to the early humans. Our only goal was to get through it during the summer months. We are almost finished – just a few more library books to read and some stickers to put on a timeline we made. We didn’t do it every day. We took tangents when his interests were especially peaked (the Big Bang, the Ice Age, human evolution.) He talks often about Australopithecus and Homo Erectus. He works outside making stone tools from scraps of our concrete driveway. Early humans are the most recent dinnertime hot-topic and Lucy is talked about like an old friend (a VERY old friend.) There were no worksheets (thanks to that de-schooling I’ve been working on), no grading sheets and no set schedule. But, there was a history book, an overall plan and a library card. I expect our study of Ancient History, Life Science and even math will have that same overall approach.

I can honestly say that we wouldn’t have learned all we did if we were unschooling in the stricter definition. This wouldn’t have been because of his lack of interest or motivation, but because of my inability to follow those whims. His questions about pre-history would have been a scattering amongst the plethora of his questions. I may not have even taken notice. Instead, I choose a path that would allow me to meet his needs (or at least some of them) in a more complete way. He is very grateful and I am thrilled to have learned it along with him (did you know that if you sat down to count to a billion, it would take 95 years?!) At the end of our summer experiment, his love of learning is not only intact; it has been ignited. Is it unschooling? Well, it doesn’t really matter; it works.


Tammi said...

Great post!

I feel there's often too many labels in the homeschooling world. It really doesn't matter what "group" you are in. What matters is that your children are learning. This post is a great example. Thank you for sharing it!

Psst. I'm also an unschooler. :)

hipumpkins said...

I'm enjoying reading your blog and your struggles with labels.
Thanks for letting me link it in my blog.
I am not nearly as articulate and I like linking to blogs that explain much better what i am often trying to say.