I have been so interested in the many posts on homeschooling styles that have been cropping up around the homeschool blogosphere. It’s been on my mind a lot. This post, in fact, has been growing and evolving and is still unfinished, but I want to let it go!
I could have stopped a while ago, but a quirk in how God saw fit to make me means that I don’t usually leave well enough alone . . . because I don’t really believe in “well enough.” It’s just in my nature, often for better though sometimes for worse, to look at something and try to improve it. I am not a go-with-the-flow person, and I am pretty sure–after some years of trying to be otherwise–that I am not meant to be. (There must be some kind of irony in there, that I have finally chosen to leave my improvement-oriented self “well enough alone.”)
This is one reason I’m not an unschooler, I suppose. But after all the reading I’ve done in the last few weeks, I’ve decided that the real reason I’m not an unschooler is that I don’t believe in unschooling.
What I mean is that I think of unschooling like Santa Claus — the spirit of the thing is huge, with multiple variations across cultures (“6 to 8 Black Men,” anyone?), and the reality of it rests in how and whether a family practices it. But as a thing in itself, it doesn’t exist.
What got me thinking about this was reading Melissa Wiley’s many wise thoughts on how her own family has moved towards a more unschool-y style. She wrote:
Unschooling is outside school, bigger than school. It doesn’t need to be the ideal best-possible version of school. It is something broader, richer, more rife with possibilities.
And I could not help but think, But how is that different from homeschooling? Homeschooling for us has been about drawing comic books and writing songs as history “narrations”; sitting down at the piano before breakfast, and then again before lunch, and then again after dinner; dropping English as a subject and picking up Chinese instead (and soon, German too!); dumping long division for a while and playing with protractors and compasses. And of course it has been chin puppets and orchestra concerts and sisters playing Harry Potter for an entire afternoon. It’s full of surprising connections, giving Victoria opportunity to say “just like Mozart!” or for Violet to draw stories weaving together the fiction and history she’s reading with her love of manga.
But no one would mistake us for unschoolers. I mean, you could say we are child-led learners, in that I follow my children’s interests at the pace they seem to want to go (though I find I tend to underestimate that). But how do you unschool Chinese? And if sitting down with a computer program or a workbook and doing the sometimes tedious work of memorizing characters is unschooling, then what is not unschooling?
We also feel free to take time off. This “school year” we’ve been to Disneyworld, Mexico, and South Dakota when everyone else is still in school. On busy days or weeks we let any formal lessons slide. But those aren’t unschooling times. They are part of the flow of our family life, the center of home education.
I came to homeschooling late in the game, of course. I’ve heard that once-upon-a-time there were two groups of homeschoolers: hippy-dippy institution-rejecting radicals, and super-fundy ultra-conservative insular radicals. Perhaps then the distinctions between homeschooling types were more marked, and more important.
I also came to homeschooling after pulling out of public school. We deliberately “de-schooled” for a time, but Violet was itching to dig into the fun stuff she’d been missing out on, like Chinese and history and playgroups when you were not too tired to play. We have a direct comparsion for how our family’s way of home education is “bigger than school.”
I read Charlotte Mason books when we first started, but it just wasn’t something I got into. This may sound arrogant, but I think maybe the reason I didn’t get into them much is because they didn’t seem all that different from our lives. Good grief, I write about literature and history for a living! When isn’t someone in our house nose-deep in a “living book” and reporting what they find? I think our house is “strewn” beyond what is reasonable! And “twaddle?” If anything I have always erred on the side of limiting my kids’ reading and viewing too much, forcing my “high-culture” ideals on kids who ought to have a little more room to develop their own tastes.
I don’t mention this to condemn devout CMers or to say that I am “beyond” her beautiful vision of a home educating family. No — if only I could live up to it! I guess I’m just trying to say that I came to homeschooling with a lot of homeschooling already in place in my family.
But enough about me. One “classical” homeschooling family I know said that they had all their formal work done by 10am, so the rest of the day was open for whatever. Another “classical” family I know schedules their winter lessons around skiing and their spring around golf, because golf and skiing are family activities that take precedence. (Oddly, one of the more free-spirited, Waldorf-style homeschoolers I know is always driving her daughter to co-ops and classes, but I think she’s an outlier.) Even the families I know who have enrolled in online public school but still consider themselves homeschoolers bend the rules, speed up and slow down at will, and explore their own interests.
All of these families do more formal curriculum than we do, and we do formal curriculum here too, but it’s plain from how they try to live their lives that they too are intentionally trying to make education something bigger than school, more rife with possibilities. (With apologies to Melissa for leaning on this phrase, but I think she succinctly articulates something that most, if not all, homeschoolers aspire to.)
So I’m not sure what is to be gained with the term unschooling, unless it means that you never offer any direction to your child or support for her exploration of her interests — or her opportunity to discover unknown interests. [Edited to add: I have plainly botched this sentence, based on the comments I’ve gotten. What I was trying to say was that most people do not consider “unschooling” to mean not offering direction or support, and therefore I am not seeing how “unschooling” as the description of educational practices offers a significant distinction from “homeschooling.”] “Homeschooling” may not be the best term either, though it seems to have stuck. (A little bit like “gifted,” eh?) If I ruled the world, everyone would be talking about “home educating” and we’d all be “home educators,” because I think the salient point in what distinguishes home educators is that education takes place in the organic context of home and family.
Home is the place where you are valued for who you are, are expected to make a reasonable contribution to your family life, and mature into freedom within thoughful limits set by people who know and care for you. Home education flows from there (and the best school-based education models itself on that pattern). Among families there are degrees of formality and spontaneity, different areas of interest, varying levels of energy and activity, and a wide variety of tolerances for things such as mess, noise, and fart jokes.
I am starting to wonder, however, if among home educators distinctions at that point are any more meaningful than distinctions between snowflakes or stars in the sky.
As I told my friend Patience, it seems to me that the bedrock principle of either homeschooling or unschooling, if you must call it that!, must be that all participants are true to themselves, especially the parents, as the children are still experimenting and discovering. (Well, so are the parents, but I hope you know what I mean!)
If the homeschooling parent is homeschooling in a way that is contrary to her own drives, loves, quirks, hates, beliefs, needs, and tendencies (except perhaps the universal human tendency toward sloth!), is it really education in the heart of the home, as Elizabeth Foss says?