Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Make Sure They Learn the Right Things

When talking about unschooling with people who are new to the idea, there is another question that usually follows Aren't there things everyone needs to know? It goes like this:

How will you make sure your kids learn the right things?

The short answer is: I can't. I will explain. But first let's talk about school.

Schools have long lists of things everyone "needs to know." They spend a lot of time teaching about the things on the list. They certainly do not succeed in teaching everyone all of these things. Think about the process of teaching a concept in school. Teacher spends a certain number of hours presenting and explaining concept. Teacher assigns homework for students to practice concept. When teacher feels like she has explained enough, teacher tests students on concept. Some students do well on test. Others fail. Some clearly still do not understand concept. Teacher moves on to next concept.

If a student fails to learn a concept that is supposedly so important for him to know that he has spent hours and hours on it, but the class forges ahead despite this failure, what does that tell the student about the true importance of his learning?

What is really going on in schools? Are schools really "making sure all the kids know" anything?

Now to explain my answer above: Even if I decided there was some concept my children absolutely needed to know, there would be no guarantee I could make them learn it. Not by sending them to school. Not by teaching them at home. So I won't think of it that way. What I will do is give my children access to lots of different tools and experiences. I will support their interests, and they will learn what THEY need to learn. They will learn the things that are important to them. The things they will use in real life. Their own lists of "right things," not written by anyone else.

So my question to parents of school children who doubt unschooling is: How will you make sure your kids learn the right things?


  1. This came at a good time. The doubts come, the doubts go ... My child is already eight years old (I fret sometimes); what if he has already missed learning something CRUCIAL -- something that he will NEVER get the chance to learn EVER again? :)

    It helps to remind myself (and to let other people remind me) why I really do think unschooling is the way for us to go!

  2. My kids are so young, but I am anticipating periods of doubt as they get older. I am hoping to be able to look back at these posts from a very confident time, to keep myself on track! Thanks for the comment :)

  3. I just wanted to post about my reading experiences with my unschooled children because I know that the experiences of others were helpful to me while I was "waiting" for my child to learn to read. It was probably mostly due to outside pressures (but also a few of my own doubts) that I found the "waiting for reading to occur" stage of our lives a little bit trying. Reading is one of the BIG things that, if your child doesn't do by a certain ago, people think you are being horribly negligent for not teaching....and sometimes kids are even shamed for the lack of this skill ....by other kids and adults alike.....so it can be a tough one to just wait for... I was reminded time and time again that it DOES happen....and I DID BELIEVE....I really did...but I couldn't help but think sometimes that it would have been easier if my kid could just read already... and put an end to all the supposition. I actually had the husband of a good friend tell me, after I questioned him about FORCING his child through tears to read to him, that he considered my daughter to be failing if she couldn't read (she was 7 maybe). I assured him that she IS and would be just fine. He later apologized.

    Well, child #1 is 9 going on 10. Her reading progress was slowed I am sure by my well-meaning ex-husband....who told her when she was a 5 year old reader "reading" books from memory....that she was not really reading. (OUCH!!!) It took her many years to WANT to read again and certainly she still hesitates to read in front of him or to show him her writing (as there tend to be many misspellings) She has now happily joined the ranks of readers everywhere. She jumped right into chapter books and took off running. She has progressed several "grade levels" in the last 8 months. I know this only because my mother was a teacher for many years and gives me these peeks into her comparative growth - not that either of us cares. I mention it only because it may help others who are reading this with their crises of faith. The other day she told me she was going to make a website. Uh...OK. Not sure how she figured that out but I guess these days, it's not too hard. An hour later she sent me the link to an 8 page website with such philosophical musings that I thought she might have copied the text. She assured me that she wrote every last bit of it. The best thing about her learning to read is HER joy and self-esteem that she has gained in the process..

  4. I don't have the option to be a stay at home Mom in order to unschool my child, although this is the stance I take when I am at home with her in the evenings after work and on weekends.

    Any suggestions on how to unschool a child who by matter of necessity will be subjected to a public school system?

    Thankfully she is only three and I have one more year to let her learn how she needs to learn in her own way...

    I fear that she will lose her desire for learning...I equally dread her being "taught" by those who badger and drill instead of guide with kindness....

  5. Hi Sonja,

    I know sometimes unschooling is not an option. If your child attends school, you can make sure you are advocating for her in every way. Think of the things you would have wanted your parents to do for you when you were in school. That can help a lot. She will be lucky to have you as an ally at home.