Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why and How We Homeschool

Joe and I were interested in homeschooling before we had kids, probably before we were married. There's a theme running through our life together of not being afraid to question the default settings, the social norms, the way our parents did it. We end up accepting and living some conventional ideas, tentatively continuing others until we are convinced one way or the other, and going completely the other way when we think something else might work better.

By many measures we both counted as "public school success" stories (Joe was even Valedictorian). But neither of us thought that public school, or institutional education at all, was a necessary part of a fulfilling life. In fact, both of us felt that a certain amount of our time and effort in school had been wasted, and some of it had been downright counterproductive. The more we thought, read, and learned about learning, the more convinced we became that the default in this case (a very deeply conditioned and strongly reinforced default in our society) was not for our family. In fact, the more we learned, the more we gravitated toward the most radical kind of homeschooling, an approach known as unschooling. (Google that if you don't understand my use of it by the end of this essay, or if you want to know more about the wide variety of approaches homeschoolers use.)

Once you break free from the institution, the division of learning into subject areas and step-wise, age-based development markers loses much of its practical value. "Educational standards" are created so that institutions can measure themselves and run quality testing on their output. They don't ensure that a child gets what he needs out of his schooling. They *should* ensure that the system is working as well as it can for the needs of society. Our mission as parents is far less daunting. We have to deliver our kids to adulthood ready to take care of themselves and share this world. Homeschooling doesn't suddenly confer on us the mission of the public schools. It merely expands our opportunity for pursuing our goals as parents. I don't usually think of what we do as homeschooling, although I use the term because it's familiar to people. We're living, and learning is what happens when you're living.

So what do our kids really need from these years? Well, they need to learn a lot of stuff. Humans are wired to learn -- to be curious and to try to fit into the tribe. Kids left to their own devices in a rich (not necessarily "enriched") environment will learn. Just try to stop them. They constantly watch, listen, absorb, ask questions, think, space out, poke things, and try new stuff. Do we need to focus on teaching them particular things at particular times? If we grown-ups need to know something, we go learn it. Why should we set the schedule for them? Do we have some special knowledge that they will need a particular skill or bit of knowledge to fulfill some goal later in life? No, we don't. More importantly, no manner of assessment will guarantee that they will learn (really learn) anything we decide to teach them. We learn best when what we're learning is interesting, entertaining, fulfilling for us. We learn best when curiosity drives exploration and study, not when a syllabus and a class bell announce the next subject. As long as Joe and I have the luxury of being responsible for our kids' education, the best things we can do to prepare them for adulthood are to (a) introduce them to our world by sharing our interests and our daily lives with them, and (b) listen to them and help them find answers, resources, and new ideas in whatever direction their curiosity pulls them.

That's right. We don't make our kids complete assignments. We don't require reading. We don't lecture (unless the time seems ripe -- health and safety learning sometimes comes in this format). We don't formally test them.

We trust.

If all sorts of bells, whistles, and screaming authority figures are going off in your head right now, you're not alone. Like I said, schooling is a very deeply conditioned and strongly reinforced default in our society. We like to have control of outcomes, and we fear what would happen outside of the controlled (but by no means universally successful) system of education that defined our own youth. We like to have control of children's lives (after all, we're responsible for them), and we worry what they'll get into if they're not constantly scheduled and corralled into planned experiences. What do kids get up to when they aren't dictated a daily agenda? What's to keep my kids from just playing games all day long? Well, certainly not me.

Play is a fabulous way to learn. It engages, focuses, and socializes us. Games require various grades of discipline and a balance between competition and community spirit. They provide a context for concepts that might otherwise be presented as isolated, sterile specimens in a subject/unit/lesson curriculum structure. Playing poker we practice memorizing and applying a rather arbitrary hierarchy (hand ranks), we touch on probability, and do simple money math (making change and bidding within our means). Spades and Pinochle are more of the same, with a more complex system of play and points in place of the money. Monopoly (our version has a Star Wars: The Clone Wars theme) involves oodles of reading and intensive money math. Battleship introduces a coordinate system and challenges us to innovate and test search strategies. Master Mind is a recent favorite which requires a very focused kind of logic. I Spy, Chess, Tic Tac Toe, Set, Fluxx, Aquarius, the zillions of online games available (Ragdoll Physics games are a recent favorite), video games, run-around-and-tag-people games, target-shooting with bows and arrows, imaginative role-playing -- ALL games require thinking and many games exercise specific, broadly applicable skills. Kids can never play too much.

My kids play a lot, and every minute of play is homeschooling. I could write more about the many places we've traveled, the interests the kids have developed, the times they've impressed me with their intuition, knowledge, skills. But I celebrate those things daily, and my friends hear me gush about them more than enough. Ultimately I don't own those successes, and my approval isn't the reward. Their growth and happiness is.

But what about penmanship? Long division? The branches and levels of government? Linnaean taxonomy? Moby Dick? These things, if they will be valuable to them, will all come in good time. If they want to go to college (and I sincerely hope they do), there will be time and opportunity for study, selection, and preparation. College prep has various avenues: high school, prep school, community college, and independent (but targeted) study. The admission process usually involves extra essay/interview steps for kids without transcripts, but I've read many times that admissions officers generally consider homescholars a good addition to the student community, and a decent bet for retention and academic success.

If our kids are interested in a college that myopically refuses a prepared student merely because he was homeschooled, then we'll burn that bridge when we come to it. As long as we treat learning as a way of life, as what we do every day as humans, our children will learn the most important lesson: that they can find answers and build skills as long as they are willing to ask questions and apply what they've learned. They will learn to trust themselves, as we have challenged ourselves to trust them.

The hardest part about unschooling, and parenting, is having this confidence. But it gets easier as the months go by and our kids share with us their understanding of the world and their undiminished hunger to learn more, more, more about it.

Meteor Crater
Karl with "Bernoulli balls" at ¡explora! in Albuquerque
Oklahoma. No adults aided in the production of this beautiful campfire.
Columbus, MS
Memphis Zoo
Karl hatching
Karl after the ice storm in El Dorado, KS.
How many nights did you fall asleep with a highlighter in your hand, only to find seemingly random highlights in your textbook the next morning? ;)
Astronomical low tide, San Elijo State Beach, CA


  1. I just love your post. I followed your link from Psychology Today which was posted by someone on our county's homeschool newsletter. I have been homeschooling for years (15) and have mostly unschooled with one eye and a bit of subconscious structure in the other. Overall, I prefer the unschooled eye. It is what real learning is about.

    Keep up the good work. Not following the default system is a term I've needed. So, thanks.

  2. So glad you commented. It's nice to hear that veteran homeschoolers also choose (or have been chosen by) unschooling methods.

  3. Hi there, I also found your post through the Psychology Today article that popped up in my Facebook feed today. I have always loved the idea of unschooling ... and tend to do it most of the time because I'm terribly unstructured and not good at following through with plans ... but I almost constantly deal with a fear that I'm failing my kids. Your article (and the Psychology Today articles that I've been perusing today) are very reassuring. Thank you.