This article says it all. Really encapsulates what unschooling is all about.
by Cindy Webb
For a kid who never went to school, Matt Moyer is doing pretty well. Matt is currently a junior at the University of Tulsa on a full academic scholarship (a result of earning a 33 on the ACT) and has already received an offer from TU for a scholarship to complete his master’s degree. His future plans include moving to Washington D.C. so he can pursue a career in computer security with an intelligence agency. “I’ll also finish a Ph.D. in computer science somewhere down the line,” says Matt.
What makes Matt’s story even more interesting is that, unlike other traditionally home-schooled children, Matt had no formal schooling at all until he was 16 years old and requested it. He then attended TCC taking algebra and calculus through a concurrent enrollment program offered to high school age students.
But just because Matt wasn’t formally schooled doesn’t mean he wasn’t educated. Matt’s parents chose a different educational approach known as “unschooling.” Matt’s mother Leslie, a child development major in college, hadn’t planned on such a non-traditional approach to education for her children. “The first homeschooler I met happened to be an unschooler,” says Leslie. “Her children had such a fire for learning. I wanted my kids to always have a passion for learning.”
Leslie said she began homeschooling Matt because he was quiet. “I thought I might homeschool just that one year. But it [unschooling] went so well we did it another year and so on.”
Leslie has now unschooled all three of her children, Matt, now 21; Sarah 18 and a freshman at OU; and 14-year-old Elizabeth.
What is Unschooling?
John Holt, a teacher and advocate for education reform and supporter of homeschooling, first coined the term “unschooling.” According to the John Holt and Growing Without School website, unschooling is a type of homeschooling that “doesn’t use a fixed curriculum.” It is also known as “interest driven, child-led, organic, eclectic or self-directed learning.”
So, while a traditional homeschooled child might have a math textbook and study math every weekday between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., or attend a math co-op classroom with other homeschooled children, the unschooled child will have no formal math education at all. The same goes for reading, history, social studies, English, science—all academic subjects. The children learn when they are ready to learn, using experiences and resources they discover themselves and/or are made available to them by their parents.
According to the website, Holt believed that “We don’t need to be taught how to learn: we’re born knowing and wanting to. It’s our nature, our genes, our biological inheritance. The hardest thing for parents to learn is hands-off. Teach less, not more.”
According to Patrick Farenga, unschooling advocate and president of Holt Associates Inc., unschooling is self-directed learning but not “learning without a plan.” In an interview with Stanford University School of Education, Farenga defined unschooling as “allowing children as much freedom to explore the world as you can comfortably bear.”
Trust in the Process
“It requires an enormous amount of trust at first,” says Jenny Thompson, an energetic woman with a warm smile and sparkling eyes. “But then, after not too terribly long, it just makes so much sense.”
Jenny, her husband Chris, and their four children: Molly 15, Kyla 13, Rachel 10 and Aren 7 have embraced what Jenny calls a “radical” unschooling lifestyle.
“We don’t have a schedule, but a flow,” says Jenny about the family’s daily routine. The Thompson’s don’t dictate bedtimes, chores or television times. “I think if you make anything the enemy you are defeating unschooling. But it’s not like I have four kids who are raising themselves,” she’s quick to add. “We do have rules.”
“We wake up at different times, so breakfast together wouldn’t work,” says Rachel. “Kyla wakes up at 5:30 and Molly…at noon!” says Rachel, giggling.
“But we almost always have dinner together,” says Jenny. “Chris and I usually cook, but Molly and Kyla will be cooking Thursday nights this fall because of soccer practice.”
Kyla has been reading cookbooks to prepare herself for the responsibility. Molly likes to experiment. “I’d rather do it all myself,” says Molly when talking about cleaning up the kitchen and cooking.
When it comes to housework, Jenny says she’ll announce, “Okay, we’ve got to clean up today. Divide it up!” She says the kids always work it out peaceably.
Jenny says she doesn’t restrict television, but that it isn’t a problem. “If you watch too much you feel bleeeck!” says Rachel, grimacing and sticking out her tongue.
According to Jenny, Aren watches about two hours of PBS Kids in the afternoon. “My eyes get tired if I watch too much,” says Aren.
“They need to learn to know when they are hungry, tired, full. My kids don’t crave T.V. because it’s not off limits,” says Jenny.
All four Thompson children have their own rooms. “One reason we are successful is that we all have a door,” says Jenny. She believes homeschooling can work in smaller spaces, but is glad that her family has “personal space to retreat to.”
Lively and animated, Aren is most interested in playing. His bedroom floor is strewn with his favorite toys. In the world of unschooling, that is just fine, for play is seen as the natural way children learn.
Rachel’s room reflects her interest in art; she loves to draw and paint. Many of her favorite drawings are displayed on her walls and throughout the home. An open sketchbook reveals a delicate rendering of a tiger lily in bloom, drawn, she says, by looking at a flower in her backyard. This summer the outgoing 10-year-old attended Holland Hall’s art camp.
Quiet and studious, Kyla is passionate about animals and books. One long wall in her bedroom has a spacious pen for her two guinea pigs, Skittles and No Name. “We got the information for the pen off the internet and built it ourselves,” says Jenny.
Kyla also volunteers at the public library and keeps a spiral notebook of all the books she wants to read in the future. She says that the librarians keep her informed of books she might like. “Kyla reads with a dictionary by her side and looks up every single word she doesn’t know,” says Jenny. “I never taught her to do that.”
Molly, a well-spoken, confident teenager with long wavy hair, is preparing to attend Tulsa Community College when she turns 16. For the first time in her life she is using structured educational materials to prepare for TCC. “I think it’s a natural transition,” says Jenny. “As they age, they crave more structure in their academics. Most importantly, it’s her choice.”
Molly says she finds math somewhat tedious. But she adds, “Sometimes your brain just needs to work. That’s when I pull out a math workbook or logic puzzles.”
While Jenny doesn’t have formal curriculum in the home, she has a wide range of resources. “We love the Dorling Kindersley math books,” says Jenny. “And I get great math workbooks at Sams.” Additionally, the Thompson’s home is filled with art supplies, books, puzzles, maps school supplies—resources of all kinds. “It’s up to them to find out what makes them tick, and then I help them find the resources,” says Jenny. “You don’t have to sit down and have ‘school’ to watch them blossom.”
Jenny admits giving her children the freedom to take classes that interest them can get expensive. “We do have credit card debt,” she says. Jenny says the family has learned to live simply in order to pursue the lifestyle they choose. “We only have one car. (Chris drives a commercial vehicle.) I make my own laundry soap—we do a lot of laundry! We shop at thrift and consignment stores.” In addition to having a house full of resources, both Jenny and Leslie count on community resources to stimulate their children’s minds, bodies and creative spirits. Between the two families, the children are involved in scouts, athletics, drama, art classes, library events, exchange programs, museum events, and much more.
“When my children were young, we plugged into the homeschooling community,” says Jenny. “Now that they are older, we plug into their interests.”
Though parents often voice concern that the homeschooled child won’t have adequate socialization, neither Jenny nor Leslie have found that to be true with all the resources and social activities available in the Tulsa area.
Gaps in learning are an expected part of the unschooling experience and are not regarded with distress. “I’ve had gaps for some period of time,” says Matt, “but over the long haul they get filled in.” Matt says that he was never interested in learning long division on his own. He says he picked it up when he got into a college class where he needed it.
“I never required my kids to learn long division or multiplication tables.” says Leslie. “I encouraged it, I told them why it was important, but I didn’t require it,”
Matt can’t explain why he excels in upper level math but never memorized his multiplication tables. “As your brain develops, it becomes really intuitive,” he says.
One of the key components of unschooling is that children learn when they have the need to learn. “Part of my job as an unschooling parent is to put them in challenging situations so they need to learn,” says Leslie. “It’s true, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink; but, you can salt the oats!”
Leslie says that her youngest child, Elizabeth, didn’t learn to read until she was eight and a half years old, no matter how much Leslie “salted the oats.” “One evening, when I was cooking dinner, she asked me to teach her to read…Within 10 days she was reading and within one month she was reading Harry Potter.”
Matt believes that his unschooling experience has given him advantages over other young adults. “In general I’m better at independent work. I had an internship in Washington D.C. where I had to start a research project without any supervision. I think a lot of people would feel challenged by that, but for me it was no problem. I’m also not as jaded [about education] as some of my public school peers. A lot of people [in college] have set ideas about what they want to study or don’t want to study; I can go into any class and be engaged and be interested.”
Matt says he didn’t have any trouble transitioning into college. “In college I’m still responsible for my own learning. I’ve had a really great time in college. I’ve done well academically and found a good niche in my major. I have been really happy in school.”
Jenny says one of the advantages she sees is that her children don’t have as much stress or pressure to conform. “When people ask me why I unschool I say, ‘Because I have a 15-year-old daughter who loves herself because it hasn’t occurred to her that she shouldn’t.’”
Not For Everyone
“I think it would be a wonderful way to be schooled,” says Dr. Diane Beals, associate professor of education at the University of Tulsa. “But it takes a great deal of thought and planning. It would work for kids who are curious and highly motivated, and parents who are highly motivated and have a deep understanding of the fields of knowledge they are trying to teach their children. But, there are a lot of kids who just naturally don’t want to learn anything academic. The basic assumption is that kids do want to learn. I don’t think you can say that about all kids everywhere.”
John Holt believed that all children are hard wired to learn. “This idea that children won’t learn without outside reward or penalties…usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote Holt in his book, How Children Fail. “So many people have said to me, ‘If we didn’t make children do things, they wouldn’t do anything.’ Even worse, they say, ‘If I weren’t made to do things, I wouldn’t do anything.’ It is the creed of a slave. When people say that terrible thing about themselves, I say, ‘You may believe that, but I don’t believe it. You didn’t feel that way about yourself when you were little. Who taught you to feel that way?’ To a large degree, it was school.”
Leslie, however, believes that not all parents are suited to unschool. “But,” she adds, “I don’t think it is as difficult as most people think it is. I’ve heard that to successfully unschool you either need to be well-organized or lead a very interesting life!”
Both Leslie and Jenny agree that one wonderful aspect of unschooling is that you don’t ever have to get into an antagonistic relationship with kids over learning. “The relationship with my kids has just gotten better and better,” says Leslie.
Unschooling is an extension of how our family lives,” says Jenny, whose passion for learning has her working on a master’s degree in English literature at Northeastern State University. “I’m diggin’ school! I would be in school forever,” she says. “I want my kids to feel this way about learning. Some days it’s hard. But overall it has been joy, joy, joy, joy!”
Originally Published: http://www.tulsakids.com/editors-choice/2007/oct-1.html
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