Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Unschooling apologetics

This is a message I rediscovered four years after it was written, deep in my "Sent Items" folder in my e-mail client. I wrote it in response to someone's questions and experiences. I've dated the blog entry to match the original date I wrote it:

I think you've probably discovered through experience that non-coercive education (unschooling is way down this end of the spectrum) tends to be linked to non-coercive parenting. Non-coercive parenting sometimes means kids are rowdy and poorly behaved, though at its best it really shouldn't. I'm into "as non-coercive as I feel is realistically possible" parenting, and my children are, by all reports, exceptionally well-behaved. It helps that they're introverted and thus don't like to stick out in public. But I readily intervene to enforce my standards if the rights and feelings of others are at stake and I am unable to come up with a mutually advantageous alternative.

It's unschooling, not unparenting, though sometimes the two do get muddled up together a bit.

"If I wasn't mandated into having to take that class for my degree requirements, I never would have thought about everyday situations with a 'physics-slant' which alot seem to have. The subject seemed totally off the wall and unrelated to my 'real' life until I actually thought about specific situations in 'physics' terms."

This is a great pro-unschooling example, as I see it. Because, you see, you weren't mandated to take physics. You refused to take it through high school because it wasn't meaningful to you. You didn't study it until you decided that on balance it was worth it to you. You chose to go to college and to pursue a degree which required physics credits. You could have quit, or changed your degree focus at any time, and no one would have "given you heck" or told you that you couldn't. Physics was an means to and end to which you had voluntarily committed yourself. Were you harmed by avoiding physics as a high-schooler? I doubt it. In fact, I'd wager that by not being forced to take it "just because", by waiting until it was meaningful to you as a means to a specific end, that you probably approached it with less negative psychological baggage and also, at the college level, received a more skilled, inspiring and relevent form of physics education. (I have a very similar story about my own physics education.)

Unschooling doesn't mean "only doing what is inherently fun and enjoyable". It means "only doing what has relevence and importance within one's own frame of reference". My 9yo dd has just spent a couple of days going through help files and tutorials on using a spreadsheet program. I asked her at one point if she was having fun and she said "no, this is boring, but I need to find out how to _____ so I can ______." I think this is typical of children who haven't had adults make the decisions concerning what's good for them. They are willing to do the spade-work to get where they want to go. No one needs to "make them".

"How will the children 'grow' in areas that they have no interest in if they are not even exposed to these areas because they didn't 'feel' or 'want' to study them?"

Personally I think it is the unschooling parent's job to provide opportunities and exposures. Not to drag a kicking and screaming child to piano lessons or math workbooks or anything, but to offer different possibilities over the years, model interest, to gently point out places where knowledge or skills are relevent, and so on. It's an 18-year plan, this unschooling thing, so if your child isn't interested in learning to work out the area of a triangle today, you've probably got another decade or so for the interest to arise.

But if your child never develops an interest in the formula for the area of a triangle, what's the big deal? If he needs to calculate it at some point in the future, being a self-motivated, can-do unschooler, he'll know how to teach himself. He'll grab a geometry basics textbook at the library, or type into Google and have it sorted out in ten minutes.

"I simply cannot trust that my guidance is not needed."

Guidance is needed in unschooling, of course! It's needed every time your child asks for help in learning something, or expresses an interest (even implicitly) in pursuing something but doesn't know where to turn. You need to model active learning, interest in and curiosity about the way the world works, work to inspire interests, to strew interesting resources and opportunities in your child's path. And somehow, in this culture that prefers to partition children into a separate reality, you need to create for him the kind of lifestyle and range of experiences that allows him to intersect with meaningfully with real life. The parent has a huge role to play in the education of unschooled children, at least as big a role as in the education of children homeschooled in a more traditional fashion. It's more of an art than a science, though.