Unschooling and the need to know

We recently received linkage at The Education Wonks where he mentioned his Expanding Vocabulary. When Andrea found the entry, there was a single comment from Donna. Donna asked an interesting 2 part question.

“How do you reckon “unschooling” addresses the very things kids need to know and understand in order to be successful later on in life? Isn’t that what accountability is all about?”

Donna, if you don’t mind, I would like to address the second question first. My first thought was, ‘accountability to whom?’ In theory, we live in a democratic and free society. The insistence of a need for accountability (something we encounter fairly often) suggests that we do not live in a free society. If an individual is accountable to some one or some group, then they are not free. His or her freedom, success and future are endlessly dependent on the approval of that person or group. A free society does not require accountability. It requires responsibility.

An education model where the student has little choice in the content, in schedule and in determining whether he or she was successful, teaches the student the model of accountability. Students in a classroom setting are accountable to the adult at the front of the class. If one of the aims of education is to produce or perpetuate a free society, then it is essential that the education system inculcate responsibility in its students. A responsible person is free because his or her actions are solely a result of his or her choices.

An unschooling environment affords a child the opportunity to learn responsibility because the child has the opportunity to experience both success and failure at the hands of his or her own choices. Of all things, I believe that being responsible for ones own life is central factor in ones success. (Note: In our society there is a segment of the population that enjoy a success that was created for them by others.)

In your first question, you asked about the things kids need to know. I think you will find the definition of what they need to know has been debated since the inception of compulsary schooling. The reality is that we live in a changing world. Much of what I needed to know when I was my children’s age, is no longer taught in public schools. One might believe that the basics of reading and writing essential to people in our society. However, given the statistic I wrote about a few months ago, obviously they are not essential. It is of no less consequence that, given that statistic, the system established to educate our society continues to operate without accountability.

A third subject which is usually identified as ‘basic’ is math. I agree that it would be difficult to live in our society without basic skills in math. A simple solution to this for an unschooler is for the child to have an allowance. Through an allowance, a child will learn basic computational skills and budgeting. However, it is difficult to imagine that the typical child will not exceed the abilities acquired through managing finances, in pursuing his or her interests. Estimating both time and distance require math skills. Many hobbies including most games make use of math.

What I believe is the main philosophy of unschooling is to refrain from teaching a child that it needs to be taught. In the last 5 years, my youngest has learned to feed herself, to walk, to talk, to compose sentences, to communicate complex ideas, to draw, to paint and many other skills. She has a substantial understanding of the world in which she lives and of the functioning of the human body. For many of the things I have listed, she learned them because she saw us doing them and knew that they could be done. For the remainder, our role in her learning has been to provide her with access to resources, to answer her questions and to respond to her needs and wants such as reading to her. Prior to compulsary pre-schooling, this was how nearly all children spent their early life. It is obvious that, barring severe handicaps, with or without being taught, children are capable of learning.

Given that we live in an unprecedented era of change, the skill which is essential to a young adult hoping for success in life is the ability to learn. The importance of facts is as changeable as the weather. Who could forecast what facts my 5 year old will need to know when she is 20?

About Ron

Homeschooling dad of 4 (ages 27 - 14), grampy to 3, WordPress core contributor, former farmboy & software developer by profession.

Comments

  1. I have been pondering along similar lines recently, must get around to blogging.

    The stuff that I wonder about are things like tax returns – you need to be able to do them, noone in school ever teaches you how to do them, and quite frankly, I still haven’t learnt to do them myself…how does an unschooled child come to terms with things like that if there are no examples of successful behaviour around them.

    (Don’t know whether the tax return example is a good one for you, something on my mind as I’ve to do mine by the end of this month!)

  2. Ron or Andrea says:

    Jax,

    Taxes are a really good example. When I started my business, I went to see an accountant. They were going to charge me more than the profit the company made for the year to file the tax returns (assuming I provided them with all the figures). It was then that I looked into the possibility of doing them myself (which I have done every year since then).

    It illustrates a point that I hadn’t included in the post. A child will also learn to catch itself when he or she loses their balance. But, at that instance they don’t learn so much because they other people doing it as from the necessity of the moment.

    I’ve been taught very little of what I do professionally today. I’ve learned most of what I do professionally in the course of ‘getting things done’.

  3. “noone in school ever teaches you how to do them, . . . how does an unschooled child come to terms with things like that if there are no examples of successful behaviour around them.”

    I guess if no one in school is taught, the unschooled child isn’t at any particular disadvantage. Most unschoolers teach their children as they’re going through life, so the unschooled child may even be at an advantage in this example.

  4. Of course we live in a democratic and free society, and you are certainly free to live within the tennets of your beliefs. Don’t forget, however, that even in our democratic socity there are still laws that govern us, so we are not entirely free.

    I suppose when I asked the question at EdWonks, I was thinking more in terms of the education of older children and keeping options open for them. What if ten years from now your child decides that she would like to become a doctor? Will you be able to adequately prepare her to meet the requirements of medical school admission? We can’t all be experts in everything.

  5. And what exactly are you getting in a public school that will make a whit of difference when applying to medical schools? In fact, the unschooler with an interest in the medical field will likely spend her teenage years immersed in biology, chemistry, maybe volunteering at a hospital, or doing a myriad of other things all directly connected to health care.

    The school kids will have 10th grade health class and maybe a high school chemistry class. Woo Hoo.

  6. Donna asks, “What if ten years from now your child decides that she would like to become a doctor? Will you be able to adequately prepare her to meet the requirements of medical school admission? We can’t all be experts in everything.”

    I’m a math-idiot, but my eldest daughter wanted to be a veterinarian so much, that she worked, and worked to get the experience necessary to qualify for the pre-vet track at university, a track that is math-heavy. _She_ worked at acquiring the talents _she_ needed, and she did what needed doing. I didn’t have to be the expert, she became her own expert. She also chose not to get an undergrad degree, but completed the vet-school-necessary courses, took the VCAT and applied to vet school.

    I’m a writer.
    She’s (almost) a vet — graduates in 4 months.
    Her twin is a computer programmer. (BS)
    Her oldest brother is a programmer. (he’s our public schooler) (BS)
    Her younger sister is an actress. (BFA)

    What each one ‘unschooled’ is what each one (including the public schooler) chose as a college major. The “accountability” energy comes from within, not from somewhere else.

  7. Can you answer this question for me, because I think this is where I’m having the most trouble: What is the history behind the term “unschooling”? From my perspective, it sounds like a term rooted in a belief that schools are inferrior and perhaps should be done away with. Why not utilize a more positive term, such as “interests-based learning” or “exploratory education” or “self-realization education” The term “unschooling” suggests to me that perhaps unschoolers perceive the public education system as unsalvagable.

    From my perspective, there are already many people of power who create laws that are crippling our public education system. Why declare yourselves loyal to a school-of-thought (pun intended) that includes a negative prefix?

  8. I think the “necessity” aspect is an important one. A child that was always caught when she started to fall would eventually learn that she “needed” to be caught, or that the people around her THOUGHT she needed to be caught. Sometimes we overteach and overprotect, and give kids the message that they NEED an expert to do their taxes for them (incidentally, I don’t do mine — DH does!).

    Even my handicapped child seems to learn best when he’s allowed some freedom to make mistakes, to learn his own capabilities. He learned to walk just short of two, but required more “support” than most kids — a fisher-price walker was worth its weight in gold in providing him with security in his first steps!

    But providing this environment for a child at a higher level does seem to take plenty of thought and planning. Most kids learn to walk one way or another, that seems to be built into the normal system of development and they see it modelled all around them, universally; but not all people through history learn how to read, any more than we today “naturally” learn how to use a broadsword or dance a madrigal. We learn what’s important by what we see around us as useful and important.

    So again, often “necessity” plays a role in our education — schools provide a certain form of “necessity” even if it’s a bit artificial, in the form of grades and required schoolwork; and unschoolers have to provide a form of necessity as well, but hopefully in a more real-world, relationship-oriented manner. That’s how I see it, anyway.

  9. WJFR – Definitely. One of the things we always tried to do is give them as broad a range of ‘movement’ as possible within the confines that the freedom wasn’t placing them at risk of danger.

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  2. […] As a preamble to explaining the title of this post, I feel obligated to describe the history of the hypothesis I am going to pose here. A couple weeks ago, I wrote the following: What I believe is the main philosophy of unschooling is to refrain from teaching a child that it needs to be taught. In the last 5 years, my youngest has learned to feed herself, to walk, to talk, to compose sentences, to communicate complex ideas, to draw, to paint and many other skills. She has a substantial understanding of the world in which she lives and of the functioning of the human body. For many of the things I have listed, she learned them because she saw us doing them and knew that they could be done. For the remainder, our role in her learning has been to provide her with access to resources, to answer her questions and to respond to her needs and wants such as reading to her. […]