Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dipping a Toe Into the Water

For those unfamiliar with the term "unschooling," this is a term first coined around the mid 1970s by an educator by the name of John Holt.  It is defined in thousands of different ways, so for ease of use, I am borrowing the following definition from Wikipedia:

"Unschooling is a range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including child-directed play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum.  Unschooling encourages exploration of activities led by children themselves, facilitated by adults... Popular critics of unschooling tend to view it as an extreme educational philosophy...."

Let me say, for the record, that what I am doing at home with Matthew is not unschooling.  But this week, I have made what (for me) is a dip into the outer edges of unschooling.  Here's what happened.

After almost three weeks' vacation from school, I advised Matthew this past weekend that our holiday was coming to an end and that we would need to resume work again this week.  Immediately after hearing that news, Matthew's shoulders slumped, he sighed heavily, and he voiced his displeasure at the prospect.  That, in turn, disheartened me.  I often struggle with how to motivate Matthew towards his school work, and I just knew by looking at him that this week was going to be a hard one.

All weekend I stewed on what to do differently so that he would learn to love school.  What kept going through my head was a conversation that I'd been barely involved with at my Friday evening parenting class.  We had been talking about how to think as a developmentalist, rather than as a behaviouralist...a topic which I'll cover more on another day because it's something I've been contemplating for a while without having the words to put to my inner muddle.  Anyway, we were talking about bringing our children to their full potential ("be all they can be" so to speak) and about how we simply cannot force maturation upon our children - our role as parents is to provide the context in which maturation can spontaneously happen.  A comment was made by the video-taped presenter (Gordon Neufeld) that nature supplies all of the motivation to move a child.  Well, didn't that just strike a chord with, who struggles every week to motivate my child in the general direction of school work.  But if it's nature that's supposed to provide the motivation, what the heck am I doing by trying to essentially force-feed my child what I think is necessary for him to know at this age.  I made a quiet comment during the parenting course that the presenter had just made the best case I'd ever heard for an unschooling approach to educating one's child.

Indeed, all weekend, I mulled this over and over in my mind...while I worried about the school week just ahead.  In my heart of hearts, and ooo I can barely say this out loud, so I'll write it smaller:  in my heart of hearts, I think I'd love to be an unschooling family.  Yikes, did I just say that? Maybe it was small enough that you couldn't actually read it.  But I'll admit at least this much about unschooling:  I'm drawn to it.  Intuitively, it makes a whole lot of sense to me - why wouldn't I want to capitalize on my child's natural interests and involvements to provide learning opportunities similar to what he's going to experience as an adult?  Isn't that when nature would provide the motivation to move my child, when he's actually interested in learning something?  Tell me that you wouldn't also want your child to capitalize on those things that inherently move him; we've all seen it in our kids, how much easier and faster and more thoroughly they learn something when they're inspired to do it, learn it, embrace it.  Heck, I'm exactly like that, too!

I'll say it in large print now - I think I'm mustering enough courage:  I'm very drawn to the notion of unschooling.  It seems very intuitive to me.  But the kicker is that I don't think I possess what it takes to be able to unschool.  Heck, most days I don't even think I have what it takes to homeschool my kid at all!  I don't think I have the necessary amount of discipline (self discipline, that is), or enough staying power to be able to accomplish every week what would be needed to unschool.  Maybe this is because I have an erroneous notion about unschooling, but I see the unschooling parent as needing to accommodate how their kids learn about what they're interested in (ie. provide the means) and to capitalize on opportunities that come their way.

Let's face it.  I also think that I don't have the belief yet that it would work.  This is probably the real nub of it.  I'm still so bound by what a curriculum suggests that I should do, and assume that a grade one curriculum set forth as a cookie cutter approach to children of like-age would be in my child's best interests.  I'm not sure that I would bear up under the scrutiny of those who would (and already do) compare what we do in a day with what a school-attending child does.  I'd be constantly worrying (as I already do) about why it is that Johnny can already read like a champ when my child is struggling, and not wanting to heed the advice of other, more experienced h/schoolers who tell me to relax and that when he's ready to really embrace reading, he will and it'll be his for life.  I am a woman who pursued classical education to the point of about ten years of post-secondary education (not including the various certifications that I completed and the myriad of professional development stuff I did during my full-time work days).  How on earth would I put those core behaviours on the shelf just because I instinctively think there's a better way out there?

But a gentle little, half-hearted foray was made in this direction anyway, come Tuesday morning.  At breakfast time, while Matthew was contemplating the sad state of his life, having to go back to school, I surprised him by saying the following:  "ok, so what if we were to put school on a shelf for a week, or maybe two.  What would you like to learn about if you could choose anything out there?"

His answer was immediately - I mean, not even a breath's worth of time to consider it.  "I want to learn about germs and bacteria," was his answer.  What???  Germs?  Bacteria?  What about, like, wild cats or, say, learning how to play piano?  What the heck do I know (or want to know) about germs and bacteria, besides the fact that my norwex "cleaning without chemicals" cloths take care of them all?

My first thought, to be honest, was: "shit."  Thought, not what I said out loud, ok?

What I actually voiced was a hearty:  "OK then. Let's learn together about germs and bacteria. What do you want to do about it and what do you want to learn?"

Over the next while, with Matthew perched on the edge of his seat, we made a page-long list of things that he might like to learn, and put together some ideas about things that we might do.  Here's a sample of his ideas:

  • what are germs and bacteria anyway?
  • let's go to the library and do some research on them
  • let's figure out if we can draw and/or paint what they look like
  • let's do some experiments (miraculously, I'd just bought a Magic School Bus science experiment kit before Christmas on...ta da...germs!).  Let's experiment with where germs are in the house (toilet; sink drains; paper money; the cat's mouth; hands before and after washing them; raw meat on the counter; etc) and use q-tips to collect samples. Note: I have no idea how to actually accomplish these things beyond the collection stage, but I have a feeling I'm going to find out shortly!
  • are there different kinds of germs?
  • do germs always make people sick?
  • is there an expert we could talk to about germs and bacteria?
  • could we find some videos on germs/bacteria or doing experiments. Do we need to get a microscope?
  • how do we grow germs?
  • how do we get rid of them in the house? What kills them?
  • what books can we read about them (eg. Magic School Bus has one on germs, we discovered)

His list of ideas and suggestions could have gone on forever.  He was bursting at the seams, motivated, wanting to find answers, wanting to learn.  Wanting to learn.  Wanting to learn!

So...forget my lesson plans for the next week or two.  Yesterday, in addition to gym class in the afternoon and Awana in the evening, we did a little reading about germs and bacteria and fungi, and we did three experiments (two of which will require follow-up for seven days).  Matthew can hardly wait until we get to our next set of experiments, and is even looking forward to practicing his letters and reading, by learning to read and write words such as:  germ; bacteria; experiment; eye dropper; test tube; etc etc.  He's been learning how to read a graph with more than two rows and more than two columns, and has learned about tiny measurements such as mLs.  Oh, and he actually tried to read a bunch of words on one of the pages that explained one experiment.  I'm also going to have him write (phonetically - so cute!) in his journal about what he's learning.  He's pumped to an extent that I haven't yet witnessed in him this school year.

We're taking a little dip into unchartered waters.  Experimenting at the edge of what feels like an abyss to abyss where there's no bottom in sight.  I'm terrified that I don't know how to do most of the stuff on that 'germ and bacteria' list, but I am almost equally determined to give it a go.  Together with Matthew.  The worst that can happen is that week or two are 'wasted'; and really, even as I write that word, I don't believe they'll be wasted at all.  We may never repeat such weeks, but it won't be a waste; if anything, we could call it another kind of experiment.


  1. Maybe you'll have extra help cleaning for the next couple of weeks especially if its part of learning!

  2. Eileen, it's funny to me that Matthew actually LOVES cleaning the bathroom...usually as a procrastination technique for something else he doesn't want to do, but still! He uses my norwex cloths to clean the sink and mirror and LOVES cleaning the toilet. I say: go to it man, as this is my least favourite part of cleaning...or would that be dusting? Hmm. Toss up. I hate it all, truth be told!

    Have a good day, Eileen.


  3. Ahhh...don't tempt me! I was actually reading a tiny bit more about unschooling this week, and did order a book on unjobbing (a particular interest of mine - just didn't realize there was an official term for it).

    I, too, feel like home and unschooling seem daunting in the commitment to ongoing research and preparation on the parent's part, and making sure that important skill & knowledge areas don't get left behind...although I love that kind of sponatneous & interest-based learning and exploration myself (it's amazing how neuro-biology can become fascinating when there's topic of particular interest where that knowledge comes into play...and at other times...snore), so it might be more up my alley than I fear...

    Of course, my biggest fear (and obstacle to problem-solve) is that our work/financial situation won't permit any stay-at-home schooling options, which makes me VERY sad (even if I opt for out-of-home school in the end, I want the choice), because I always planned to be around full-time for my kids (well, originally I figured I would keep my at-the-time "dream" job as primary wage-earner, and let my husband stay home...but things changed...except that I still contribute a major portion of the income...anyway, I digress).

    Back to your post - I love the list of activities Matthew came up with, and totally see how you could cover pretty much every subject/skill area for academics, all while focusing on the germ/bacteria topic in a self-directed way!

  4. My eldest son's favorite household is cleaning the bathroom also! Its nice to know that the cleaning products we use won't hurt him.

  5. bahhhhhaaahaaaa! i laughed out loud at your initial reaction to his request..too funny! ok, so I'm so wth you here- I personally think unschooling, if done right, is amazing! But I'm not sure if I've got what it takes to be one..I think you have to be MORE intentional actually. I heard Gordon Neufeld speak on the 'emergent learner' years ago, and how our biggest mistake as homeschoolers is trying to 'bring school home' rather than just capitalize on this great excitement already IN these little sponges we call our kids..they LOVE to learn, so why not let them run with it? I call myself an "eclectic homeschooler" :) meaning I like to check off my boxes of a math and language curriculum, and then the rest is they read a TON and they soak in SO amazes me what they know and can recall, but it's because they've ENJOYED learning, maybe I'm more 'charlotte mason' or living books than anything...hmm..see what I mean about eclectic?

  6. This sounds so great! We've been really racking our brains trying to figure out how to motivate our daughter to just do her best, seeing as how she really dislikes anything to do with school. What we've come up with is a check mark system, where if she tries hard & finishes her work, then she gets a check. Every day with a check is good for 5 minutes on the Playstation. So far, it's working really well! She's reading a book that she LIKES, and is very excited about it. Plus, I found some science experiments that we do at home after school, and both kids are responsible to read the instructions and give me a list of supplies (in their own handwriting/printing). This is a huge hit!

  7. This sounds great!!

    Did you know that Dawn at This Woman's Work is an unschooler? She doesn't talk about it all that much, but she is a seriously smart cookie so that makes it feel more approachable to me!

  8. So he has a microbiologist in him! And maybe a future in toxicology too! Pretty amazing that he has led you to this interest of his.

    Katie H

  9. FABULOUS Ruth- I think that you are onto something, and that your germ study will be super. I know that as a classroom teacher, some of the best "aha" moments come when the curriculum is dropped, and you chose to follow a tangent based on the kids' lead. Nothing is better than seeing that motivation and excitement. Way to go :)
    By the way, I was a complete non-reader until gr.3, and I LOVE to read now- so I wouldn't panic with Matthew, just keep exposing him like you are. I have a good kids book called "germs make me sick" that you can borrow if you wish.


  10. Ruth, I love your creativity. And I don't think what you're doing is unschooling. At least not in my books. It's homeschooling. I am a supporter of homeschooling (and I am about to return to work as a classroom teacher), but I am not at all a fan of unschooling. What you are doing is letting Matthew's interests guide you and taking a break from the regular curriculum to pursue that, which is one of the greatest things about homeschooling. And I know by now that you are not going to let your child grow up unable to read or write or do simple math. That is the problem that I keep facing with children who come to my classroom who were "unschooled" Right now as I soon return to work I have been warned that there are two new students who were supposedly homeschooled, who are are enrolled in grades 3 & 4, but functioning at a preschool and kindergarten level. They are not dumb. They just were never taught. They were unschooled, unless there's a better name for it that I don't know, which there could be. But now they are frustrated and their self esteems are lacking because they can't come close to doing what the other kids are doing. I believe with the extra help they are now receiving that they will catch up eventually. But not likely this school year, or next. There's just too many basics missing that they need first before they can build up to where they want to be. So after reading all your posts of what you do with Matthew I don't think you need to worry. You are doing a great job.

  11. Good for you Ruth! I would love to try unschooling and plan on doing so when our family is travelling in a few years (we are still saving).
    I didn't like homeschooling and really wanted to do unschooling but we had too much going on with therapists and so on so I just stopped schooling all together.

    Good luck - I hope it goes well!

  12. Thanks for all of the great comments and opinions - love it!

    I'll likely be posting more in this vein, so let's keep the conversation going.

    Thanks all!


  13. Wow cool that you're open to changing the way you do things. That flexibility and openness will surely benefit your family. ~Heidi