A friend at our Catholic Filipino homeschooling forum asked, “What is unschooling?”
In years past I’ve shied away from answering this question because the pioneers already have, and I didn’t feel I had anything to contribute. Of course this was years ago at the Catholic Charlotte Mason Yahoogroup, and more recently at the 4Real Forums. If you’d like to learn from the people I’ve learned from, buy this book: A Little Way of Homeschooling; many of my favorite unschooling friends and their stories are featured in it.
Now that our two oldest children are juniors in college and high school, perhaps I do have a bit to say on unschooling. This won’t be a post on the nitty-gritty, but more of an explanation of our educational philosophy as it evolved. We didn’t start out with a goal to be unschoolers, so I can’t share in detail exactly what we’ve done, because the more apt term for it is “In-Spite-of-Mom” schooling.
Learning happened, and learning happens, sometimes because of something I did, but at least just as often or even more so, because of something I didn’t.
When asked what our homeschooling approach was, I’ve always used the word eclectic because it was a safe all-encompassing word. But having homeschooled for almost 14 years total now, I look back and do see a pattern, which by the world’s standards is not a pretty one.
I am as much a perfectionist as I am a slacker, and through the years, I’ve swung from one end of the spectrum to the other. At times the swinging is slow and takes weeks, other times it’s insanity-inducing in its speed. I’m glad to say none of my children are in therapy (yet), so the damage may have been minimal.
I have tried, through the years, to analyze why I am the way I am, and why I “teach” the way I teach. Like Sigrid Undset, I hated school most of the time because of the way school worked. I still harbor some resentment over accusations I received about work that I produced that didn’t look like I produced it because it was “just too good” …. such as the 100+ page paper on scientists I did for English, which included the scientists’ life stories as well as hand-drawn illustrations for each. Or crochet work for which I received low grades because the teacher thought “No way she could have done that herself”, not bothering to find out that I had a mother who had crocheted well from her teens and who had taught me all her neat little tricks. Many other school experiences burned me, and by the time I graduated from college, I’d had enough of institutional learning and was wondering how my future children could be spared.
Understanding my motivations stemming from the above experiences, I thought, was essential, so that I could become the teacher my children needed me to be. For those just starting out, it might help to define how you view the learning process and what kind of learning experiences you’d like your child to have. I didn’t quite have the answers when I began, but I did know what kind of experiences I DID NOT want the kids to have.
I marked our early years of homeschooling with an almost feverish drive to acquire books for the shelves, pictures and maps for the walls, science supplies to populate the countertops, art materials of every kind to fill the drawers. But honesty demands that I reveal how homeschooling looks like in our home, and I now have to admit it looks most like unschooling.
Charlotte Mason taught that learning was about making connections. So we’ve designed curricula and bought learning materials dutifully, every single year. But while I love designing curriculum and putting booklists together, I have to admit that I’ve failed too many times in terms of the actual TEACHING that one would expect happens in a homeschool. In other words, following the “rules” did happen, but when it did, it was mostly out of guilt .
Now that the results have made me a bit bolder, it can be told: We’re not strictly unschoolers, but there is a strong element of unschooling that runs through our days. At the beginning of each year, I come up with a highly detailed plan that often includes activities for each day, hour to hour. On paper is about as perfect as it will get, because from that point the learning pretty much belongs to the child. Books will be read, ideas discussed, questions answered. Every now and then I go into control freak mode and make demands, but for the most part learning happens organically in our home. Reading material is everywhere, any reasonable interest is pursued. But illnesses happen, travel is enjoyed, babies come. Meals had to be prepared and laundry folded; Mom went crazy for a few years trying to make money on the side by blogging; cookbook and sewing and knitting obsessions came and went. Life happens as we try to homeschool, and unschooling is the result.
At their ages, our kids pursue even more of their own interests, but their success in those areas can’t be attributed to anything I’ve done. The charge that we homeschoolers brainwash our children into becoming mini-me’s is even more hilarious now, considering how I HAVE tried to do that and yet it just has never worked for me.
Brainwashing doesn’t work in the homeschool because our children are not us. Perhaps if I had access to an instruction manual and brainwashing or torture devices, I’d be better at it. But all of us are born with an unquenchable desire for learning. As Catholics we believe that this is the way we’re made because we are ever on a journey, seeking the Ultimate Truth. My children are no different from me. I cannot stop them from learning even if I tried. They learn things that I have zero interest in and zero desire to teach. The 21-year-old, for instance, gets A’s in her Chemistry classes — I don’t even remember attempting to teach her Chemistry. The 16-year-old wants to be an engineering and political science major; that’s so far removed from MY own interests or aptitudes, it’s a wonder I haven’t embarrassed him yet with my ignorance in those areas.
Early on in our homeschooling I heard a beautiful quote: “Education is not about filling buckets; it’s about lighting fires.” Well, we did manage to light some, in spite of me. Those fires are still burning, and I have reason to think they’ll be lighting other fires.
“But wait! Where I can find the nitty gritty?” This might help.