Thursday, June 16, 2011

What Kind of Homeschooling?

So here is where I wonder what I should call my next year's homeschooling?  Not exactly an earthshaking question!  But it matters somewhat to me, because what I name things reminds me of what they are or what I want them to be. 

I thought of "Poetic Schooling" but that sounds sort of quirky. I am Charlotte Mason-inspired but I don't usually call myself Charlotte Mason because we have a more unschooly approach to the material.  Classical doesn't altogether fit either.   Unschooling is a very large umbrella. But maybe Catholic Unschooling is just about the right term.     As Sue writes:

Suzie (Andres) defines unschooling as “a form of education in which the child is trusted to be the primary agent in learning what he needs to know to lead him to happiness.” This doesn’t mean a parent sits back and does nothing, leaving her child to learn by himself. No, she will “recognise and honor his natural ability to learn” but she will also be there guiding and helping and taking an interest in his education. The focus is more on the child learning rather than the mother teaching.

"Unschooling" always sounds like a negative word to me.  I actually have talked about this with other Catholic unschoolers who agree.   But still, the term has some value.  I think I understand it better now after reading Poetic Knowledge.   Not that Poetic Knowledge is an unschooling manifesto, of course!   But "schools" as we think of them nowadays are essentially Cartesian and Deweyesque.   They take a mixture of abstraction and pragmatism and make a sort of weird obstacle course out of it.    Math, which is an elegant way to express quantity, spatial relationships and change, has become a sort of rat's labyrinth of "study how the text worked this problem, then do some more like it, then study the next example".    Their "applications" are just stupid and seem designed to be as obscure as possible.  Literature fares no better -- selections seem to be chosen for multicultural correctness, not for literary value, and the questions are simple comprehension, or else drills on elementary literary analysis that are more likely to turn students off literature for good rather than encourage them to love and respect great books.

Keep in mind that I am talking about the books that my son had to use in public school -- there are homeschool textbooks and courses that are better quality (I like the Jacob's Algebra and Geometry, and I like the Homeschool Connections approach to studying Great Books like the Odyssey). 

Of course, homeschoolers don't generally do this public institutional kind of "school" (unless, sometimes, their child wants to go to school and the parents agree, as in the case of my son).    Whether their education is structured by subject and time, or flows around regular life, or is mostly about outside the home activities and experiences, homeschoolers incorporate learning into a family and community environment, and in this way, change it.

But "unschooling" --as a term, it specifically declares against institutional schooling.  It doesn't have to mean no seatwork, though sometimes it does.  It doesn't even have to mean "child-directed" (that idea makes me squirmy because just to start with, I have multiple children and would get a split personality trying to orient myself around all of them, not to mention that I don't think that's exactly what children want or need from their parents)  What it mean is essentially "no rat's maze".... no institutionalized schooling  divorced from everyday family life and basically antagonistic to Christian freedom.   No grey concrete prisons or bells.   No security guards.   No mind control or dark sarcasm in the classroom -- and all that. 

So in that way unschooling might be a good word to use, to remind me that next year I want to be in the poetic tradition, not the behaviorial psychology one.   I get caught regularly in a trap of wanting to get things done, wanting to check things off my list.   I think it's actually a kind of sloth, for me.    So the term "Catholic unschooling" might help remind me that that's not really what education is about.   Even if we do this or that thing just to get it done, it's not fatal.  But it shouldn't become a habit, so that this is what the kids think of when they think of education.

I've read unschooling articles that say that unschooling is basically just doing whatever you would be doing if you weren't doing school.   Basically all the things adults do.  That could include research immersions like we do when we're interested in finding out more about something; or taking classes out in the community; developing interests and skills -- basically, the world is open, and nothing good is off-limits.

I think I am starting to understand this better than I used to, partly because when I look around me and notice who in the adult world seems really happy and energized and productive, it is usually people who are custom-designing their own lives -- taking up hobbies, involving themselves in service activities, joining the community choir, designing their own work, going back to school, and in general getting involved in things.    A lot of these things are things that kids can do, too.   And sure, you don't have to be unschooling to do them, either -- my theory is that probably the reason why so many homeschoolers are successful is that they have more time to do both/and -- and they don't have to waste as much time waiting in lines and stalling in toxic peer relationships.

I mentioned service actiities as part of my list but really it's way up there, not just one of a bunch of ways to feel happy.   Happiness isn't essentially a matter of "being fulfilled", "doing what you value" and all that.    CS Lewis points out that if you focus on your own state of mind you lose the very joy you are searching for.  One thing that I notice about happy people is that they are focused towards engagement and making a difference and being receptive to others, though the way they do this differs.   I think unschooling can be like this, and perhaps recognizing this part of it prevents some of the self-indulgence that I sometimes worry about in regard to unschooling. 

So, sure, kids need to be able to read, write and do basic math facts, and it's nice to have a bit more than that under your belt before you go out into the world, but there is a lot of time and space in which to accomplish those things, and a lot of ways to go about it.  

Some context from old blog (mostly for my reference as I pull together my philosophical toolbox, so don't feel obligated to read unless you are craving lots more wordiness)


  1. Willa, thank you for the quote and the link!! I think there are a lot of us trying to define exactly what style our homeschooling is.It can be so helpful and interesting to take time to ponder this question. Thank you for your post! Lots to think about.

  2. I find the word 'unschooling' negative too. I weave back and forth between wanting to 'have a name' to define and thinking it is good to not have one.

  3. Thanks for commenting Sue and Erin!

    Yes, I think it's true that having names can add up to having restrictions whereas one wants to be able to do what works for one's family and situation, and not close off any options ahead of time.

    At the same time, names are like a motto or maxim that help remind me what to focus on.

    Plus, names nowadays seem to put us in a community, which gives us strength and support.

    But then that can cause difficulties too because it might seem to restrict us from another community, and sometimes other people work to define the name in a particular way which might not suit how you or I want to think about it.

  4. I'm reading a book now that advocates what the author calls 'light bulb directed learning'. In other words, you do whatever you need to for the light bulb to come on for that particular child. I think all of us do this to a degree, happy to find out what works, but it especially reminds me of what you seem to do.

  5. I really enjoy following your thought process as you think through things "out loud" in posts like this one. "Unschooling" doesn't feel exactly right for me-- in large part because the term makes my husband itchy-- but I love to draw from unschooling ideas and I love the relaxed attitude behind it. I think having it in my toolbox will help to free me from the check the box mentality and reminds me that learning is happening even when I don't get my act together.

  6. Hi Sandy,
    I like that term! I am not at all natural about being able to do that with my kids, which is probably why I talk about it so much.

    Hi Melanie.
    It's not surprising that your husband feels that way --though he might like A Little Way of HOmeschooling since it has nice chapters by Mike Aquilina and Tony Andres who is a tutor at TAC.

    I like the idea of having unschooling as something in your toolbox. I suppose that's how it works for me too. There are times in a family's life where things look chaotic and like nothing is happening and yet in retrospect you see that was a very rich time. Unschooling seems to acknowledge this mysterious side of education, whereas in most more formal modes, there isn't really a good way to account for the mysterious element I've noticed.

  7. I am greatly enriched by reading your thoughts about unschooling. I got pass that 'negative' connotation, because I also feel that pull to many of its tenets.
    Hoping from one thing to another, I found Susan Wise Bauer's blog roll, and she has Sandra Dodd and Melissa Wiley, and I like many of Melissa's thoughts. Actually, thanks to you mentioning her again, I found great ideas for games and a book I want to read!

    I like that you say unschooling accounts for the mysterious side of education. And as I see, CM can look very 'unschooling' in the early years, she had faith and trust in children too, and her masterly inactivity points to this concept of not interfering between the child and his ability to learn.

  8. Hi Silvia,

    I've just been re-reading CM's books as I usually do during the summer. It's very true that CM includes that masterly inactivity even though she also stresses the importance of forming habits. She does acknowledge that "mystery" of how a child is a unique and wonderful person and so it's true that she has a place for mystery in her work, too -- that is probably why I like her writings so much!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!