Ah, unschooling. You seemed adequate for many years, but then the flaws started to become apparent. Most of the skills that are supposedly picked up automatically just weren’t-and not through lack of resources or exposure. The girls wanted to write stories and letters, but their handwriting and spelling was below their needed level, so they would get frustrated and give up. They were reading many good books, but had no internal filing system to sort out and categorise what they were learning. Oods wanted to learn Latin and violin, but you can’t really unschool either. The clones were becoming feral children, spending all day on the trampoline or in the sandpit playing pretend. Shorty needed more structure, more repetition, to allow him to master his basic skills. And I was looking at all of that time essentially wasted, thinking, ‘They could be learning so much more’. Which apparently is me projecting unfair expectations onto them based on my insecurities, and not at all based on me thinking that my eight year old really should be able to spell ‘because’ and write it without a reversed b. Because she wants to.
So I did my usual reading blitz, and we’ve now totally shaken up our home education. The kids get a say in what they learn about, but generally they have an insatiable desire to learn about everything. In the last year they have learnt an incredible amount, and they’re incredibly proud of themselves. They’re challenging themselves and meeting the challenges. Their pretend play has always been varied and complex, but now it’s so educated-seeing Frosty, at 4, re-enact the Iliad is very impressive.
I’ve noticed that they’re much more content. Arguments are rare when they have their minds challenged and hands busy. This goes for me too-I always felt kind of useless wandering around, giving a bit of assistance here and there, but generally feeling like they didn’t need me. And i’m having the most fantastic time. Not many adults get to fill in the gaps in their learning, and i’m finding it all insanely interesting. I can see how incredibly useful the chronological history, the formal grammar, and the phonics has been to me already. This sort of stuff may not be on most school curriculums, but it’s the sort of thing I find myself using regularly (and feeling cheated that I was never taught it). And the more I give them, the more they want. Two weeks into this year’s work, I was feeling frazzled with our new workload-and they were asking me if I had anything else they could do. Like Chinese, and poetry, and can I please find some more maths puzzle books for them to do? They want more of everything (except dictation, which they believe is evil torture even as they acknowledge how useful it is to them).
I have come to the conclusion that unschooling just isn’t for us. Looking critically at my experience, I can’t see how it works effectively for anyone over toddler age, if your goal is to have a well-educated child. I have also come to the conclusion that childhood is by far the best time to learn as much as you can, while you’re young and hungry and have no other commitments, and it is my job to make it easier for them. Unschooling seemed a bit like requiring your children to reinvent the wheel-sure, you can saturate them with words, and lots of kids will pick up reading all by themselves. But it seems a cumbersome, difficult process to require them to puzzle it out when you could sit an eager child down and do some phonics instruction, explain how English works, and have them reading in a tenth of the time. (And so that’s why that’s exactly what I did, and i’ve had three five year old readers so far. Frosty is working on it, and Shorty runs to his own timescale, incomprehensible to the rest of us). I never understood why unschooling seems to require your child stumble around in the dark, until they have their lightbulb moment and can finally puzzle out exactly how Latin verb endings work after much frustration-why not explain it and have them memorise them, and that’s that? Or, to paraphrase Ruth Beechick (because I can’t find the quote), why expect them to be creative when they have nothing to be creative with?
Unschoolers tend to portray any curriculum work as a violation of freedom, but when it’s by choice, it can be wonderful. Seeing the unbridled excitement and pride of my girls when they finished FLL 3 was wonderful-they had worked hard and achieved something because of that. What a valuable lesson. They have in no way lost any freedom. They have hours every day of total freedom, and now they appreciate it because they feel they’ve earnt it. They have a balance between time they’ve scheduled for learning and free time, so they appreciate and value both much more than ever before.
So, unschooling? Been there, done that-not impressed. We’re too motivated and eager for that. Bring on the bookwork!