Unschoolery: A Look Beyond Limitations


Our oldest has just entered her fifth year of public school with our middle child entering her second, and it's becoming more and more clear, every day, that much of what I read about school from around the country is true for us: public education is broken. I am not an education expert, nor do I play one on TV, but it seems to be that even at some of the "best" schools, education and learning is still about getting good grades to get a good job to make money to buy stuff. And how to get good grades still looks very similar to my primary school education 20+ years ago. In fact, the rubric for success in school is basically the same, too (i.e. turn in your homework, do well on tests, don't rock the boat, etc.).

In my job, I have the privilege of learning a lot about what education looks like across the U.S. and the honor of becoming friends with some of the best educators around. Along with the struggles and issues, I've also discovered what interest-driven learning is and the exciting possibilities of Connected Learning. These are educational principles that value the naturally inquisitive child and respect them as learners. It's a "new" approach that truly helps foster a love of learning in kids, and seems to envision a society of equal, lifelong learners that pursue their passions and work towards solving issues that are relevant. The sole focus is not learning to "measure up" so you can make the most money.

I sent my six-year-old to school crying today, again. She's in her third week of first grade, and though most days are good, she still says she hates school. She's a great student—a little quiet and shy—but she does have friends and people that miss her when she's not there. Our oldest is in fourth grade and although she used to say she liked most aspects of school, now she says there's hardly anything she looks forward to. She's one of the top students in the school and is often an ambassador to the outside world, doing interviews on the local news and giving tours to distinguished guests of the educational world when they come to visit this "exemplary model" of a school.

Their school is a charter that follows the International Baccalaureate (IB) model. Because it's a charter they don't have to adhere to district and state requirements, but they have opted to buy the traditional tests from the district (4/year) and routinely compare scores with other non-IB schools. The school has also adopted the Common Core curriculum even though they are an IB school. I'm not arguing for or against the Common Core, but I find it interesting that an IB school adopts a state standard when they have the IB framework in place. Both girls have an eight-hour day with two 15 minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch. They also have about an hour of homework every night. For the most part, they're told what to learn, fill out the sheets, and turn them in.

I'm laying all this out so you have some background information. The way I see it, we're in an "ideal" situation as far as public school goes. Our school is supposed to be offering an alternative to traditional education. The focus is supposed to be on developing "inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect." Although this school may be beyond any other school in the district as far as creating well-rounded inquirers and thinkers, the direction is still firmly set on cranking out "top performing," well-behaved kids that work harder and put in more time than any other kids in the city (maybe even the U.S. for that matter).

All of this has pushed us to really look at homeschooling, specifically unschooling (Leo Babauta has a great outline for beginners). Unschooling allows kids to learn much like we, as adults, learn. Unschooled kids figure out what they're curious about, then proceed to figure out how they can learn more about that thing. They learn by doing. It's not about rules, time tables, and adults teaching them or telling them what to do. We provide support, but they learn by trying things out and making mistakes. There's no "right" or "wrong", "pass" or "fail." The measuring stick of assessment is removed so they can feel free to learn without limits. In this model, learning to learn is as great an achievement as a final product, and the thinking is that by allowing kids to pursue what interests them, they end up digging deeper and pushing themselves farther than they would (or could) in school.

Yes, we have plenty of fears and concerns, and plenty we need to learn more about. But my wife and I don't want to just herd our kids along the path that's most obvious or convenient, even if that path seems better than most paths out there. We don't want our fear to prevent our kids from having an opportunity to really experience learning in a way that's engaging, exciting, and fun. We're beginning to see that it's not necessary to force them along a path that wears them down or suppresses their natural passions, interests, or talents. Learning doesn't have to happen a certain way, in a specific place, between 7:45 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Whatever we decide in the end, I'm excited just to begin thinking about an education for our kids, that we can have today, that's beyond the traditional limitations.

Along with research and planning, part of my process is writing about this process—thinking out loud. I'd love constructive feedback along the way!