Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why an innovative educator cares about homeschooling / unschooling and why you might too

I’ve been a public school educator and administrator for more than a decade and have loved my work for most of my career. I have a passion for making learning real, relevant, engaging, fun and meaningful for learners. I have had wonderful opportunities to bring that to life in my work such as with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Joe Renzulli’s Schoolwide Enrichment Model, and the programs I’ve lead to integrate technology into learning like this one.*

So, some may wonder why I’m interested in homeschooling. Let me start by explaining there are different types of homeschooling. I see it as sort of a continuum that goes from "doing school at home" to "life without school." The "school at home" works for many families, but that was not what really struck my interest. I was more interested in how a "life without school" works. Some people call this unschooling, some call it natural living, some call it organic learning or life learning. For purposes of this article, I’ll call it unschooling.


One reason unschooling was so fascinating to me (others are here) is because I’ve spent a good portion of my life learning about how people learn and supporting children and adults in their learning. I was trained in various techniques, learned various methods and models, and I believed that people learned from being taught in school. What's strange is that I believed this even though, when I look back, I realize I never learned that way.

Unschooling shattered every myth I held to be true and made me question everything I’d been taught about learning. Not only that, but upon studying how unschooling works, I discovered people that seemed to be really smart, passionate, successful, and satisfied with their lives. All that and they never had to be tortured in an Algebra, History, Science, or English class! They learned a lot even though they were never forced to take a test. They didn’t have to be at school every day at some ungodly hour. They learned to read and write without classes or teacher, when they were ready, which may be as early as 2 or 3 or as late as 11 or 12. I learned there was a whole world of peaceful living and learning where the parents and children and grown children seemed quite happy.


This was of great interest to someone whose passion is to support learning that is real, relevant, engaging, fun, and meaningful. I also felt kind of cheated and angry. Cheated that I had been forced to do all these things that I didn’t really need to do, rather than discover and explore my passions, talents, and interests. Angry that kids, like those featured in Race to Nowhere, were being forced to do the same. In many cases this leads to detrimental effects that include mental, physical, and emotional distress and even attempted and successful suicide. There were cases where schools were bullying parents and their children for not wanting to comply with their demands even though it was making the child sick. The school system I worked in moved from being one where "children were first" to one where "data comes first" and it was the school’s role to extract it.


When I would see or hear about such things I wanted others to know that school is a choice, but it is not a necessity. In fact many people are living lives without school and then moving on to great success in career OR college. To share this message I wrote The Teen’s Guide to Opting Out of School and The Working Home Educator’s Guide to Success.


I also started a group specifically created for parents, students, teens, and teachers frustrated with traditional schooling to come together to discuss the more effective options they are pursuing. This is a wonderful group that I encourage anyone interested in pursuing this path to join by visiting this link.  


Ironically after all the years I’ve spent being schooled on how to learn, in the end I discover that for many, learning can be best achieved without a school or a teacher. If you want to learn how, I hope you’ll take a look at some of the material I've shared and keep the conversation going in our group.  

18 comments:

  1. Much thanks for spreading the word on unschooling. As a teacher, are you able to incorporate any unschooling ideas in the classroom?

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  2. With all of your success and awards, surely you can afford to proofread before posting.

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  3. @Arp, you are welcome. Regarding incorporating these ideas into the classroom...
    Doing so is something that is similar to authentic, passion-driven learning. If you look at the programs I mention in the first paragraph of my post, each have components of that at their core, so in short, I have to a certain extent. That said, in the test-prep, assess-obsessed, one-size-fits-all at the same time culture the school system has moved toward, that has become difficult for any teacher to do or focus on as much as I'd like to see. I touch on that more in this post if you're interested: http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2011/02/answer-to-teacher-retention-find.html

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  4. @Anonymous, I do proofread. I don't have a professional editor however, but I'd like one! Each time I read one of my posts I find some error and fix it. Fortunately, I also have many wonderful readers who inform me when they notice a typo so I can update it. Rather than point out that there is an error, it would be most helpful if you identify it so I may update it.

    You may also find these two posts of interest:
    http://sandradodd.com/negativity
    http://tinyurl.com/complainingwithouthelping

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    1. Copy editor, WAHM, & unschooling mom here. I'll edit your blog posts for you! Why? Because you are so dead.on. I LOVE your blog! I'm left here with my mouth open, nodding profusely, and thinking "She's GOT IT! Finally--someone in education who *gets* what those of us with a passion for unschooling have been saying for YEARS!"

      Seriously: I don't usually offer up my services as I do have enough client work at this time. However, I would love to be a part of what you are doing because I believe in it so much.

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  5. Thank you for giving unschooling an honest review- it seems so many times people react immediately to it and don't really look at the philosophical and practical reasons FOR it!

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  6. How refreshingly unique, to see an educator who recognizes the benefits of unschooling without feeling threatened by them! Thanks for the honest look.

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    1. I posted a comment instead of a reply. My response is the last comment below, but I would also like to add this another comment amongst several I had noticed from different h/s places. You find the 'us and them' mentality all through society and is a natural instinctive kind of thing... but teachers study many kinds of learning...Montessori, Steiner, Howard Gardner, Emilio Reggio?, various psychology perspectives, differentiating the curriculum for individual needs etc etc. They are very open and inclusive of different learning styles, ideas and opinions. Now, the system...I could complain about that, but it's best not to start. LOL.

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  7. There's more to it than that. I have a grown up daughter who excelled throughout 13 years of school in the UK and Australia, and she has a ten years younger brother who has recently started at vocational college after nine years of "living without school" - not "unschooling" but free form learning at the speed of thought through electronic media according to interest and need. We don't live in a "just in case" world any more as schools seem to continue to believe (and those who believe they somehow have a right to control in their classrooms learning opportunities that are taken for granted in the world at large are, in my opinion, outright delusional). We all, if we choose to, can learn anything anywhere anyhow 24/7/365 exactly as we need to, so, in my view at least, the very concept of educating children by gathering them together in a designated physical location and teaching them what somebody who is not them believes they should know is somewhat outdated. Schools have never been places of educational efficiency (not even in the 1950s and 60s when I was at school and they were at least places of learning not teach to the test factories) and I don't hesitate to suggest that, in terms of educational efficiency, they've had their bottoms soundly kicked by the "Digital Revolution". When (or if) my own children have children and come to think about their education, I will certainly recommend to them that sending their children to a "school" is not even on the list of options. As the saying goes, a mind once expanded cannot return to its former dimensions.

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    1. Thanks Bob, my sentiments also. After home education, my second son elected to go to a selective public school for his final 2 years. Uniform, clocking on etc for a 17/18 year old only a year or two away from university. He and fellow young men should have been 'transitioned'. A four day week would have benefited them, teachers and Sydney traffic flow.

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  8. This reads as very sincere Lisa and I think many appreciate you writing it! The part that strikes me is your explanation that you've been trained in how people learn and that the unschooled paradigm shattered everything you knew. I can absolutely see how this would happen, of course. You were trained by a specific system to operate within that same system. This new discovery appears to defy that system by appearing to do just the opposite.
    What I am hoping your journey will bring you, is a further discovery that there is an entire continuum that exists, flourishes and thrives, not "between" those two paradigmatic extremes, but outside of them. You seem to be vaguely aware but are still categorizing 'school at home' and 'unschool'. (it's alright, most folks do this at first) There is an entire world outside of that line though that I think will add valuable perspective to your journey.
    That said, good for you!

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  9. I read it over, and I can't find any errors! I am also a teacher and I will be homeschooling my son this year. It makes me sad when homeschoolers assume teachers would be threatened by homeschooling. In fact, one website (touting the virtues of homeschooling) even said that a teacher doesn't care about your child as a parent can. I can assure parents that firstly, most teachers are acutely aware of the stupidities of the system they have to work in, and secondly, most teachers adore their students. Yes there are some crusty old cranks who need to get out and retire, but I don't think that parents choosing homeschooling need to put down classroom teachers in order to push the homeschooling cause. It has enough of it's own virtues that it is not necessary to generalize and put down a profession of people who chose their career based on their love of kids and learning.

    Oh and P.S. In the area that I have worked in, I have loved many children MORE than their hideous parents and provided food, transport, medicine and clothing out of my own pocket.

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    1. I am a homeschooling parent and my husband is a public school teacher in a small Midwest K-12 school. The teachers and administrators at his school not only deeply care about the students they teach, but are also our greatest supporters in homeschooling our sons. It's time to quit blaming teachers for the failures of the public school system and recognize them for the wonderful, caring, and courageous people they are. Here's to you Ms. Nielsen, Anonymous, and all of you wonderful teachers, including public, private, and homeschool!

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  10. I could have written this very blog post! :-) I am a teacher who now unschools my youngest son (my older two are grown and on their own). At first I was amazed at how MUCH MORE my son is able to learn without the confines of school- that doesn't make sense- he's confined to not learn very much at school- but it was true. It's funny how we are programmed to believe so many different things without really THINKING about whether or not they're true ("kids only learn if they are in school"). I am baffled at how many people think "unschooling" means, "un-educating." It's the complete opposite- unschooling is like "learning on steroids"- in a good way! :-)

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  11. Thank you for spreading the word about unschooling. There are a lot of misconceptions out there and it is refreshing to find more folks lifting the veil on how kids really learn naturally and easily when they are guided by their own interests and autonomy.

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  12. I think the most important piece of homeschooling that the public schools should take from homeschooling movement is to understand the importance of parents being in charge of their homes. For that, homework is the major culprit. Today’s debate focuses on how much homework should be given and on whether homework has value at the different levels – elementary school, middle school and high school. What the debate has overlooked is the issue of parental authority and that homework, whatever proves best for education, should only be given with the permission of the parents. Once we make that paradigm shift, teachers will need to persuade, rather than coerce, parents for the assignments they thing are essential. In reality, parents want to trust teachers and generally do until something goes awry in their homes. Then, it’s not just a matter of disagreeing with the teachers (differences of opinion can be good) but one of desperation in the face of powerlessness in one’s own home. If it were understood that parents were the final decision-makers on all matters under their roof, the whole homework debate would shift in a very productive direction. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. author of The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. www.thehomeworktrap.com.

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  13. I, too, was cheated by the school system and proceeded to do the same to my first 4 children, even though we did it at home :/ I was deeply disillusioned by homeschooling but did not know of another way until my first 4 were grown. Fortunately for my very late 5th child, we discovered Unschooling, and oh, how I wish I had it to do over for her older siblings!

    With zero attention on schoolwork or studies, letting her choose however she wanted to spend her day (save for required stints in our family biz where she learned to appreciate hard work), she ended up beautifully educating (and socializing) herself.

    When other young people find out how free my daughter has been, learning through doing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, they are stunned and ask, "DUDE! You can DO that???" And they obviously feel cheated! For eg, fascinated by swords and wanting to take fencing, and having to pay for herself, she used earnings from her retail sales (which she started at age 11). And became a pretty good fencer.

    She firmly believes that had she been cooped up in school all day and forced to do homework and drawn into insubstantial activities, that she would not have had time to just sit and be and think and figure out what she has about life. Ck her out for yourself, see if you think she's on track as an unschooled, self-educated young woman! She definitely is NOT feeling cheated :) www.TirzahDuncan.com

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