Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Unschooling - an answer to a comment

“I think that unschooling can work for some students, but I also am afraid that there will inevitably be a large number that will not thrive because those parents in particular just WANT it to be the right choice”

I got the above comment in answer to the My Ishmael post. I was going to answer it in the comments of that post, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to say. So I thought I’d do a post about my thoughts on this.

I disagree with this statement, I don’t see how it is inevitable that a large number of children will not thrive if unschooled. I actually believe that ALL children who are unschooled can thrive. However, I will admit that the thriving may not look how most of society defines thriving. Not all unschooled children will go to college and become doctors or lawyers, or some other career that our society considers successful. Of course, not all schooled kids will go to college and have a successful career either. But I do think the vast majority of unschooled children will thrive in the ways that I think really matter. They will thrive in ways that have to do with their health and happiness. Unschooled children will keep their sense of self and sense of worth intact. They will know what their passions are and how to pursue those passions. They will know how to think outside the box, how to come up with creative solutions to problems, and how to take initiative. They will know these things because these are all hallmarks of unschooling.

Should an unschooled child decide to go to college they will most likely go to college with a goal in mind, they won’t just be going to college because that is what you do when you finish high school. They will know where their passions lie and what college can do for them to further those passions. How many schooled kids go to college with no goal in mind? How many have no idea what they want to major in? Have no idea even what interests them? Schooled kids don’t have the time to pursue all their interests and so by the time they get to college they have no idea what does interest them, much less what their passion is. I went to college because that is what you do, I had no goals in mind beside getting a degree in something and then getting a job I hopefully didn’t hate. It took me 2 years and multiple majors to finally settle on one. I settled on that one because it was the least boring to me. Most of my friends in college did exactly the same. I met no one in my 4 years there that was there because they had a passion for a topic and college could help them pursue that passion. Because unschooled kids are able to keep their sense of self intact they have a much better idea of what interests them and what they want their future to look like.

I also believe school for many kids destroys their sense of worth. They spend every day being judged and at least sometimes being found lacking. This isn’t healthy for someone’s sense of worth. I was a good student, I got mostly As and never caused trouble, but by the time I got out of school I didn’t feel I was worth much. There were times when I didn’t do as good as expected on an assignment or didn’t behave perfectly. It was rarely taken into account that overall I was a good student, at that moment I was a failure and was treated as such. It is very hard to regain a sense of worth once it is lost. I’d prefer my son never lost his sense of worth. It is much easier to learn math than it is to learn to value yourself again.

The place I feel unschooled kids will thrive the most is in their ability to think outside the box, find creative solutions, and take initiative. These are things schools most definitely don’t encourage and in fact actively discourage. In school, children are taught to sit quietly until they are told what to do, then they are told to follow those directions exactly. They are punished by getting bad grades or being disciplined for taking initiative and beginning an activity on their own, or thinking outside the box and looking for a creative way to do the assignment. There is one right way to do things in school. How many students have had a math problem marked wrong, not because they had the wrong answer but because they didn’t do the problem the way the teacher wanted it done? I had it happen to me many times. My dad would help me with my homework and show me a different way to do things, upon turning that assignment in, the problems would be marked wrong because I didn’t do it the way I was “supposed” to , never mind that my answers were right.

I have a good example of this from last week. Logan, who is 7 and I were at Toys R Us, we were buying something for him and a present for a friend’s birthday. The 2 items cost $14.99 and $16.99, Logan wanted to know what the total price would be, but he wanted to figure it out himself. So, I set to work trying to figure this out in my head. I was adding the columns of numbers as we were taught to do in school and carrying my ones. I find this is a hard process to do in my head despite over 22 years of schooling, including a PhD in biochemistry. Logan actually came up with the answer faster than me, also doing it all in his head. So, I asked how he came up with the answer. He said first he figured out that 2 99’s must be 98 in the cents since each was 1 less than a dollar so the answer had to be 2 less. Then he rounded 14.99 and 16.99 up to the nearest dollar (we’ve never talked about rounding) and added those together, so he added 15 and 17, we’ve never covered added 2 digit numbers or carrying so I have no idea how he knew how to do this. Since he rounded up he knew his answer had to be less than 32, so it had to be 31.98. I was amazed at his process, it may not have been the easiest way to solve the problem, but it worked for him because he came up with it on his own and he did it quicker than I did doing it the “right” way.

I’m not trying to say Logan is a genius or anything, I’m actually saying the opposite, that given the freedom and encouragement to think outside the box, children will come up with their own ways of solving problems. It isn’t until school that they learn to do things as they are told and become leery of trying things a new way because it may not be the “right” way. This makes them good employees because they will do as they are told and not rock the boat. And this is actually why school was started in this country, to train our children to be good employees when they are adults. This is good for the economy of the country, but I don’t feel it is good for the people of the country. How many people go to jobs they hate, feeling they have no choice? They’ve been trained to do this job, so do this job they must. I want more for Logan, I want him to know he has choices. I never want him doing something he hates because he has been told that is what he needs to do.

I believe we are going to start feeling the effects of peak oil in the near future and that our society is going to change dramatically. I believe we are going to need free-thinkers and people that are willing to take initiative to help our society through those changes. And I don’t believe the majority of those people are going to come from schools, or at least they aren’t going to be the “good” students. Good students do as they are told, they aren’t the ones that are going to look for creative solutions (as a former good student I can say this with confidence). I think the children that are unschooled are going to be the ones that thrive in our new society because they are able to adapt and find new ways of being. If you don't believe peak oil is going to be a problem in the near future than your opinions on this will probably vary.

(Aside: My opinions of school are based on my 22 years as a "good" student, as well as my 3 years teaching high school science and my 7 years teaching college science.)


Anonymous said...

Very well said, Christy


Wendy said...

Yes! What you said ;).

My background is similar to yours (HS grad, college grad, school teacher), and I now unschool my children.

I completely agree with you that in the future, those individuals who have been encouraged to explore ideas and solutions will be the ones who are able to survive in our changing world.

Christy said...

Thanks Wendy. I was nervous about posting this, some people have very hostile reactions about unschooling as I'm sure you are aware.

Hi Mom, glad you are reading here!

Lori V. said...

Thank you, Christy, for posting this. I have enjoyed reading your answers to all my questions. I'm sure I will have more, if you're up for them.

For the record, your answers and your blog are the first things that have ever made me consider that unschooling could be an effective, legitimate educational choice.

Christy said...


Thank you so much! I've really enjoyed our discussion, you've asked really good questions! I'm up for more questions as you have them. Unschooling is something I very much believe in and I love talking about it.

Carla said...

I too come from an education background and I totally agree that children, when they are given the opportunity and aren't just told what to do, come up with some creative problem solving. Really, that's what it's all children a safe place to learn and explore on their own and to contruct meaning from their personal encounters with the world.

Christy said...


Thanks for the comments. My goal is to give Logan a safe place to explore and learn about life.

Goodwife said...

I've been feeling nudges to unschool our daughter for some time now. I'm having trouble convincing her, but it's something I just can't get out of my head. I hate the public school system and the fact that they truly do expect you to do what they say, when they say, and how they say with no argument. I'm raising a rebel child because I urge her to question authority, and to actually USE HER BRAIN to figure things out her own way. She has also gotten back homework that the answer was correct, but the way she got there was wrong. That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!!! My dad and I butcher chickens in a totally different manner, but they still wind up dead in the freezer! Public school destroys a child's drive and desire to think on their own and that makes me very mad. I'm praying a great deal about this subject. Thanks for a great post!