Smart People Unschool Their Kids

In the first year of our homeschooling, I met an unschooling family. I think there was only one in our entire town, a bedroom community of Lexington, Kentucky, where there was a pretty hefty homeschooling population.

Before then, I had never heard of unschooling, either by name or by definition. The idea of unschooling, where formal and systemic academic studies are set aside in favor of child-directed interests, seemed strange at first, even shocking. But here’s what struck me about this family: they were probably the smartest, most creative, most accomplished, and even the most fun of the hundreds of families in our local homeschooling community.

The unschooling family lived in a huge home on a lake and they often opened it for homeschool meetings and parties. They didn’t talk about themselves or their homeschooling a lot, but, in true unschooling fashion, their story naturally unfolded as I got to know them better. Mom and dad worked in “Research and Design” at the University of Kentucky and the children spent their days reading their favorite books and engaging in their favorite activities. The children were slightly weird and wonderful, like most kids, and very happy and passionate about all their pursuits.

I was intrigued, but unconvinced. After all, 200+ years of standardized American schooling couldn’t be wrong, could it? And, besides, I was schooled traditionally and I turned out OK, didn’t I?

As the homeschooling years rolled by I met more and more families who chose alternative schooling methods for their children. Each time, my head turned until I could no longer look away. Very smart people were unschooling their kids without pause or apology and the results were enviable.

I wasn’t really surprised when I recently read that Elon Musk—the man that Business Insider magazine calls “the world’s most inspirational entrepreneur” has eschewed traditional schools and favors educational approaches far more akin to unschooling. Or that Dr. Sugatra Mitra, the brilliant scientist who won the 2013 $1,000,000 TED prize for his work in education, strongly believes that even the most disadvantaged children can inspire, organize and discipline themselves to learn, and then outperform their traditional school counterparts at almost every turn.

Or that James Altucher, the well-educated (Bachelors from Cornell, Doctorate from Carnegie Mellon) and uber-successful entrepreneur and hedge fund manger who writes best-selling business books, has been begging his children to quit high school so they can unschool.

And yet most of us — those raised on a steady diet of systematic instruction — fear unschooling like we fear Black Holes and other mysteries of the universe. We do not understand what we do not know. And we do not embrace what we have not experienced.

I stumbled into the world of unschooling with my third child, Jesse. I wish I could say I was brave and sure enough to have chosen it, but I’m not as smart at Altucher, Mitra, or Musk. Nevertheless, unschooling was a foregone conclusion once Jesse refused to do school at home and I refused to have him do school at school. Here’s what I learned in the process:

Unschooling works. It’s not just an alternative to traditional schooling, but far better. It produces happy, self-organized children who love to learn and it lays the foundation for a joyful and complete home. Scientists, neurologists, psychologists, and even enlightened educators can tell you precisely WHY unschooling works. I can just tell you that it does.

My son, Jesse, took a lifetime hiatus from traditional school and then used the skills he learned NOT doing school (creativity, resourcefulness, self-discipline) to outperform his friends in college, most of whom had spent 12+ years “practicing” for college. The idea that we have to layer year after year of progressive information-sharing and academic assignments on our children in order for them to do well in college is a fallacy.

What’s interesting about Jesse, though, is not that he makes good grades in college (although I think it’s incredibly instructive to know that he does), but that Jesse thinks and acts differently than most of his peers. He’s more self-motivated and more resourceful, definitely more willing to seize opportunities and take risks. He loves to learn and is an inventive problem solver.

Jesse takes good care of his body, his mind, his faith, his relationships, and his finances, but he couldn’t care a fig about school. He thinks college is pretty much a waste of time, except as a place to connect with people and have fun. A few months ago someone told Jesse a local real estate mogul was visiting his university and Jesse, a budding real estate investor himself, dropped what he was doing and ran across campus to meet him. The guy offered Jesse a job on-the-spot.

This is the way Jesse rolls. For him, forging new paths and creating new opportunities are easy and normal. But it’s not so hard to seize life and chase dreams as an adult when you have spent your entire childhood doing the same.

Most people who teach children seem bent on insuring children do just the opposite. They insist children shelve their incessant desire to imagine and play in favor of sitting in quiet and dull classrooms. They put all their time and attention into corralling children’s intellect and controlling their energy. They succeed in creating excellent rote learners and experts at executing rudimentary, well-defined academic tasks. But they are left with a problem in the end: When children spend 12 years learning how to succeed in school, how in the world do they ever unlearn it?

Maybe the secret to why unschooling works has nothing to do with what it does, but what it doesn’t do. Unschooling prevents schooling. That may be the simple, most obvious reason why smart people choose to do it.

Until next time…be fearless.

One Thing That Worked in My Homeschool This Week (Sept. 22-26)

My good friend, Tiffany, also happens to write my favorite food blog, which is Eat At Home Cooks. (Check it out here.) She recently started a series titled “Three Things That Worked in the Kitchen This Week,” which I think is an awesome idea.

So I stole it.

Today, I offer you my first installment of “One Thing That Worked in My Homeschool This Week,” which will be a series of posts about one single, usually simple, thing that happened in the past week that could be categorized as “a success.” Notice I’m not quite as ambitious as Tiffany in coming up with three successes. But I figure if I can come up with just one success worth sharing with others, I’ve probably had a good week.

This week I’ve realized that my unique choice for a science “curriculum” is working quite well. This past summer I purchased one of those big, learning workbooks you can find at Sam’s Club and other big box stores. This one was titled “Science Essentials.”

Most homeschool moms don’t purchase these kinds of workbooks to teach their children because they aren’t considered “real” or “full” curriculums. So that fact alone makes my choice of “curriculums” just a little odd.

However, what’s truly unique about my choice is the suggested grade level of the workbook. This workbook is suggested for Grades 5-6. My girls are in Grades 8 and 10.

What?

Yes, my girls are working in a science book 4 to 6 grades under their own grade level. And I’m glad. Because it’s working.

Here’s the trap a lot of teachers fall into. Either by mandate or choice, we do not match the learning experience to the child. We simply assume what a child needs to know (based on what we have been told) and what a child can do (based on age and/or grade level). Rarely do these two things match up.

Having taught hundreds of children over the years, I know most children are operating in content areas way over their heads. As they get older, the problem escalates quickly. Children often “succeed” because they resort to coping strategies (memorization, “work arounds,” even cheating). But, often they have no idea what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to apply anything they have learned.

What I’m talking about are kids who are trying to write research papers when they can barely write a good sentence. Or kids who tackle long division who don’t know their math facts. Or high school students who do complicated advanced science subjects and they still don’t know how a cloud is formed. Or how a lever works. Or how the Earth’s movement affects our days and seasons.

So, when I chose a science “curriculum” for our homeschool this year, I tried to choose books and activities that teach only what my kids need to know and do it is a simple, systematic way that leads to at least some retention of the material.

This fall my children have been reading and learning basic scientific principles and having fun doing it. They are learning, but not struggling. I’m quite sure they are getting down many of the fundamentals of science and maybe learning some interesting science facts along the way.

With my older children we tried many middle school and high school science texts. But we didn’t like or finish even one, not even the homeschooler’s favorite—Apologia. Parts were interesting and informative, but there was simply way too much work involved, the applications were too complicated, and there was too much information presented to be retained going forward.

Most teachers continue to push through these kinds of curriculums because they think their children must know these things for the ACT/SAT college entrance exams and for college science classes.

But this is so not true.

College science courses do not require prior knowledge and science sections of college entrance exams only require common sensical application of very fundamental principles. The worst thing teachers can do to prepare their children for what lies ahead is overwhelm them with so many scientific details and theories that they never learn the needed basics.

That’s why I plan to stick to my simple, little science workbooks. And, lest you think I’m crazy, consider this:

With my three oldest children, we never completed a “real” high school science biology course. We never studied chemistry or physics at all. However, all three made A’s and B’s in their college science classes and did very well on the science section of the college entrance exams.

My children are no geniuses. But our approach to science turned out to be pretty smart.

“Old School” Homeschooling in a Modern World

I count myself lucky that I became part of the modern homeschooling movement in its early years.

I began homeschooling almost 20 years ago, just one year after homeschooling became legal in every state. The people who taught me how to homeschool at the time –the people who wrote the books and magazine articles and spoke at homeschool conventions –had cut their teeth and learned their craft in a difficult environment, often under threat of criminal prosecution. The result? Like pioneers in any movement, the people who taught me how to homeschool were people of strong conviction and purpose. They were bold and brave. They were well-organized and political. As a group, they were different from today’s homeschoolers.

I often refer to the style of homeschooling I learned 20 years ago as Old School Homeschooling. There are two strong characteristics of Old School Homeschoolers.

1. Old School Homeschoolers know WHY they homeschool.

If you are going to take risk and buck the system to do something, you are generally driven by a strong belief in what you are doing and why you are doing.it. Early homeschoolers didn’t just drift out of conventional schools because their children didn’t get placed in a certain class, or they wanted flexibility in scheduling, or there was a shooting in a far-away place. They didn’t see homeschooling as an “alternative” to traditional schooling or just one good choice out of a number of possible choices. They had a strong conviction that homeschooling was extremely right and good and that conviction is what kept them going in the face of hostile school officials and unsupportive friends and families.

When I started homeschooling, discussion among homeschoolers often focused on teaching approaches, styles, and philosophies. Instead of coveting the Rainbow Resources catalogue, with its thousands of pieces of homeschool curriculum, people subscribed to homeschool catalogues put together by homeschool parents sharing their favorite resources for their unique way of homeschooling their children.

One of the favorite homeschooling catalogues for my generation of homeschoolers was put out by The Elijah Company, run by Chris and Ellen Davis. This thin catalogue published on newsprint featured very little curriculum, but lots of words of wisdom about how to homeschool. Chris Davis wrote often about the many approaches to homeschooling – unit studies, principle education, classical education, etc.—and he always exhorted homeschooling parents to think about what they were doing and why they were doing it BEFORE they set out to do it.

I used to read Chris Davis’ homeschool catalogue from cover to cover, as did most of my homeschooling friends. All of us subscribed to other family-run homeschool catalogue companies as well. In fact, you could often tell what kind of homeschooling a family did by what catalogues they subscribed to.

Twenty years ago almost every homeschool mom could pinpoint and explain her educational philosophy. Today, most homeschoolers define themselves by what curriculum they use.

 2. Old School Homeschoolers care more about home, than school.

Old School Homeschoolers know and value their educational philosophies, but they care even more about the environment and atmosphere where education takes place.

The homeschool veterans who were teaching me how to homeschool were constantly saying things like this to me: “Don’t frustrate you children.” “Let love permeate your homeschool.” “Explore your children’s interests.” “Don’t bore your children or pressure your children.” “If you love your children and just give them a little guidance, everything else will fall into place.” “Relax.”

Once someone handed me a cassette tape (yes, I said “cassette”—it was a long time ago) and the speaker on the tape referred to homeschool moms who forced or pressured their children to learn as “bullies.” Yikes! Not everyone agreed with this statement, but people listened. They got the point.

When I first started homeschooling, the word “KONOS” was a flashpoint among homeschooling moms. Technically, KONOS was/is a unit study curriculum, but it’s really more than that. KONOS embraces an atmosphere for learning where children and parents explore and interact with the world around them.

KONOS published (and is still publishing) huge books of hands-on learning activities that families can engage in together. The activities are loosely connected by themes, hence its classification as a unit study.

In my first year of homeschooling I attended a “How to Homeschool” seminar led by a homeschooling mom who used the KONOS curriculum/approach. I sat there mesmerized as the woman clicked through slides of her family engaged in KONOS activities. There were pictures of her family making costumes, putting on shows, eating their favorite international foods, engaged in arts and crafts activities, etc. My mind kept shifting back and forth from the engaging and fun KONOS activities captured on the slides to my own, dull classroom experiences as a student and school teacher. I knew instinctively that this woman was on to something. THIS is what I wanted for my home and my children.

KONOS was a controversial topic among homeschool moms because, truth be told, every homeschooling mom, deep down, wanted to be a KONOS mom. The problem was it took a strong commitment of time and creativity to do it. So, while many wanted to be KONOS moms, there were only a few with the energy to carry it out.

I was one of the many moms who never really mastered the art of being a KONOS mom. Still, the tug was always there and it sparked an openness and understanding about learning that kept me on the right track.

Yesterday I participated in a huge homeschool book sale. There were hundreds of buyers and sellers. In the morning, I dropped off 225 items to be sold and, when I returned 10 hours later, I had sold most of them. But, lying there on the top of the stack of books that hadn’t sold, was my KONOS curriculum. Nobody wanted it. Perhaps most of the buyers had never even heard of KONOS.

What distressed me about this is not that homeschoolers don’t do KONOS anymore. Afterall, I never really did it either, at least not well. What saddens me is that KONOS, and everything that curriculum embodied, really isn’t part of the discussion anymore. Neither are the other educational styles and approaches that made homeschooling such a an excellent choice and perfect fit for almost every family.

Old School Homeschoolers believe homeschools should be bold and beautiful and as different as the philosophies and personalities of the parents who lead them. They do not want homeschools to simply be different shades of the same, nondescript color. If you agree, I have a cheap KONOS book I can sell you.

Until next time…be fearless.