Reporter Asks About Unschooling and Tiger Moms
I was interviewed a bit ago for an L.A. Times article about homeschooling and unschooling. The reporter sent me some follow-up questions. She will probably only take a few bits from it. Here is my full response for her questions.
1. Are there instances where unschooling doesn’t work? Do some children do better with a structure and routine and more academic focus?
I would argue that it’s totally possible to be an unschooler and have structure, routine, and an academic focus. Most unschoolers don’t have these things, because most kids, when given freedom to pursue education in their own way, don’t gravitate towards these things. Most kids don’t need it like our society thinks they do. But there are cases where children do prefer structured days and lots of academics. An unschooling family would then work with the child to make it happen. Most often, in the cases when unschooling doesn’t work, what actually was going on was neglect. The family was calling it unschooling, but that doesn’t mean they were. Unschooling is an educational model. If parents aren’t educating their children, they aren’t unschooling.
2. How would a parent know if it’s working?
We live in a society where we are taught that the only way to know something is working is if we have a number or statistic to tell us. But, that’s not always the case. How do you know if someone is in love with you? How do you know if you are becoming a better artist? How do you know if you should take one job over another? Many times, we make decisions and we know things without having to provide a number or proof. And that’s how unschoolers know if their children are learning - because they know their kids.
Traditionally, we measure educational success with tests. We complain that standardized tests aren’t good for our schools and kids, yet we have no idea of how else to measure success.
I think a better way to measure success, for any educational approach would be these things:
- Do the parents know who their children are, and how they learn best?
- Do the kids know who they are and how they learn best?
- Are the kids enthusiastic about their world? Do they have interests and passions?
- Do the kids ask questions and feel comfortable having discussions with others about the things they are interested in?
- Do the kids feel comfortable saying, “No, this doesn’t work for me?” and then willing to have a conversation about alternatives?
- Do the kids have confidence that even if they aren’t doing well in something now, that they are still capable and competent?
- Do the kids have a solid sense of self, and genuinely like who they are, despite what faults they have?
- Do the kids continue to seek out new experiences, growth opportunities, and shared experiences, as well as enjoy spending time alone?
These are the kinds of things that unschoolers will use as measures of success, and not test scores.
3. Should homeschooling parents hold their children to the same standards as what happens within a school classroom?
No. This is bigger than unschooling. This is a question of freedom of how we live our lives. When we require that everyone live to the same standards, whether it be what we eat, how we take care of ourselves, or where we choose to live, we take away our freedom to choose. What happens in the classroom is a standard that we have adopted as the “norm” in our society, but I do not believe that all people in our society should be required to perform to that standard simply because it’s what we’re used to.
The reason why many people decide to homeschool, is specifically because they do no agree to the required standards that are in school. There are so many, that it’s impossible to live up to them all. (Ask a public school teacher about that.) Most of the time, homeschoolers choose the standards of school that they think will work and that they like, then adopt alternative standards for the aspects of school they do not feel are beneficial for their children.
Now, perhaps, the next question you might ask is this - are there at least minimum standards that homeschoolers should hold their children to?
Yes, but the minimum standards are already in place. Neglect, abuse, and other forms of child endangerment are illegal. And all of the minimum standards are equally prosecutable and punishable by law - both for parents and adults in schools.
As for educational standards, minimum educational standards are not even settled in public schools, let alone homeschooling. It’s a big issue, not just a homeschooling one. Perhaps, before we start asking homeschoolers to adhere to a minimum standard, we need to figure out what a universally accepted and realistically enforceable minimum standard is for everyone, not just homeschoolers. We haven’t done that yet, so any standard we set for homeschoolers will be arbitrary.
4. Should there sometimes be a tiger mom in the distance for unschoolers?
This idea that there should be someone in the distance checking up on unschoolers, or some kind of voice of dissent to keep them in check - is based on fear that other people aren’t living the way we think they should be. Of course, if there is a family who is neglecting their kids (not feeding them, leaving them alone in the house for far too long for their ages, not allowing them outside of the house) or physically abusing them, we must speak up. But people who are really abusing their kids, they come in so many flavors, how they educate their kids is not a reliable red flag - there is no indication that unschoolers, homeschoolers, public schoolers, or private schoolers are any more or less abusive than any other, and that they are any less likely to come out with educated children. Placing “checks” on unschoolers to make sure they are not neglecting their children, when people who educate in other ways are not required to have the same checks, is discrimination.
We don’t check on vegetarians to make sure their children get enough calories.
We don’t check on Muslims to make sure they aren’t teaching their kids how to make bombs.
These are crazy and inflammatory, of course we wouldn’t do that! But we think it’s OK to monitor unschoolers because we are afraid they are doing something wrong? Checking in on unschoolers is just as assuming and discriminatory. If there is an indication of something wrong, just as with any other parent, that’s when the law kicks in. Unschooling is different, and confusing, and not at all what we are used to. But there’s no indication that it’s inherently dangerous or that unschooling families have any more problems than the average American. So no, I don’t think that a tiger mom needs to be around the corner for unschoolers any more than a Vegan needs a carnivore around the corner.
If a child’s love of learning is alive, their feeling of self-worth and competence is intact, and their willingness to seek out new experiences and be responsible for their own learning is still there, they will be successful in their lives, and a positive addition to the fabric of our socio-political society. That’s something that unschoolers and homeschoolers want just as much as tiger moms do. They are just taking a different path to try to achieve it. Until there is proof that alternative paths don’t work (and unschooling has been around a while now, and all indications show that it works just as well, if not better than, pushing academic performance), we have no reason to try and keep unschoolers from living and educating in their own way.