My son is 3. Soon we will need to decide about kindergarten. As time goes by, the prospect of sending our little man to school gets more abhorrent.
Please don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of respect for school teachers. I taught public high school for four years. I know so many teachers in public schools who work very hard and do a great job with the tools they have. They care about their students, and they develop and teach solid curricula.
1. Unschooling Is the Best Education.
A few of my fears have to do with how teachers interact with students, but most of my concerns lie with how schools and school systems work as a whole. After earning my teaching credential and master’s in education, after teaching for a total of almost 10 years, I’ve been looking at what seems to work best for kids. Really work best for all kids.
I think it’s unschooling.
Unschooling is a concept and method that rejects the typical school experience, in favor of natural life experience, as the primary environment for learning. When I first heard of it, I was appalled, misinterpreting that to mean that the kids just goof off and never learn any critical thinking or vocational skills. It differs from homeschooling in that homeschooling uses the same curriculum as the public schools, while unschooling typically does not.
In an unschooling family, the learning begins child-first. The child decides what is of interest to him or her, and the learning revolves around that. It provides the most freedom and flexibility for providing a rich educational experience within the meandering path of a child’s changing focus.
So take for example a passion for dinosaurs this year. Parents can easily feed that curiosity with a mix of experiences, projects, and creative endeavors.
A child can then:
- Read books and articles about dinos.
- Visit paleontological or natural history museums and write a journal.
- Interview experts on the subject.
- Create environments for, or artworks about dinosaurs.
- Go on an imaginary archeological dig in nature.
- Calculate carbon dates.
- Form hypothesis about behavior, diet, and reproduction from fossils.
Essentially, unschooling trusts in a child’s instinctive love of learning, instead of feeding information in a top-down approach. The child decides what she or he wants to learn, sets goals, and seeks answers.
It’s a beautiful experience I hope that I can afford to provide for my son when he is of school age. Ultimately, I believe it is the most respectful way to raise my son, honoring his drive to learn what he wishes.
2. I Want to Avoid Standardized Testing.
I once thought standardized testing was a necessary way to ensure that schools meet a certain level of academic performance. Then I started teaching. In reality, standardized tests are only for some of the subjects taught in school, and the health of a school then relies on good average scores on those tests. Subjects that aren’t tested are marginalized. Some subjects simply go away, while teachers of surviving subject often find themselves having to carve out part of their curriculum to fit in drill time for the core subjects.
Another big flaw is that teachers are overtly directed to “teach to the test.” That is, they are given sample questions and asked to have students commit very specific bits of information to memory. This is hardly the holistic learning that a child will need to develop to thrive as an adult.
3. Learning Is Limited in the Classroom.
In an environment where a teacher passes down wisdom, a student can come to the conclusion that the classroom is the only place where learning takes place. The learning is packaged for a class of 30 or so students, which is furthermore limiting.
In reality, learning happens all day long in every environment. An unschooled child will love learning all day long, because learning is life. An schooled child might not embrace that attitude, and instead create artificial mental walls between learning and life.
4. Zero Tolerance Could Mean a Child’s Life Ruined.
I’ve read too many news stories of average children being suspended, arrested, and jailed for the dumbest reasons. This is the result of schools taking a zero-tolerance approach to anything remotely resembling violence, even fashioning one’s own hand or a sandwich into the shape of a gun. Instead of reasoning humans deciding what is reasonable on a case-by-case basic, this lazy by-the-book approach has been adopted and it often hurts children in the process.
5. I Want to Learn Too!
Whatever my son is up to in his explorations, there’s plenty for me to enjoy as well. I have plenty of subjects I geek out over, and I would love to soak up whatever he’s discovering too. This is not so immersive when a child it simply bringing home worksheets his teacher handed him.
6. Schools Are Drugging Our Kids.
My nephew is a bright and friendly 8 year old. Last year he was identified by his school as having ADHD, and he was then issued a prescription for the powerful psychostimulant Adderall to “increase his attention”. This was essentially because he didn’t like to sit still for tests. This does not sound like an issue in desperate need for drugs which could do permanent damage to his brain. Fortunately, my brother refused to allow his ex-wife to give the boy any more than the single pill she already had.
My son is very active. He has a great attention span for things he’s interested in (like pretty much 100% of kids). However, he may not always be ready to sit and absorb lessons when he is expected to in the future. One report estimated that 19% of boys are being diagnosed with ADHD by the time they graduate high school. It seems like most of these figures come from the fact that the typical school teacher has to deal with a large number of children, some of whom are going to be more active and disruptive than others. The nail that sticks out most gets hammered down, so to speak.
“There’s a tremendous push where if the kid’s behavior is thought to be quote-unquote abnormal — if they’re not sitting quietly at their desk — that’s pathological, instead of just childhood,” said Dr. Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the author of “How Doctors Think.”
I don’t ever want a school or teacher to give my son the message that he’s broken and needs to be fixed.
7. Schools Are Not Designed for Boys
With the requirement that students sit still at a desk for the majority of the school day, traditional schools are simply not a good fit for an active child. On average, boys are more kinetic than girls and need more physical activity. Lacking that, bored, unfocused boys get into trouble or worse (see item 6). With the modern reductions in recess time (item 2) the problem has worsened.
In an unschooling situation, I can help accommodate my son’s need for movement and physical activities. In fact, I’d embrace these opportunities for his further development.
8. Schools Rarely Get Kids Out into Nature
With the exception of dwindling recess blocks and the rare field trip to somewhere outdoors, most schoolchildren are never taught outside. Yet being in nature is absolutely vital to their well-being. Author Richard Louv has made a great argument for this assertion in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.
Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.
– Richard Louv
If I unschool my son, I can take him out into nature every day, rain or shine. It may be a simple walk two blocks over to the reservoir, or a drive to the Sierra Nevada mountain range to to the Pacific Coast. It might even be an bug and worm hunt in the backyard. These fully sensory experiences—involving smell, sound, and touch as well as the sense of one’s body within an environment—make more lasting impressions, and open the mind fully to learning opportunities, than a static classroom.
9. Unschooling Builds Character and Creativity
Child-led learning inspires curiosity. Curiosity begets brainstorming and investigation. Finding answers requires problem solving. Problem solving practices the vital skill of creative thinking. Judging by the multitudes of articles written by parents who unschool their children, their kids are getting something regular schools have a hard time providing.
Choosing what you want to learn increases motivation to learn. It inspires confidence in the learner that he or she can take on new activities to simply to try them out, to experiment. It helps them see that failure is simply part of the process of getting to success, and not something to be avoided at all costs. It teaches them how to learn, so that they are empowered to do it at every opportunity should they desire to. They learn how to learn, and then to crave more learning.
I went to a combination of private and public schools, and I ended up with these characteristics to one degree or another. I love to learn. I a not afraid of taking risks. I have a strong entrepreneurial drive. Some of this is due to my own natural temperament, some is from the parenting I had and other influences outside of school. However, my values and beliefs about how the world works were also developed in school, aided or discouraged by various teachers and administrators to some degree.
School in the United States has measurably worsened since I started kindergarten some 40 years ago. I’d want to give my son the very best opportunity to succeed in a country where the school system is now in very bad shape, and likely will remain so for some time.
10. Unschooling Means More Time to Play
Unstructured play is absolutely essential to a child’s learning, particularly prior to adolescence. This is how kids learn best. During playtime, they develop all the skills that make later academic endeavors more successful.
For whatever reason, schools are pushing language and math skills sooner and sooner in the curriculum. My own kindergarten days consisted of playtime, drawing, story time, naps, and maybe learning our letters and numbers. Now children are expected to become Baby Einsteins rather than develop at a natural pace. My son is only in daycare now, and already he is being taught the alphabet and counting. This practice of academic acceleration is disrespectful to the natural development of children in general, and to the individual development of any given child.
It turns about that the recent move to push academics earlier, in the name of raising academic standards, is backfiring. What is lost in the process is all the time they were supposed to be playing, to be building those foundations they need for physical, emotional, social, and intellectual maturity.
Is there anything that will keep me from unschooling my son? Perhaps. We are currently a two-income household. We could not pay the bills if I were to quit now to keep my son at home, rather than have him in daycare for most of the day.
I have been working very hard over the past 18 months to change that, to build a business I can conduct at home or away while my son learns. I will keep plugging along until I can manage that, and hope that it happens in the next two years.
Dawn Pedersen, M.Ed.
Dawn Pedersen is a mother to a 4-year-old-son, as well as a wife and teacher. She has an MA in education and a BA in fine art. She has taught ages 6 through adult in art, web design, graphic design, drama, and biology, since 2004. She lives with her family in Northern California, United States.