These are common questions I get when I call myself an unschooler. But, but, but… I have to remind the people asking – I’m a classical unschooler. There’s a difference.
The difference is I see the benefit in some memorization. I let my children explore and learn things that interest them on their own. They are not bogged down with busy work. I let them be bored. A lot.
But perhaps nowhere else is our style more obvious than when it comes to the study of history.
This is how.
I insist that we get a good framework established. This means learning – yes, memorizing – a good timeline. As Susan Wise Bauer writes in The Well Trained Mind, it means beginning at the beginning of written history, not in the middle. History is a narrative, after all.
In the elementary years, we spend time singing and memorizing key historical events. I’ve found the Classical Conversations CD indispensable for this. We simply listen to it in the car in bits and chunks. For those of my children (hi, middle child!) who do not like to sing, we use the flashcards.
Once the timeline is established, we color it in.
It took us about a year to memorize the entire timeline. The next year, we broke it up into chunks. It was time to delve deep into it now. So we began reading A Little History of the Worldby E. M. Gombrich.
While reading a few pages at a time, I pull out world maps and a paper timeline we have as well. The more connections the children make, the more mental hooks they have to remember and to make sense of the world.
And after this? I leave them alone.
They can explore whatever they want in the library. Because no matter what period they pick up, they know where it fits. They can make sense of the narrative.
A memory: my daughter is a toddler. My husband and I are dealing with a discipline issue I can’t remember. She’s our first child and we are plotting with the kind of hope and blind optimism first time parents bring to such things.
“We have to be ready for the next time,” my husband reminds me.
I am not fazed.
“Situations can be created,” I aver.
He laughs. “You sound like an FBI agent.”
Unschooling sometimes gets a bad rap. People sometimes assume it means doing nothing at all. If you’ve read my book The Classical Unschooler, you probably know my take on the matter of radical unschooling. While it might work for others, it is not something that our family has chosen.
We much prefer classical unschooling.
Classical unschooling isn’t a thing that automatically happens. As I mentioned above regarding my (then) toddler, situations have to be created for our days to go well.
Strewing is a strategy we use often. Often, if I notice that my children are interested in something, I will put related things in their paths so that they can learn more about the topic.
We also memorize. We don’t do a lot of this, but just enough that there is something for the mind to dwell on or recall with ease.
Your homeschooling style doesn’t have to be either/or.
I know that as someone who straddles two supposed extremes, I often get ridiculed from both sides. I have heard both the argument of not doing “true” unschooling and “dumbing down” classical education.
Pick a side, I’m constantly told. But I resolutely refuse to do so for the simple reason that this works for us.
I will always pick what works over an ideology. Better to choose an education for yourself and your children rather than a style.
An article about teachers not reading came to my attention the other day. You might remember that I have bemoaned the fact that not enough people read enough of the classics. But even with that, I sometimes think I have to make the case to read widely, not deeply.
Academia – in general – does not support a wide reading base, favoring depth over breadth. Wide knowledge comes mostly through interest and self directed learning.
Read Widely not Deeply
I am not a deep reader. I rarely read technical manuals – no surprise there. But I do read widely. I cannot name a favorite book. Most times we go to the library or the book store, I will wander the aisles and bring home to read whatever strikes my fancy.
I am not fussy when it comes to books.
As a result, I don’t know very much of any one thing, but I do have some knowledge of a wide range of things.
Now, lest I sound like I’m tooting my own horn, here’s my disclaimer. I only mention this because I see this in the reading habits of children.
Children Already Do This
My kids, I have noticed, will do exactly this.
They will wander the aisles of the library, find something that captures their attention and then grab the entire bookshelf of books about it. Next week, it’s onto something else. Or they will pick a book here and book there, not settling on any one subject.
As a result, they know a little bit about a lot.
Why Is Reading Widely Important?
Two instances illuminate the need for reading widely. In The Disappearing Spoonby Sam Kean – an excellent book, by the way, and highly recommended – he mentions Gilbert Lewis. Chances are, you’ve never heard of him.
Lewis never secured the Nobel Prize because his work was broad
rather than deep. He never discovered one amazing thing, something you could point to and say, Wow! Instead, he spent his life refining how an atom’s electrons work in many contexts, especially the class of molecules known as acids and bases. In general, whenever atoms swap electrons to break or form new bonds, chemists say they’ve “reacted.” Lewis’s work on acids and bases did as much as anyone’s to show what exchanging electrons means on a submicroscopic level.
So without Lewis, we would know about acids and bases, but not much about how they actually exchanged electrons.
Here’s another example
In Kon-Tiki, another fantastic book, the writer Thor Heyerdahl narrates his 1947 journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. His aim in mounting the Kon-Tiki expedition was to show, by using only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, that there were no technical reasons to prevent them from having done so.
But he ran into problems – partially because his theory covered a few academic areas, because he thought broadly, not deeply. Here’s a quote from the book, where someone who joins him on the expedition explains why he had trouble getting funding:
“Your way of approaching the problem. They’re specialists, the whole lot of them, and they don’t believe in a method of work which cuts into every field of science from botany to archaeology. They limit their own scope in order to be able to dig in the depths with more concentration for details. Modern research demands that every special branch shall dig in its own hole. It’s not usual for anyone to sort out what comes up out of the holes and try to put it all together.”
Yes, we need the technical, deep readers and thinkers, but we also especially need those who will pull up any book that looks interesting, will let the ideas slosh around inside their minds for a while. We need people who will pull threads from various sources, see similarities and create theories where there previously were none.
We need innovators.
Be those people. Let your children be those people. Don’t be afraid to read widely, not deeply.
Contrary to popular opinion, I wasn’t born with a silver curriculum in my mouth. My first words were not, “I’m going to grow up, have children and unschool them.” (In fact – hold the rotten tomatoes while I duck – I distinctly remember wondering what the earliest age for starting preschool would be.)
When the children were born, something changed. I have written extensively about that elsewhere, so I won’t go into it now. Suffice it to say that by degrees I became a staunch homeschooler.
I was still a homeschooler, however. My ideas of how children learn best were still heavily bound up in curricula, sitting around the table with me giving information to them.
I thought homeschooling would look a lot like school at home. Nowhere in my mind was the idea that unschooling, let alone classical unschoolingas a model would be the one that would best work for us.
It was unschooling – when I finally embraced it – that made me see the real reason mandatory public school exists.
Without school, the children are noisy & unruly
Children are loud. Period. Mine are no exception. They don’t hold back their thoughts in fear that they might hurt the person in front of them. A lot of them tell it like it is, so to speak. Biting one’s tongue comes with wisdom and wisdom comes with age and experience.
Children can be mean, noisy, rude, unruly and generally obnoxious to be around. Yes, mine are no exception here either.
Being around them all day long can get exhausting.
Correcting them, guiding them, teaching them to see things they don’t in their brash, veni, vidi, vici way can get very tiring.
It is infinitely easier to give them something – anything – to do, require them to do it and punish them for disobedience.
This is as true for homeschools as it is for government schools – how many times have we heard the term “keeping kids off the streets?” How often has that been directly linked to mandatory public schools?
But then again, giving them something to do shouldn’t come at the price of true living. Zak Slayback, in The End of Schoolwrites,
Education and work shouldn’t be easily divisible. Creating and enforcing an artificial barrier between the two just distances education from its application to our lives and makes us view work as a mere necessity. Both education and work are necessary and both have major impacts on how we structure our lives. Balancing work with education makes it harder to compartmentalize both, allowing for applications from one to travel to the other. Studying Bertrand Russell’s philosophy of work can be great when you aren’t working, but it can have life-altering impacts when you are working. Getting a good grasp of economics can appear valuable in the abstract, but it can mean the difference between staying in your current job and launching your startup when you are working.
Yes, the children did need (and want!) to be occupied, but rather than give them busy work, why couldn’t they do meaningful work? Why was my idea of them doing something immediately go to being chained to the desk-and-dining-table? Because even as a homeschooler, I associated education with sit down schooling.
Without school, we are co-learners
Without a curriculum – heck, even with one, I get asked a lot of questions. I say, “I don’t know” a hundred times a day. I look things up.
My children pester me to ask Google how presidents make laws, how to spell an infinite amount of words, Minecraft rules and tricks, and if there are purple trees (not technically, but there are underwater life forms at the bottom of the ocean that are purple and tree-like.)
I don’t get to be the authority, only a guide.
Could anyone successfully replicate this in a mandatory public school setting? Ever?
Why bother with something as paltry as listen to children’s questions anyway? Why not hand them a solid curriculum that gives them all the answers and tests them on if they can remember them? That’ll do the trick.
But although memorization is something, it is not everything. Memorizing gives us a basis for dialogue, which we take very seriously. This occurs at random times during the day. Recently, we were talking about Egyptian pyramids. It occurred to me that even though we had read about Egypt in various books and memorized the timeline, my children learned more after they had begun to wonder how pyramids were built and their general structure, and not before.
The questions and the dialogue is what made learning occur, not a preplanned, force fed curriculum.
(By the way, if you’re looking for a fantastic book about pyramids, check out David Macaulay’s Pyramid.)
Without school, we are forced to create meaning in our days
My children recently decided that they would take care of the formal part of their learning at night, before bed. That would leave them all day to play.
Perfect, I said. That leaves me with all day to play as well.
If they were in a mandatory public school, this problem would never arise. They would be given a script, a role and the best they could ever hope to achieve with that is the perfect grade.
Well, what’s the fun in that?
I don’t want to separate work and play. I want my children to get a deep satisfaction from their work as well as play. The idea that work is separate from play is redundant. (Refer quote above.) I want my children to achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” in their daily lives. “Flow” is impossible without personal effort, it is not passive, it is essentially existential but it is also hedonist. And it is beautiful.
Classical unschooling made me see the real reason for mandatory public school and we rejected it.
Is it more work this way? Yes. Does it require more of me? Again, yes. But does it make life worth living? Does it make me come alive? Does it seek goodness and truth and beauty in my daily existence and find it, even momentarily, every single day?