When I first heard of home schooling I thought the whole concept was crazy. I could not imagine that ordinary parents, untrained in educational theories and teaching methods, could possibly prepare their children adequately for the complexities of success in “real life” endeavors. I figured any home schooling parent would be unavoidably biased and would consider their children perfect geniuses. I figured home schooling parents would all give out straight A’s no matter what work their children produced.
Obviously, over time I changed my views of home schooling and the efficacy of it. When Tim and I seriously began to consider the option of home schooling for our own family I did a lot of research. I spoke with home schooling families from our church and read lots of books on the subject. When Tim and I got closer and closer to taking the plunge into home education I even started looking at different educational philosophies. In some of my reading, I came across a book about unschooling. As I read all about the idea of “teaching” without any formal teaching, without workbooks or structure or well planned lessons, I felt myself growing more confident in my abilities to home school. Not because I loved the idea of unschooling but rather because I was so shocked and appalled by it. This idea of just living life in the hopes that children might glean a little knowledge in the process-- well, though I had come to see that home schooling itself was not so crazy, unschooling was undoubtedly completely insane! It was such a new concept to me and I figured if there really were people out there irresponsible enough to leave all their children’s learning to chance that surely, I could not screw things up so badly for my children. I knew I would never be so irresponsible, so cavalier, about something as important as my children’s education. I would not allow them to face their futures unprepared, without the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed. So, with my new perspective and my new found confidence, I ordered our workbooks and signed on to the world of home schooling.
About 2 years into our home schooling journey, I found myself thinking about that crazy old idea of unschooling. I thought anew about the concept of life as school, about a parent's job being to provide an educational atmosphere and opportunities for self-directed learning, and it did not seem so irresponsible anymore. I could see, as I watched my children in their free time-- after all the well-planned lessons were completed and the workbooks pages of the day all filled in-- that it was then that the real learning seemed to begin. I would see my oldest daughter curl up in a chair and read story after story of historical fiction. She fell in love with the life of pioneers and learned all that she could, from her beloved historical fiction as well as from true stories of pioneer life, all on her own. She tried out pioneer crafts, making brooms out of pine needles she found at the park, fashioning her own corn husk dolls and then sewing little aprons for them out of fabric scraps she found in my sewing bin, drawing pictures of families in covered wagons with grassy fields all around them. To this day, I am pretty sure she can recite the “Homestead Act of 1862” without ever having had a formal lesson on it.
My oldest son was more interested in the local wildlife. He would spend his afternoons catching frogs and lizards. He would put them in Tupperware containers to observe and care for until I insisted he let the poor creatures go back to their natural environment. His interest inspired him to write his own book. I assisted him in the logistics of it all but the content was all his. His book, entitled “Animals” had a page for each of his favorites- lizards, frogs, turtles, crabs, and snakes. He explained the finer points of catching them (on the frog page he instructed his readers to use their fingers to grab the frog around the “waist” ), interesting facts he had learned (like that “boy“ fence lizards have dewlaps under their chins but “girls“ do not), and what each animal liked to eat (for turtles he listed bugs and “pellets” because that is what he fed his pet turtle). This was not a school project but an after-school project and he loved it so much he went on to write many other little books, all on his own.
I really do think there is a lot to be said about self-directed learning. The more I read and the more I observe my own children, I really do see that the most meaningful lessons do not come from workbooks or lesson plans but from children exploring what interests them and from experiencing the world around them. There is no better way to prepare them for life in the real world than to let them live it, is there?
So, with all my own learning on the subject of learning, have I abandoned the workbooks in favor of all child directed projects? Not quite. Though I appreciate and respect the concept of unschooling, I still fear it a little. It is a great idea to let children learn from real life but I worry if that is all we did, there would be too many holes in their education. I worry they would not be motivated to experiment with fractions and decimals and the measurement of the angles of isosceles triangles. Or that they would never really care about the correct way to spell "succumb" or "Connecticut". I have yet to see one of them, on their own, develop a real interest in the use of prepositions or the origins of the word "omniscient". So, I strive for balance. In the morning, we continue to do our formal lessons. We pull out our Singapore math books and our Spelling Power word lists and our Language of God grammar workbooks. And when all that is finished, we take time to play with our microscope, read our library books, and discuss things like the tragedy in Japan or the recent tornados that hit the Midwest. It seems to be working for us. The kids are well rounded and intelligent and though they’d prefer to throw out all the workbooks they are doing pretty well in all their lessons- both planned and unplanned.