Saturday, September 17, 2011

To school or not to school?

    In my son’s first grade math book he is working on measurements.  His book shows little pictures of scales with weights on one side and assorted objects- fruits, school supplies, and the like, on the other.  I’ve explained to him how the scale is supposed to balance.  It was a meaningful lesson, though not so much for him.  He did well filling out the little blanks with the correct weights of each of the various items and then we closed the book, and I am sure he moved on in his little mind.  I, however, have been thinking a whole lot about balance lately and so the lesson has stayed with me, lingering in the back of my mind as I grade the children’s math work, and encourage them to keep up with their writing, and pull out their science text to read another chapter with them.  
    I have thought and thought and thought about natural curiosity and learning through experiences and self-directed discovery.  I am fascinated with unschooling and the idea of being less of a teacher to my children and more of a facilitator and fellow student in this world of new and exciting things.  But I worry about balance.  I worry about lack of discipline, on their part and on mine.  But what I really, really worry about most, is giving my children the wrong idea about what life is really like and really about.  As Catholics, we know the value of obedience, the value of suffering, and the value of sacrifice.  I worry unschooling takes the focus off things like that and puts it on self-centeredness, and the pursuit of pleasure.  “You don’t want to do math?  Don’t worry about it.”  “You think spelling is a waste of time?  That’s okay.”  It's not the academics I worry about in unschooling though.   I really do trust that my children would learn what they needed to know academically through living a life of discovery and curiosity.  What I fear, these days, is whether or not they would learn to live a life of virtue.  Would they understand that obedience will lead us closer to Christ, keep us authentically Catholic, make us holy?   Would they experience the beauty of offering things up for the good of those less fortunate than us?  Or would they wake up each day thinking only of themselves and what they feel like doing? 
    I have read opinions on both sides of the argument.  I have heard it said that unschooling is not actually teaching, and therefore not exactly educating, and therefore not living up to the responsibility of parents as the first educators of their children.  I have heard it said that, as Catholics, our tradition is to be rigorous in our pursuit of knowledge and unschooling is not acceptable because it is too laid back.   But, I have also read beautiful accounts of very successful people who learned about the world through their own discoveries and initiation.  I have seen my own children produce the most amazing projects all on their own. 
    So, how do I make learning a beautiful experience?  How do I instill a love of it and encourage my children to find their passions and talents while still being a responsible parent?  How do I raise my children to put God first and be willing to trust in Him for all things and be obedient to whatever He asks of them?   How do I teach them that life is not always fun and easy and enjoyable but that the difficult moments, the challenges we face, are what stretch us to be better people.  Learning is sometimes difficult but the lessons we glean through the challenges and struggles are often the most valuable.  Where is the balance I so desperately seek?!?!?!!?!?!?
    Ironically, though I constantly worry and question, our school year is going well, so far.  The children are obediently doing the work I require of them and are still finding time for the “fun” stuff they are interested in.  We spend our school time on the traditional subjects of math, science, history, grammar, religion etc… but with some input from the children on what they want to learn within those subjects and how they want to learn them.  They have some assignments they must do and expectations they must meet but also free time to explore extras and create their own projects.  They have unit studies they have chosen to do, that I have given directions, suggestions, and, yes, some requirements for.  
    So, have I already found the balance I seek?  I do not know.  I still worry and fret about it often.  But, the atmosphere of our home seems to be more peaceful and more relaxed and the children, despite my mistakes over the years, always seem to be learning one way or another.  Maybe I am teaching them, through my constant re-evaluations, that learning never ends and sometimes trying new things is the best way to figure things out.   At least, I hope….


  1. Kari,

    I used to worry about unschooling producing self centred children too. But we are teaching our children that it is most important to do God's will not our own. We all learn about and practise the Faith and there are lots of opportunities to talk about obedience, suffering and sacrifice. We experience all these in our family life too. So our lives are God centred, not self centred.

    Then there's the household chores, being considerate and polite... lots of opportunities to be obedient and to put others first.

    With school work, I look at unschooling as children taking responsibility for their own education. Though we still do a lot of things as a family.

    Discipline? Perhaps there are other ways to learn discipline without having to do the set work assigned by a mother. My children have many opportunities to practise discipline: they need to get themselves up on time, do their chores properly, practice the piano without being reminded, say their prayers, attend Mass, fulfill any promises or commitments they've made...

    Now I am thinking about the difference between mother imposed discipline and self discipline. Will our children's discipline disappear if it has been imposed from outside, once they are away from our influence?

    It can be a worry that children will only choose to do what they enjoy or what's easy as far as school work goes. But my children have surprised me. So far, I haven't found this to be a problem.

    Kari, this is such a thought provoking post. My thoughts are all over the place and probably do not make much sense. I am typing quickly in a short free moment which doesn't help.

    I am off to do some more thinking. Thank you for a great post!

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  3. Sue- This post was really as much, if not more, for me than to be shared. I shared it in case it may help others who are struggling with similar feelings. But really, it was my attempt to make sense of the contradictory thoughts that have been in my own mind for months. As I stated, I am fascinated with the concept of unschooling, yet always questioning the possible results of it (both good and bad). I love the beauty of child directed learning yet worry about the message that allowing it would send. In short, I think I have discerned that true unschooling, though I respect it and believe in it theoretically, is just not something I will ever fully embrace for my own family. Instead I am trying to find that perfect balance for my family, between meeting expectations and following one’s passions, between obedience and self-motivation, between self-discipline and “mom-imposed” structure. I think if I can find the balance it will help both my children and myself to grow in our own self discipline and self confidence. I think it will strengthen us all to be better people and better educated at the same time. Like I said, at least I hope!:) Blessings to you and your beautiful family, you have all been such an inspiration to me in the past few months and will no doubt continue to be. Thanks so much!

  4. Kari,

    I have a bad fault trying to convince others to my way of thinking. Sorry!

    I used to have the very same worries you do but somehow over the years they dissolved away and now I feel I can relax and enjoy unschooling. Your post started me thinking: what changed my way of thinking? Did I find the answers to the questions you posed? Why don't I worry any more? And should I worry???

    I guess with my comment I just wanted to encourage you as we enjoy unschooling so much, and being overenthusiastic, I wanted to share.

    But all families are different or at different stages and have different needs. Finding our own balance? Yes, I think that is true even among families that label themselves as unschoolers. There are different levels of letting go and allowing children the freedom to direct their own learning.

    I hope we can continue to share our families' experiences and learn from each other.

    And talking of sharing -
    Would you like to join in with a book meme I have started? All the details are on my unschooling blog. Please don't feel pressured though. It's quite OK if you don't want to.

    God bless!



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