I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville wife and mother with a passion for family travel, (mostly) healthy cooking, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries with you, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark.
November 22, 2006
>Lately, I’ve seen unschooling pop up in the media more and more often. On the surface, unschooling seems like a ridiculous notion; basically, an unschooling parent allows her child to decide what, when and whether he or she wants to learn. If your child is into computers, for example, you might help him build his own from salvaged parts or sign him up for an html class, rather than following a formal lesson plan.
I would think this kind of educational method would work for some (albeit, very few) driven, motivated kids who aren’t satisfied with the classroom learning experience or even with a homeschooling curriculum and who know beyond a doubt what they want to do for a living. However, from reading page after page of various unschooling message boards, generally, this isn’t the case.
Too often, unschooling parents come off as just plain lazy parents. In many cases, they originally were homeschooling parents who felt overwhelmed by keeping up with a curriculum, chucked the whole thing, and now claim they are unschoolers.
The other warped part of unschooling is the role television and video games play in the process. Many of the unschooling parents who commented online spent an inordinate amount of time justifying why television is an important part of the “learning process,” whether the kids are watching Rugrats or MTV’s Laguna Beach. Here are a few quotes from the message boards:
My hubby just got a Nintendo Gamecube last friday, so that is pretty much all we have done all week.
You think TV should be censored and restricted. But what do your kids believe? This is a tough concept, but consider for a moment that their feelings about the subject might count more than yours do! It was a tough concept for most of us. We grew up with a belief system that says, “Parents know best.” Unschooling necessitates rethinking that belief system. You, the parent, will never stop being an influence in your child’s life, and you must certainly be available to offer your support, recommendations, and alternative viewpoint. But unschooling means we believe our children know best what is best for them.
My youngest is always quick to tell people that we homeschool and then when they ask what she does, she always tells them, “We don’t do anything, we just play all the time.”
Yesterday the boys woke up and watched the Wild Thornberrys, then they went up to my bedroom where we have our second TV and the nintendo. We found Star Wars Racer at the second hand shop the previous day and they love it.
The kids decided to hook up the PS2 in my daughter’s room to play the game they rented, and listen to some CD’s.
I think they spent most of the time in front of a dvd or two… when I came back they were in the midst of Power Puff Girls.
The truth is, nearly all kids want to watch TV. Lots of TV. Most of us try to limit the amount of TV they watch, because turn off the television and it’s amazing what they find to do instead. But to be a true unschooler, you can’t really deny them television at all, ever. As a former kid myself, I don’t really think unlimited TV is a good idea- I remember one summer when I was eight, I was totally addicted to television. My mom got sick of it and restricted TV to two hours a day. I began spending most of my time playing outside with my friends or reading- and I remember thinking even then that I was so glad she had made me turn off the television. I had a great time that summer and developed a love for reading that has made all the difference to me in the world.
Still, how can I criticize unschooling without trying it out for myself? I recently decided to spend one day unschooling my stepdaughters. And then I wrote about it in this week’s Nashville Scene edition of Suburban Turmoil. You can read the full text of the column below.
And by the way, for those of you who are from out of town- Pedro Garcia is our unapologetically opinionated school superintendent.
My Ruling on Unschooling
We don’t agree on much in my family, but we can always come to a consensus on at least one thing: School sucks.
We hate the hours upon hours of homework. We hate the endless cycle of extracurricular activities. And we especially hate (okay, this is just me) the crossing guard who waves and smiles at everyone but me each morning, no matter what I do to get her attention.
It’s enough to make me want to keep the kids at home for good, but then I’d have to home school them. And everyone knows home schooling families are weird. Flowered-dress-wearing, backyard-grown food-eating, snake-handling weird. Just ask my 16-year-old.
“What comes to mind when I say the word ‘home schooler?” I asked her on the way home from school yesterday.
“Nerd,” she replied without hesitation.
I rest my case.
Luckily, one other option is available: unschooling. Unschooled kids have no lesson plans, no tests, no nothing. It’s up to the child to decide when, how and even if he wants to learn. The whole thing sounds like one of Ralphie’s Christmas Story fantasies, but education experts say there are as many as 200,000 unschoolers in the U.S., including plenty of families right here in Middle Tennessee. As one unschooling mom online put it, “My youngest is always quick to tell people that we [unschool] and then when they ask what she does, she always tells them, ‘We don’t do anything, we just play all the time.”
I knew then I’d found an educational model that would work for my whole family.
“Tomorrow, I’m unschooling you!” I announced to the girls soon afterward.
“What does that mean?” my 13-year-old asked.
“I have no idea,” I replied breezily. “But for starters, it means you have no bedtime tonight.”
That was enough to keep the girls happy. So happy, in fact, that I suspect 13 stayed up all night long, because she spent most of her unschooling experience sleeping. Looking at the video game-strewn floor that morning, I figured that she must’ve learned a lot about hand-eye coordination during her late-night lesson. And perhaps her choice of Contra: Shattered Soldier indicated a military career in her future. Satisfied by her learning progress, I let her snooze.
Meanwhile, my 16-year-old was up by nine. She answered a few e-mails on My Space (Language Arts), then danced with our toddler while blasting The Killers on the stereo (Phys Ed, Music Appreciation, Early Childhood Education). After wrapping it up with several rounds of computer Solitaire (Math, Online Gaming), I thought I’d try and add Amerian History to the mix.
“Let’s watch Mommie Dearest,” I suggested.
“Okay!” she said enthusiastically. Since 16 wants to be a movie star, I figured the film would serve as a first-rate primer in Hollywood bitchery. And if all else failed, at least she’d be able to say “No more wire hangers!” to her own kids some day with the proper inflection.
After the movie ended, our unschooling experience came to an abrupt halt when 16 informed me she had a soccer practice she couldn’t miss. On the way there, I asked how she had liked being unschooled.
“I could never do it,” she said. “How do kids learn anything? And what about a social life?”
“What?” I asked, stung. “I’m not enough?” Her pained expression told me more than I really needed to know.
When I returned home, 13 was finally awake. We quickly decided to go to Starbucks for some reading time.
“Middlesex,” I said authoritatively, showing her the thick book I had selected. “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. What are you bringing?”
“Uh, this,” she replied, holding up a paperback. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging. Hmm.
“Well, you’re in charge of your education now and I’m sure you know what’s best,” I said uncertainly.
On to Starbucks we went.
Afterward, 13 wanted to rent a movie, so we went to the video store. She chose Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, which I paid for without comment. But the moment we got home, I went straight to my laptop and looked up the movie online. Two roommates set out to get stoned and eat White Castle hamburgers, I read.
So much for child-directed learning.
“The child knows what’s best! Ha! We came this close to raising a pothead!” I shook the DVD angrily and shoved it into the deepest recesses of my purse. I would take the movie back and try to convince the clerks that I had thought I was renting Harold and Maude. It could happen to anyone, right?
At that moment, I knew that unschooling and I were through. Citing irreconcilable differences, we would go our separate ways and resolve never to meet again.
You win, Pedro Garcia. You win.