Education as a Rat Race

Kyle and his friend Ryan enjoying a homeschooling day

Kyle and his friend Ryan enjoying a homeschooling day

There is an article on unschooling in the Baltimore Sun: From Homeschooling to ‘Unschooling’: Parents Believe in Letting Children Set the Pace. All in all, I thought that it was a very positive piece (and knowing some of the folks interviewed, I am not surprised at all.)

However, to be honest with you, I will admit that I am not a big fan of seeing unschooling articles in mainstream publications. It can be hard to convey what unschooling is and how it can work and there is a tendency to loose some in translation. Not to mention it opens us to scrutiny and criticism by people who are unfamiliar with homeschooling, much less unschooling. I do understand that it can be nice to see positive articles, but I still worry a little about imperceptions that can arise from these one-dimensional representations of something that is much fuller and more nuanced in practice.

Homeschooling requires a shift in how you view education…it requires an acceptance that learning can happen at home without an overly structured environment and that you do not need any special training to be able to facilitate your kids learning. Unschooling requires yet an additional shift to trusting that children can and do want to learn without being forced. Expecting people to make not only the shift to understanding homeschooling, but then the additional shift to understanding unschooling seems a bit much (as can be seen by the inevitable debates that typically ensue in the comments of these types of articles).

One of the things that I have come to realize is how incomplete a picture news articles provide. Having been interviewed and misrepresented by reporters on homeschool issues, (usually not intentionally and most often not about anything overly critical) I have changed how I view reporting. It is too easy to jump to a snap decision based on what is usually incomplete information. Unschooling, in my opinion, tends to invite these snap decisions because of how foreign the concept is in our society.

What worries me is that the more visible it becomes, the more “concern” it might generate…concern like this. Having a public perception that there is a segment of homeschoolers who  are “not schooling” their kids is not a good thing (and I have a feeling that debating the distinction between “schooling” and “educating” our kids will be lost in the translation for those who have not yet made the shift.)

I don’t have the desire to mount a defense of unschooling and explain why it can and does work (I think there are plenty of folks who have done this and I have done so in the past). But I could not let this part go without comment because it just seems to encapsulate so much of what I find wrong with the educational mindset of so many people:

Teri Flemal, director of Quality Education by Design, a New York-based program that helps parents hire personal teachers and build home curriculum, said she believes unschooling has its place. But she says it’s most useful for a child in a crisis transitioning from traditional schooling to home schooling, not as a regular teaching method.

“I’m reading e-mail from unschooling parents who think having their kids remodel their house with them is ‘school.’ I’m sorry, but it’s not,” Flemal said. “Painting, hammering, measuring - hey, that was great in primary school. I love that stuff.

“But I can tell you that it will not hold these kids in good stead as they compete with home-schoolers who are creating model video games, requiring them to know the ballistics of how fast and at what angle the bullets need to travel to create an impression of a certain size on the wall, or perhaps the home-schooler who has written a symphony.”

Oh where to start. First, my children are not in competition with anyone, homeschooled or otherwise. Learning is a personal journey, not a race. One of the biggest benefits of homeschooling, in my opinion, is that learning takes a lot of the competition out of learning. My kids don’t get grades. They don’t learn things in order to do well on tests. We learn because learning is useful and interesting…learning itself is the goal and the reward.

I am not completely against competition and my kids do have opportunities to compete. But I feel that learning is one of those areas where internal motivation is much more important than external motivations such as grades and class rank. As they get older, they will have more chances to take classes for grades and will have more exposure to this type of learning (which they will obviously need if they choose to go to college). But I am glad that I can give them a foundation in learning for the sake of learning.

The other thing I am curious about…where exactly is this competition that my kids are supposed to be having with other homeschooers? How exactly does that work? Is it to getting into “good” colleges? Getting “good” jobs? Is there some sort of limit on how many homeschoolers will “succeed” and so we have to be worried about our kids getting left out? Huh? Sorry, but I homeschool partly to escape from that whole “rat race” mentality and I am not buying it.

Second, while some homeschoolers are doing some pretty neat things, most homeschoolers I know are pretty average and are not off writing symphonies (designing video games is more likely though). This seems to be playing into the whole “homeschooler over-achiever” stereotype (which unfortunately, I will admit, some homeschoolers are willing to promote with “studies” that tout higher than average standardized test scores (like that means anything) and holding up spelling bee champions as indicative of all homeschoolers).

Yes, some homeschoolers do accomplish some pretty impressive things (Tara Adiseshan, a local homeschooler from Charlottesville just won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for some pretty incredible research) but I am not homeschooling my kids for the purpose of making them exceptional. I am homeschooling them to give them the freedom to be who they are and if that happens to make them exceptional, that is fine. But that is not my goal and I don’t feel the need to push them in that way.

Now maybe homeschoolers who would hire something like “Quality Education by Design, a New York-based program that helps parents hire personal teachers and build home curriculum” are more likely to be uber-competitive, but most homeschoolers I know are not.

Third, I found the examples of programming video games and writing symphonies very interesting…if there are homeschoolers who excel at doing this, my guess is that when they were younger they were given a lot of freedom to….play video games and musical instruments, maybe? In other words, follow their passions and interests…which is what unschooling is really all about. I have a hard time imagining that these kids were taught in overly traditional ways. Of course we don’t actually know if she was talking about specific homeschoolers who are doing these things or was talking more in general terms about what homeschoolers could be doing.

And why exactly is remodeling a house not seen as “acceptable” school whereas making video games and composing symphonies are? I am having a hard time seeing the distinction and it strikes me as pretty subjective. Remodeling a house is well over my head and I can list all sorts of valuable learning that would be happening during it. Not to mention that it definitely is a viable career option and the skills required seem pretty useful to me.

But maybe I am not getting a full understanding of the point Ms. Flemal was trying to make. Which is possible given that we only have a brief paragraph or two of what was most likely a much longer and in depth conversation.

Anyways, those are my thoughts for what they are worth. Thanks for reading.