Thursday, February 3, 2011

Learning mystique

On Twitter today, someone referred to unschooling as "the lazy parent's approach to school." The author's username includes "sarcasm," so I didn't take offense. But this opinion of unschooling is one we hear from time to time. It has its roots in the multilayered belief that (1) teaching is hard,
(2) the stuff they teach in school is terribly important but so obscure that no one in the real world is likely to stumble upon it anywhere else, and if they do they won't be able to figure it out on their own, and (3) learning the terribly important things must be insisted upon, enforced, and even coerced.

Viewed from that belief system, I can see why unschoolers look like lazybones. We skip the hard part, let our kids play video games if they'd rather, and don't seem to care very much about the terribly important stuff (obscure or not).

But let's take a closer look...

Teaching is hard.

You bet your ass. Teaching is damned hard. Classroom management is hard. Engaging one or two little brains that would rather be playing video games is hard; engaging 25 to 30 of them is all but impossible. Butting up against district policies that get in the way of that engagement is hard. Sacrificing class time to idiotic curriculum choices is hard. Hurting kids to make a living is hard (see the last paragraph on the first page of that link, which is the resignation letter of John Taylor Gatto, who at that time was NY State Teacher of the Year).

And at home? Sitting your kids down at the kitchen table with a lesson plan and standing over them until they complete it is hard. In many cases, it is so hard that the kids end up back in school because neither the kids nor the parents can take it anymore.

Do unschoolers skip all that? You bet your ass.

The stuff they teach in school is terribly important...

Let's do a little experiment. Yesterday, somewhere between playing Minecraft with some friends from Not Back to School Camp and looking at vlogs, Chloe learned about Queen Ranavalona the First.

So, let's pretend I'm the school board and I have determined that it is terribly important for people your age—yes, your age, the exact age that you are right this minute as you read this blog post—it is terribly important for you to learn what Minecraft is and how much it costs, what the policy is on bedtimes at Not Back to School Camp, and all about Queen Ranavalona and why she might be of interest to an unschooler.

What's that? You don't think those things are terribly important? Welcome to the life of a schooled child.

But since we're pretending, let's pretend that one of those items in my little curriculum has piqued your interest. Maybe you're a teen or the parent of a teen who is interested in attending Not Back to School Camp and you would actually like to know about the bedtime policy. Or maybe you've never heard of Minecraft or Not Back to School Camp or Queen Ranavalona or vlogs, and I've made you curious.

Welcome to the life of a lucky schooled child.

But what about the basics?

They call them the basics for a reason. To reach age 15 without learning everything that is taught in elementary school is virtually impossible, provided no one has gotten in your way.

Don't believe me? Take a look at the typical course of study for grades 1 through 5.

But what about math?

At the very first LIFE is Good, my friend Mary Lewis gave a talk about math in which she discussed the work she was doing teaching math to math-phobic adults—that is, adults who had been through 10 to 13 years of school math and were so traumatized by it that they would freeze in terror if someone asked them to add some numbers together. Mary said these people would be far better off if they had never had a math lesson. This article by David Albert certainly makes her point.

But what about core concepts/a balanced education/learning history so it doesn't repeat itself/etc.?

I could argue (and if I can find an article I read recently about the origins of the phrase "balanced education" I just might). But let's say I concede the point. Let's say there is a core set of knowledge that an educated person must have. Terribly important stuff. obscure that no one in the real world is likely to stumble upon it anywhere else...

But the obscure stuff—like Queen Ranavalona to your average American—is stuff that doesn't belong in the core set.

...and if they do they won't be able to figure it out on their own.

The rest? The not-obscure stuff? Kids will encounter it in the real world. When they do, they will have a reason to learn about it, and they will seek out the latest information about it instead of relying on some possibly propagandized, probably censored information they got a decade or more ago.

How will they do that? Well, let's go back to our pretend school and find out. I am your teacher now, working from the curriculum I've received from the school board, here to give you your assignment for the day: Open a new tab right now and find out who Queen Ranavalona was. If you already know who she was, find out the bedtime policy at NBTSC or how much Minecraft costs.

Everybody, get to work! You have two minutes.

Two minutes later... I suspect at most a third of you have done your assignment and the rest of you are faking it and hoping there won't be a test.

But even the fakers should be able to get my point here: what a person needs to know, she finds out.

Learning must be insisted upon, enforced, and even coerced.

Today, after hearing a radio snippet about the U.S. cutting aid to Egypt, Emma asked why we send money to other countries instead of spending it here. Why did she ask me that? Because she didn't understand. Because she was curious. Because it's relevant to her life, being related to current events that we've been discussing a bit here and to the financial situation of people she knows who are struggling in the recession.

Also today, Chloe finished reading "Lord of the Flies." Why? For entertainment. Because it's relevant to her life, having been mentioned in a vlog she's been enjoying. Because it's classic fiction that gets mentioned occasionally and she was curious.

Also today, you are reading the blog of an unschooling parent. Why? Why are you here? You don't have to answer that. Just think about it. What drove you to come to this page of the Internet? No wait, I changed my mind. Leave me a comment and tell me why you're here. I am curious.

And that's the answer to the test we're not having: Human beings are inherently curious. We seek out new information instinctively, even greedily. Learning does not need to be coerced; it is a given.

The greatest trick the educational system ever pulled was convincing people they couldn't learn without it.

The school system is not what it appears to be. It is past time to start looking beyond the disguise.

Point, meet counterpoint.

The other origin of unschooling as "the lazy parent's approach to school" is the idea that unschooling is easy. Umm, no. Unschooling is fun, make no mistake, but it is also quite a lot of work. My post The cons of unschooling describes some of the work that is involved.


Cap'n Franko said...

I'm here because my wife made me read it. I do like the picture of Mystique. Will you wear that as a costume sometime, please?

Oh, and I agreee with everything you said.

Interestingly, my verification word was "ferfun". Yes, yes it is. Because if life isn't fer fun, it's for drudgery. It's sad that many people live that way. I blame the Puritans.

Tracy said...

I'm here because you are currently at the top of my "unschooling and other good mind fodder" list this morning, meaning you have posted most recently of the folks I follow. I read you and Frank regularly for the joy of it. As an unschooler who works real hard to stay "open minded" to all those doing it other ways, it's nice to have places to touch base where the mindset makes more sense to me and helps keep me from falling too far off my center.

I really was curious about Queen Ranavalona, and planned to immediately look her up when I was done with your entry, but went ahead and looked her up when you instructed. I really didn't want to screw it up in case there was a test ;-)

messyfish said...

I am here cause I want to know more about real people who unschool. I want to make my husband read it too guess I'll be needing to deschool myself and leave him alone...

Laureen said...

I'm here because the more the kids and I get out, the more we get questioned, and the more I love having the quiet reassurance of people like you behind me, fueling my own calm, reasoned responses to knee-jerk, reactive commentary on my choices.

Stephanie said...

I'm here because I love reading what you write! You put it well!
Thanks Ronnie, awesome :)

Robyn L. Coburn said...

I'm here because your words are always worth reading and I saw your facebook status.

MMmommy said...

I am here cause I think Ronnie is a fabulous human being and when she writes I read and inevitably satiate my curiosity of spur it on

Zenmomma said...

I'm here because I love you and don't get to see you nearly enough.

Snavleys said...

I'm here because you have so much wisdom! I haven't been reading blogs lately so I was catching up:) I'm going to print this one and give it to my bil, who recently started a slightly heated discussion with me on this very topic. I think you said it much better than I did:)

dragondivine said...

Hello there! (Or should I say "Ahoy there"? :P ) A friend of mine who also happens to be a teacher Shared this on Facebook. As a budding teacher (I am currently in the T-Cert program at my university), I thought I'd check it out. I found it fascinating. I had never heard of unschooling before. When I was little, I loved school. That changed as I got older and I have frequently thought of dropping out. Instead, I found that what I really wanted to do is change our educational system because... it sucks. I would LOVE to bring the ideas of unschooling into my teaching--which will be nigh impossible considering the state standards and school curricula. But I aim to try!

Alex Polikowsky said...

I am here because I saw your post on FB and I have this major crush on you ( my secret girlfriend!) and I just love reading ( read stalking) you!
Oh and Frank my verification word is
beat that one! HA!!

Ronnie said...

To sum up the responses so far, people voluntarily (except Frank) sought out this post for one or more of these reasons:

- Curiosity
- For validation or advancement of thought (relevance)
- For friendship or entertainment
- Preexisting trust in this blog as a source

I suspect our kids' reasons for seeking out information are very similar.

Frank - No. :-D

Messyfish - You can't make him read, but you can leave things lying around to make it easier for him to discover them. John Holt articles are great for that!

Heidi - Okay, but if he comes after me, I'm calling for help! ;-)

Dragondivine - Look into jobs at Sudbury and democratic schools. They come closer to unschooling than any other school.

Alex - I *love* "joysight." Will have to add that word to my vocabulary.

Everybody else - Thank you for kinds words and for reading. Hugs!

dragondivine said...

Thank you, I will definitely look into that! :D
Also: I agree, "joysight" is a wonderful word. :)

Christina Springer said...

I'm here because a Facebook friend posted this link. Lovely post!

@Dragondivine - do seek out alternative schools, Ronnie is right. The Antioch School is another exceptional institution. Also - consider connecting to home school and unschooled communities as a tutor. We have a few awesome tutors because my child just doesn't care to be taught certain subjects by me....or I am unqualified to teach those subjects.

One of our tutors makes a majority of her income from families in traditional (often private) schools whose children need "help." She is the best example of mainstreaming unschooling and is making quite an impact in our community helping parents understand their power to educate their children outside of the confines of traditional, private institutions. (Yes, some of her families pay up to $14,000 a year to schools which aren't teaching their children and then pay her to teach their children. ) She is teaching them to "do the math."

If I had $14,000 extra a year, you bet my kid would be getting the best possible education at home... (or Mexico, Africa, Asia, Europe...whatever plane we could hop on... LOL!) On the other hand, my child is getting the best possible education at home....because we can do it on waaaay than Ronnie said.

On a final note, I'm an artist who has done lots of residencies. It is possible to bring unschooling into schools successfully. As long as they are clear that they are paying you to bring your "curriculum" which demonstrates "measurable outcomes." It's just language. But, it is good language.

Thanks for a great blog post.

Cap'n Franko said...


You might be surprised at the number of teachers, or people with teaching degrees, who have chosen unschooling as a weltanschauung.

JK said...

I am here because I am very seriously considering withdrawing my daughter (14) from public school, and I am eagerly discovering the world of unschooling blogs. Queen Ranavalona's name makes it seem like she ought to be the queen of pasta-making, maybe; I was surprised by the Madagascar connection.

Proud Mamma said...

Okay, I'll bite. I'm hear because Dana always says she never fights with her children because she unschools and I'm intrigued. I also hate how much my children are stressed out by school and grades.

I just am so afraid of 24/7 video games. Or fights over which of our 4 children can play them 24/7. Do they ever move on? I don't want to support them until they're 40.

My nephew, 20, failed college, plays xbox, sleeps, and bathes once a week (never changing clothing) and never brushes his teeth. He only works because my brother drove him there to apply, he didn't want him living in his house doing nothing. Every time my nephew's car breaks down my parents (secretly) pay for him..

dragondivine said...

Because Queen Ranavalona seemes to have drawn readers, maybe you would be interested in this vlog:
It is a video by Hank Green, one of two brothers who decided to communicate only through video blogs for an entire year. Queen Ranavalona came up and Hank made a song about her.

TSN84 said...

I'm here because of a link through a blog that was posted on facebook.. I just love reading articles on unschooling as we have a 2 yr old DD and one on the way that we plan to Unschool. P.s. I really enjoyed this post, definately going to be bookmarking this one for future reference!!

Ronnie said...

Christine - Thanks for visiting! You bring up one of the perqs of unschooling: freedom to travel! Love it!

Proud Mamma - Your fears are not unusual when people first consider or start out unschooling. What you can do is start with "yes" -- you don't have to relax all your current video game rules, just say "yes" when one of the kids wants to play.

Once you relax all the way, there is likely to be a period where games is all they want to do. My daughter watched TV for months when we first started, and yeah, I freaked out! But it passes, I promise! During that time, just keep in mind that there are thousands of unschoolers out there. If our kids were playing video games 24/7, we probably wouldn't love it so much! :-) They do play video games, but that is far from all they do. The TV and the game console are just two of the many available resources in our house.

But don't discount video games! You will be amazed at how much learning they lead to--both specific subject areas/topics and more general skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. One of my favorite articles on this subject is If you give a kid a Nintendo by Mary Gold.

Other surprising sources of learning around here have included Calvin & Hobbes, South Park, and manga. And now vlogs. :-)

About your nephew... I'm not sure how he fits in. Is he an unschooler?

Dragondivine - That's the very vlog that inspired this post. :-)

JK - Welcome! I have a friend who started unschooling her daughter when she was about your daughter's age. They have seen a lovely transformation of their relationship, and her daughter is embracing life and adventures in wonderful ways. She is currently on a trip to South America with several other unschooled teens. (See

TSN84 - Welcome to you too! I SO envy you your chance to start unschooling from birth. Always-unschooled kids have some distinct advantages in life, not least of which is an undamaged perception of learning and undamaged relationships with their parents. Mine had some healing to do. :-(

To all - I strongly recommend attending an unschooling conference. They are so very fun and really good for immersing in unschooling philosophy. I think LIFE is Good is soonest (late May in Washington state), but there are a number of others in North America and there have recently been conferences in Australia and Great Britain. Very happy places.

Vicki said...

LOL! I am here because I saw your name on another Unschooler's sidebar and was curious!

Nice meeting you! I love reading about unschooling! (Helps me see I am not alone.)

Peace and Laughter!


Kathryn said...

Here because of a link from a friend on facebook. We don't homeschool or unschool, but our children are in Montessori, and we are great sympathizers of this "organic learning" perspective. Thanks for provocative Sunday morning fodder!

Flo said...

I'm here because I was curious about what brilliant things you've written lately. Catching up today!

dragondivine said...

Ronnie, you've made me very excited that I have just stumbled on some Nerdfighters! Do you watch the vlogbrothers regularly? They recently did a vlog on the situation Egypt a few days ago that helped me to understand what was going on in the world.

Don't forget to be Awesome. ;)

denise said...

exactly! once again, amazing post! :)

Sue Sullivan said...

A facebook unschooling connection brought me here a few posts back, and I'm hooked. Validation and inspiration are powerful things, you know!
When my schooled mind starts freaking out about video gaming, I remind myself, the weather's crappy, he's learning tons in those games, I'd rather he play seven hours of video games than sit in a desk unable to move when he wants to or learn what he wants to, and lastly, there is no kind way to make him not play games when he wants to. And if I can't figure out how to parent without forcing my wishes (and worse yet, my fears) on my kid, I'm doing a poor job of it. Which I do sometimes. And then I apologize, and try again.

Missy said...

I appreciated this blog SO SO MUCH. I especially appreciated your description of today's teachers. I am a former public school teacher, and you bet your britches I did my absolute BEST to teach the curriculum in a way kids would enjoy, understand, and benefit from. I reached out, I had fun, I CARED - and I QUIT - because the administration, the top heavy system - the chick with a doctorate who hasn't stepped foot in an actual classroom for twenty years thought my methods were "unorthodox". God forbid the classroom shouldn't be absolutely silent AT ALL TIMES and I shouldn't teach to the test all year long (I took one week to teach the kids HOW TO TAKE A TEST and my kids scored the highest at their grade level in the school - people were NOT happy with me). Teaching is HARD. Good teachers who CARE are to be respected and the kids who have them are lucky kids. The kids whose parents care enough to pull them out of the broken system are even luckier. Since quitting teaching we've become an unschooling family. I'm so glad, and so sad at the same time - because I loved my students when I was teaching, and I know that most parents genuinely think the system is the best place for their children to be.

Ronnie said...

Missy, have you read "Educating Esme"? Your comment brought it very much to mind. It is such a shame that the good teachers are driven away.

Sue - Yes, THIS:

"And if I can't figure out how to parent without forcing my wishes (and worse yet, my fears) on my kid, I'm doing a poor job of it."

De said...

I am here because of connections. :~D Earlier this month, I shared a link to Peggy Pirro's blog post about laziness. Today, someone asked me for that link again, so I looked and found it. Then, I realized it had been longer than I wanted since some good fodder for discussion was posted on my local unschool group, so I re-read Peggy's post and saw the link to *your* post. :~D I couldn't remember if I'd read it or not, so I ventured here to see. I hadn't. I'm sharing it on my local group. Discussion seed!

Thanks for all your awesome blog stuffs, Ronnie!!

Sherri said...

I'm here because there was a link to your blog on a local unschooling group that I belong to and I was curious. I'm glad I checked it out. I already believe what I read on your blog but I love to show items like this to the "naysayers" around me. :)

Lou said...

I'm here from a link from an email summary from the group in called "Always Unschooled." I have a 5 year old son and a one year. I think unschooling sounds so neat and so smart, but I'm totally scared of messing up AND my son wants to go to school. When I asked him about what he wants from school he wants: the yellow bus, a real teacher and all the other kids. All good things. I was a sub teacher in LA for 2 years and I did two long term (pregnancy) sub jobs so I am confident that I know what is covered in grades k-6. I have my college degree (in fine art) BUT, my son and I but heads. We are both first borns. Maybe he does need school, to learn from an adult that is not me.

globeonmytable said...

I'm here because you follow me! And I decided to follow you too :)

We have Minecraft in our house too. I love explaining the day time and night time cycle to people who haven't met it yet.

For the person whose nephew is in a fallow phase at present, brushing teeth at night as often as possible would be the thing I'd be using lots of love and hugs/bribes! to encourage.

Tell him (if you judge it appropriate) from a complete stranger "I love each and every one of your molars!! Give them some love from the UK. ps I don't care if you think I'm nuts..."

Schuyler said...

I'm here 'cause someone posted a link to your writing on my facebook page (it was personal--it wasn't, I just have delusions--made Linnaea smile).

Linnaea's here 'cause I stole her computer, well not really, I borrowed her computer without explicit permission (she was sleeping, she says she'd prefer it if I didn't ask when she's sleeping) and am not giving it back in a timely fashion.

She read along with me. We now know about Ranavalona I, her son (or issue, which is too close to tissue for my comfort) Radama II, Rasoherina (which makes me think of farina), Ranavalona II and Ranavalona III. We both got into a need to know if there were more of the Ranavalona's and then finding out about the French ousting the monarchy because Radama II went behind his mother's isolationist back and set up a private agreement...

What were you saying about being curious...

JacLynn said...

I am here because a friend of mine quated you in a Facebook conversation and then posted the link.

I have to say that as a homeschooling parent of 3, I think that the only people who would say that unschoolers are lazy, are ones who do not know what they are talking about. IMHO it would actually be more work! My hat is off to you!