When I transitioned to herbal remedies in place of drugs four years ago, I remember thinking, “Good thing we aren’t in the medical profession!” If I were a pharmacist or married to one, for example, I’m not sure how well that switch would have gone over for all involved hahaha.
But as a college writing teacher married to a tax accountant, I figured we were safe from such life-altering displacement. Taxes are as certain as death, they say; and everyone believes in education.
Insert corny sound effect: ba-dum tshh.
This past summer at the most recent adjunct-faculty meeting I attended for the English department at Salt Lake Community College, I made my big confession: “Guys, I’m a traitor. I’ve converted to unschooling.”
It got the laugh I’d intended, but also lots of questions. “Unschooling? What’s unschooling? I mean, I get that it’s not doing school, but what does that look like?”
“Beats me!” I considered saying. Being a newbie at a lifestyle this radical made me feel shakier than jello in an earthquake.
But my heart wanted to yell out something cheesy like, “It looks like joy!”
I was already discovering the truth of what all unschoolers claim: you really can sit back and delight in watching your kids learn everything on their own, the same way you clapped and cheered with the truest enthusiasm when they learned to crawl and walk. You just have to trust that they will do it in their own time: bringing you books to read them on your lap, then picking up a pencil or crayon and figuring out how to hold it and mark on a paper, then announcing that they’ve figured out some scientific process by analyzing it themselves.
When we went to The Leonardo museum last spring my then six-year-old found a bunch of wooden circuit pieces on a table for kids. With no obvious instructions in sight, he puzzled over the wires and the clamps and the nails and the various gadgets until—voilà!—he had produced light! And then sound!
We got him his own snap circuit set a few months later, and in no time he had snapped together a radio and tuned it to a station he recognized. He came upstairs to show us and had his thumbs carefully placed in certain spots that improved the reception; I chuckled and gave him a hint for another configuration that wouldn’t require using himself as a conductor haha.
So sometimes it looks like that. Compared to the deprivation of enjoyment that would have happened in sitting through an electricity lesson before getting to tinker, I think, “That’s why we unschool. That’s unschooling perfection right there.”
Our ten-year-old’s curiosity runs more toward words and language and social structure than gadgets and tinkering. He often asks me what a word means that he’s heard or how people get jobs or why people do this or that. So I’ll talk through it with him, and if it’s a new word he automatically tries it out a few times in a sentence, a self-conscious grin on his face as he makes sure he’s got it right, and he instinctively adds it to his vocabulary. I’ll often hear him using it a week later, and after that it becomes so natural I don’t notice his usage.
I cringe thinking how I used to come up with lists of vocab words for him and force him to memorize definitions. Sure, he has the inclination and capacity for it anyway, but it’s way better letting him select words and ideas he wants to know.
The same goes for anything else, like the time my now seven-year-old asked how we know what the weather is going to be. We got onto weather.com and looked at the radar maps and found a blue arc headed toward our state with green masses of precipitation. Sure enough, it poured rain all the next day. “Just like the map showed!”
An obligatory weather lesson wouldn’t have had nearly as much inherent satisfaction.
I admit that my husband and I often hold our breaths, doubting it’s truly possible for them to learn everything they need to know in such a random fashion. I have to bite my tongue from blurting out to the kids, “You should be doing X, Y and Z!” I have to remind myself that our brains retain so much more when the motivation and exploration and discoveries are all our own.
Playing all day is the best way to learn!
Plenty of people are sure to disagree. I know I used to subscribe to the mentality that kids are supposed to be studying—that it’s their job from kindergarten until they graduate from college. And like a job, they need to master the discipline of learning, of sticking to things whether the enthusiasm is there or not.
I see it differently now. In our house, I draw a clear line between the discipline of a job, such as doing their chores every day, and the fragile curiosity of learning that needs to be nurtured with joy.
The best part is that as their parents we get to share the joy, like when Hubby and I overheard a kitchen conversation that turned into a spontaneous math eureka moment.
Our ten-year-old and seven-year-old were looking at a muffin tin and discussing how the fastest way to count the number of muffins was to do three times four. Since this was the seven-year-old’s first encounter with multiplying, he clarified, “Okay, wait, so like two times four is … eight? And two times five is … ten?”
“Yep,” his older brother answered. “So what’s 124 times 6?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know?” I asked the ten-year-old, unable to resist jumping in.
He thought for a minute. “Seven-hundred and twenty. No, wait. That’s not right. I forgot the four. So it’s seven-forty-four.”
(Apparently we can cross “lifelong calculator dependence” off the worry list.)
As for my profession, I count my blessings that I’m in higher ed and not compulsory ed. Phew. It makes all the difference that my students are there because they (mostly) want to be and that they can leave if what I’m teaching doesn’t work for them. Similarly, my seven-year-old is taking a weekly painting class and my ten-year-old is in a homeschool choir, and I think those are valuable because the kids chose to enroll and pursue those interests.
So maybe there’s still a place for school. Just not the forced kind.