on switching homeschooling styles (maybe)

“Hey, Jennifer,” a fellow congregant mouthed to me under his breath as we entered the sanctuary last Sunday morning. “I have to tell you something that happened on my flight.”

So after the service, in the fellowship hall…

Him: On the plane, I sat beside this woman who homeschools her kids, except she doesn’t use any structure!

Me: Yeah, that’s called unschooling.

Him: No curriculum, no structure, no nothing! And her husband is in the military. Isn’t that weird?

Me: Well, no curriculum doesn’t mean an absence of structure. They probably make their own schedule. Unschooling is actually a pretty big thing in the homeschooling world.

And then I listed off names of mutual acquaintances that practice no-curriculum learning. I wished I could add our names to the list, but I can’t count myself in that camp. At least, not … yet.

Clarification: I’m not crazy about the term “unschooling.” I think it sounds negative, defensive, and in-your-face. I prefer the term Self-Directed Learning—you know, that crazy wonderful thing that kids do from the get-go and that adults do all the time? It’s also more commonly known as Just Living.

I’ve been doing lots of reading about how children, when left to their own devices, delve into all kinds of interesting things, pushing themselves to grow and develop in amazing ways. Oodles of studies, coupled with (even just a minimal dose of) Common Sense, says we learn best when we have the freedom to follow our interests. When taking a close look at the effects of self-directed learning, it’s clear that these people—the ones who have been encouraged to practice it from the very beginning—do just fine in life. In many cases they do even better—far better—than the average Joe Shmoe.

On the one hand I get this. I believe it. It makes sense.

And yet, I haven’t chosen this homeschooling method for our family because … I’m afraid.

What am I afraid of? Oh, you know, the normal stuff. I’m afraid:

*my children won’t be equipped to get what they want to get out of life.
*my children will turn into lumpies that roll around on the floor all day long moaning about how bored they are (like their mother does—one of us per household is plenty nuff, I say).
*they won’t challenge themselves to work hard.
*they won’t push themselves out of their comfort zone.
*they’ll be lazy.
*I’ll feel at loose ends because I’ll have to abdicate my rights as Brilliant Big Boss.

But wait a sec. Aren’t these the same concerns that most parents have? WILL OUR CHILDREN SUCCEED, we stress. ARE WE DOING ENOUGH. IS THIS THE RIGHT WAY. And so to tamp down our freak-out anxiety, we push and prod and boss because it gives us the illusion that we’re in control. Illusions are so comforting. (They also happen to be lies.)

So anyway. I’m telling you all this because I’m in the midst of some serious self-examination with the very real side possibility of change. The threat of a comfort zone shake-up jacks up the stakes a bit. My mind is roiling. What do all these words and ideas actually mean for our family? Am I audacious enough to make such a switch?

(I wonder what my husband will say when he reads this. Um, Honey? What do you think? Need a brown bag to breathe into?)

As I contemplate making a shift, I’ve been thinking about each of my children. How would they respond to full-time self-directed learning? I’m fairly relaxed about the younger children’s studies, so it’s mainly the two older ones who would be most affected. My older daughter is what I’d call a natural at self-directed learning. She’s a go-getter with defined passions. My older son, on the other hand, is much less specific in his interests. He’s relational, an idea-person, but with no (apparent) fire under his butt.

The other night I presented him with a scenario. “Son,” I said, “what if I told you that you are no longer a student? Instead, you are a researcher and Papa and I are your support team. We’ll get you what you need in order to research what you’re interested in. Say we did this—what would you want to research, hm?”

He couldn’t come up with anything. Which made me wonder: maybe not everyone has the ability to be a self-directed learner? Maybe some people need to be directed and pushed?

A couple days ago, exasperated by the disparity between the articles I was reading (kids are amazing! let them do their own thing!) and the lack of drive I was observing in my own child, I called up an unschooling mom (who refers to their style of education as Life Learning). Turns out, her young teen has similar issues.

So then I started to wonder: maybe this lackadaisical attitude is normal at this age? Maybe most kids are like this, but our culture masks it with the busybusy of sports, classes, and clubs? Maybe Floundering is an important developmental stage?

I settled back on the sofa and resumed my reading. Just a few minutes in, I happened upon an article in which a young teenager said of early adolescence, “It’s kind of like being a snake, getting read to shed its skin. When they are getting to shed their skin, their eyes cloud completely over and they have no idea where they are going.”

I shot up off the couch, crowing with glee because Yes, that’s it EXACTLY. Young teens! Clouded-over eyes! Molting skin! Can I get an amen?

Growth can’t be rushed, not mine, not my children’s. It happens from the inside out. Understanding and accepting this is the first step towards self-directed learning.

I’m not there just yet, but I do believe I’m on my way.


Written with inspiration from Natural Born Learners: Unschooling and Autonomy in Education, Freedom to Learn (which I already told you about), the blog of Penelope Trunk, the blog of Peter Gray, etc.

Photos brought to you by The Puppy Cuteness Overload Board.

This same time, years previous: three things, weight in, please, my ethical scapegoat, on slaying boredom, cilantro beet salad, the quotidian (6.25.12), dark chocolate zucchini cake, chocolate peanut butter cake, spaghetti with fresh herbs and fried eggs, a break in the clouds, sour cherry crostatas, driving lesson, lemon ice cream with red raspberries, slushy mojitos, beef empanadas, honeyed apricot almond cake, oregano, garlic, and lemon roast chicken, there’s a red beet where my head used to be, and brown bread.


  • Unknown

    Really, Unschooling is actually a pretty big thing in the homeschooling world. Hey dude not yet for my kids I have taken a good step but after knowing the benefit and the impact of homeschooling I will take a decision for homeschooling where my kids can learn naturally indeed. I've spent a lot of time reading about different homeschooling techniques. Last year we basically did school at home. We followed the 6th grade curriculum for the most part. Thanks for sharing this concept here at all. Take it up..

  • Rosanna

    Two of my very close friends growing up had unstructured homeschooling experiences. Both of them are remarkably tenacious, self-directed, successful people. I, on the other hand, found the grade system addictively rewarding. I don't think it was much better for me than a complicated video game, in that I felt quite unprepared for a messy world where the guidelines and goals aren't neatly spelled out.

  • Rebecca

    I dunno, momma-lana. Your story sounds a lot like "I know these homeschoolers and they act really weird…"

    Someone who would give up his "dream" of medical school after one rather minor set-back is probably struggling with some family-culture baggage that would exist no matter what the school environment was. We all know force-schooled kids who fail to live up to potential.
    My daughter is a driven academician (from a very relaxed homeschool) who is teaching herself high school chemistry. I was absolutely lousy at math and science and interested in academics only as a means to earn adult approval. The drive and success are my daughter's own but our family culture encourages hard work, perseverance and delayed gratification. That, I would guess, is what's missing from that young man's life. Not forced textbook time.

    And then there's the subject of success being equated solely with a college education and the attendant (increasingly elusive) career. I'm afraid the days of "study hard, go to college, get a good job, retire comfortably" are over. Our kids are going to need flexibility and creativity far more than they're going to need the old certainties.

    • momma-lana

      Actually my take on those two families, whom we have known for more than 30 tears are just plain old fashioned laziness. In both cases the parents just could not be bothered to teach the kids. They are not what I would call 'weird'.

  • momma-lana

    We know two families with now grown children who did Life Learning and it has not been a good thing for their adult children and some of how it has turned out makes me angry at their parents. One young man in particular who wanted to go to med school gave up his dream after being told that he would have to take two years of remedial classes at the community college before he could even begin classes for credit. He is mowing golf courses for a living. I home schooled 5 all the way through and I can tell you that none of them would have ever chosen to sit down and do upper math or the upper lab sciences or write research papers. My 31 year old daughter, whose husband is a pastor so she is often confided in, told me that she knows so many young adults who were home schooled and their parents did not believe their kids needed to be prepared for or go to college. These kids grew up to have a wife and children and they are only qualified to work low paying jobs and they cannot escape the fact that this will not change for them. This is a soap box issue for me. As a Mom of 3 boys I can assure you that your son is normal but they do not come out of that unfortunate state until around 24-25. Hopefully someone has been taking a firm hand with them as they navigate those years.

  • Michelle @ Give a Girl a Fig

    Yes, you can get an Amen! I think it makes total sense…and as far as the teens, they're frontal lobe isn't fully developed (until around age 23) so the cloud is a real thing. I don't home school…it's my one regret in life. So this is coming from someone with no experience in home schooling but who, if given the chance to do it over, would practice Life Learning in a heartbeat for the benefit of her children. (Especially her youngest.) It seems to me you are on the right track and I believe your kids will be better for it…as will you because you will know, when all is said and done, that you did what was best for them.

  • Rebecca

    Oh. My. Garsh. This post was Meant. I have been having these exact same heart-burnings. Exact same cloudy-eyed early teen. I've always been a pretty relaxed homeschooler but have somehow given kid #2 the idea that smarts and learning are something handed to him by an authority. Daggone you, unintended consequences of a mother's insecurity. Thank you x 1,000 for writing this.

    • Jennifer Jo

      For a long time she knew their birth order. Perhaps she still does. They have nicknames (mostly given by the younger kids), but nothing official since she's selling them.

  • Anonymous

    My kids do the whole go to school thing but at home they do the self-directed learning thing. It's what they do as hobbies and activities that they choose. It's my daughter taking piano lessons and learning new songs by herself on YouTube. It's my son teaching himself to make videos through some computer program he got himself. All kids do this whether they go to school, are home schooled or whatever. Your kids aren't that far away from being totally self-directed learners it's just all about finding a balance that works for setting them up to succeed in the world and succeeding in what they want to do.

    • Jennifer Jo

      "All kids do this whether they go to school, are home schooled or whatever."

      Exactly—but kids do it at different levels depending on their situation. The difference that I'm attempting to make is the switch from saying self-directed learning is EXTRA learning to saying self-directed learning is THE learning.

      Which is bold, even for me. (And the reason I'm not completely on board yet.)

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