Six weeks ago we completed our first homeschooling year. Recently, we’ve hit some significant bumps. I tried unsuccessfully to address those bumps within our current set-up, to no avail. If the compost pile is stinky, find out what’s missing and add it, or find out what’s not working and stop putting it in the pile.
Goals versus Needs
Thus, I’ve been thinking about the difference between goals and needs. Goals help us focus on what’s most valuable and necessary. They guide us in a purposeful journey. For learning in particular, they can make planning, preparing, and educating both more efficient as well as more powerful. I would even go so far as to claim that they are crucial in meeting the unique needs of every learner. Yet they should always be developed in service of meeting needs. Frankly, sometimes I lose sight of this because I love planning and curriculum so much.
To be fair, not all needs are obvious. And many needs are fluid; they emerge and grow, shrink and change. The plans I’d made for our year didn’t have quite the wiggle room to address the needs that emerged and changed.
Here’s where I got stuck. There are some strongly research-supported educational practices out there that I absolutely love. I loved them as a classroom teacher and I loved them as an educational consultant for their potential for meeting a wide variety of student needs in diverse academic settings. When I began planning for our own homeschooling experiences, I carefully considered how to incorporate best educational practices into our home learning setting. I worked to address my son’s needs, capitalize on his strengths, and connect what we were learning to his interests. To my dismay, so much of what I planned just didn’t work for my child.
It’s true. I caused battles because of the fierce grip I held on my best-practices. If I’m honest, I felt deeply discouraged for a while. Here was a system of approaches I’d invested considerable resources (time, money, sleep, time, time) to learn about and help others learn about and implement. And somehow it just wasn’t working with my kid. I had failed to leave space and provide support for those unforeseen needs in my beautiful, research-based practices world.
In reflecting on our vision for homeschooling and my heart for the use of our time, I began to explore some changes. Well… first I had a short-lived pity party. Then I started exploring. Unexpectedly, I traveled to a completely different hemisphere than my oh-so-comfortable carefully-planned-curriculum-and-instruction land. Yes. I went all the way over to “unschooling.”
But just for a visit.
If you’re not familiar with “unschooling,” I’ll try to define it accurately and fairly. Unschooling is primarily attributed to American educator, John Holt, and is an approach that essentially gives autonomy to the learner over every facet of the learning process (e.g. what and how learning is accomplished, when, and with what materials, and for how long). There are varying degrees to which this is approached, from a hybrid unschooling and partially structured approach to radical, child-led unschooling that is more of a whole parenting philosophy. Many unschooling parents feel that the traditional schooling approach, at best, interferes with children’s natural ability to learn from their interests and from interacting with the world around them. At worst, it can be detrimental to direct their learning at the expense of their own learning autonomy.
Where I fall on the spectrum of “extreme control” all the way to “free-range, radical, child-led parenting,” I’m definitely more comfortable on the control side of things. So, I figured I could use a trip to free-range-land. I wasn’t wrong.
I spent a fascinating and enjoyable week-long web search that gave me some wonderful inspiration. Far from cavalierly handing over their children’s education to a chaotic Lord-of-the-Flies situation, my favorites unschooling parents had several things in common. (1) They thought deeply about their vision for schooling. (2) They were watchful and present, seeking to understand their children and be available in whatever capacity their children needed. Sometimes this meant, being content to be in the background. Other times it meant working alongside their children. And still others, it meant spending significant time finding quality resources to help children spark new interests or dive deeper into current passions. (3) Finally, these parents were purposeful with their time and resources in support of the developing interests and self-directed learning experiences of their children.
Note: In particular, I found these two unschooling blogs enjoyable, informative, and inspiring: happinessishereblog.com and http://www.storiesofanunschoolingfamily.com
Where does that land us for this upcoming year? Well, we’re going to try a gentle structure. We’ve done lots and lots of reading together. All my kids love books. And my oldest in particular is immediately interested if things are presented in a story format. For him, narrative is sure-fire entry point for further exploration and motivation. As such, I’m slowly moving to a literature-based approach in as many arenas as possible. I’m critically evaluating exactly what my kids really need right now, how much, and to what degree or complexity. I aim to keep the “have to” items to a minimum so I can foster my kids’ interests and support their projects and choices. I’m making both kid-directed projects and outside time a big part of our week, because they are important to my kids. I’m working on some overarching goals for understanding and skill development along the way as well. (Potential future blog post.)
Sabbath School Rhythm
As far as structure goes, we’re trying out a year-round school approach I’ve heard referred to as a Sabbath schooling model. Essentially, we’ll have six weeks of school and then take the seventh week off, for a total of six school terms per year. The impetus for this decision was to help us use our time purposefully, both the school weeks and the breaks. We also believe that humans have been created with a need for regular periods of rest, and this feels like a good way to honor that. I was also sold when I did the math. Year -round schooling gives us plenty of margin for opportunities, interests, and needs that arise (planned spontaneity!).
In conclusion, I don’t necessarily think that all of the beautiful, strong, research-based practices near and dear to me are inapplicable to the home education setting, far from it. I just think I’ve confused how those practices unfold in a home setting versus a classroom setting due to their inherent differences. It’s something I plan to unpack in the months ahead.
In the time that I explored “unschooling,” I backed off the things that were causing my son such extreme frustration and focused on the things he loved. Then I started *gulp* giving him more autonomy over his time and learning processes. It helped significantly. I saw frustration and conflict decrease and joy of learning increase. While I don’t think I’ll ever feel quite at home in the “unschooling” world, I’m so very grateful to glean wisdom from such a drastically different approach (and I know my son is happy for me to glean that wisdom too, hah!).
What this means for me is that I’ll likely try an amalgam of approaches this year. And I’ll keep testing, iterating, and refining. I’m learning that some plans need to be held lightly; and that plans that are worth making permanent fixtures can stand up to the necessary refinement that occurs while still remaining faithful to their vision and purpose.