Don't let your schooling interfere with your education.
~ Pete Seeger

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Thoughts on Homeschool Curriculum

We got a letter from the local ESD (Education Service District) recently. They used paper, envelope, postage, and about 250 words to say "Please tell us if you move your homeschooled kid out of the district or enroll him in school." An email would have sufficed, and saved the district a buck or two and us the recycling. I asked Trinidad if he wants to go to school. "NO!"

The other day the kids got to wondering how long a blue whale is. So Kristin and they found a tape measure and went out to the street to measure. It was only a 25' tape, so they learned how to add the measurements together to get the whole. It stretched from the fire hydrant at the corner across our neighbor's lot and almost all of ours. Then they measured how high they climb in the willow tree (25') and how high the treehouse is (10').

We practice a form of homeschooling called "unschooling," which operates without any curriculum at all. It's a system pioneered by John Holt, author of How Children Fail, How Children Learn, and Learning All the Time – books which were influential in developing our homeschool style. As unschoolers, the boys are not involved with any homeschool group – there is at least one local group, which offers some classes and gatherings – and they are perfectly happy to be outside the school system. Instead they have a remarkable amount of freedom, and with it, a remarkable amount of opportunity.

But without curriculum, how do they learn what they need to know?

It does create some disjointed learning processes. For instance, the boys really got into math last winter. They printed out blanks, and then filled in times tables. They got some math workbooks, and spent hours doing the problems, from simple addition to some basic division. Then, as summer harvest and the house addition began to absorb our time, and their friends started summer vacation, math fell by the wayside. The kids were too busy playing with their friends in the kid-pack that floats from house-to-house up and down our street, Kristin too busy harvesting, me too busy building. Last night, as they played Scrabble, I noticed that they'd forgotten a lot of their addition. I helped them out for awhile. When I got tired, they still wanted help with the math, so I found an addition workbook and said they could add up the score on the margins. They got distracted and started working on the problems in the book while I went to bed. And rapidly regained what they had lost.

I got to thinking about it.

How do we, as adults, learn what we need to know?

We learn when we are ready, when we need to know. Nobody tells us we have to – the need is there, it stimulates the desire, we seek the knowledge, and we learn. I didn't learn much in school. I was interested in history and geography, and read books like Bruce Catton's Civil War, and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, that enabled me to frequently spot the inaccuracies in my school textbooks. High school history was so pointless that I used to hide novels inside my textbook and read them during class. I learned nothing about carpentry – I learned that on the job. I didn't learn to tie knots, splice line, sew web, maintain diesel engines, or start a fresh-water maker in school – I learned that working on a fishing boat. I learned nothing about design and architecture, my chosen field – I went to college, and followed it up with on-the-job training. I didn't learn to run a business until I started one. When I started work as a building official, I knew almost nothing about building code – now I can cite probably hundreds of code regulations.

Kids are no different. When Sam was five years old, he loved Magic Treehouse books. When his parents didn't have time to read to him, he needed to learn to read. He taught himself, with help from us. Now, at six, he reads at the 8th or 9th grade level.

But what if he had been in school? The demand to learn would be there, but the need might not. Or, he might have been too busy studying things he wasn't interested in (science?) to teach himself to read. I suspect he would have learned to read anyway. The need to learn is intrinsic to our human curiosity. If we aren't interested in something, if it doesn't have meaning in our lives, we won't learn it – or at least, not very well. If we are interested in it, if it has meaning in our lives, we will learn – and almost nothing can hold us back.

Feminism is the philosophy that women are people, too. Unschooling is the philosophy that kids are people, too.

School curricula, by removing the learning from the context, the readiness to learn it, the need for it and the meaning behind it, lowers the intrinsic motivation to learn. It is destructive. The best curriculum is to follow your heart.


CrackerLilo said...

This is really interesting to me! I've heard the term "unschooling," but this explains what it is when actually done really well. I'll bet I'd have loved it. A common complaint my mother heard about both my brother and I was, "They're always learning, they love to learn, but it's not the stuff we're teaching." I have probably learned more math in my interior decorating classes and on my jobs than I did in school.

I love the paragraph about how people--kids and adults--really learn, and the comparison to feminism.

David Carrel said...

Interesting; we are going to have to start thinking about this in a few years. I am not sure what we are going to do yet, but that sounds good to me. The trick is probably convincing the educator grandparents. They would think I went off my rocker. haha. I would just have to switch the name of it though.

Seda said...

Thanks, Lilo. Yeah, the kids learn math cooking for instance; Sam was doing fractions in his head awhile back. It's in context, it's real life, it has real consequences, meanings, and rewards

You've got time. Get your ducks in a row. Read Alfie Kohn's Punished By Rewards and Unconditional Parenting. Read The Underground History of American Education, and anything else you can find by John Taylor Gatto. Read anything by John Holt, especially the books listed in the post. Or have Sarah read them. Read biographies on self-taught people, like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein. (Yeah, I know, all of them went to school at least a little bit - and they all pretty much flunked out, too.) Compare that to your own experiences and to the arguments of the schoolers, and look at the educational statistics. Then, when you make a decision, you'll be happy about it. And when you tell the grandparents, you'll be able to answer their objections.

jill said...

Wow! I like this perspective! I have been teaching 2 and 3 year olds and have found they learn the best through everyday conversation and exploration. They learn the name of vegetables and fruit when they eat or visit the garden. They learn weather words when the weather is rainy or cloudy. Interactions with adults and with each other are what stimulate their learning. These kids know and develop skills when they need them. I am beginning to wonder how many kids now slipping through the cracks of public education, despite No Child Left Behind, would better succeed when allowed to develop these skills as needed instead of as forced. Especially at the youngest ages.

Anonymous said...

You might find the Big Picture programs interesting. We're experimenting with Big Picture schools here in Tulsa as part of our alternative education program for those students who have difficulty succeeding in a traditional classroom. Info is online at

anne said...

Hey Seda,

Well, Max decided to teach himself Calculus this last spring so he could test out of it for Physics. So he's still unschooled. My mother used to brag to her friends that I learned everything I ever learned outside of school. In school, I was so far ahead of the rest of the class that the teacher put me in the hall so she wouldn't have to teach me.

Max taught himself to read at 4 and was reading LOTR and Dune at 10, like I was. He was into dinosaurs and used to attend lectures by the famous Bakker (Jurassic Park expert) up at CU with his grandmother when he was 7. He also lived at the natural history museum. At 2-1/2 he knew the difference (in a loud voice) between seals and manatees. It seemed such a crime to put him into school.

At 20, he has taught himself a ton of science and math, but his handwriting is still at 3rd grade level although he can type very well and he does programming for a living. His bugabear was spelling, since he's dyslexic like me, but he didn't learn to spell until his online friends started making fun of him. (Peer groups, gotta love 'em.)

I used to ditch school and go to the library. I'm dyslexic enough not to test well so my parents never did get an accurate IQ reading on me. I was so bored doing tests that I used to make patterns of the dots rather than answer the questions. But today I've studied 11 languages and have the equivalent of 4 PhD's, so my own "unschooling" did something although it can't be acknowledged because I didn't go to grad school. I went to a college that let me test out of about 90 credits, which saved me a pack on tuition!

Max knew all 1000 Pokemon characters at 10, but could not have told you any of the State capitols or any countries. He knew every dinosaur that ever existed but not how to spell or write.

And what about stuff we have to know that's not covered in school, like how to balance a checkbook or buy a house or know that a pyramid scam is a scam? I never did get classes on what I do for a living, but made them up and tried to get independent credit for them.

Ah, the thing I most learned in school was how to get beat up and humiliated. Gee, that was a skill that I still use.... I learned that people are two-faced and brutal and that I was going to be used all my life for my brains and despised for it. I learned that my talent would enslave me to anyone who could browbeat me into servitude and I learned how to be bored. I learned that even teachers would set me aside as a freak.

Good social skills!

But it depends on the kids. Trinidad would not learn anything in school but how to hate it. Sam might do okay since he can be pushed around.

But don't do it. The best thing a parent can do for their kids is keep them out of school. But again, depends on the parents and the kids. Maybe parents should have to take an IQ test--or a parent test? But you both are too cool to not be parents and I'm proud to know Trin and Sam. I'll be happy when they inherit the world and try to change it for the better.

thanks, girl, for the unschooled future.


Seda said...

Hey, thanks for the link! I scanned it briefly, and really like the three guiding principles. Do you work in a Big Picture school?

I hear ya. But here I have to put in a plug for the teachers. Yes, I suffered under those who were incompetent or burned out, but most of my teachers were sincere, hardworking individuals who did much to mitigate the defects in the school system. Some of them went to considerable effort to connect with the lonely, confused kid I was. I have great respect and affection for teachers - they do much good, and they do it in the challenge of a system that often undermines their efforts.

But of course, you know that.

anne said...

Hey girl,

Teachers saved school for me. I had a few who were so wonderful as people that I still miss them. And there were some kids who were just wonderful people, too. But the environment was the greatest good for the most people, which doesn't help people who don't fit in like you or me or Max or Trin. I realize that our public school system took kids out of the vast ignorance of their lives (most of them were worse off than ghetto kids today) and tried to help them by teaching them some basic skills like reading. But somewhere it got to be too much and turned into a kind of machine to make kids into good citizens. I realize that our system, as flawed as it is, is one of the better in history.

But we can still wish and fight for something better! Which you are doing right now and I did with Max. It takes courage to think for yourself, and I think everyone who comes to your blog has that courage, for which I applaud them (loudly).

People can make a difference, like those teachers in that sea of oppression.

Let's do that--make a difference, each one of us.

you rock, girl,
hugs, me

Anonymous said...

I work in a traditional high school, but we have a couple of Big Picture schools in our district. My former principal oversees them. They are part of a districtwide overhaul of our embattled alternative-ed program.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
~Helen Keller

Reading List for Information about Transpeople

  • Becoming a Visible Man, by Jamison Green
  • Conundrum, by Jan Morris
  • Gender Outlaw, by Kate Bornstein
  • My Husband Betty, by Helen Boyd
  • Right Side Out, by Annah Moore
  • She's Not There, by Jennifer Boylan
  • The Riddle of Gender, by Deborah Rudacille
  • Trans Liberation, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transgender Emergence, by Arlene Istar Lev
  • Transgender Warriors, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transition and Beyond, by Reid Vanderburgh
  • True Selves, by Mildred Brown
  • What Becomes You, by Aaron Link Raz and Hilda Raz
  • Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano
I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men's hands even at the height
of their arc of anger
because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His - the Christ's, our