Monday, August 27, 2007

Not Back-to-School Today! Unschooling, Formal and Informal Learning

The coming of the school year for our friends and neighbors has had some influence on us as we begin our second year of homeschooling. I have previously discussed the evolution of our homeschool adventure here. We changed over time from a formal, scheduled school-at-home approach to the more fluid approach of unschooling. Last year, we did do some back-to-school-type shopping and even took advantage of the govenor's tax-free back-to-school shopping weekend. This year, we did no back-to-school type shopping. Oh, N. did propose to use The Teaching Company's Great Courses DVDs as a means to his goal of reviewing basic math and learning algebra. And I ordered them when we agreed on that. But we felt....well, a teensy, weensy bit left out of all of the excitement. We had no reason to read the Back-to-School insert in the newspaper. N. gets his clothes as needs them now, so there was no need for a school clothes shopping trip. And anyway, we were getting ready for our California trip. It was this, in the end, that helped us over the "wow, we're not going 'back to school' " left-outness.

But even though we are not going back to school, and we are not going to school-at-home, we still made an educational-type transition today. In the Bird Baylor, 'I'm in charge of celebrations' mode, we had our first day of Not Going to School. Today, N. woke up ready to begin some of the learning that he planned with us toward the end of July. And this transition led me to do some reflecting on what it means, exactly, to be unschoolers. The question that I am ruminating on is this: Is having a structure/routine compatible with calling ourselves unschoolers? What about the presence of some formal, structured learning?

Now that we are back home from our trip (it is difficult to call all that busy-ness a vacation), we decided (note the pronoun) to add a little structure to our days. So today we resumed praying the morning service. And since it is the month of Elul (in the Hebrew Calendar), N. decided to practice blowing the shofar, which is the custom in this month of preparing for the Days of Awe.

Is this learning? Well, yes, of course it is! N. is learning content--the adult practices that go with the month of Elul, Jewish customs and tradition, the structure of the Hebrew calendar. He is also practicing skills--how to blow a shofar, chanting prayers in Hebrew, the choreography of Jewish prayer, etc.

But this is certainly not formal education. It is the kind of learning-by-doing that is considered education at its best by such advocates of unschooling as John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Alison McKee. It is learning that comes naturally in the process of living our particular lives in our own cultural and social context.

After we prayed the morning service and blew the Shofar, though, N. got out his hunting knife and we opened the big box that had come from The Teaching Company. He examined the three courses therein--Basic Math, Algebra I, and The Joy of Science. He opened up the math workbooks that came with the first two courses, and he read the outlines inside the DVD cases. Then he collected a clipboard, a pencil and a spare, and paper, and popped in the Basic Math DVD and selected Lesson 1--Review of Addition and Subtraction. On the screen, Murray Siegel, Ph.D. was standing in a room full of instruments of math instruction, lecturing from notes and using a white-board.

This would be recognized anywhere as learning; indeed, it looks like schooling. Well....kind of. I mean, how many students in school listen to their math lectures sitting cross-legged in an easy chair, while snacking on nuts and drinking water? How many students in school can literally freeze-frame the professor and use scene selection to replay a difficult-to-understand bit. Never-the-less, this still looks like formal education. It is structured. It has a teacher, it has a white-board, and it has a workbook. N. even had "homework." He had a page of workbook problems to practice after he finished watching the DVD. True, he checked his answers himself using a calculator and then compared that to an answer key. No red pens--thank goodness!--and immediate feedback was his. Still, one wonders, is this also unschooling?

I think the answer to that question is that it depends. It depends on the answers to other questions. Questions like: Who decided that N. would learn Basic Math? Who decided that he would use a DVD course from The Teaching Company? Who decided that he would do it right after morning service without even taking a break? In our case, the answer to each of the above is: N. did. He made a goal for himself to review 4th - 8th grade math so that he could learn Algebra. He got interested in Algebra by watching his sister, Bruce and I solve important problems that way. (Important because they pertained to things we were planning to do). He pored over The Learning Company's catalogue and decided that he would like to use their product. He determined when he would begin and that he would do the math on days that someone would be around to help him if he needed it. And today he got up ready to begin.

Is this unschooling? I think it is. There was no imposition of goals on the learner. We have definitely moved from being 'sages on the stage" to becoming 'guides on the side.' There is structure--but it comes from goal-setting. N. has learned that routine and regular practice are very helpful to the accomplishing of goals. And this is a good thing to learn in this world. Actions do have consequences. How you go about working on goals has a lot to do with whether or not you accomplish them. Practice does make perfect sometimes.

So we are unschooling this year.

And the rest of our day? N. spent the afternoon in his room, making a contour map of his secret spot for Kamana II. He didn't need me at all for that. He had not 'scheduled' it. But he clearly had it in mind for his First Day NOT Back to School.


momof3feistykids said...

My working definition of unschooling is very flexible. I think it involves a process of learning in the context of your "real" life - including your most important relationships - rather than relying on *studying* in an intentional way. It doesn't rule out having structure (or using some curricula or having the parent participate in setting goals). I don't know whether that makes sense. I LOVE reading about the way you weave your faith into your daily lives.

Happy Campers said...

What a great article! I taught 1st grade before having my son, and I too struggle with unschooling, & the potential benefit that some "school at home" products can offer. You hit the nail on the head's your SON'S choice to use those materials, and it's on his schedule...a beautiful combination of unschooling philosophy & school-at-home tools!

christinemm said...

I enjoyed your blog post, thanks for writing it!

Beth said...

Oh the battles that take place on homeschooling boards over the "proper" definition of unschooling!!

This was far more elegant, and therefore pleasant, to read. :-)

mcewen said...

A guide on the side! Good golly you're well ahead of the curve. Good for you.
Best wishes

Judy Aron said...

"N. got out his hunting knife"

OMG - you allow your children to bring knives to school? LOL

We are also preparing for the High Holidays - my daughter (15) reads Torah on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah.

She started her college courses yesterday.

Have a wonderful year!
Great post!