Friday, November 2, 2012

Education without school


Noah is almost two and a half, so we are just beginning to think about schooling and unschooling. Two years ago I would never have considered unschooling. I was quite passionate that all South Africans should return to the public schools, and that these should be free. I'm sure I will wrestle with issues of equality and social justice some more, but right now I am thinking about how the internet, and the radical availability of information is changing the way children the world over can learn, and the way we work. 

I began to consider unschooling because of the freedom Eug and I have felt in breaking the tie between work and financial survival. Central to this has been some radical choices (and a good amount of luck) that allow us to live on about 1/3-1/2 of the U.S. median income, without any real pressure to earn much more than that.

Firstly, what is unschooling? For me, unschooling is about allowing people to pursue knowledge and relationships without social and institutional expectations or pressures. In practical terms, for us this means pursuing a range of experiences, reading a lot of books, and respecting that Noah and Eli are integral parts of our family with valid experiences of the world. When your children are tiny, unschooling is very easy and very hard: easy in the sense that there is no social pressure for your child to be learning algebra. Very hard in the sense that keeping one's cool and showing respect to very small children is difficult, and small children are also disrespected in social settings all the time.

There's a lot of people who have given much more thought to this than I have, so I defer to them:
Christian Unschooling
Sandra Dodd
Joyfully Rejoycing
You can find a great summary article at Zen Habits on Unschooling

There's some parts of it that wouldn't work for our family right now- we don't own a TV and Noah usually doesn't have the opportunity to request junk food- but I'm fairly open to figuring out what works for family in each season of our lives.

There's a lot wrapped up in how we think about school for our kids: Whether we think tertiary education is essential, how we think about socialization, gender balance in the home, how we think about learning in general, how we think about money and earning a living. Somewhere in there is the truth of our situation, a truth that I think is a bit different for different families.

Two common questions I have been thinking about re: unschooling, and my current thinking on them:


  1. Will my child be social awkward/miss out on important social experiences? 
    • In the real world, we socialize with a range of age groups and benefit from all these relationships. This doesn't mean one doesn't need peers so as Noah and Eli get older I'll pursue classes and group activities and I'm sure it'll be fine. I'm not sure the shared suffering that defines most schools is real socialization, though if Noah and Eli want to go to United World College I'd be pretty excited about them sharing the amazing socialization I experienced there.
  2. Will all the parents' time be taken up/isn't that a lot of responsibility for a parent?
    • I'm not sure. Eug and I currently split up our time and this year has been a mom-heavy year for me because of giving birth and breastfeeding. Right now I'm imagining that as Noah and Eli start to learn more, they'll also be more independent and allow the care-giving parent to do chores or projects that actually benefit the household. Having family nearby is really integral to my belief that this could really work- I think there are enough people around us doing interesting things that could spark interest in Noah and Eli. If they're interested, I'd love them to try different activities with different people as they get older- from lessons to apprenticeships. We don't have to squeeze these in after school, so I think there's a lot more flexibility to pursue whatever interests them.

What unschooling looks like for us right now. I tend to highlight the things that are unexpected for me:

  • We try to say yes unless there's a really good reason not to ("I'm tired" is sometimes a good reason). It's built up a fair amount of trust between us. It's not perfect and we're still figuring out how to frame our no's as yes's. It means I'm pretty careful about taking Noah places when he's very tired, and the supermarket is just a super fun adventure that only happens once a week. We generally don't do something unless we all feel up for it. This means life has few errands, and that things happen very slowly. 
  • I try not to freak out about mess, but I always invite Noah to help clean up. I try not to freak out if he doesn't help out, I just say I want him to.
  • Noah does things other 2 year olds might not be expected/allowed to do- he can make scrambled eggs (though I put the stove on), feed the worms, plant seeds, get food from the fridge with pretty limited supervision. 
  • For Eug and I, we are trying to find what we truly love to do, so that work is an overall joy and a contribution (however small). We are 29 and 33 years old, so it would be absurd for us to have "arrived", but I think it's a good goal. 
  • We don't do "educational activities" or try to have toys that teach certain things. In fact, other than duplos and building stuff (where it's silly for small kids to use real bricks), Noah uses the real thing and does "real stuff" as much as possible. He's really getting into fantasy play, so I'm not saying he has to be a little adult.
  • We don't have a hard line on napping and bedtime, and Noah can choose his own clothes and shoes, even if they me look like a bad mom. Noah also doesn't have to clean himself unless he wants to, though if we don't brush his teeth I can't offer him food that has sugar or simple carbs. He hates clothes changing time, so he usually wears the same clothes for 24 hours.
  • Bribery, or incentives as I like to call them, are fine because peace matters more. I don't think of it in terms of mutual manipulation or those terms. Incentives are generally pretty low-key, just something Noah likes when he's being asked to do something he doesn't like. 
  • I get a bunch of books from the library every week, and read them with him. We all spend a lot of time together in general.
  • If Noah isn't hungry at mealtimes he doesn't have to eat. I don't cook a whole separate meal for him, but he's often hungry at different times to us, so he can choose what he'd like (fruit, vegetables, plain yoghurt, eggs). 
  • Noah's allowed to watch Kipper and Sesame street almost any time he'd like to.  
I imagine the way we educate Noah and Eli will change a lot over the years, and as we learn about their needs and our own. 

2 comments:

CB said...

I really love this idea....but it also seems quite intimidating! Maybe partly because I don't have family around - but even with a wonderful and supportive community, I'm concerned that it seems like a 'one way' decision. If I start Ayanda off in school, and find that it doesn't work for us, making other arrangements would probably be quite easy. If she doesn't start out in school, adjusting to it later seems like it could be more difficult. I also think back to some amazing teachers I had as a child, and wonder if she'd miss out on that kind of relationship if she didn't take classes; I am very curious to see how it could work, though....

Jo Hunter Adams said...


That was/is a concern of mine also, but from what I have read there are unschoolers who have joined schools at various parts of their education, and done really well. Usually it's by choice in the examples I've read. Kids often choose to enroll in classes at some point. I believe I had one housemate in Dower who was unschooled (with a sort of "reading only" deal) and she did super, super well. But there is some time, and there's also a Jo'Burg unschooling group on Facebook you could check out just to learn more about support and whether it's of interest or not. I think it depends a lot on the child and the family whether it can work.