Tuesday, June 22, 2021

"My Kids Were Born With Unschoolers' Hearts"

"My kids were born with unschoolers' hearts," says Sarah Beale in her conversation with me at Teacher Tom's Play Summit as a member of a panel of parents who are unschooling their children.

It begs the question, "Aren't they all?"

According to author and researcher Peter Gray (who also speaks at the summit) approximately five percent of American parents are currently homeschooling their children, but from the surveys he's seen, that number is expected to double in the coming year, largely as a fallout of the pandemic. Unschooling is a subset of homeschooling, although the terms are often used interchangeably. With as many as 10 percent of parents opting their children out of conventional schooling, I think it's important that we listen to them, which is why I invited Sarah, Natalie Pipkin, and Philip Mott, as well as author and podcaster Akilah Richards and Peter Gray to speak with us at the summit.

"We traded in meaningless curriculum for meaningful conversations," says Natalie, whose children started off in a conventional school. What sparked her decision to homeschool was her son coming home one day to say, "Mama, they're always lying to me. Why do you keep sending me back there?" As Natalie describes it, this moment was a trigger for reflection. She realized that she was regularly having to correct the things her child was learning in school. "That's what my mom did my whole life. That's what her mom did. You kind of feel like you have to do this. The only option is you go to school, you deal with what they teach you. Then you have to go home and reframe it and reteach it." Not only that, but despite enrolling her children in a diverse school, "it was obvious who was being treated differently." 

Sarah's oldest daughter didn't particularly enjoy school, although "she was coping" and "getting great feedback." It wasn't until she witnessed her son's "joy and the love of learning gradually dim," and especially when he would come home from school to say "I don't want to be alive," that unschooling became a "no brainer."

Philip's children have never been in school. It was his discovery of "respectful parenting" that caused he and his wife to decide their children would skip school, although, as he said, he wouldn't stand in their way if any of them wanted to try school out in the future.

Some of the things these unschooling parents have to say about schools can be painful for many of us who have committed our lives to being educators, but from where I sit, they jibe with much of my own critique of conventional schooling. 

Many consider unschooling to be a more radical form of homeschooling although, as Peter Gray discusses in his session with me, it is essentially the way humans have been educated throughout most of human history. In fact, the whole idea of mass schooling young children is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that is not based upon any sort of systematic study of how children learn or what is best for young children, but rather the factory model alongside which it emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Over the course of a couple generations, Western society went from one in which what today call "unschooling" was the standard, to what is essentially the model we use today, with children being divided up by age groups, isolated from the rest of society, sitting in desks, and being expected to perform mind-numbing, repetitive tasks. Of course, we've tweaked and fiddled with this model around the edges, but it remains today very much as it was back then.

Everything else about the world has changed in the intervening century and a half, but our schools have remained more or less the same despite the mountains of evidence that we are doing it all wrong. The sad truth is that most parents don't have the option to homeschool or unschool, even if they do have reservations about conventional schooling, even if their children are not thriving. Indeed, most parents have no choice but to simply nod along sympathetically when their kids ask, like Sarah's son did, "Why do they keep telling me how to do this stuff I know how to do? It's a waste of time." Most are caught in the cycle of "reframing and reteaching." Most have no choice but to send their kids to places that do not respect children the way they deserve to be respected.

Equally sad is that I don't believe I know a single teacher who doesn't essentially agree with these parents who have traded meaningless curriculum for meaningful conversation. My friends who teach in public schools in Seattle, for instance, nod along to these critiques. They see the waste of time, they see the racism, both overt and systemic, they agree that children should be treated more like, well, people. When I ask them why they don't just quit, the answer is always the same: they do it because they feel that by being inside the system they are in a position to protect children. That's both a noble and frightening thing. I have one friend in particular, who is adamant that if she wasn't there to "teach the important stuff inside the cracks" the children would be "chewed up and spit out."

This isn't right. To borrow a metaphor from the Industrial Revolution, these parents who are opting out and unschooling or homeschooling their children may be the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. 

School clearly doesn't work for all children, but what does it tell us that even the kids who are "getting great feedback" are only coping? For most adults, this just seems like something normal: school is something one must simply endure for the first couple decades of your life. What an incredibly sad commentary.

I can't help but admire these parents who opt out, who tell themselves the truth about school and about their own children. It's about time that we all started looking at the truth and then acting upon it to make school work for all children.


To watch my entire interview with our Unschool Panel, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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