Posted by: scintillatingspeck | October 27, 2015

Why we homeschool/unschool/learn independently.

Recently, a close friend of mine wrote to me, wanting to offer me some possible, pragmatic suggestions for dealing with my life.  She is super-smart and very kind, loving, thoughtful, and tactful.  I always consider her ideas very seriously.  The gist of her suggestions was: hey, you are dealing with a LOT, really more than can be reasonably dealt with at once.  What if you tried to determine what to deal with now, and what to deal with later?  In other words, schedule your challenges.  One way you could do this, just one example, would be to consider putting Lily in public school for some period of time, to allow yourself more time to deal with everything.  She was careful to emphasize that she doesn’t assume to tell me what I SHOULD do or know what’s best, and all the reasons why she felt this was a viable consideration.  (Because she is that mindful.)

I have been pondering her suggestions a lot, and have concluded that it doesn’t make sense, for us, for Lily to go to public school, even with all the challenges in our lives.  (Or maybe I should say because of the challenges in our lives.)  It was a useful exercise, actually, to remind myself of the reasons why we homeschool/unschool in the first place, and to articulate the reasons why I think it would be ultimately a less-desirable choice to send Lily to school at this point.  It struck me, as well, that it could be useful to me and others to write about it here, to keep a record of my evolving thoughts about independent learning.  I wrote a series of guest posts about homeschooling a number of years ago but a lot of that was couched in a particular frame (of Doom) and I think my frame has shifted in some important ways.  (I don’t repudiate reports of ecological/social/economic disaster, but I relate to them differently at this stage.)

A note about language/labels: I’m not a fan of the term “homeschooling.”  I think it conjures up wildly inaccurate assumptions about what Lily and I actually do.  We don’t do “school at home.”  We don’t spend our days locked in the house, with me as her teacher at a blackboard and Lily the obedient student at a desk.  We mostly don’t do textbooks.  (If we thought they were useful and engaging, we’d use them; we’ve used some math workbooks, but we don’t use curriculum at this point.  We do read a lot of books.)  We are also not fundamentalist Christians, which seems to persist as a stereotype.  (But we are tree-hugging dirt worshippers.)  We are pretty much unschoolers, responding to intrinsic motivation, i.e. child-led learning (although I would argue that I am as much of a learner/unschooler as my child, so we are learning together, with me providing somewhat more guidance and facilitation).  I shy away from the term radical unschoolers because it seems to inspire heated debate about what that means in practice, and I just don’t want to deal with long, dogmatic arguments.  (Although I have no problem, at this point, with being labeled radical.)  Another label I have used to refer to us in homeschool circles is secular, eclectic homeschoolers for the sake of describing our style and beliefs (not religious; picking and choosing what learning methods work for us over time instead of ascribing to a particular educational philosophy).   However, I recognize that most people don’t engage with these issues of language around independent learning.  I would rather call us “independent learners” but off the cuff, a lot of people don’t know what that means and I don’t have the desire to explain it at length to everyone, so we just go with “homeschoolers,” even if I don’t especially like the term.

Anyway.  Back to why I don’t think it makes sense for me to send Lily to public school.

  • She doesn’t want to go to school.  This is Reason Numero Uno.  Yes, I have asked her.  She is really clear on this point.  I don’t want to send her to school against her will.  I think it’s a kind of imprisonment.  Yes, I know that millions of kids are being sent to school against their will, and that their parents, the school system, the government, the culture, etc. all think it’s for their own good and that children can’t possibly determine what settings and activities are right for them.  I disagree.  I think schools exist primarily to serve the economic interests of this culture, not to serve the children themselves.  I say this despite knowing some very fine teachers.  It’s not about the teachers (although some of them can be, in fact, not so great).  Yes, my circumstances are such that I can choose to homeschool at this point in time; that doesn’t make forced schooling natural or right.  It doesn’t make forced participation of parents in an insane economic system natural or right, either.
  • I disagree with the all-or-nothing imposition of school.  If we had the option of picking out only a few particular classes with particular teachers we could interview, classes that Lily would enjoy and get some benefit from, classes that she could drop with no penalty, I might actually be swayed (although see the next point for why even that would be problematic).  But this is not an option.  Either you’re all in or you’re all out, at least in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  If you are enrolled in public school, do you get to opt out of grading and tests?  Do you get to opt out of MCAS (the mandatory state tests)?  Do you get to routinely pull your child out of school for the day?  No.  There are punishments.  It’s illegal.
  • Even if a child gets lucky with having a particular teacher who is especially gifted and responsive, or lives in a “better” school district, this does not override the larger systemic problems.  There is the expectation of responding to bells ringing all day long, jumping through endless hoops of grading and tests, the competition this engenders, and the erosion of internal measures of success and worthiness.  For starters.
  • I think going to school would be a huge adjustment for Lily, something neither she nor I want her to have to make.  She has never gone to school.  I suspect it would be setting her up to be punished on a regular basis.  She has always been encouraged to question authority and why things are set up the way they are.  She resists hierarchy, and I want her to.  It has nothing to do with disrespect or not learning to get along with people.  In school, she would be expected to comply with rules even if they seem arbitrary or stupid; she would be expected to conform to the system.  Her learning needs and social needs would be less important than not “being disruptive.”  She is not an intentionally disruptive person, but I think she would have a horrible time with being expected to sit still for hours.  She would probably be quickly diagnosed with ADHD and we would probably receive a lot of pressure to medicate her, so that she could make everyone else’s experience less “disrupted.”  How about I save you all the trouble and just don’t send her into your classroom?  because I don’t want to put her on Ritalin.  I don’t have a problem with her not meeting your standards.
  • Although in theory Lily would get to spend time with many more children in school, that time would be highly mediated and rule-bound.  It wouldn’t be older and younger children freely mixing together and learning from each other.  It wouldn’t be hours of free play.  And despite the efforts of schools to address bullying, it’s still a huge problem, and I think the structure of schooling often leads to bullying.  People are always asking about “socialization” in the case of homeschooling, and not asking NEARLY enough about what kind of “socialization” is happening in school.  YES, it’s extremely important to me that my child learn how to get along with people, to understand the society in which we live, and to also question and ideally change the stuff that’s really messed up about our culture.  I don’t think that school is the best route to achieving this.  I think it reinforces all kinds of odious social activities: unnecessary, cruel competition instead of natural cooperation, alienation, forced participation in “school spirit” activities, a focus on external image and “achievement,” cheating in order to get ahead or get by—do I need to go on?
  • The fundamental goals of school don’t make sense to me or Lily.  We don’t define success the same way.  We don’t think the lives of children should be about grades, or measuring oneself against others, or positioning oneself for a “good” college, or a “good” job, or all the narrow definitions of success in this culture.  We want to be learning and engaged and getting our needs met, now and going forward.  Getting into all the ways we redefine success is probably beyond the scope of this post.

There is surely a lot more to say on the topic, but in a nutshell: I don’t think it’s in Lily’s or my best interest to send her to school.  I might do some more writing about this, but this is a start.



  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  2. Jen,

    Just a thought, if there were a group of people with skills who would take a few kids for a while (say two hours) so others could deal with their challenges. I imagine a math teacher, or a pottery teacher, offering gift/barter courses in a loose federation of teachers.

    Don’t know if I am dreaming of a nonexistent utopia…

    • My experience, in most cases, is that most teachers aren’t seeking a gift/barter arrangement. I don’t fault them for this, seeing as we are all caught up in the same economic maw. But in MY nonexistent utopia, we would have a gift economy and we would all be teachers and learners.

  3. You summed up how I feel about this whole issue just perfectly. 🙂 Fellow unschooler/child-led parent faciliatated/whateveryouwanttocallus family here. 🙂

    • Glad it resonated, and glad to not be alone in my sentiments.

  4. […] limitations.  (This seems to crop up in most areas of life, as you may have noticed recently in my post on homeschooling/unschooling/independent learning/whatever).  On the one hand, I sometimes become annoyed with language and some people getting all […]

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