Curriculum, Unschooling, and Pandemic Homeschooling

First, a few (actually, a lot of) notes about the notion of and need for curriculum vs unschooling, and then some comments on pandemic homeschooling. 

Many of you have probably heard of “unschooling” by now. If you haven’t, it’s basically a homeschool model where the child learns through natural life experiences and chooses what to learn and when to learn it. In these circles, “curriculum” is often considered a dirty word and parents are “guides” and not teachers. 

While I want to give ideas that I don’t personally have experience with (unless you count the child-led learning philosophies of preschools my children have attended in the past) a wide berth and the benefit of the doubt, something feels faddish and off enough that I thought I’d share my incoherent thoughts on the matter with you all. 

This list got WAY long, even after culling a lot of it. Feel free to skim.

  • Curriculum refers to the lessons taught, the subjects taught, and the method of teaching. It often is used to mean the set of work, instructions, and plans for teaching all of the different subjects. 
  • There’s a reason schools use curriculum. It makes it easy to make sure you are covering everything you need to and that there is some sense that students across the country in a given grade level all learn similar topics and skills. It creates a certain baseline guide, as well as providing (often extensively tested/researched) strategies for imparting that knowledge. 
  • Lots of people are generally involved in the designing of a curriculum. If each teacher had to do that work all on their own, they’d either do a crappy job of it or they’d never have time to actually teach.
  • Going curriculum-free feels like a recipe for learning gaps and falling behind. There is a reason schools attempt to teach a large quantity of certain material to students. It’s because, in modern society, you kind of have to know a lot in order to understand the world you live in and be able to function and succeed.
  • There may be ways that “unschooling” can work and there may be children for whom it works well. There are always things I don’t know.
  • It’s probably very true that many unschooled children and many graduates from standard K-12 institutions end up equally educated (or not) by the end. Conclude from that what you will.
  • There are many kids who don’t learn much or do well in the standard system but get pushed through to graduation anyway. This might point to problems in teaching methodology, socio-economic problems, issues in the student’s homelife, the fact that our system is age-based and not mastery-based, or any number of things. It is not evidence that the body of knowledge that regular school hopes to impart is somehow not needed or not the right set of knowledge (though I definitely believe each kid probably has a different set of what they really need to know and what they are capable of understanding that isn’t properly differentiated for).
  • Consider the entire body of knowledge that sits behind our K-12 educational system. People earn advanced degrees in pedagogy and curriculum design, perform research and studies to try out different ways to improve learning, examine past strategies and evolve them over time. Sure, there are flaws in the system – nothing is perfect – but if you don’t have a degree in education how can you, in good conscience, discount the giant mountain of knowledge created by those who do? This smells a little anti-vax-ish with a side of anti-intellectualism. 
  • I feel like, especially if you don’t have a background in education, using curriculum or trying different curriculums when homeschooling just makes practical sense. There are a multitude of options out there, so finding one that fits should, in theory, be possible, and should also help you make sure your kid doesn’t end up missing anything.
  • This is not to say that as a parent or guardian you aren’t capable of teaching your child anything on your own. Indeed you are! (Or at least, I hope so…) The real issue I see is that there is a LOT to learn during the K-12 years in our modern world, and in order to learn everything needed requires a certain amount of careful planning, understanding of efficient ways to impart knowledge, and other skills and general knowledge that most people don’t have without specialized training of some sort. There’s a reason teachers are required to have degrees and be certified.
  • The plural of curriculum is curricula in Latin, but curriculums in American English, though the former is more commonly used in academic writing. I just picked one and ran with it here, but it looks off. Is it just me?
  • When choosing curriculum for your homeschooler, it’s good to be as informed as possible. You should know who wrote the curriculum and where the ideas behind it came from. Is it secular, neutral, non-secular? Was it written by Mary Sue who barely graduated high school and thinks she’s an expert because she taught her own kids how to read at the age of ten? Or is it written by Jane Doe who has a dozen years of experience in a classroom along with a PhD in education, and who has helped design curriculum geared toward homeschoolers as well as conducted studies on its effectiveness?  
  • That is not to say that just because someone is credentialed, their stuff will be better or just because someone is not credentialed, their stuff is not of merit, but it is reasonable to expect a certain amount of correlation. 
  • Beware of fads.
  • Perhaps my experiences have simply been different than those who conclude that unschooling is their best option. I personally have felt that the K-12 system where I live generally does a good job for the average student. My middle kid, for example, seems to thrive in it and is moving along nicely. Have there been bumps? Yes. But a certain number of bumps can be character building.
  • Unschooling appears to be loosely defined enough that for some families it actually looks a lot like schooling (just without the children being unhappy about it) while for other families it looks like complete educational neglect. So in some sense it is inaccurate to attach a single label to that entire spectrum as though there were commonalities that persist throughout it.
  • For all practical purposes, “unschooling” looks a lot like what my kids do in their free time or during summer vacation already. 
  • Unschooling also feels like what schools do with gifted kids where they let them do their own open-ended projects with little guidance or feedback beyond praise, and no real direction offered. It’s teacherless learning, and while it can keep a kid happy for a little bit, it leads to gaps and stagnation. Maybe that’s part of the problem I see with the idea – it looks too similar to something I know doesn’t actually educate in any sort of deep and rigorous way that allows for real growth.
  • Unschoolers tout the idea that learning is a natural inborn process and that if left alone, kids will learn and be happier doing so. That’s a great idea, in theory. But how many people were literate before schools were a thing? Sure, nowadays most parents can teach their kids to read (is this really “unschooling” if they are teaching?) but how many other things that are learned in a standard school setting or via using standard curriculum will these kids never encounter, learn about, or understand? 
  • Back in the middle ages when most people worked in trades and didn’t need academic skills to function in society, I’m sure unschooling was fine. But in the modern era, much of what we do as adults is built upon knowledge which took multiple very intelligent people many many generations to discover and develop. A rigorous, carefully designed curriculum is how that large mass of information is efficiently imparted upon us all as we grow. No, it is not torture or denying natural learning. Yes, it is challenging at times – this can be a good thing. No, your child will not be crushed under the orthodoxy of it all. 
  • Yes, the standard public school system doesn’t fit every child well. Yes, it does fit many children reasonably well. 
  • Dismal outcomes of public schools are often touted, but the fact of the matter is, more success stories emerge from the public school system than failures. 
  • The bulk of students who attend the top colleges in the country are from actual regular schools of some sort. 
  • I don’t see the utilization of a carefully chosen curriculum, a rough adherence to a schedule designed to match my kid’s learning pace, and lots of one-on-one interaction during the learning process to be a recipe for detriment. In fact, many of the qualities of the interactions mirror those described by unschoolers – child excited to learn, intense focus, happiness, etc. – but with more guidance, and a greater quantity and quality of knowledge imparted.
  • There is little if any actual evidence that unschooling is effective. If you google, you’ll find that this dude named Dr. Peter Gray did a survey of 232 unschooling parents and 75 unschooled adults who largely claim positive outcomes, but there is such extreme selection bias to this survey that it’s results are essentially meaningless. (You can only glean that there are some people who feel that they had positive outcomes, with no actual sense of what percentage of the unschooling community this is representative of, and no objective measure of how their outcomes compare to a control group.)
  • There is a very small study showing that when you compare standardized test results of kids who were regular schooled, homeschooled, and unschooled, that the homeschooled kids did best, regular schooled kids did second best, and unschooled did worst. Unschoolers will tell you this is because of lack of familiarity with test structure and not lack of knowledge. To be fair, it’s possible that IS a point worth considering.
  • Many of the unschool “success stories” describe how these kids go to college and are successful there. But this almost always refers to them attending community college. Having taught at a community college for years, I can tell you first hand that attending one or even succeeding at one is not a mark of actual successful acquisition of knowledge or preparation for anything. That is not to say that no one gets educated or improves themselves at community college, but rather that it is perfectly possible to attend and graduate from one without ever learning anything. (This is sadly also true of some 4 year institutions.)
  • Due to the lack of evidence of its effectiveness, I would not personally recommend unschooling to anyone who is wondering what to do as they start their homeschool journey. Moreover, I find it disturbing when unschoolers appear to be pressuring others to join in their philosophy as though it is the only path to enlightenment when there is literally nothing but their own feelings and scattered anecdotes to back them up. 

Moving on…

Pandemic Homeschooling

Many people are looking into homeschooling this year because of the pandemic. They are new to homeschooling and they are worried and unsure of what to do. They may very well go back to the regular school system in another year or two. I’m sure there are reasons to find them annoying in your homeschool discussion group (yes, they should probably do a search first and make sure the questions they are asking have not already been answered a thousand times.), but for real, they are still legitimate humans with legitimate ideas and thoughts about how to teach their kids. 

The regular school system is not evil. Their children are not tainted by it. They are not “failing to truly understand the value of homeschooling or how it works” just because they go back later. There’s a good chance that, if they’re considering homeschooling now, they actually put thought into the decisions they make for their children. I know you want to chime in with your homeschool success stories – if only they’d listen about not trying to recreate school at homeland go curriculum-free – but do note that public school success stories exist in far greater numbers. 

The moral of the story is:

  • It’s okay to homeschool
  • It’s okay to send kids to regular school
  • It’s okay to homeschool temporarily during a pandemic
    It’s okay to change your mind about what works best for your kids

And if someone’s homeschool curriculum plan looks like it is shadowing the regular school’s curriculum plan, that’s probably perfectly fine (even though, yes, the learning environment at home is very different and they will probably make changes and adjust along the way). The only thing that’s not okay is to deprive your child of an education or make decisions from a place of self-imposed ignorance.

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