Friday, 20 June 2008

How Children Learn at Home & why we don't unschool

A review of the book by Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison:

I finished reading this book a week or so ago and am finally getting around to doing a review. This book is the result of research into homeschooling which follows the "natural learning" method, aka "unschooling", "child-led learning", or in the terms of the authors, "informal learning". It consists primarily of comments from interviewees (either parents of families who unschool and occasionally the children who are unschooled) accompanied with a running analysis by the authors. The book is organised into discussions of the informal curriculum, the ways in which the informal curriculum is accessed by children, and the role of parents. The utility of play is also examined, before the authors progress to analysis of the learning achieved by children informally at home in the academic disciplines of reading, writing and numeracy.

The main thesis of the authors is that informal learning by children along the lines of their own interests, and spurred on by their own desire to know, is sufficient for these children to learn all that they need to know. I am not convinced. In the fifth chapter the authors describe such learning methods as purposeful observation, conversation, exploration, self-directed learning (experimenting, self-directed research, pursuing hobbies), practice and also "doing nothing". In the sixth chapter the authors describe the supportive actions of parents as role model and mediators (providing circumstances and tools for learning), in answering questions and learning along with the children and in having high but reasonable expectations. The main feature of the "informal learning" pedagogy is that it is initiated and sustained by the child's own interests and enthusiasm, as guided by the child's perception of needing to know or wanting to do.

In the fourth chapter, "The informal curriculum", the authors argue that while learning informally at home, children are able to access a "curriculum" which is tailored by their social and family experiences to their personal needs for knowledge and skills. I can accept that children learn from their parents in the ways described and even agree with the premise that the vast bulk of their social knowledge is able to be learnt simply by children being involved in everyday family activities and events. Chaos theory does tend to suggest that even a model unschooling family will be unable to produce children who perfectly reflect their model, however.

My problem is that I do not believe this "curriculum" is sufficient for life in the post-modern, western world. Yes, my children will learn about life in our family by living as a member of our family. They will learn the language we use (English), our religious beliefs (Christian), our values (such as love for others shown through respect and service), songs we sing regularly, prayers we say aloud together, how to relate in a family of four siblings, how to grow vegetables in a back yard garden... They are also likely to learn those things which perhaps I would rather they did not learn, such as my icky habit of biting my fingernails, my rude tendency acquired in teacher days to raise my voice rather than walk across the room and speak directly to a person, my bad temper and lack of self-control.

Of course children will learn these things from their parents. Given exposure to the interest and enthusiasm of others around them, they will also (perhaps) be driven to learn sophisticated carpentry skills or PhD-level biochemical engineering. But I wouldn't want to bet on it. My central criticism of homeschooling via "informal learning", one which I have never yet seen satisfactorily rebutted by its proponents, is that the informal curriculum is insufficient to address the future needs of children. Children cannot simply be left alone to somehow find their own way to "learn how to learn in the future". They would be left at the mercy of those who would seek to convince them of things (advertisers, politicians, religious advocates, friends, enemies...). Unless those who know the truth deliberately pass it on, the children will be in no position to later determine which of two - or more - options is the truth, because they will have no basis upon which to make a decision.

Not only is an informal curriculum insufficient to transfer a knowledge of the basic ideas of truth, it is inadequate in anything more than the basics of everyday social life. So what if my children learn to speak English adequately? Does this ensure that they will later be able to master the languages of the people with whom they want to communicate in future life, whether those people be alive around them or dead with their ideas accessible only through books? So what if my children learn the words of the songs that we sing regularly? Does this ensure that they will have an appreciation or love for the beauties of music and song or a skill in vocal expression? Will it develop an understanding of the use of the mechanics of lyrics and tune to inspire emotional and intellectual assent to the message of the song, sufficient to ensure that they are swayed neither by advertising jingle nor emotive H*llsong chorus? So what if they learn to be wonderful backyard gardeners? Will this given them an understanding of the economics of supply and demand or the advantages and dangers of collective bargaining by employees and co-operative selling by producers? Will it make them wise, just, honest and merciful in their ways as employees or employers, or even in matters of self-discipline? Of course not!

The reason why I choose not to rely upon informal learning methods in our homeschool is that I don't think the product is good enough. I want my children to learn so much more than I am able to expose them to in everyday life. I want them to learn more of mothering than how to fold washing, and more of carpentry than how to make replicas of Daddy's tools with Duplo. I want them to know more of God than what they learn through listening to my prayers and overhearing me sing. And so I choose to direct their learning myself, with guidance and direction from my husband, and covered by prayers seeking wisdom from God. I aspire to my children knowing something more than how to live life as their parents do. I aspire to my children being "equipped to do the good works which God has prepared in advance for them to do."


Mrs. Edwards said...

Thanks for this book review. It is good to read an analysis of a different perspective, if for no other reason but to sharpen my own resolve.

It seems to me that the foundation of this educational philosophy (similar, perhaps, to Montessori) does not believe in the depravity of man, thinking that the child, unspoiled by adult corruption, can better discover all that he needs and then, when adults stay out of the way, reach his full potential.

I don't understand it. As a mother of four, I am more aware than ever of my own short-comings, but I am also quite confident that my four darlings are born sinners and need to be taught right from wrong and ultimately, taught how to think Biblically.

Nice review. I admit that unschooling will never be a temptation for me, regardless of the arguments--it just isn't my personality--but it good to be able to articulate why that isn't helpful anyway. Thanks for getting me thinking.

Sharon said...

Yes, Rousseau has a lot to answer for in the sad decline of education in the wake of his book Emile. Not that he was the only theorist who followed this trail, of course, but he was very influential. I wonder if he was a father? I'm pretty sure Montessori was never a mother, although she did at least work with kids. It's pretty easy to believe in "original sin" if you just spend more than a few minutes with any completely self-oriented infant.

I admit I didn't read the book expecting to be "converted" to unschooling or even thinking that it was a possibility for our family. However, it was a good chance to mull over how I can more consciously use those opportunities when my children's interest is sparked and encourage and support them to follow up on an interest.

I think Charlotte Mason (another educational theorist who seems to have espoused the idea that "the right environment maketh the righteous man") suggested something along this direction with her use of free but productive play in the afternoons. I think this idea - of having some things taught specifically but also deliberately allowing time for a child to follow up his own interests further, can be a useful one.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon,
Interesting reading! I have to say that I side more on the unschooling side of the fence, but my personality lends itself to much more formal learning. we are currently 'unschooling' science and S and E. I do this because the kids seem to learn soooo much more when they have passion for a subject. I want learning to be something that my children love intrinsically. I want it to be a natural part of everyday life, not separated from everyday life. Our main homeschooling inspiration is a quote from William Butler Yeats "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire". I want to light the passion of learning in my children's hearts, I don't want it to be a chore. We also say around here "If it's not fun then we stop". That goes for me and the student. If either of us aren't having fun we stop and find a different way of approaching it or we come back to it later. My glory moment happened the other day when my oldest was asked what he does for school at home everyday. Even though we do spelling, writing, maths, reading and violin everyday (or we try to anyway!) he said "oh, we play and then mummy makes me do violin". He doesn't even know that he's learning and he's obviously loving it!!!!

See you soon...

Love Karen
PS. I've started up a blog (very early days yet)called Learning Life...

Mrs. Edwards said...

I think that all of us (those drawn to unschooling and those not) wish very much for our children to catch a passion for learning and burn with a desire for knowledge and understanding. It sounds like you are being thorough in your pursuit and doing a wonderful job.

Not all children find it so easy to view mathematics or reading or spelling or writing as fun and playtime, however. But that shouldn't diminish the value of those disciplines. I think it is a mark of our age that we value things mostly for the fun it provides. What about the deep satisfaction that comes from something hard-earned through toil and even suffering? Are we missing out on the richest treasures?

Like you, we follow the interests and passions of our kids when we can and always seek to broaden their experience so that they can discover new passions and interests. May learning never be a chore, but when it is may my children discover the treasure that is found through effort, sacrifice, and tears.

My education was liberal arts with a business and economics emphasis, so I'm playing catch-up in the world of educational philosophy (but I'm not sure I've missed much). At any rate, I don't know about Rousseau's Emile, so now you've given me another avenue of learning to pursue. If only I could return the favor...

Mrs. Edwards at Veritas at Home

Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon

How was Friday night? Sad I couldn't make it, but kids being bigger has really made a difference!

Rousseau had at least 5 children, I believe, all of whom were to his mistress and who were left on the steps of the orphanage.

Love the book review. We attended the National Homeschool Conference last year which had quite a high profile on unschooling. The author may have even been one of the minor speakers - not positive about that one though.

From a Christian perspective, too, this philosophy entirely leaves out the authority structure of the home and the propensity of children to become 'wise in their own eyes.'

Loved reading others' comments.

Have a blessed week.

In Him


Sharon said...

Now you mention it, I remember seeing something about what Rousseau did with his offspring in a TV documentary. What a shocker! I guess that's the sort of thing that happens when people take crazy ideas to their logical conclusion, though.
And yes, Alan Thomas was a speaker at the conference. John Taylor Gatto was there as well along with the lady from the HEAA. It was an overwhelmingly unschooling point of view, at least from what I read in advance. I only went to the first intro to homeschooling session, and took my Grandma. It was a bit propaganda-ish for me, and I already knew much of the stuff, but it was nice for my Grandma to be able to go back home with some idea that homeschooling is legal and reasonable.

I remember seeing that quote on your wall. Your different ideas about homeschooling are one of the reasons I like getting together with you so much - you seem to come up with great ideas for sharing and teaching things to your kids which aren't the way I would come up with on my own. I tend to be a pretty boring, plain person when it comes to pedagogy.
But I think that quote illustrates the problem I have with total reliance upon natural learning. If education is about lighting a fire, who arranges the fuel? Because a campfire just doesn't work if you just chuck on all the wood haphazardly and then throw a lit match at it. Maybe a little bit catches alight, but it doesn't burn for long. Often the match just goes out completely with nothing lit at all. You have to arrange the kindling and then the bigger sticks and then the logs which will burn longer and more consistently. You need to blow gently at first, or shelter the flame from a gusty wind, so it has enough oxygen but isn't blown out. I think education needs to be about preparing the fuel for the fire, not just lighting it. Maybe we can talk some more about this on Thursday? Looking forward to seeing you!

Mrs Edwards,
Glad to be of service in introducing you to some of the theorists behind the educational ideas we accept so readily. I haven't read Emile myself, you understand, I've only read it "by deputy", as Francis Bacon would have it. I seem to pick up these names in my reading and just follow threads from there. Educational theory is becoming a delightfully inspiring and challenging hobby.
Another fascinating theorist to look into if you are interested in classical (late medieval) educational theories, is the first Jesuit, Ignatius Loyola. He wrote a book of Spiritual Exercises, the principles of which were used in the production of the 1599 Ratio atque Institutio Studiorum Societatis Jesu which is very interesting reading (an English translation is available online), and there is also the modern Ignatian Pedagogy. I think many Catholic universities and private schools follow this today. If you're interested, I can do a post or three on this soon.

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

Hi Sharon,
I think I'm content to dabble in educational theory by reading your blog! Actually, a few years back when my kids were preschool age, I marched straight through Piaget and the like, hungry for child development understanding. With a houseful of preschoolers, I was feasting on the theory and loving it.

I'm more in the practicum stage now and find that the intellectual threads I go chasing are more related to the subject of our studies rather than the method of them. I feel I'm a kindred spirit to you, however, in the way that I follow a trail of interest from book to book, thinker to thinker, and subject to subject.

I love to keep a toe in the waters of educational theory, however, so thanks for sharing your insights through blogging. I'm a happy subscriber (Google Reader).

Blessings to Karen and Meredith...