Unschooling – Why We Don’t Need Holidays

We’re an unschooling family.

With the schools breaking up for the summer, it seemed like the right time to talk about the fact that we don’t take a “school” holiday. There a lot of myths around home education, one of which being that we have to follow school terms. We don’t!

home education homeschooling taking vacations, we don't need holidays

What Is Unschooling?

There are a lot of special terms, or jargon, around education. So let’s just get this one out of the way. I described us as an “unschooling family”. What on earth does that even mean?!

Unschooling is an educational philosophy or style based on the principle that children have an innate curiosity and desire to learn and that traditional schooling actually damages this. The idea is that when children are allowed to direct their own education, they will gladly learn anything they are interested in, and crucially, retain the information far better than they do if they are force fed information.

When children come willingly to a topic, they genuinely want to know all they can and they will absorb the information, or develop the skill, with no need to be “taught” by someone else. They can acquire the information through a variety of sources, and it is the parent’s role to provide access to those sources.

No limits are placed on education, or no arbitrary ones, at least. We don’t follow a schedule, or have a bell that tells us “that’s enough maths, time for geography”. If they want to spend four hours measuring things, they can do so. If they want to obsess about dinosaurs for eighteen months, they can do so. This actually happened. The four hours measuring never did, that was just an extreme example to illustrate the point.

Educational Value in Everything

Those eighteen months where all the Munchkin and the Bean were interested in was dinosaurs were AMAZING. The level of obsession was a bit intimidating, sure, but they came through it with encyclopaedic knowledge.

We read books, looked at pictures, watched videos, did volcano experiments. They learned so much about the history of the planet, geology, palaeontology, fossilisation, and reproduction! Not to mention special effects in filmmaking.

That knowledge has stuck with them. The Munchkin is now reading, totally self-taught, and can confidently read words like “Carnotaurus”, “Diplodocus” and “Tyrannosaurus”.

Children are learning all the time, so by not placing limits on their learning, we don’t ever prevent them from learning something. That would damage their relationship with education, put them off, or hold them back. Likewise, we don’t insist on them learning anything.

We appreciate that learning is lifelong, they do not have to cram everything they will ever need to know into a fixed time frame. If there is something they need to know, according to their needs, not some prescribed idea imposed on them, they will learn it.

As they go through life, they may decide they need to know how to run a business, or bake a cake, or fix a car, or design a web page. Once they decide, they will know how to find out. That is the central ethos behind unschooling: ensure they love learning and know how to learn. Then they’ll be set for life.

We have never forced numeracy or literacy. Both of them are particularly attuned with numbers. We talk about maths all the time, we explain principles, we illustrate with examples – when they ask questions. As a result, the Munchkin has a profound grasp of the theory of mathematics. So he can figure out the answer to any sum he needs. He understands the principles. If we had drilled him in his times tables and made him learn by rote, I don’t believe he would a) love maths the way he does, or b) understand it.

Likewise with reading. I’m a writer and hubby is an avid reader, so this is super important to us. I was adamant that our children would love stories. I never wanted to put them off reading or writing. So there is no pressure to do either. The Munchkin is 8 now (yikes!) and has been read to almost every day of his life. Our home is filled with books and he sees his parents and grandparents reading all the time. In his own time, in his own way, he has learned to read.

It really only clicked this year, but I wasn’t worried because I knew that this is really common. That when children are given the space to direct their own education, they typically learn to read when they are ready, sometime between 6 and 10 years old.

Our education system pushes reading at ever younger ages. It was bad enough that four-year-olds were having to do reading home work. I hear now that some preschools are forcing toddlers into phonics lessons at two or three years old (parents talking in Facebook groups, I wish I could cite a source as I find this really shocking). To me, this is madness and the only certain outcome is a generation of people who, at best, tolerate reading when they must, at worst, despise it!

Learning While Living

Unschooling families don’t divide up learning from living. Education isn’t something that happens Monday to Friday, from 9 am until 3 pm. Learning happens all the time. When a child isn’t squashed into a time table, they are open to learning from all sorts of activities, at any time they are awake! Their brain even goes on processing information while the child is asleep.

We don’t have a “school room” or “learning area”, because of this basic philosophy. We don’t need to sit at a desk to learn. Really, home education is a bit of a misnomer. A great deal of our education happens outside the home. It happens at the park, in the woods, at museums, at the cinema, at friends’ houses. It happens in the car on our way places, around the table in a cafe.

We don’t follow an educational schedule and we don’t have term times and holidays.

Because learning is not separate from life, and because education is not a negative thing; hard work and unenjoyable; our kids don’t take breaks from it. They don’t get exhausted from needing to focus for six hours a day. They don’t need down time to just watch cartoons – they can watch cartoons whenever they like! They often choose to do other things, but even cartoons can provide learning opportunities.

I was once asked by a well meaning relative if I gave the Munchkin time off for the summer. This was when he was 4. I was so stunned by the question that I don’t think I gave a very good answer.

So let me say now what I wish I had said then:

He’s four. He plays all day, every day, enjoying his childhood. We don’t do sit-down, formal work. So no, I don’t “give him time off”. Time off from what? Being a happy, engaged child? No, I don’t. He is free to be that all the time, all year round.

He may be eight now, but the same is basically true. The Bean is five, so yeah, the above is totally on point for him.

freedom

We enjoy an enormous amount of freedom and I want my children to truly appreciate that.

When I say we don’t take holidays, I don’t mean that we don’t go away anywhere. We travel! We love to travel. But do we go to top tourist destinations in August? Er… no. We don’t. We avoid doing that deliberately!

One huge advantage to home educating is that we are free to travel all year round, whenever we like. We can take advantage of off-peak travel deals, saving us a lot of money! We can also pick quieter times, and avoid big crowds. We don’t have a school to answer to (or fines to pay) if we go off to the USA for three weeks.

Taking a “holiday” or “vacation” is a chance to get away from home and do different things, but the kids don’t “need” to do this in order to relax or get away from school stress.

Also, really crucially, because of our belief that learning is always happening, we totally acknowledge that there is a lot to be learned from travelling. Contrary to what the schools seem to be saying – that if you are on holiday, your child will fall behind because they need to be at a desk being forced to learn during set hours!

Some of it is obvious; visits to Rome or Athens or Egypt are obviously going to be enormously educational. History, culture, geography, art, architecture, politics, archaeology, all without really trying. But then there are the more subtle things, like using another currency, speaking and reading another language, coping with a different climate, entertaining oneself on a plane. These are all important skills.

Being part of the wider world, grasping globalism, understanding cultural differences; being shut in a school room simply doesn’t allow this sort of education to happen.

educational freedom, creativity, outdoors, learning through living

I hope this post clears up any misconceptions you may have had. I hope you like what you’ve read and have a greater understanding of unschooling.

What are your thoughts? Is this something you would like for your family? Do you disagree with this approach? Polite debate is always welcome ­čśë

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Does the Classroom Really Prepare Kids for Real Life?

This week an interesting article came to my attention. Written by an American school teacher in North Carolina, Anthony Johnson, it details how he creates a year long real world simulation for his fifth grade students. His results are insightful, and not remotely surprising to most British home educators. Many of us are, either intentionally or by result of trial and error, practicing one of a range of similar approaches with our children.
does classroom prepare kids for real life?

Johnson’s “simulation of adulthood” provides his students with “an interactive city where all projects intertwine to create an ecosystem of businesses and homes.” While I’m sure there are home educators who follow the National Curriculum, or other structured systems broken down by subject, it seems that the vast majority of us do not. Rather, we take a holistic approach, nurturing the whole of the child’s natural curiosity and facilitating an education that is more natural. The world isn’t neatly divided into categories that are unconnected. One thing links to another, and another. Economics, housing, health, culture, art, city planning, gardening… all are connected.

This is also how our brains work. Thoughts are not isolated. One leads to another, sometimes seemingly totally unconnected thoughts will surface in unexpected ways due to subconscious connections.

For many home educators, this is the ultimate benefit of this lifestyle choice: our children are free to follow their thought processes through to completion, which is ultimately more satisfying and learning is enjoyable and memorable.

Johnson has found that the relevancy of his simulation, which he calls “Johnsonville”, has an overwhelmingly positive effect on his students. Because they can relate their classes to the real world, to events in their own lives and those of their parents, such as finding a home, paying for it, doing a job, managing projects and so on, they remember the content of their lessons much more effectively. As a result, their test scores are well above average. The average for his school on the state science exam is 58%, while his class averages 85%.

His students are in control and have freedom to explore different elements at their own pace. He facilitates, rather than teaches, exactly as many home educators do. I remember once someone suggested I go into teaching. I grimaced and gave a firm reply in the negative. She was surprised “but you teach your own!”

“No, I don’t. I parent them. I’m a parent, I facilitate their education, sure, but I am NOT a teacher.”

This was a number of years ago, and while nothing has changed at home, as it happens, I do now “teach” a creative writing group for other home educated kids. But I strive to be a facilitator there too, giving the group discussion points and room to be creative. But I no longer shrink away from the mantle of “teacher” the way I once did.

Reading Johnson’s article, as I said, there were no surprises. I felt a great deal of agreement with his approach and there were a few “well, duh” moments, where home educators have known these things for a long time. Project based learning is extremely popular among British home educating families. Children direct their own learning, choosing what topics interest them, and parents give their child/ren opportunities to explore that topic until they exhaust it and move on to something else. We are not constrained by an arbitrary bell that tells us to switch from English to Maths. We don’t have a limited number of hours in the week in which to cover everything the National Curriculum demands of us, for no good reason.

creativity, education

While Johnson’s approach is rare in state funded schools, on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is certainly a vast improvement on standard classroom offerings, it is still a simulation. Its benefits are therefore limited too. For some of us, education is not separate from life at all, it is part of it, maybe even the ultimate purpose of life itself. We don’t separate learning from living. Our children don’t “play” at being adults… well, they do if they choose to, but they aren’t experiencing a simulated real world within a controlled environment, they are actually living real life all day every day.

For instance, my eldest is keen to be a YouTuber. He has played at making his own videos over and over again. He now has his own channel, for real, and is in the process of planning out the series he wants to produce. He will be filming the videos, learning to edit and upload them, how to add graphics and animations, music and other elements. He will experience publicising his channel and connecting with other kids who have their own channels. It’s all real, and it all prepares him for independence. As his parent, I obviously take his safety online seriously and will help him find the resources he needs, but it is his project to run with.

When people raise their concern that home education may be a barrier to anything, especially “socialisation”, I have to stop myself from laughing. People’s misconception couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather than being segregated from society in the artificial construct of school, my children are in the world, interacting with a mix of people they simply wouldn’t if they were in school. They get to socialise with people of all ages, in a range of situations, with varying degrees of closeness. My children get to choose when they want to see friends, and when they need alone time to recharge (as introverts, this freedom is invaluable to the three of us). They are developing genuine relationships based on mutual interests, rather than the forced association that is so often the case in the classroom.

This isn’t to say that school children don’t form real, strong friendships, of course they do. I have a few friends now who I was at school with. We see each other a few times a year to catch up. Some children thrive socially at school. But not attending school isn’t the barrier to friendship that many seem to think it is. What often seems to be the case when you dig a little deeper with people who believe the socialisation myth, is that what they were really thinking of was conformity and facing adversity. It’s true that home education allows children to assert their independence much more than school does. But that’s a good thing, in my opinion. I’m not interested in having children who blindly conform, I want them to be themselves.

Peer pressure and bullying are virtually non-existent, because throughout the primary years, children do the bulk of their socialising in the company of adults, who are on hand to iron out disagreements before they escalate. Families then have the freedom to choose more carefully who they spend time with. If bullying does crop up, the two families can easily avoid one another. In my experience, and that of a huge number of home educating families, schools are utterly incapable of handling bullying. Often, the bully is not dealt with at all, and the victim must continue to endure being in the bully’s presence every day.

In the real world, in adulthood, we have a stronger word for this: abuse. Or harassment. Both are illegal and treated seriously. If either occurs in the workplace there are usually systems in place to handle it. Adults can often adjust their lives to remove the abuser from daily life. This can be incredibly difficult at times, and many victims need support, but society as a whole does not condone this behaviour. Yet in children it is accepted, sometimes even held up as a rite of passage required in order to “toughen up” a young person to prepare them for “real life”.

But is that what happens? Not in my experience. Most often, victims of childhood peer abuse are psychologically traumatised by it and this then leads to problems in their adult lives. Current research agrees with me.

Anthony Johnson’s approach is truly commendable, and I applaud him for it. But I can’t help thinking how lucky we are to have another choice.

We aren’t simulating life, we are living it.

educational freedom, creativity, outdoors, learning through living

 

For more information on different home education approaches, please check out the following links.

http://www.educationotherwise.net/

http://eclectic-homeschool.com/what-kind-of-homeschooler-are-you/