Home Unschooling: Theory
Our approach starts with the fact that I went to a good private school, my wife to a good suburban public school, and both of us remember being bored most of the time; while we learned some things in school, large parts of our education occurred elsewhere, from books, parents, friends, projects. It continues with some observations about the standard model of K-12 schooling, public and private:
1. That model implicitly assumes that, out of the enormous body of human knowledge, there is some subset that everyone should study and that is large enough to fill most of thirteen years of schooling. That assumption is clearly false. Being able to read and do arithmetic is important for almost everyone. Beyond that, it is hard to think of any particular subject which there is a good reason for everyone to study, easy to think of many subjects outside the standard curriculum which there are good reasons for some people to study.
2. It implicitly assumes that the main way in which one should learn is by having someone else tell you what you are going to study this week, what you should learn about it, and your then doing so.
As some evidence of the failure of that model, consider my wife's experience teaching a geology lab for non-majors at VPI, probably the second best public university in the state. A large minority of the students did not know that the volume of a rectangular solid--a hypothetical ore body--was the length times the height times the depth. Given that they were at VPI they must have mostly been from the top quarter or so of high school graduates in Virginia; I expect practically all of them had spent at least a year each studying algebra and geometry.
As all students and most teachers know, the usual result of making someone study something of no interest to him is that he memorizes as much as he has to in order to pass the course, then forgets it as rapidly as possible thereafter. The flip side of that, routinely observed by parents, is that children can put enormous energy and attention into learning something that really interests them--the rules of D&D, the details of a TV series, the batting averages of the top players of the past decade.
Quite a long time ago, we got our kids gameboys with Pokemon cartridges; at about the same time I heard a lady on talk radio explaining that kids who got high tech toys played with them for half an hour or so and then put them on the shelf. My estimate is that Bill and Becca logged something like eighty hours a month, perhaps more, on those cartridges for many months thereafter-more work and more attention than I, at a similar age, put into all of my schoolwork combined--and continued to play the game at a reduced rate for years thereafter. The skill they were learning, how to find their way around a world and accomplish goals therein, was in one sense useless, since the world was a fictional one. But being able to find ones way around a new environment and accomplish things within it is a very useful real world skill.
3. A related assumption is that you learn about a subject by having someone else decide what is true and then feed it to you. That is a very dangerous policy in the real world and not entirely safe even in school--many of us remember examples of false information presented to us by teachers or textbooks as true. A better policy is to go out looking for information and assembling it yourself.
Part of what that requires is the skill of judging sources of information on internal evidence. Does this author sound as though he is making an honest attempt to describe the arguments for and against his views, the evidence and its limits, or is he trying to snow the reader? That is a skill that is taught in the process of learning things for yourself, especially online. It is anti-taught by the standard model of K-12 education, in which the students is presented with two authorities, the teacher and the textbook and, unless the teacher is an unusually good one, instructed to believe what they tell him.
We concluded that the proper approach for our children was unschooling, which I like to describe as throwing books at them and seeing which ones stick. Leave them free to learn what they want, while providing suggestions--which they are free to ignore--and support. Put them in an environment--web access, people to talk with, visits to the library--that offers many alternatives. If, at some future point, they discover that they need something that was left out of their education, they can learn it then--a more efficient strategy than trying to learn everything they might ever find useful, most of which they won't.