How Children Learn/How Children Fail

The books whose titles I borrowed for the post title are by John Holt, the father of unschooling. We are unschoolers. For me, that means no structured lessons but instead following Sam’s interests and cues and natural interest in the world around him. However, I am totally open to borrowing from other schools of thought (pun intended) wherever it fits.

I had a very interesting conversation a few weeks ago with a friend’s neighbor. She has just signed up her son, who is several months older than Sam, for Montessori preschool, to start this summer. Now, I love Montessori. I love the idea that children learn to perform tasks by actually doing them at their own level and self-correcting their mistakes until they get it right. (I plan to buy a Sam-sized broom one of these days, because he loves to sweep and I want to encourage him by making it more feasible for him to succeed.) There are many things I love about the philosophy, but there is one huge problem with it and it’s a deal-breaker for me. I would actually consider sending Sam part-time (if we had the money) if not for this: imagination is discouraged. Montessori theory is 100% practical. So I tell this woman, who has no idea that we are not planning to send Sam to school at all, that I love Montessori except for this one thing. And I say that I know it varies from school to school and teacher to teacher, but that I disagree with the basic philosophy on that point.

And here is a good example of how defensive parents are: she started to argue with me. She insisted that it’s not true of all schools… and I could actually see the wheels turning as she registered what I’d said, because she backpedaled a little and became friendly again, saying, “as you said, it varies.” And then she told me that the school they visited is very into imagination. They have a library that is arranged by reading ability, and the students have to demonstrate ability before they’re allowed into the advanced section. When they read a book, they sit in a group and talk about how it made them feel.

And I just… said how nice that must be. Because seriously? THAT is imagination?

No. I’m sorry. Just… no. Imagination is not knowing where you are because you were a Knight. It’s forgetting what you were doing because you were thinking about what fairies eat. It is putting on a play with your friends. It’s writing your own book or drawing a picture. Imagination is NOT STRUCTURED (which does not mean you can’t encourage it in a more structured way). And I realize that this woman was just unimaginative herself, and the school may not think that is encouraging imagination. But it still blew my mind.

And according to an NPR article Shelby sent me, imagination is crucial to developing skills we need as adults. And you know what gets in the way of imaginative play, according to the article? All those annoying toys I don’t allow in my house.

Yes, I am being obnoxious. Sometimes it is nice to feel vindicated.

My bad attitude notwithstanding, what do you think about the article? I am really fascinated by the thought that “play” has changed meanings. It’s true, though — it used to mean games and now it means toys.

I’m thinking it’s time to break out my copy of The American Girls Handy Book and learn some parlor games. (And I really need to get a copy of The American Boy’s Handy Book before Sam gets much older. I feel pretty strongly that every family needs both.)

Coming soon: my ideas on alternatives to schooling AND homeschooling.

Elizabeth Edwards

There’s been a big old kerfuffle lately about the fact that Elizabeth Edwards, who has terminal breast cancer and is married to a presidential hopeful, has taken her two young children out of school and is bringing them along on the campaign trail. Read the dissension (slightly edited from its original vitriol) here and a vaguely objective article here. (Both links courtesy of Chris at Notes From The Trenches, without whom I’d be totally unaware of this whole thing.)

First of all, I’d just like to say how interesting I find it that one blogger’s opinion made national news. Second, I find it even more interesting that bloggers’ opinions only seem to make the news if they contribute to the “mommy wars.”

So here’s what I think: Elizabeth Edwards is AWESOME.

I believe that children belong with their parents and will do their absolute best if they are included in their parents’ lives. This doesn’t extend to certain adult activities, nor does it include certain unfit parents, but as a general rule I believe it very strongly. Children benefit from being part of the world, not from being shut off from the world. Parents do not do their children any great service by separating their children from their lives (again, with some exceptions – can we just assume that throughout?).

As you know, I intend to unschool, which means that as far as I am concerned Sam’s education has already begun. Sam is part of our writing career, participating in our writing process (and yes, sometimes hindering it) and attending some of our meetings. I really believe that observing his parents working is to his benefit, as much as observing us playing and cooking and making things — all activities that he will participate in soon if he does not already.

I tried to see it otherwise, but as far as I can tell the Edwards children are receiving the absolute best education possible — a crash course in the government of our country! Something most American children know hardly anything about because reading is not the same as seeing and doing — while spending time with their parents. I think this is AWESOME, and I’d like to extend that to John Edwards as well as Elizabeth, because for heaven’s sake this isn’t just about mommies. It is about FAMILY.

Phew. Glad to get that off my chest.

unschooling the montessori way

We are so very fortunate to have some of my old Powell House friends living nearby now. We spend nearly every day with them and Sam is learning so much by example. Just watching the bigger kids is amazing for him.

On Monday Andrea re-potted some flowers and planted some seeds, and she showed Sam how to help her.

Sam gardening

She gave him dirt in a container small enough for his hands.

Sam gardening

He poured it into the pot.

Sam g

He made sure to get it all in.

Sam gardening

And then he asked for more.

Homeschooling Tips & Answers

If you’re here via Pass the Torch, welcome!

There are two things that I think are vitally important for anyone thinking about home schooling to know:

  1. You do not need to be a teacher. There are no qualifications that you need to meet in order to educate your child other than an interest in doing so. (Your state laws may disagree with me. I can’t help that.) If you choose to follow a curriculum, there are teachers’ guides. With or without a curriculum, there are encyclopedias, libraries, and google. YOU are the best person to facilitate your child’s education.
  2. Be flexible and follow your child’s interests. That is the best way for anyone to learn. If your child wants to talk about boats, it doesn’t matter if it is time for math. Go to the harbor and look at boats. Go to the library and learn about what happened in The Narrows. Rent Titanic and then talk about accuracy in movies (two lessons in one!). Being flexible allows for the most amazing adventures in learning. But you might also want to learn about boats that didn’t end up in tragic disasters.

That’s it. That’s all I think you need to know. But you might like to read my post about unschooling from a few months ago. In the comments, many questions were asked and I kept trying to get them answered and not quite finishing. So here are the questions and my answers.

Eileen: Can [the terms homeschooling and unschooling] be used interchangably?

Yes and no. You can use homeschooling to mean anything from the strictest school-at-home to total free-form structureless days. Unschooling only describes the latter end of the spectrum. We’re planning on unschooling, but since the philosophy is all about following your interests, we reserve the right to change our minds about anything at anytime.

Am I right in thinking that SATs are the main high school (or equivalent) qualification? When you go to college, they look at your SAT scores? Do employers look at anything like that? I’m not really sure what SATs involved, so is it curriculum based? Would someone who hasn’t followed the school curriculum be able to sit them (if so, wow for getting such high scores unprepared!)? If you’re homeschooled and unable to sit these exams, what is the situation when it comes to applying for jobs or university? Are there equivalent qualifications that homeschoolers can do?

(That’s a lot of questions but they’re all on the same basic topic so I’m going to answer them together.)

The SAT is the Scholastic Achievement Test. It isn’t a qualification exactly, as it’s optional. Every high school gives tests that are required for a diploma, and home schoolers in most states are allowed to take those tests. Anyone can take the SAT, which many colleges look at (though fewer than most high schoolers are led to believe). Home schoolers graduate high school in various way — some through the local school district (sitting the exams with the graduating seniors), some through correspondence school, and some by taking the GED which is a high school equivalence exam.

I took the SAT and did better than most people I knew in public school (at that time). While I had not formally studied most of the material, I bought a practice test booklet and looked it over. Though I did not know a lot of the specific material, my experience helped me to figure it out on the day. I credit home schooling as well as my brief stint in public school, where I learned how to take tests (which I believe is the #1 point of formal education). As for graduation: I had been enrolled in a correspondence course but opted to take the GED because it was faster and I was impatient. I scored off the charts (not a hard thing to do, but still worth mentioning).

I have never once been asked for proof of my high school diploma during a job application, and employers do not see exam results. Most employers are more concerned about college degrees, which many home schoolers have. I don’t, but I’ve never been asked about that either. My job application history is about 50% successful, and I don’t think it has anything to do with my education.

Lucretia: Where does the law stand on homeschooling? Is there a certain “standard” Sam is required to achieve, and is there an exam he will have to pass? (Eileen may have covered this above).

Each state is different, but home schooling is legal in all 50. Some are very strict and require constant testing and monitoring, while others are quite relaxed. Anyone can legally enroll their children in the correspondence school I used in high school; they send out forms to fill out quarterly describing your education (for instance, hours spent on science: 5 nature walks = 5 hours botany) and they provide legal protection and a diploma. They are a real school (their campus has day students) but allow families full control over their own curriculum. In some states you can register your home as a private school and do things that way. That would obviously work best for school-at-home. When we were very young, my parents simply never told the school district we existed. This is easy to get away with in Manhattan, but might not work elsewhere (and of course it’s illegal). I haven’t decided yet what route we’ll go with Sam.

I think this has parallels with your post about not “disciplining” Sam (semantics not withstanding, and apologies for my frequent use of “””””””). What do you look forward to teaching Sam, and what do you you anticipate having to teach him not to do?

I don’t anticipate a lot of formal lessons, but I am willing for that to change depending on his needs. I look forward to reading about new and exciting things with Sam (boats, for instance) and learning new things myself. I hope that he’ll learn right and wrong by example.

Amanda: how do you introduce topics to see if the child is interested in them? Some things come up in everyday life, but some topics definitely don’t. Or is that part of the learning, figuring out how to find topics you’re interested in?

I don’t know! I’m looking forward to finding out. I suspect that if you want to bring up a topic, you just bring it up (dinner table conversation style). I also suspect that most topics will come up sooner or later. He’ll read, and watch TV (well, movies), and be around other kids, so he’ll be exposed to a pretty wide variety of ideas. I hope.

Laura: According to what seems to be the definition of ‘unschooling’, I was NOT unschooled because I had assignments – is that right?

Well, technically that is not unschooling, but I think you can call it anything you like.

Would an unschooler learn grammar?

I don’t remember ever being taught more than “subject, predicate” and I somehow manage to earn a living as a copy editor. So I think he’ll pick up what he needs to know even if, like me, he’s still a little fuzzy on the names of the parts of speech.

Would you introduce any [curriculum] materials of your own at all?

I don’t know yet. I’m inclined to say no, but we’re playing everything by ear.

Allison: Wow. It sounds like you had some bad experiences with traditional schools.

That wasn’t a question, but I just wanted to clarify that I actually had an okay experience the five years I was in school. I did very, very well academically and my last year (a different school than the first four) I was quite popular and participated in all sorts of activities. It just is not a type of education that I find valuable. It is the very structure of formal education (in America, I can’t speak about other countries) that I think is all wrong. John Holt and John Taylor Gatto go into great detail in their books, and are far more eloquent than I could ever hope to be on the reasons that our country’s education system is inherently flawed. But I assure you, this is not about my experience — my experience merely backs up my beliefs.

Erik: how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

I think what you are really asking here is whether I have made enough pie to share with you. The answer is yes, but only if you bring Nova.

And there you have it. I think I managed to answer everything. If I missed your question or confused you further, comments are open.


About a month ago we were at a party with some other parents. Several of the moms were sitting together, and one of them was answering their questions about her homeschooling of her two children. I listened with interest, as I was a homeschooler and it is our intention that Sam be as well. But it became clear very quickly that this family had school at home, which is not our plan.

“It makes sense,” she was saying. I was nodding my head. “After all, it is the parents who teach a baby to walk. Why not teach him reading and mathematics?”

Wait. A parent teaches a baby to walk? Really? How careless of me to let Sam figure it out by himself. Next you will tell me that I can’t just give him the car keys without ever letting him observe me driving, or practice it with my supervision. (Actually, that is a terrible comparison, as driving does require some teaching, where walking does not, barring any serious disabilities. Perhaps a better example would be eating, as he learned to chew all by himself from watching us do it, and the idea that we could teach him to eat is almost as hilarious as the walking one.)

I’m a little bit of a radical, I think. You probably already gathered that from my pro-home birth stance. What you may not know is that I intend to “unschool” — that is, to allow my child(ren) to learn from the world around him, as I believe human beings all would do without the interference of school. That does not mean I will be uninvolved in his education: my job as his parent is to facilitate his learning, and I will do that by exposing him to the world around him (not just at home as “homeschooling” implies), with trips to the zoo and the library and the grocery store and the movies. I will read to him and answer his questions about what the letters mean and someday he will, unprompted, read to me (or, with my luck, to Will — but if I am honest Will is probably going to do 80% of the reading aloud around here anyway, what with his deep abiding love to the printed word and inexhaustible store of voices). We will watch TV and play video games and go for walks and have play dates and cook and listen to music and build things and paint and all of it, every minute, will be an education.

One of the worst things about my brief stint as a WOHM (Work Out of the Home Mom) was the possibility that my plans might never come to fruition; that I might have to leave my family to be a breadwinner. Home/unschooling is one of the Top Five things that I am looking forward to as a mother, one of my favorite reasons for having a child in the first place. The thought of losing that almost killed me. (I am scared every single day that it might happen again.)

I want to explain why I look so forward to unschooling, but I’ve been having trouble articulating. How do you explain to someone what it is like to just live? Well, Amanda has done it beautifully. Reading that made me unspeakably happy.

Let me break down my history a bit: unschooler until age 9; parents divorce and mother’s need to work leads to public elementary school, where it is discovered that I am reading at college level but behind in most other subjects (school, having no facilities to cope with my mental arithmetic, considers me behind because I have not memorized the times tables, despite my ability to add large columns of numbers and make change); this is followed by one year in public middle school and one year at a magnet school (I am on the honor roll at both, but never get better than a B in gym class; in 8th grade I study 10th grade mathematics and complete two years’ Latin studies in one); autodidact from age 14-19; one year of college, which I determine to be a waste of my time. I scored in the 99th percentile on the GED after being thrown out of the prep class on the grounds that I was too smart to be there. I got a 1250 on the SAT (old scoring of 800 possible on each Math and Verbal): 700 verbal and 550 math, with ZERO prep.

I am a high school dropout and I earn almost four times minimum wage, making my own hours and working from home. Clearly unschooling has not hurt my chances in the world.

“But what about socializing?”

Socializing? In what world does that happen in school? The best friends I’ve made were not made at school. At school I was picked on and excluded, like everybody else. The purpose of school is not socializing, and in general socializing is not allowed. Lunch is 30 minutes (not even enough time to eat properly, let alone forge friendships), and recess (if you are lucky enough to have recess) is about the same. The only boon to socialization that school gives is the ability to meet people with whom you can socialize on your own time. Going to the park or the library offers the same opportunity. There are also homeschooling groups in almost every area which offer the chance to meet other kids who are not in school, as well as providing a group for “field trips.” I remember going to a bread bakery with a homeschool group when I was young, which was a wonderful experience I would not have been offered in elementary school. (Actually, my sister’s private school class may have made that same field trip, but only because the bakery owner’s son was in her class.)

So let’s not have any more of THAT nonsense.

The other argument I hear frequently is “Well, my kids need structure.”

That’s nice. I am not trying to negate your experience; please do not negate mine. I would suggest that structure is possible without school, that learning at home should happen regardless of school, and that perhaps your children would like to set their own boundaries. However, your family’s needs are your priority and my family’s needs are mine. I am stating my beliefs, not dictating yours.

But because I believe so strongly in this subject, I will recommend that everyone on earth should have a peek at the writings of John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Grace Llewellyn. (My copy of The Teenage Liberation Handbook is missing again. Has anyone seen it?)

I think that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject right now, but I’d love to answer any respectful questions you might have, and/or to hear about your experiences.

(New category name stolen from Miranda, whose blog I found through Stephanie.)