Business Owner, Florida, USA
With a 7-yr-old (and another on the way), how children (and adults) learn has been of great interest to me for a number of years now. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible and seek out the most evidence-based information on the topic. My wife and I have had to adjust our parenting approach many times after assessing studies and our daughter’s tendencies, temperament and age. Many of the things I have come to realize have made me reflect on my own motivations (or lack thereof) to learn.
Something perhaps more controversial that I’ve concluded recently is that the learning conditions in which most children thrive is almost opposite of those found in compulsory education systems (most schools).
When our daughter began Kindergarten in the fall of 2013, we started having concerns when we noticed that so much of what we had learned about early childhood development and evidence regarding how children learn best was mostly being ignored in the school environment. Even worse, many policies and procedures appeared to go against what experts would advise based on solid data. Such as:
- Pushing academics too early;
- Too much focus on behavior management using a system that publicly shames and causes stigma, embarrassment, anxiety, gossip and confusion;
- Homework for young children;
- Extensive sitting, limited movement;
- Not enough outside time;
- Not enough free play;
- Too much focus on performance;
- Too much focus on competition, rather than cooperation;
- Rewards for conformity and obedience;
- Creativity, curiosity and individuality discouraged;
- Use of unnecessary extrinsic rewards;
- Food (candy) rewards;
- Unhealthy food choices;
- Yelling at children and other authoritarian tactics;
- Unfair and overused punishments;
- Excessive screen time;
- Focus on test preparation;
- Age segregation;
- Labeling individuals or groups as “bad,” “good,” or other unnecessary labeling;
- Reduction of family time, secure attachment;
- Outdated materials;
- Stressful situations.
For younger children, my biggest takeaway from looking at the evidence was that:
- Children learn best through free self-directed play;
- The ability for children to learn can be severely hindered by stress and anxiety;
- When she attended public school kindergarten the environment was stressful and there was a lack of time for free play. Not good!
Despite these conditions, our daughter did fine at first. She adapted. She had her best friend in class. She stayed on “green.” She did her homework. But as time went on, we could tell that the creative spark, the sense of wonder, and the desire to learn was starting to wane. Our list of concerns grew. The novelty of school was dissipating for her while the anxiety and stress caused by the system was becoming apparent. Finally, enough was enough and we pulled her out in January of 2014.
We began doing something we once thought we’d never consider, home-based education! Although we had our doubts along the way, we were soon seeing signs that this could be a great fit for all of us. We focused on the fact that she was her own person that can learn at her own pace and we had to trust her and the process.
After a few months of homeschooling, I asked our daughter about her memories of public school, and she replied: “They just taught us what NOT to do. Now I’m learning all the things I CAN do.” Wow. How telling is that. This was justification that this particular school was not an ideal learning environment for her.
We now have over one year of near-unschooling under our belt and completed our first annual evaluation in January of 2015. While preparing her portfolio we were blown away when we saw just how much learning she experienced in one year. But more importantly, it wasn’t as much about what we did as what we now saw in our daughter. The excitement to learn was back and greater than ever. Her interests are varied and vast. From disassembling computers to raising praying mantises; chess to art; anatomy to magic; volleyball to video editing; managing her money to running a dog walking business; exploring in the woods to quiet time with books. She would never have had time to pursue all these various interests if she was attending a regular school, completing the required homework, and helping with chores. School didn’t do anything but get in her way of real learning. School creates a ceiling. A subject she may master in an hour or two might be repeated for weeks. She might be ready to move on to bigger and better things, but would instead be bored and disengaged. On the flip-side, if she wanted to spend more time on a topic that was of incredible interest to her or needed more time to master, that was impossible or difficult within the school environment.
Now not all schools are equal. There are some great alternative schools and other organized learning options available. Our daughter attends weekly enrichment programs, co-ops, homeschooling programs, field trips and events. There are also dual-enrollment opportunities available if needed.
Some may wonder about socialization. That was a total non-issue. We found that there are so many opportunities for unschooled kids to socialize with kids of all ages (and adults) that it allows for a broader and more realistic social atmosphere. Her socialization in school was restricted to a short recess and rushed lunchtime.
We have no idea if we will always unschool, but for now our daughter is quite content. She enjoys learning and understands that we are there to support her path to greater knowledge, achievement and happiness.