The other day, I received an interesting email from an unschooling parent who said that their partner expressed some concerns that unschooling may not be "working." That's a really fascinating concept. I could not help but focus on that word - "working." How would we define working in our own family? What kinds of indicators or assessments would we use to determine whether or not unschooling works?
My initial inclination was to dismiss the topic out-of-hand; I mean, of course unschooling works, right? But the truth is that it is incredibly difficult to resist the temptation to measure whether or not unschooling is working. In the Western world, measurement and testing permeates virtually every aspect of our lives to some degree. Most of us have been raised either directly in or on the periphery of formal, institutionalized measurement and evaluation systems our entire lives. It begins, in many cases, in utero as our size and health are measured and compared with those of "typical healthy" babies. It continues throughout our toddler years as our height and weight is examined and charted, and our developmental milestones (from our behavior to our teeth to our ability to crawl, walk and speak) are monitored and compared against "standards." School is rife with measurement and attainment comparitors, from daily vocabulary quizzes to scholastic achievement tests and college entrance exams. Even if we opt out of formal education, we will be measured when we want to drive, work, join the Army, or any one of hundreds of other things that "require" us to be assessed.
All of these assessments, measurements, and tests are essentially designed the same way. When you design a test, no matter what it's purpose, you start out with a goal. For example, the goal of a Driver's License Exam is to ensure that new drivers are adequately prepared for everything they might encounter while driving, so they can be safe. The goal of a pre-employment test is to ensure that the test taker has the aptitude or ability to succeed in the job. And the goal of a scholastic achievement test is to ensure that students are learning the things that the state Department of Education believes they should learn. So, to one degree or another, all assessments start with a "performance standard", a minimum acceptable outcome, in mind. In other words, all tests know what "good" looks like.
Now, I am not suggesting that all of this measurement is a good thing; in fact, I think that much of it is superfluous at best, and potentially damaging. But it is pervasive in many aspects of our lives. Since most of these assessments are designed with an outcome in mind or an understanding of what "good" looks like, the concepts of measurement, outcomes, and "pass/fail" are driven into us from an early age. As such, we face a significant uphill battle when we attempt to approach our lives a different way; like when we decide to unschool, for example.
With that as a backdrop, the question is simply this: how do we go about determining whether or not unschooling is working?
To answer that, we need to understand how we each define 'working." For many parents, this first step is a significant challenge. Unschooling is, in my mind, about learning for the sake of learning, with joy and passion, wherever it may lead. It is about the journey, not the destination; it is about the process, not the outcome. It does not have pre-defined goals in mind, and it is not "pass/fail"; it simply "is." For me, if these are fulfilled, then unschooling is working.
But many other people think about it very differently. Unschooling can be so very foreign in so many ways that we spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to relate it back, somehow, to things that are more comfortable and familiar. Because we are accustomed to being measured on the things we know, rather than on the things we do or they way we do them, we spend our time on the lookout for the things our children "know" - and most critically, what they do not know - and try to use this to determine whether or not unschooling is working.
We remember diagramming sentences in 8th grade, so we get concerned when our 13 year old doesn't know the difference between a noun and a verb. We dissected frogs in 6th grade, and become attached to our kids having the same opportunity to learn about science. We studied the dates of the Constitutional Convention and the reasons behind World War I, and we expect our children to know similar dates, facts and figures. We were raised in a world of answers, we were expected to give answers, and we want answers. We want and need to know that our children are learning. But many of us are coming into unschooling with pre-baked ideas of what learning is and should be.
Those answers we want, the assurances we feel we need in order to justify or validate our choice to unschool, can get us into serious trouble when they transition from simple wants and needs into expectations. We know that unschooling is the right path, but we want to ensure that our children are ready for whatever the world will throw at them now or in the future - so we use our familiar methods for evaluating their "learning" so we can determine whether or not unschooling is really working. We think of learning as a discrete activity, separated from the rest of our lives. We think about it in terms of classrooms and lectures. We look for the breadth of knowledge, we look for mastery of facts and figures, we look for the three Rs, and we use that to evaluate our child's progress.
Many of those ideas need to be turned on their heads:
1.) Learning is far more than just the rote memorization and regurgitation of facts and figures; it is the exploration of new ideas, the ability to repeat and replicate, the desire to experience, the application of a new skill, the ability to express "yes" and "no", and thousands of other things.
2.) Learning happens all the time. It is natural and unavoidable. It knows no limits in terms of breadth, depth, location, time, or duration. Every experience - even doing nothing - is a learning experience. The only limits on learning are the ones we arbitrarily impose upon it when we say "you can't learn this way."
3.) All learning has value. Start with virtually no expectations about what they will learn, when they will learn it, or how they will learn it. A book about the Revolutionary War read in our living room chair at 1:00pm is just as valuable as an episode of "Weird, True and Freaky" on Animal Planet - or even an episode of Scooby Doo - watched from the same chair at 1:00am. Animal Planet may not teach them about the Revolutionary War, but they will learn about many other things that will surprise you. And even when they choose Scooby Doo, they will learn about relationships, and tricks, and hoaxes, and comedic timing, and animation, and many other things that the Revolutionary War book would leave out entirely. It is all learning; we cannot value one "learning activity" over the other.
When we expect that unschooling will look a certain way; when we expect our children to be learning certain things; when we expect them to be learning in ways that are familiar to us; when we expect that all of this learning will have a specific outcome; and when we expect that this outcome will be "productive" when viewed through our own lenses, we run the risk of developing a set of criterion, blatant or unspoken, by which we judge the value of what they learn and the way they are learning it. We are injecting our own preferences into their learning.
If you want unschooling to work the way you would "prefer" it to work, you won't be able to keep that inside for long. Your preconceived preferences will come out in the questions you ask, in the words you use, and in the way you react to what your children are doing. You will be unable to resist applying your own judgment about what they are learning and how they are learning it; and your children will understand that and, frequently adapt either what they are learning to please you or continue to do what they're doing but tell you what you want to hear. Not so good, really.
So again, "working" for me is not about traditional measurements and facts and figures, it is about learning as a journey and exploration through joy and passion. With that perspective locked in, I can then think about how I can determine whether or not we're on the right path. Traditional measurements don't work; I have neither the capability nor the motivation to attempt to "measure" joy, passion and the acquisition and application of new skills in a child, were such a thing even possible. So I do something a bit different.
I look for key indicators. I look for smiles and engagement in what they're doing. I listen for new words or ideas. I watch the way they play. I listen to the questions they ask. I consider the way they solve problems. I ask questions, and I listen to answers. I enjoy the silence as they ponder and play with new concepts. I keep my cool when they explode in frustration. I console them when they fail. I appreciate their attempts, successful or not, at independence. I follow them in new directions.
And then I ask myself:
Are they learning? (This answer is always "yes.")
Are they enjoying themselves?
Do they have interests, and are they pursuing them?
Are they developing their own sense of good and bad, right and wrong?
Do they see a world of possibilities?
Do they feel valued and respected?
Guess what? It's working.