"I didn't make my kids learn anything," Leslie Moyer explained as she nibbled nonchalantly on a scone.
"Well, I did make suggestions. For example, multiplication tables seem to be the question that always pops up. My son is one class shy of a math degree and he doesn't have his multiplication tables memorized." Her son, Matt, is 22.
This methodology, called "unschooling," is considered perhaps the most radical approach to homeschooling--yet it is one of the fastest, if not the fastest growing concept within alternative education.
There are a myriad of homeschooling approaches with varying degrees of structure--or lack thereof. Unschooling is the least rigid model by far, especially when compared to the traditional classroom setting, and it can produce extraordinary results.
The notion of homeschooling itself was coined in the early '60s. American author and educator John Holt established groundwork for the unschooling philosophy with his controversial book Why Children Fail.
Published in 1964, Holt's ideas were part of a broader social movement during which a number of society's post-industrial values were reevaluated. Among these was government-regulated education; he suggested that children's failure in school was a direct result of academia. He proposed that the conformity had a harmful effect on one's early development (and therefore lifelong well-being) in a number of ways.
Because his ideas were so extreme, Holt received an enormous amount of publicity, which created a national dialogue that ultimately tried to answer the question: What does it mean to be educated?
In 1967, he followed with How Children Learn, which outlined his ideas about the learning process and how school interferes with it.
When he abandoned teaching to promote his ideas about education shortly thereafter, Holt encountered contemporaries who shared and built upon his philosophy. Through their efforts, the unschooling theory continues to evolve, and more parents are beginning to see the benefits of self-directed education.
For Oklahomans, homeschooling is hugely popular, due in part to the lack of legal restrictions. Options for alternative education abound here; and the reasons to homeschool are as varied as the children themselves, ranging from religious and academic reasons to health issues and social concerns.
Often, a number of factors influence the decision, and the growing popularity of the unschooling methodology addresses many of these, primarily those that affect one's ability to remain an active, engaged learner throughout life.
"I believe that children are born relatively complete people and parents' role is simply to guide them to adulthood without putting too much baggage into their backpacks as they grow up," explained Scott Smith, father of four children who have all spent time in and out of traditional school.
Parents like Smith assert that children know what's best for themselves, even at a young age. Of course, if a child is about to fondle a hot stove, he should be stopped. The unschooling ethos is more about autonomy as opposed to anarchy.
Sarah Munson, Smith's former wife and mother of Lucy, 16, Lily, 14, Silas, 12 and Gideon, 9, put it this way: "It's about listening to kids and letting them be people."
Munson received Montessori education, which is a type of schooling that emphasizes the importance of an engaging learning environment, as well as resourceful, independent thinking and creativity. Living in Houston, where homeschooling was illegal at the time, Montessori was the best available educational option. Still, both Munson's parents were teachers and implemented Holt's mindset in the home.
"[Munson's father] had this crazy idea that children should be seen and heard... and believed in," she said. "He treated us differently because he treated us within his concept that children should be treated with respect and dignity, that there's no top-down, that it's an equal playing field. We were able to decide how to spend our time and that kind of stuff."
Munson had always known that she would begin her brood's education at home, even before having children.
For many homeschoolers, traditional schooling methods are off-putting, almost toxic. The reasoning is complex, especially because many children can and do function well in the traditional setting. However, some do not.
Harmony Stephens, 15, has been fed up with school for years, while her older sister always fared well. Next year she will try homeschooling for the first time, taking online classes because her mother wants her to graduate from an accredited program.
Stephens is eager to finally take responsibility for her education. And while she said she'd choose unschooling if she could, this alternative is better than returning to high school.
"I've just come to the realization that I can't take anymore," she said. "I can't take any more conventional school or I will go insane."
The reasons for one's success or failure in school are hard to pinpoint, often because there are a number of factors involved. Stephens struggled somewhat to articulate the specific aspects of school that distress her, but the negativity she experienced on a daily basis was profound.
"I can't do the same thing every day...I start losing sleep; my hunger patterns start going crazy; I'm tired all the time, even when I do sleep. It just messes with my entire life," she said.
As a freshman this past year at Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences, Stephens made A's and B's, but she is looking forward to the little things, like being able to do her schoolwork where she pleases in addition to honing in on the subjects she finds most engaging.
"I want to do more history, because that's a subject I'm really interested in; I also want to do more languages. There's nothing that I really want to drop. I love learning, I just don't like the way I've been learning."
The United States is a diverse nation with an infinite array of values; but state school systems demand homogeny in order to operate. Thus, it is nearly impossible for students, especially young children, to experiment and govern their personal development.
Going back to individuality, which is more than self-expression, each child has his or her own unique needs--physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual. Unschooling advocates believe that a classroom setting undermines the subtle yet powerful nuances that comprise each youngster's unique persona.
Furthermore, public education stresses competition. With all of the gold stars, test scores and other measurements of "success", reward and punishment and test scores become the focal point of school rather than the quality of education received.
Because the traditional model inherently asks that students seek external validation for their successes and failures, unschoolers feel children lose their innate sense of direction. A lack of motivation usually ensues, they believe.
"Most people don't like to read because it was forced on them, or they weren't good at it, they were graded. All of the fun was taken out of it," explained Moyer.
Not surprisingly, all three of Moyer's children, ages 16, 20 and 22, still appreciate a good book.
Munson's daughter Lucy, didn't learn to read at the "proper" grade level, but she taught herself eventually by reading comics. And while one may argue the quality of the literature, Lucy remains an avid reader to this day--unlike many teenagers.
"I wasn't worried about the competence part," said her father Scott Smith. "The kids can think for themselves; they are very self-directed learners."
Lucy and her younger sister Lily, 14, recently taught themselves to read and write Japanese competently--for their own fulfillment. And in preparation for her upcoming studies in Iceland, Lily, a natural linguist, is well on her way to knowing how to read and write Icelandic. These endeavors were pursued without a push from either Munson or Smith.
Unschooling relies heavily on pragmatics as well. Moyer used everyday occurrences like listening to NPR to have critical discussions about worldly affairs and using money to teach basic math. Her eldest daughter, Sarah, 20, doesn't particularly like mathematics but understands what she needs to know.
"As long as she has enough math to balance her checkbook... It's about real world application," she said. "I guess I witnessed from a really early age that without my interference, they could learn far more about the things they were interested in."
Moyer sees teaching basic skills as an extension of mothering, adding a little more to what children know each time an opportunity arises. The need to understand a certain concept in a practical way is motivation enough.
And despite the fact that her son hasn't memorized his multiplication tables, he earned a full ride to the University of Tulsa and received his bachelor's degree in computer science at TU last May, and is now working on his master's in the same field.
"My older kids, when they went to college, found that so many of their friends were burned out [by school] by the time they got there, but my kids loved college," said Moyer.
The first homeschooler Moyer ever encountered was an unschooler. The child's love of learning was so impressive that she felt inspired to provide that for her children. Matt was 18 months old at the time.
Incidentally, Matt was a quiet albeit smart boy; and Moyer wanted him to mature socially before sending him off to school, planning for him to go in first grade. Because that first year at home was so successful, the ball kept rolling. "I never planned to homeschool this long--ever," she said. She also gave her children the option to go to school if they wanted, but they didn't. And Moyer never felt reluctant about keeping them home.
Moyer, like many first-time homeschooling parents, had reservations. While many feel like homeschooling is the right thing to do, it can be frightening. "It's scary for people; it was scary for me," she said.
Writing Their Own Textbook
Unschoolers consider themselves taking a more holistic approach to education, incorporating a multiplicity of subjects into the learning experience. For example, when Smith and Munson took their kids to see A Midsummer Night's Dream at Woodward Park, the couple saw it as an opportunity to study theatre, literature, Greek mythology and Shakespeare all at once.
Smith believes that the main difference between his family's approach to education and traditional methods comes down to learning facts vs. learning to think. For him, making connections is more valuable than rote memorization.
"We never did any kind of school at home. Everything is connected, like math and cooking and money," Munson explained.
When Smith and Munson divorced five years ago, the children tried their hand at public education. Munson took them to Choteau Elementary School to meet with Principal Dr. Burke, who shared her family's child-rearing philosophy. Burke is also known for being extraordinarily accommodating to homeschool students, which can be rare. "Some people are very hostile to homeschoolers in the education industry. You never know whose toes you might step on," said Munson.
Burke tested the girls, whose reading level exceeded that of most high school students. However, their math scores were more or less on par with their age group. He turned to Lucy and Lily and told them the results of their tests, and asked what they thought about their own grade placement.
And while the Smith girls appreciate and excel in school, they offered some interesting observations about the classroom setting. Lucy was quick to point out that, although some of her teachers fostered her love of learning, many did not.
"I really like math, but the teacher would say in class, 'I know you guys don't want to learn this, but this is what we're going to do today,' and I'd be like, 'I'm enjoying this.' I wanted to learn the material," she explained.
There's no question that a teacher's attitude is passed on to some, if not most students. Comments like the one's Lucy heard in class often manifest.
The implementation of standardized tests that attempt the gauge a school's success or failure was also discouraging because the girls experienced a strong disconnect; the benchmark tests taken every two weeks did not affect their grades, nor did they coincide with the curriculum. Critics say that exams like these shift the focus from children's education to obtaining funds. Competition is the driving force, and the mentality trickles from the top down. Unschoolers believe that children cannot focus on their own education when they're constantly vying for approval and comparing themselves to others; it's distracting at best and crippling at worst.
Trivial rules exacerbate these effects. And while it is common for kids to openly question authority, Lily and Lucy saw little point in several regulations; most of which their mother said, are nothing more than a control mechanism.
"I understand rules like raising your hand in class; otherwise, things get a little congested...but the one about not being able to sit with more than four people at lunch," Lucy lamented.
"Ugh. I hated that one!" Lily chimed in.
At home, the Smith children also grew up without a sense of age and sexual stratification.
"My best friends are 14, 15, 30 and 34; so, the age thing doesn't enter my perception as much," Lucy explained.
These divisions make little sense because, upon leaving school, young adults rarely mingle exclusively with those of the same age and gender.
Yet, our culture places a lot of stock in socialization within a peer group; and the question that homeschooling skeptics ask most often is: "What about socialization?"
Human beings can become socialized as long as they're spending time and interacting with others; age doesn't matter much.
In the Munson/Smith home, where the boundary between child and adult is non-existent in terms of mutual respect, all parties feel comfortable communicating with one another. The children spend time with family friends young and old, and though all demonstrate marked personality differences, they coexist peacefully.
Therefore, when Lucy and Lily went to middle school, they had no trouble relating to their peers.
"We always did really well in school socially because we're... sane," said Lucy matter-of-factly.
The parent-child relationship is also eerily healthy, and the girls lack any trace of teenage angst and rebellion against their mother.
"Most children I know who are homeschooled have a much better relationship with their parents," said Lucy. "All of my friends who go to school have these bizarre relationships with their parents.
"It's even about the language used, like saying, 'I'm going to make my parents give me $5 for the weekend,' instead of 'I'm going to ask my parents if I can have $5 for the weekend,'" she said. "I've never known a homeschooler to do that."
Other difficult (and widespread) childhood phases were completely absent from the family. "I've never had the 'terrible twos' or whiny kids or anything like that," said Munson. Developmental pathologies have become so commonplace that society accepts them as stereotypical behavior. Her children, along with other homeschoolers, don't fit the mold.
This is how unschoolers differ most notably from traditional educators: they see the mold as the problem, not the children. They believe that by assuming a more hands-off approach in kids' development, youngsters will gladly take the reigns and more importantly, effectively steer themselves toward wholeness.
"I'm an advocate for personal freedom," said Moyer. "What I didn't do was push my motivations onto [my children]."
Today, because so much of the world is micromanaged, it makes sense that few adults trust themselves enough to embrace full autonomy, let alone their children. In the end, though, it's a matter of worldview.
"To me, homeschooling is a lifestyle choice more than anything else," said Munson, her daughters nodding in agreement. "It's about how you choose to spend your time on the planet, how you choose to use it."
Children who are given the choice to navigate their own lives do so with a sense of conviction and enthusiasm.
Next year, Lily will join Lucy at Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences as a freshman. And while Lily looks forward to it, the possibility that it won't work out doesn't worry her in the least.
"I've always tended to work things out for myself."
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