New Mama Musings

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Vast and Endless Sea

If you want to build a ship, don’t divide the work and give orders; teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all.
-- Paul Simon, "Kodachrome"

Several weeks ago my husband ran into a co-worker and his wife. They're the parents of a two-year old boy, and they asked how old Henry was now and if he were in kindergarten. My husband told them that no, in fact, we're homeschooling. And not only that, but we're unschooling. (I'm not sure I would have added that part, as I’m learning that it’s often better to say as little about our unusual parenting choices as possible. But anyway...)

The couple were very interested in this and started peppering my husband with questions. Fair enough. It's probably a new concept for them, as it was for me not that long ago.

But the following Monday the co-worker met my husband as he came into work and followed him to his cubicle, where he had written on my husband's white board subject headings like "History," "Science" and "Math."

He proceeded to hammer my husband with questions like, "What happens when Henry turns 18 and doesn't know who Benjamin Franklin is?" and "What happens when Henry gets out into the real world and realizes that he didn't learn all the stuff that other people learned?"

I know the concept of unschooling (which some people prefer to call "child-led education" or "life learning") is difficult to grasp. On the surface it sounds like you just let your kids sit around all day doing nothing. Henry is only four-and-a-half, but so far this has not been our experience. It seems to take just one little observation on my part, or a page in a book, or something Henry sees outside our window for him to! He is constantly asking me to look things up on the internet, we are doing crafts related to topics of interest almost daily, and we are at the library once a week at a minimum (where we are, according to Henry, "fishing for knowledge").

Henry's latest passion is zeppelins and blimps. I'm 39 years old and I did not know the difference between them -- or that there even was a difference between them. But thanks to Henry's interest (and internet research and library books), we both now know that zeppelins (invented by Count Zeppelin of Germany) have a rigid structure and are filled with gas bags. They used to be powered by hydrogen, which proved too flammable (think Hindenberg), so they switched to helium. Blimps are inflated entirely with helium.

We watched a video on YouTube of a Goodyear blimp and Henry became so enamored of Kristin Davis, the pilot, that we sent her a letter (along with a drawing Henry made of a blimp). She wrote back and included some Goodyear pins, stickers and erasers. How cool is that?

So back to my husband's co-worker's questions.

First of all, I have no doubt that when Henry reaches adulthood he will know as much or possibly more about Ben Franklin than the average 18-year old. And if he doesn't? He’ll come across the name and look him up, if he’s interested. One common criticism of unschooling is that if children aren't made to study something, they'll never learn it. I would respond that if certain information is important to that child's life, he'll learn it, and if it's not important, why learn it at all?

In any case, it's amazing to me that people think that school curriculum somehow contains everything one needs to know. Do they not realize that what kids study in school is determined by groups such as the U.S. Department of Education and the local school district, who furthermore rely on textbook companies? Really, who is to say which bits of knowledge are the most important for kids to learn? By the very definition of the process of choosing, things are left out. Going to school does not ensure that you know everything you need to know to live a productive, happy life.

In my opinion, the purpose of education should not be to make people learn a list of facts, but to teach them how to learn. When Henry expresses an interest in a subject, we go to the computer to look up more information, we take books out of the library to read about it in depth, we contact people who might have experience with it (i.e., the blimp pilot), he makes art about it and he incorporates it into his play. Right now my job is to show him what resources are available and help him utilize them, but eventually he'll be able to do so on his own.

Second of all, Henry is in the real world right now. He's probably more squarely in the real world than kids his age who spend all day in school, an artificial environment in which kids are thrown together with twenty or more children all exactly the same age. Now we get together with a loose group of unschoolers consisting of kids much younger and much older than Henry, and we hope to become even more involved with the larger citywide group of homeschoolers in the future.

In addition, Henry has no problem talking to adults out in the "real world" (unlike me when I was a child). He's friends with the butcher at our food co-op, the children's librarians, the elderly neighbor two doors down and the clerks at Starbucks.

The more time that passes the more I'm convinced that this style of learning works. Henry is all the proof I need.