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Unschoolers: Are They Psycho or Smarter?

My newly turned seven-year-old daughter gets a lot of homework. Sometimes she’ll have to write a story about something that happened to her that day —which, if it takes her five minutes to figure out how to spell and then write a word like “awhile” can take awhile. Other days she’ll have a page of math problems plus a picture to draw and every day it’s expected that she’ll read for 20 minutes to herself and then be read to for 20 min. Did I mention she just barely turned seven?

My kid goes to a charter school which is supposed to be a bit more progressive in its thinking about how kids learn. It’s project based learning where the students learn by doing. But she seems to be “doing” a lot of worksheets. Don’t get me wrong, I love her school!

I know there are kids who have it way more intense. There are schools that would laugh right in the face of my daughter’s assignment to “draw a picture of your favorite animal in the zoo and write one interesting fact about it.” I’m sure there are 1st graders who have to make a replica of a zoo using only bio-degradable objects found in their sewage pipe. Are those kids getting a leg up in the competition for future Ivy League eligibility? And is my child at least getting protection from jobs wearing a paper hat and a name tag?

I don’t know. I’m confused.

I have a friend, a highly educated, law school graduate friend, who saw the movie “Race to Nowhere” and promptly went the other way with this thing. She recently moved to the east coast and enrolled her children in an “unschooling” situation.  I’m not trying to create controversy but I am going to link to it so you see what I mean. So when I ask my friend what her first grader and third grader are doing all day she says, “Mostly playing outside.” And this totally freaks me out.  An excerpt from their website explains, “Sudbury Valley School is a place where people decide for themselves how to spend their days. Here, students of all ages determine what they will do, as well as when, how, and where they will do it.”

They have no curriculum. The kids literally do whatever the hell they want all day long. Here’s a little more, “People can be found everywhere talking, reading and playing. Some may be in the digital arts studio, editing a video they have made. Some may be outside playing basketball or practicing new moves on their ripsticks.” Can you go to college on a ripstick scholarship?

“So how do they learn?” I asked my friend, uneasily when I heard there are basically no rules, no classes, no organized learning.”

“They just follow their interests and learn through life experience.”

“But what about learning to read? That seems sort of important.”

“If they are interested in something that involves reading they eventually learn to read” she said, super confidently. I don’t feel quite so confident.

Here’s the thing: I trust my friend. She is truly smart, loving and a great mom. So why does this “unschooling” thing make me so uneasy? I even agree with it in theory. Kids have natural curiosity and genuinely want to learn. Possibly left to their own devices they won’t have that desire squashed under the pressure of long division and boring facts about Thomas Jefferson. In this way it sounds pretty darned cool.

I’m not sure anything I learned in high school helped me do anything besides get questions right in “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.”  To be really honest I was so bored by school I kept my face in novels tucked into my textbooks or skipped school and hung out at McDonald’s to have lively discussions with my other friends who skipped school. So maybe I would have been better off getting “unschooled.” On the other hand, maybe the problem was just me and even if my parents paid 30 grand for four years of “unschooling” I would have just sat under a tree, reading Flowers in the Attic  while eating chicken McNuggets.  Regardless, I’m not ready to take my daughter out of charter and into the wild untamed world of unschooling. Not yet. Is there something in between?

Help me out here: WHAT DO YOU GUYS THINK?

The photo on the top of the site is courtesy of Dreamstime

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