Obligatory kid photo
The other day, I was looking at math curricula for my 10-year-old son, at his request. He has never been to school a day in his life, and he has been unschooled pretty much all along, although it started out as “delaying formal education” and sort of turned into unschooling as my parenting/educational philosophy evolved.
I found a math curriculum that looked interesting, and he took a placement test. The placement test had him in the sixth grade book. If he were in public school, he would be in the fifth grade.
I was about to post on my personal facebook page: “E tested out of the math book for his grade, even though he’s never had any formal math education. #unschoolingworks.”
But then I started thinking about what that statement implies. If an unschooled child does not test out of the math book for his grade, does that mean that unschooling doesn’t work?
The short answer is no.
The long answer is also no, but it comes with lot of other words after it about children’s individual development, interests, strengths, and weaknesses.
The thing about unschooling is that its success can’t be measured using the tools we use to measure the success of traditional schooling, just like you can’t use a ruler to measure the flour for your cookies.
Part of the reason the E excels at math is because (1) he’s interested in it and (2) I have a BA in math because I like math that much. As a result of my loving math—and his loving math—math is incorporated into our day-to-day lives pretty heavily. I challenge anyone to find an activity that I can’t turn into a math-teaching moment.
But notice which reason I listed first: He’s interested in it. Because this is the crux of understanding why E has advanced math skills. If he didn’t enjoy it, my injecting it into everyday activities would be unbearable for him—and for me as well.
If I’m being honest about how well unschooling works for him, I have to admit that his reading is not advanced; it’s not even at grade level. The reason is that he wasn’t interested in learning to read until recently.
But having a child who is “behind” isn’t an indicator of unschooling’s failure, which is why I didn’t post that facebook status about the math placement test.
E isn’t behind anything. Unschooling isn’t measured by traditional schooling standards, so there isn’t a grade level at which he should be reading. There is an E level, his level. And he’s at that level.
Now, I am not saying that there is no way to gauge the success of unschooling. One way is by watching the everyday growth and development of the child. I know E isn’t a good reader, but he is good at thinking, solving problems, speaking (amazing vocabulary, that one), imagining, creating, asking thought-provoking questions, and so on. All of these things indicate a child who is learning and developing into an intelligent and inquisitive person. So, I was confident that he could learn the skill of reading when the time came that he was ready.
The real measure of unschooling’s success doesn’t come until the child is fully developed, that is, when he’s an adult. After all, we are raising future adults. That’s the point, the endgame in parenting.
So, when you use a method that doesn’t run on a predetermined time table, one where all the parts happen here and there on the child’s individual schedule, you can’t see the finished work until the end.
You can’t judge a mosaic before it’s put together or, worse, judge it by the broken pieces of glass and ceramic that the artist is going to use to put it together.
But this is the part about unschooling that scares parents the most. I think it’s because if we don’t find out until then that we’ve screwed up, then it’s too late to fix it.
That’s why we have the first way I mentioned to gauge how we’re doing.
When you spend every day with your child, watching him or her grow and develop, and learn and play, and think and create, you know what your child is capable of. Trust that. Trust yourself. And most of all, trust your child.
Everyone worried about E not knowing how to read. My ex-husband and I have both had countless arguments with family and “concerned” friends and strangers. But we knew that he was a smart kid, and that he would get it when he was ready. And he did.
He’s not at grade level, but he did just progress through at least 3 or 4 grades’ worth of reading in a year’s time. So, there’s no doubt that he’ll get there, and then some.
I trust that.
Or, as I say to those who doubt it, “Do you really think such an intelligent, articulate, inquisitive kid is going to voluntarily go through life never learning how to read?” The answer is always no. Because it’s silly to walk away from talking to this kid and think he’ll be anything less than a functioning adult, probably much more.
And that’s how I know that unschooling works.