Unschooling: Facilitate Self-Led Education Like a Pro
This is a guest post by Tatyana Wilson, founder of "Mama Duck School". She's an education consultant, strategist and coach particularly interested in self-directed education for homeschoolers. For as long as she can remember, she's been passionate about human motivation and potential. Through her research, work, and education she's come to realize that the key to helping kids become strong, healthy, happy, successful, resilient, and self-driven in our world is to make family life an intentional educational journey and example. You can learn more about here here: www.MamaDuckSchool.com
Why Self-Directed Education?
I didn’t decide to homeschool my kids because I love kid activities, arts and crafts time, doing things “right along with the kids”, or even because I felt like I would be the best teacher for them.
Sure, I’m a certified teacher with 3 degrees in education, but when I decided to homeschool my kiddos, it was basically because I knew first-hand the way kids slowly lose their organic, self-motivated pursuit of who, what, when, where, why, and how when they start school.
You see, the kids I hang out with day-to-day in my own home, the ones who bubble over with excitement about every little detail of their explorations...you don’t find many of those kinds of kids in schools.
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Trust me, when I was a classroom teacher, I deeply cared and wanted to bring out my students’ hopes and dreams, but I just couldn’t. It wasn’t until later that I would know why. Read on and I’ll surely tell you!
Let's Take A Journey...
But first, let’s take a mini self-exploration. Think of the last time you were super obsessed with learning something. You know, that frantic Googling, looking up questions, finding books on Amazon, trying to find some real knowledge out there somewhere, anywhere. YOU HAD TO FIND MORE INFO!
That’s the the best, isn’t it? It’s the pursuit, the satisfaction of building something, reaching little nuggets of reward in the form of connecting the dots and light bulb moments. So much brain activity going on there! That’s one huge clue that humans are wired for learning.
And the other thing I’d love to point out to you about that scenario is the beauty of that type of learning. Unfortunately, following a textbook or workbook is simply nowhere close to that. Yet, that’s what most kids are getting.
Rote memorization, test-taking, required textbook reading, and meeting "standards" are all essentials to a mass-produced educational model. It's vital to the sustainability and "betterment of the herd".
That’s just pretty depressing, isn’t it?
With a sad lack of educational opportunities that help bring out those motivating and exciting pursuits, I decided to homeschool.
Homeschooling is an awesome right that we enjoy in the United States of America. It goes hand in hand with the pursuit of liberty, the wide-open ranges you see on road-trips, and our awesome freedom.
Yet even there, I was caught off guard by the lack of authentically, organically motivating homeschooling curricula and by how many parents were frantically trying to keep up with and copy the public schools.
What? Is that the model of the perfect education?
The other consideration: honestly, I just found much of the stuff out there for homeschoolers to be so extremely boring! I had to be realistic about what I would even stick with.
Test it out
When I only had my oldest child homeschooling, I tried regimented schedules and sticking to common core, but found it to be so utterly boring and contrived that I always found a way to wiggle out of it for more interesting things like trips, events, the library, reading things we wanted to read, and having quality time doing things we love just for enjoyment.
Does that make me a bad mom? Of course not. I hadn’t deschooled all the way at that time and I felt like I was judging myself from the “recreating school at home” perspective.
Not sure what deschooling is? Check this out!
Find what works for you
It seems like a lot of moms are perfectly content “recreating school at home” and that is totally fine for them. If you’re one of those moms and your children love “school” and everyone is happy, what else can ya ask for?
I couldn’t be happy following a set curriculum or sitting around doing schoolwork for long periods of time each day.
What does light my light bulb though, is purpose! Oh man, can I ever get excited when my BIG PICTURE dictates what we do each and every day!
Does it make sense for your family?
When things connect: that’s what really drives me. I love being connected to my kids, feeling like we’re all heading in the same direction and intentionally working toward goals we set.
That’s where my strengths are. I find myself irritated in trivial, contrived, arbitrary tasks. If something doesn’t logically make sense, I won’t enjoy it.
So this is the big difference - it boils down to the "why." Self-directed (unschooling) education allowed us to follow our passions.
In a traditional school like I taught in, the "why" is a bit different. It's more about getting everyone to pass the grade level, score high enough on benchmarks and standardized tests, to prove they’re “teaching”, and so on.
A school system isn't able to use human-centered WHYs such as “personal development”, “cultivating lifelong learners”, “helping make happy people”. This is precisely why I could never truly “reach my students” as a teacher back then. The WHY of traditional schools isn’t about truly reaching students!
Reaching students is connectedness. Leading them to learn means connecting to them through wisdom and insight and then our role as facilitator is also helping them stay connected to the WHY, the big picture.
What is Life's Big Picture?
We all have our own ideas of what the purpose of life is, so I won’t go into that except to say that for me, life is about self-development and learning.
When it comes to raising our children, then, what’s our big picture goal?
We want to raise our children to be adults who
- Know what they love and what they stand for
- Know how to learn things and find the information that they need
- Can work with others on amazing things and not get stuck on one way of doing things
- Can think outside the box and let their intelligence really shine
- Who can make good choices and work toward their goals
- Who have emotional skills to be happy
- Who make good decisions to care for their bodies and their environment
- Who are flexible and always growing
- Who will be prepared for the next part of their educational journey, whether it’s technical skills, vocation/trade, college, entrepreneurship, farming, artisan skills, etc.
- Who can eventually support themselves and their own families, hopefully doing something they love and do well
This list could go on for many pages…
How I Reverse Engineer My Kids’ Education
One of the reasons that I honestly think I can do better than a school at all of those above bullet points is that when it comes to true motivation and potential in life, schools tend to rob our children of some very important things that are built into them.
(See this article by Dr. Peter Gray, where he discusses a book by Dr. Kirsten Olsen about 7 different kinds of damage schools can cause to our children. Very eye-opening.)
From working with hundreds of children, parents, and other teachers in various capacities in my career, I can attest that it is rare to find people who are genuinely loving their educational journey.
We’re all wired to be lifelong learners. There are several problems with that today, though.
First, we’re not being submerged in environments which spark the love of learning. Instead, going to school is a pause from things we love.
Secondly, our society has unsavory parts we want to skillfully steer our children away from. I know there are varying opinions of unschoolers out there on this. I just say, “Hey, I’m not willing to throw my kids out to the wolves, but I’m OK visiting the zoo occasionally.”
So, I protect, but don’t shelter them from everything.
So, with those things in mind, the first thing that I had to do in order to make an educational framework for my children was to collaborate with them to create a vision of the kind of people they want to become.
(Be sure to download my 7-Step Blueprint to Flourish with Unschooling for more help on creating their Hopes and Dreams Vision) I Want This!
Second, I had to help my kids begin to see that learning is going to have to be intentional. If we’re born with zero skills, then by the time we’re big kids, we have learned quite a bit, but there’s still a vast world of understanding still waiting to be learned.
I break those areas down into 5 parts for them. Please keep in mind these are collaborative lists that we’ve created to be more intentional about our learning.
They’re just my own way of being mindful about things I strew about for them to learn throughout life. They’re not a schedule or structure for our days.
I have no schedule for them and don’t worry about “covering content”, but I see it as a checklist for myself and for the older kids as they begin to hone in on a path.
The lists are also never really finished. As the world develops, or new content is found, we evolve with those.
That’s what I love about this approach. As our world changes, so does our dynamic curriculum.
Foundational Traits: Intentionally Cultivating Character, Mindsets, and Habits
I allow my kids to make the choices on what they pursue in their studies.
Character education and parental guidance are things I do include on a daily basis through discussions and low-key family meetings (which is when we also do read-alouds).
This daily focus area is the intentional development of children’s mindsets, attitudes, seeing themselves, perceiving the world, and of their behavior in it.
I organize this category into four separate sections:
- How Kids See Themselves
- How Kids See Others
- How Kids See What They Do
- General Attitudes.
This is by no means a complete list, but it’s a decent start, eh?
(Additional categories will be addressed in the Interpersonal, Life Skills, Knowledge, and Hobbies/Interests blocks, below.)
How Kids See Themselves
How Kids See Others:
How Kids See What They Do/Productivity/Creativity:
Every possible important mindset that we want to instill in the future adult can be included here.
We believe in intentionally providing opportunities for children to think about these areas, to discuss them, and to be instructed (and sometimes corrected) in them.
Some are going to be taught in the context of lifestyle.
Some are explicitly taught with books, stories, scenarios, and many other strategies.
This is where my unschooling starts shining more. I use this framework as a way to communicate with my children the vast options they have for learning because I learned one very important lesson about us humans and that is “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
(Click on this Amazon referral link to a book that hilariously helped me understand some very common fallacies in our thinking You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, an d 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself.
One of the fun biases in our human brain is the Dunning-Kreuger Effect, where the less you know about a topic, the less likely you are to have a realistic awareness of how lacking you are in it, to put it mildly.
(Not so polite version: Ignorant people are more likely than others to think they’re geniuses.)
This is why it’s my job to FACILITATE my kids' upbringing. I know what they don’t know and I sometimes have to bring light to that, especially if they want to get into college for engineering.
These lists are my way to communicate with the bigger kids and to keep in my own perspective things I can intentionally discuss or bring up at different times.
The “what” is not as important as “why”. Allow the “what” to be as authentic as possible.
Interpersonal skills Topics
This very important area is a living dialogue and is truly never perfected as long as one lives, but the older children get, the more they can begin to gain the knowledge, vocabulary, skills, and understanding in this area of life.
The term “Life Skills” is used to conjure up so many different things.
I’m just talking, “skills relevant and deemed important to include in your Big Picture”.
Life skills help kids gain competence in a variety of tasks that are authentic to actual life. I group math within this because it is something we use to one degree or another in everyday situations.
In general, in this category, we are diving into the more “functional skills” and understanding that are required to make a living, create things, make things work, and even just to live life!
Each family will have a unique set of skills that will emerge as important to them and are simply too numerous to list.
This category is also so much more than just a list. As the name indicates, it is about life skills.
The specific skills that are emphasized are going to be different from one family to the next. The big point is I want my kids to know how to “do stuff” in life.
Exposure and practice with these things early on gives kids incredible confidence in those tasks as they grow.
We all know that kids are sponges for information, especially if it relates to topics they find particularly interesting.
While there are many traditional topics that can be included in this block, such as geography, the scientific process, other cultures, history, etc, there are many more niches that kids can explore within the larger realm of the knowledge that is available for them to consume.
My middle-schooler is really into engineering and airplanes, so he does a lot of reading, watching documentaries, and devouring of info on that topic.
It isn’t exactly a life skill, since he isn’t learning how to do anything, but it is knowledge and understanding that he is developing on a topic that is authentically important to him.
I suggest being extremely mindful about authenticity in these fields, because it is so easy to slip into the traditional mode of learning “because that's how we’ve always done it”. That loses the true meaning and living purpose of the WHY.
Instead, try to pull out the history, geography, chemistry, scientific process and everything else on the list by integrating those topics into the conversations, discussions, and questions with your kids. Then it’s 100% authentic!
This area is comprised of the knowledge children start to accumulate in their early years and gets into so much more as time and resources allow.
While I group reading, writing, and communication in the interpersonal category, the Knowledge category includes many options based on personal interests, but usually includes more “book knowledge” areas such as:
Students can learn things in any way that is most effective to them. This area is really easy to teach because when kids are truly interested in a topic, just try to stop them!
It’s important to provide affirmation (positive, constructive praise) for kids who pursue and model lifelong learning in this category. Always keep learning!
Interests and Hobbies as Curriculum
Kids can pursue so many exciting and interesting pastimes as time, interest, resources, environment and other factors allow.
Families are often able to find at least a few interests and hobbies that they can all pursue together.
As kids grow in independence and confidence their options multiply.
If they put effort and time into hobbies, they can really grow in confidence and understanding in many other (often even unrelated) arenas of life.
These interests can later serve as the underpinnings of many pursuits they may have as adults and will help them have a positive backdrop of success to believe in their own abilities to push themselves to achieve goals.
Hobbies & Special Interest Topics
Does this list ever actually stop growing? There are so many other things we can include here.
Think of your favorite ones or head over to this Wikipedia page that will make you feel really lame because you’ve never even heard of many of them (or was that just me?)
In A Nutshell...
I intentionally facilitate my kids’ self-directed education. They’re ages 3, 4, 6, and 13. I’m their leader, which is why I called my homeschooling site Mama Duck School. I live the life that I want them to learn as “normal”.
I refer to this as “Lifestyle as Curriculum” because homeschooling families absolutely have to be mindful and intentional about the examples they set forth for their children.
This “normal” also includes me parenting them and guiding them in the ways of a successful life.
I can honestly say that I have a mutually connected relationship with each of my children. They all trust me and respond well.
Like everyone else, we do have moments we have to pause and I have to remind them of their own priorities. But because we’re connected, they’re easy to reach.
In addition to making sure that our family lifestyle matches the priorities, values, and principles that I want my kids to learn in their foundational traits, I’m also very intentional about making sure they’re picking from a wide menu of disciplines in their studies.
I want them to be much more well-rounded than public school kids and to have a lot more real-life skills.
I want my kids to use their childhoods to really explore who they want to become and to become strengthened in that by my support and guidance.
We start with Hopes and Dreams. All my kids are super interested in reading and learning, so I don’t initiate anything else and I use the Hopes and Dreams visions to facilitate foundational traits guidance.
I parent them and let them play, explore our big backyard wilderness, and just be kids. I can’t stop them from learning.
The 13-year-old is probably college bound because he’s into engineering and tech fields. I guide him as needed, but mostly help him figure it out for himself; what he really needs to grasp.
This way of teaching is definitely capitalizing on children’s own pre-wired ability to learn and grasp concepts that are interesting to them.
Things that are disconnected and not authentic to your child's interests
are going to be forgotten anyway.
Now let’s think back to that scenario when you were on fire for learning something. That huge urgency that came out of your own interest and motivation.
The goal of facilitating self-directed education is to recreate that for your kids as often as possible.
So, how do we make sure we cover all the subjects in the National Standards? We don’t. We do so much more than the standards. Our standards are to raise happy, well-adjusted, healthy, and teachable people.
This is the way that I am making my children’s educational journeys much richer, more well-rounded, effective, and overall superior to anything I was ever able to provide as a public school teacher.
Remember, these lists are just our lists that we’ve come up with. They’re a collaborative effort by myself and my kids and they’re also a road map for our particular set of values and goals.
Facilitating self-directed education can absolutely be connected, intentional, and authentic. These are key components of reaching children’s motivation and potential for me.
Click HERE to download Tatyana's free 7 Step Blueprint to Flourish with Unschooling.
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