Sunday, October 23, 2016

Letting Go of Comparative Schooling

Homelearning-related terms can seem like a quagmire, so I think I'll start with a glossary of terms used here:
  • Brick-and-Mortar School: This can refer to a public school, independent or private school, or even a DL school, as long as the school has a building where students attend, at least some of the time. It has more to do with the fact that it's in a dedicated building than anything else, but the term is also used to describe a traditional one-building school where students attend five days per week and complete a prescribed curriculum.
  • Distributed Learning (DL): This is a classification of schooling in our province that often involves home-based learning either directed or managed by parents and/or DL teachers. It also often includes part-time or alternative classroom studies. DL students are evaluated by teachers according to current provincial curriculum and have reports registered with the ministry just like students of traditional classroom programs.
  • Homeschooling: Registered Homeschoolers are registered through the province and do not receive any curriculum, guidance, or financial support from the province or from the registering school. Homeschooling is in fact a legal term, and while it is often used in the homelearning community to differentiate families who set up a school-at-home scenario vs. families who unschool, there are in fact many registered homeschooling families who do not use curriculum or 'teach' school at home, but follow some degree of unschooling philosophy. It is important to maintain the legal meaning of this word in order to ensure that this remains a legal option for those families who choose it.
  • School-at-Home: Parent-led curriculum-based schooling that happens in the home. The family may be registered homeschoolers, distributed learners, or students registered in a brick-and-mortar school who for whatever reasons are doing some of their work from home. The curriculum may be provided by a school, bought as a package by the family, or created by the parents with or without input from education professionals.
  • Unschooling: Learning on one's own terms, defining one's own goals and path without coercion from parents or teachers. Unschooling often happens outside of the school system, but is sometimes practised by families who enroll as distributed learners, or even families who enroll in more traditional schools. Unschooling often involves the whole family, and can include varying degrees of parental guidance or control, depending on each individual family. The term unschooling was originally coined by John Holt, and refers to the process of unlearning some of the constraints taught in traditional schools. Alternate terminology for unschooling includes self-directed learning and life-learning.
  • Homelearning: This is a handy catch-all term for people learning from home. Unschoolers, registered homeschoolers, distributed learners and those who school-at-home can all be considered homelearners, provided they do at least some of their schooling from home.
All those terms are useful in describing the ways we raise our children and interact with the school system, but they can also be divisive. They lead us to look at the ways we raise our children as comparative to other families', and this can also lead to insecurity.

Homelearning parents in general are often confronted with the question 'what makes you think you are better qualified to teach your children than the school system?' We unschoolers then sometimes explain that we chose this path precisely because we are not teaching our children, but instead allowing them to learn on their own terms, on their own schedule, in their own ways, etc. etc. ... and then people get worried for our children's welfare and future prospects. So, predictably, some of us try to win people over with delightful stories of unschooling successes and triumphs. We tell all the good stories, because we want to ease people's minds and because actually many of us really truly love this journey we're on, and love to talk about it!

That's when some people get their hackles up. They ask whether we think there's something wrong with their method of schooling. Or they ask why we think we're so much better than they are. They defensively tell us that their children need such-and-such or that they want their children to have better options than we're providing (cue more encouraging unschooling success stories). Or they shrink away and say that their children are not smart/diligent/motivated enough to teach themselves. Worst of all, they tell us they feel we're looking down on them for not unschooling their own kids.

I am writing this today because I have finally come to a place in my unschooling journey where these things are mostly a memory, and I just realized how relieved I am. Maybe my circle of friends has been stable for long enough that everybody is comfortable in our own choices; maybe my kids are old enough that people have stopped worrying. Whatever the reason, boy am I glad to leave that behind me!

Today I had a lovely chat with a friend of mine who can well be described as a diligent and loving parent of diverse distributed learners who use a combination of classroom, mentor, online, and home-based schooling to accomplish their many goals. They are now deeply engaged with researching and planning for university, and my friend is a master organizer. Her family life is in many ways opposite to ours. While ours is messy, scattered and rich with surprises and adventures, hers is well-managed, orderly, and equally rich with surprises and adventures. Interestingly, some of our kids encounter similar challenges with their activities, and also have similar triumphs. We even arrive at some of the same places! The two of us have the most wonderful discussions about life and life-learning, school and home and parenting and community - and none of it with any judgment whatsoever. This is what it feels like, I think, to have left the insecurities of early unschooling behind, to not feel inclined to defend our chosen path, and to not feel the burden of others' defensiveness on our shoulders.

Obviously unschooling families have a reason for our choice to unschool our children, and for specifically how we unschool. We probably also think this is the best we can do for our kids, or we wouldn't have chosen it. That does not, however, mean that we think it's the best option for everyone, or that other families' choices are inferior. The world is a beautiful and diverse place. We are evolving faster because of our diversity, including the diversity of our children's upbringing and education. Whatever experiences we give our children, whether in or outside of the school system, directed or undirected, goal-oriented or free-range, will make them the people they become, and nourish their own individual futures. We can't know what will be best for them - we can only do what our hearts tell us is right.

So whoever you are out there, let's stop comparing. Whether your children sit in the most stringent academic classroom, or get their education from the stream running between their toes, I honour and respect the choices you have made for your children, and I am grateful we share this world together. Our children will inherit the diversity we have created among us, as well as our appreciation and acceptance of it.

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