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Unschooling from an
African-American perspective

Humans are by nature, very orderly in the way that we process information, although not everyone processes information in quite the same way. Drs. Howard Gardener and Thomas Armstrong have done extensive research in the area of "multiple intelligences" -- eight types of abilities, competencies and skills used in creativity and problem solving. Interest-led learning or Unschooling allows for the individual's unique patterns of order, structure and multiple intelligences to become an asset. Unschooling honors the way that each child learns best, and encourages the child to learn in their own original way.

Unschooling is often at odds with didactics, the prevailing method of learning endorsed by traditional schools. The school model assumes that a diverse and balanced introduction to academic subjects which will prepare the child for higher learning and a good, profitable job or career, must come from a prepackaged curriculum. Without a timetable of subjects, a series of questions to focus the child's attention to the important details, and subsequent tests to gauge the child's recall, how on earth will a child ever learn? Since most parents are themselves products of traditional schools, the school model often becomes the accepted standard, even when homeschooling. Years of conditioning lead some parents to the inaccurate conclusion that unschooling is unstructured, disorganized and ineffective because children do not follow an established scope and sequence of materials deemed education.

Unschooling & Curricula

Nevertheless, unschooling is more than just the absence of a prepackaged curriculum and well-defined timelines for learning. The mere absence of a curriculum does not make one an Unschooler. In fact, some Unschoolers use boxed curricula, albeit, differently from the way the school model suggests. Unschoolers often take what is interesting and appropriate, in whatever order is useful, and leave the rest. Curricula and textbooks are resources for Unschoolers, no greater or lesser than any other resource. The usefulness of a curriculum is determined by its ability to expound on a topic of interest, and is not innately imbued with value because of Ph.D. recommendations or mass distribution.

What separates unschooling with a math curriculum from school-at-home with the same program, is the motivation for using the curriculum. If the purpose of the prepackaged curriculum is to "teach your child math," or to ease the parent's concern that there will be gaps in the child's education without a formal math program, that is bringing the school home. Parents who bring school home, do so based on the belief that children cannot and will not discover nor comprehend math without a scope and sequence to follow.

However, if the purpose of a prepackaged math curriculum is to meet your child's stated interest in expanding his exploration of the world of numbers, that is unschooling. And by stated interest, I mean that the child is asking for more outlets beyond what he has already created for himself. One daughter's first introduction to a math textbook came when she was six years old and sufficiently frustrated with a math adventure game for 4th to 6th graders. She knew enough to score well, but she realized that she was missing something, because her scoring was not consistent. She grew frustrated but still wanted to solve the problem on her own, so I went in search of more resources to assist her. I downloaded a few worksheets, but she was not interested in the repetition of them, nor did they get at the heart of her question. We borrowed some math books from the library, both nonfiction and textbooks, and at her leisure, she went through and got what she wanted. Then the teaching materials were gone and she was back to exploring math concepts in her world on her terms.

Unschooling is an orderly and effective learning style, which differs from other homeschool methods in two main areas: 1) motivation and 2) trust.

The Motivation to Unschool

When unschooling, the motivation to learn comes from the student. For example, an Unschooler studies physics because she is interested in learning how to exit the off ramp at 50mph. She notices that every time she drives with her uncle, he is able to take the off ramp at 50 mph, and yet she can only go 35mph before she begins to loose control. He insists she will do better with time and practice, but she wants to shorten the learning curve, and this becomes her motivation to learn physics.

A student following the school model, at home or in a school, studies physics because his birth date reflects it is time. This student may indeed be interested in the same information the Unschooler seeks, but his introduction to physics is based on the interests of others and not his own.

The Unschooler, taking control of her education and focusing on her interests and multiple intelligences, races go-carts, sets up elaborate toy race track experiments, watches NASCAR, reads non-fiction works by Richard Feynman, digs up dissertations on trajectory and vectors, and crashes a few physics study groups with a college friend. The Unschooler's seemingly unconventional introduction and path through physics not only serves a real purpose in her life, but forms the foundation for further exploration.

The school-at-home student follows a well-paved path through trajectory and vectors as outlined in the latest award-winning high school textbook, which meets strict state and national assessment standards. This student may or may not be able to remember the principles he has studied one week after the exam, and his ability to apply the concepts to a real world situation at a later date may also be questionable.

Trusting the Unschooling Process

On the surface, the Unschooling student and the school-at-home student may appear the same, but the pursuit of physics comes from different sources of motivation and follows different paths of trust. The Unschooler trusts that her search will be fruitful and benefit her, regardless of "detours" she may make along the way. After all, you can't study physics without getting bitten by the calculus bug, now can you? And is it really a "waste" if the Unschooler goes off on a derivatives tangent for a few weeks? Or even stops the pursuit of trajectory and determines the physics and chemistry of the combustion engine is more interesting and decides to build one? The rigidness of the school-at-home student's curriculum can not allow for such diversions. The school-at-home student can only cover the material outlined in the textbook, in the order presented lest something be lost or overlooked.

The school-at-home student trusts that because of his curriculum, he has received a good introduction to material that will be required of him later in a college setting. He is satisfied knowing that his transcript has been enhanced with the addition of physics and that his prospects for admission to the college of his choice will be improved. Subconsciously, the school-at-home student has also learned that there are limits to his knowledge and potential without the necessary influences of outside authorities.

Unschooling is simply letting your child pursue her interests as they meet her needs, with all the parental commitment and support of time, attention and resources that is typically reserved for "school." The ability to trust the student and his or her unique combination of intelligences is key to the success of unschooling. Instead of measuring intelligence by the strict standards of linguistics and logical-mathematical ability as preferred in the school model, Unschoolers learn to capitalize on the multiple intelligences that uniquely combine in each individual. The more intelligences employed in the process of learning, the more concrete the learning becomes, which is why unschooling is so successful. Success in college and beyond requires independent, creative and resourceful learners -- people who know how to learn. If that is the goal, then start now and "train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." The Holy Bible, Proverbs 22:6.

S. Courtney Walton lives and learns in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband and four children. An advocate of Unschooling, Courtney is the founder of a national network of African-American Unschoolers, serves as the Unschooling Advisor for the National African-American Homeschoolers Alliance and writes frequently about her family's unschooling adventures in her column Real Living...Real Learning with S. Courtney Walton for The Good News Herald in St. Louis, Missouri.

2003 S. Courtney Walton, All Rights Reserved.

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