In Pursuit of Educational Utopia


I’m still trying to figure out the best approach to homeschooling for our family.  I’ve only begun to realize that for most homeschooling families it’s an ever-evolving undertaking.  Very few, if any, jump into homeschooling and immediately figure out a path that works well for them and suits their particular goals, philosophies, and lifestyle for the long-term.  There are always tweaks and adjustments to be made, new approaches to try.  It can be unsettling to feel like you never quite have it all figured out, that you never get to feel 100% certain that the way you’re doing it is the best way to do it, but that really is the beauty of homeschooling: the flexibility to make changes.

So, I’ve been feeling more and more unsettled lately about how I’m approaching homeschooling.  The girls are learning the stuff I’m making them learn, but that’s just the thing: there is still a sense of coercion which we all feel and dislike.  Probably the girls’ favorite subject right now is history, because it’s very relaxed.  We sit in the living room and read from A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror (I am determined not to peddle a sanitized or white washed version of history to my kids) – which has led us on detours to a separate book about slavery, and now a book about the Mayflower and its passengers.  Sometimes the girls take turns reading, but mostly I read, and while I’m reading, they draw or doodle or play with clay or something.  So it’s very laid back.  And we have these great discussions about what it must have been like way back when, and how the past impacts today’s social issues, and sometimes something we read will prompt us to look something up in the World Atlas.  It’s probably my favorite subject, too, not only because it’s interesting and engaging, but because the girls all participate willingly and seem to genuinely enjoy it.

I want more of that, and I think the girls do, too.

Which is why I’m thinking more and more about unschooling.

Unless you’re actually familiar with unschooling (which I’m only starting to be), most of what you think about it is probably wrong.  I’ve had the same skepticism that most people have about it.  I think the “un” in “unschooling” can be misleading in that it sounds like “not educating.”  But that’s not what it is.  Unschooling is a sort of radical departure from conventional schooling and teaching.  It’s also known as “child-led learning,” and it means putting the kids in the driver’s seat of their own education.  So it’s not about textbooks and worksheets and prescribed reading and projects.  It’s not about presenting material in a sequential manner and expecting kids to learn in a sequential manner.  It’s not about scoring or grading or ranking or comparing.  It means making available to kids plenty of opportunities to explore things and subjects that interest them, and trusting that, if allowed to pursue what is relevant and meaningful to them, they will learn what they need to learn along the way in order to live a meaningful, self-directed and self-sufficient life.

It appeals to me because it’s very much in line with my belief for Finn in “life as therapy.”  Way back when he was two years old, after much agonizing, we ditched all the usual therapies that parents of kids with Ds are expected to buy into because it seemed largely pointless, intrusive, in some ways counterproductive (in that it involved constantly assessing, evaluating, and comparing him, with an eye towards improving him), and yes, even coercive.  I fully believe that just about everything Finn has learned has come from living life and from being included (to the extent he has been included) – not from therapy.

So, unschooling, in a nutshell, is “life as school.”

Still, it’s a HUGE leap of faith.  And it’s not one that I’m sure I can make all at once, with both feet.

The other day I sat all three girls down around the dining room table for a little conference.  I wanted to hear from each of them how they’re feeling about homeschooling: what they like about it, what they don’t like, any concerns or worries they might have, and what changes they’d like to make to how we do things.  They all cited “less stress,” “less pressure to keep up,” “being able to work at our own pace,” “no homework,” and “more free time” as things they like about homeschooling.  They all said they dislike math (this isn’t news; math is the subject that elicits the most whining, nagging, and tears).  They all want “more fun stuff” and “more field trips.”

After we talked for a while, I asked them each to come up with their ideal weekly schedule, and I encouraged them to collaborate.  Then we sat down again and talked about what they had come up with, and agreed on a new weekly schedule that we’ll try out.  We agreed to sit down again in a couple of weeks and talk about how it’s going.

We agreed to do more history, and more reading literature together.  We’re ditching the writing/grammar program I’ve been using with the twins because they just aren’t engaging with it.  They rush through the assignments just to get them out of the way, not because they particularly care about them.  The twins have agreed to keep writing on their own – anything: essays, short stories, letters, journal entries – and to sit down with me once in a while and talk about writing.  (I’m going to keep doing the Barton system with Lilah, because I feel like she needs the tools in order for her dyslexia to not continue to be a barrier for her.)  We’re also ditching the science program we’ve been using, as it’s textbook based, and like the writing, the girls aren’t particularly engaged with the prescribed material presented.  All three of them would rather study animals and so forth on their own.  They all take an art class across town once a week, which we’ll continue for now, but I’m thinking probably not for the long-term, as it’s expensive, and I suspect the girls are going to get bored with it.

Math, though.  I’m really struggling with what to do about math (and from what I understand, it’s the subject that a lot of unschoolers stress over).  For now we’ve agreed to cut it down to three times a week instead of five, but they still dislike it, and it still feels like I’m the taskmaster, cajoling them to do lessons they resent and don’t care about.  Just this morning, as Lilah cried over yet another worksheet, I stood there thinking, “What is she really even getting out of this?”  I’m having a very, very hard time letting go of the conditioning I’ve received all my life, though, that math (formally taught in a sequential manner, with lots of practice drills) is necessary, and they need to do it for their own good.

I don’t know where we will ultimately land in our homeschooling journey.  Although I am cozying up to the idea of unschooling more and more, I think it’s going to take some time for me to become completely comfortable with it.  In the meantime, baby steps.  I’m trying to let go of the conventions I’ve had hammered into me all my life, and let the girls have more say in their own education.

I have another post brewing about democratic education; stay tuned.


Edited to add this link for anyone who might be interested.  Looks like a great resource, and offers a nice explanation of homeschooling: unschool




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14 Responses to In Pursuit of Educational Utopia

  1. Kathie Lopez November 5, 2015 at 5:13 pm #

    Lisa – I love what you’re doing with the subject of history. I was a very poor student way back in the 1950s/1960s. I think I didn’t fit in the mold. Luckily I found a terrific job that I retired from after 26 years.

    After retiring I started auditing American History classes for the pure love of learning the subject. No papers or tests for me. The lack of stress is beautiful and I feel without it, I can concentrate on the subject and really learn. I’m having the time of my life and have found enrichment. I wish the programs you are using were available to me when I was coming up. I could have enjoyed my childhood and teen years so much more. Keep on keeping on, your child will thank you for their love of learning in years to come.

    • Lisa November 5, 2015 at 5:21 pm #

      Thank you, Kathie!

  2. Kathie Lopez November 5, 2015 at 5:46 pm #

    Thank you, Lisa! Love your blog!

  3. Karin Litzcke November 5, 2015 at 7:45 pm #

    Lisa, I’m a parent who did shuffle my kids through their 13 years of school but who has been questioning the enterprise for many years. I really enjoy reading about the evolution of your thoughts on schooling, your considered articulation of them, and how you’re acting on them. I also appreciate the quote you’ve used here from Peter Gray, whose work I was quite pleased to discover last year.

    But there is a leap of logic that is embedded in this quote, and I think in far too much of the un- and de-schooling literature, that bears closer scrutiny, and I hope that mentioning it here will fit with your general atmosphere of enquiry. The embedded assumption in the quote is that freedom from school automatically infers “freedom” in general and “free” learning in particular; freedom from structured learning and from adult guidance. To a rather large extent I think this constitutes an abdication of responsibility by adults, not so much by the parents who are just doing their best, but by the many adults who earn their living doing anti-schooling boosterism.

    I couldn’t be more sympathetic to the project of defeating coercive schooling, but the fact is that in the absence of compulsory school, the responsibility for education falls not to the child, but on the parent – the younger the child, the more that is the case. And furthermore, the child’s interests and internal motivation are not necessarily the best guide – in the case of kids in disadvantaged situations or who are particularly distractible or unfocussed, it’s an inherently self-limiting belief. Math is a perfect example of something in which most kids won’t be motivated to take themselves to automaticity, but where the benefit of achieving real numeric mastery (as opposed to general awareness due to low interest) is unquestionable since everyone grows up to have to manage money, time, cooking, and other numeric features of life.

    Which is why I think a comprehensive de/un schooling plan might well, for many children, include structured learning at certain times, for certain topics, at certain ages. And I think Gray does a disservice to parents who are trying to implement his insights, by advocating so strongly for a certain type of learning rather than just for freedom from the constraints of imposed school days, curricula, grouping, and so on.

    In going straight to free/home/child-driven learning, the anti-school movement is perhaps overlooking one of the most interesting developments in education: Education Savings Accounts. Introduced I think first in Arizona and Florida, they are now in 5 US states, most recently in Nevada. The idea is that parents can apply for most of the funding that the school receives for their child, and use it to create a custom education that may or may not include any combination of home or school programming. It began as an option for special needs children and parents whose children were in low-performing schools, but in Nevada all children qualify.

    Ironically, I think that ESA movement represents a lot more flexibility of thought than the un/de school movement does, sometimes.

    Flexibility of thought is exactly what I enjoy about your exploration of this topic. Being flexible is the luxury that parents have that advocates or employees of one method/system or another don’t have, and is why I truly believe that the vast majority of children’s education is best directed by their parents.

    • Lisa November 5, 2015 at 10:17 pm #

      Thank you for bringing up so many great points. Definitely a lot of food for thought.

      I was happy to discover Peter Gray only recently, when a friend recommended his book, Free to Learn, to me. It kind of turned a lot of my beliefs about education upside down. I’m not a full convert, though, and I do have some criticisms of what he presents in the book (I wrote about my thoughts on the book here: ). I do think, though, and have thought for a long time, witnessing what my kids’ school experience has been like, and even remembering a lot of my own schooling (which I do not remember fondly at all), that there is something very wrong with the way we do school.

      I agree that unschooling/de-schooling is not the answer for everyone. I also agree that there needs to be some sort of stable public education system in place, if only for kids who would otherwise receive no education. I guess in an ideal world, though, public school would be more democratic, with kids having more choices, more say in their own education, and more freedom to explore and pursue the things that truly interest them. The one-size-fits all model has got to go, and along with it, homework and standardized testing.

      Paradoxically, I think unschooling is only a viable option for families in which the parents are involved. Although unschooling is a rather hands-off approach, it does require parents to be willing and able to take their kids places and to give them plenty of opportunities to explore, read, and engage in a variety of activities. So it’s really not an abdication of responsibility – although I suppose it could be abused as such – because it actually does require the parents/adults to take on quite a bit of responsibility.

      In the end, there just is no one right way to educate kids. I wish that conventional school as it stands was not held up to be the gold standard by which every other method of educating kids is measured.

      Also, what you say about math: “Math is a perfect example of something in which most kids won’t be motivated to take themselves to automaticity, but where the benefit of achieving real numeric mastery (as opposed to general awareness due to low interest) is unquestionable since everyone grows up to have to manage money, time, cooking, and other numeric features of life” – an argument can be made (and is made by many unschoolers): why not just teach kids how to manage money, tell and manage time, cook, etc., and let them learn math that way? Life as school.

      Anyway, I really appreciate your thoughts.

      • Karin Litzcke November 6, 2015 at 9:09 pm #

        Yes, yes, and yes… but 🙂
        I’m not saying there is or is not one right way. My point was really that just handing the kids the reins may not be giving the kids a fair chance at, well, the best chance for a self-sufficient adulthood.
        I think the confounding factor is that we live in a specialized society where being able to play many roles demands certain knowledge that is automatic (I think Alfred North Whitehead wrote about this in the 1920s, and was neither the first nor last to do so). I agree that kids may learn math as they handle money, but I find that when I make my credit card payments, usually from three different accounts, I am grateful every month that I can do column addition like a robot, because I get it right to the penny every time. Underpaying, of course, would mean paying a month’s interest on the whole balance, back to the date of each transaction. I think a lot of us take for granted what we know, and don’t realize how crucial it is to what we do every day.
        Anyway, I’m not trying to convince you any more than you’re trying to convince others (as per comments on the last thread). It’s really just something about that quote that gets to me, and I think is something of a false promise to both kids and parents who want to uncoerce themselves.

  4. Meredith November 7, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    There are lots of different math options out there for kids to try if what you’re doing isn’t working for them. I was doing Saxon with my kids the first 2-1/2 years because I believed (and still do to a certain extent) that it’s the best approach to learning and retaining with the spiral method. Although my kids were doing well with it, it was very parent intensive, and with a new baby I needed to let go of as many parent intensive things as possible. We started using CTC math halfway through the year and the kids loved it. It’s very simple and the lessons are usually less than 5 minutes, then they get some questions on the material. They really encourage doing the lessons as many times as necessary to make sure they’ve actually learned the concept. And you have access to all grades, so if there’s a particular subject (like addition) that they need to do on a higher or lower level, it’s not at all a problem. It can be completely customized to what your child needs. Although I’ve put my kids back in public school this year, I’ve still used it a few times to help reinforce concepts the kids are learning at school, as well as extra practice with things they’re struggling with. Khan Academy is another avenue a lot of homeschoolers like, especially because it’s free. Life of Fred is certainly another fun one. I started on it with my kids and got partway through the second book before the end of our school year. They loved hearing about what Fred was doing. One thing about it, though, that I’ve heard from other homeschoolers is that it’s not really a comprehensive math program for the elementary years. It’s great as a supplement but probably not a good idea to rely solely on it. The middle school years and up (it goes all the way to calculus) it’s more comprehensive and can be used on its own. I wish you the best as you try to figure out what’s right for you and your kids 🙂

  5. Sue November 8, 2015 at 8:19 am #

    I am not convinced that being bored sometimes in school, asking kids to do some rote type of stuff, is so horrible. Let’s face it, even when you love your job and are generally happy with your career, you are sometimes bored and asked to do boring tasks. I worry that “kids shouldn’t ever be bored in school” idea is in part creating the entitlement generation. I have undergrads who want to do research in my lab who give up quickly when they realize that a lot of making progress is science is doing the same “boring” experiment over and over.
    As for math–I think math is incredibly important because it teaches LOGIC, which is sorely lacking in the general populous these days. Is there a curriculum that emphasizes that aspect of math?

    • Lisa November 8, 2015 at 10:58 am #

      I think boredom is good for kids! It forces them to be creative and imaginative. It’s the kids who have someone else contstantly scheduling, managing, and organizing their time and activities for them who don’t learn how to deal with boredom.

      • Mrs Odie November 10, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

        Have you read “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman? Unfortunately, most adults and children have bought into the myth that entertainment makes education more effective. It’s not true.

        • Lisa November 10, 2015 at 5:00 pm #

          I’ll have to take your word for it.

    • Karin Litzcke November 10, 2015 at 11:16 pm #

      Sue, the Direct Instruction family of programs might meet your needs for logic. If you do a search for “Direct Instruction math” you should come across them. NIFDI might be a place to get recommendations for picking the right program if that’s not clear.

  6. Life After Grad November 25, 2015 at 9:28 pm #

    How about math as life lessons? As in if they like to cook, give them a recipe to follow, but hide some of the measuring cups/spoons so they have to do some calculations to figure out how to follow the recipe? Or the practical math of making and following a budget and planning a grocery trip? Woodworking/construction uses a lot of practical math like geometry and trig too. My favorite part about my algebra 1 classes in jr high was the practical section. Our teacher had a side business as a roofer. So he demonstrated how often he used algebra and geometry to accomplish goals in his business. Writing up an estimate, figuring out how many shingles it will take to roof a house, then how many bales of shingles you have to purchase to roof the house. How to file your taxes, etc. All useful life skills, all teaching the applied version. Do you think that your girls might be more interested in math then? If it was something used to solve practical problems rather than just some lesson that they can’t see how to apply?

    • Lisa November 26, 2015 at 9:40 am #

      Yes, I’ve definitely been giving a lot of thought about real-life, relevant application of math and how we can incorporate that in our educational approach.

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