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What Do You Need to Learn?

We haven't chatted about the book Smarting Us Up: The Un-dumbing of America by Luz Shosie and Ned Vare in a while. How about we do that? The authors allowed their son Cassidy to grow up "unschooling."

"Unschooling" is simply student-directed learning. Now, exactly how much input the student gets into what and when, where, how and why he learns I think varies from one unschooling family to the next. But I think the general principle this style of homeschooling assumes is that children are born ready to learn, they want to learn, and they will learn all the things that are relevant to their becoming functional adults naturally and without specialized instruction. Generally speaking, I'd agree with this premise to a point. Given a loving and nurturing environment, most of us (except, I guess, me) don't need to hire speech therapists to help our children learn to talk. You speak to the child and expose the child to language, and the child wants to learn and picks these things up pretty much as a matter of course.

But as I read the book, I was struck by how intelligent Cassidy was. Of course, I'm sure he was given a nurturing environment and plenty of good educational materials from which he directed his own course of study. However, it's my opinion -- NOT based on any statistics, just my experience in life, which of course can be a bit skewed -- that almost every child is not going to be as determined and goal-oriented as Cassidy. My own Patrick is a rather bright bulb but prefers to be taught by others. He wants to remain in public school. Maybe it's because we allowed him to remain in public school for so long that he is used to having knowledge spoon-fed to him in small doses, but I think that it's just part of the larger picture.

I think Patrick isn't really sure what he wants to do in life. I think were he left in total charge of his education that he would, at least initially, be rather aimless about things. He might be unsure of where to begin or what sorts of things he'd like to study.

I don't want to paint with too broad a brush because unschoolers come in a wide range of varieties. I don't unschool and wouldn't want to misrepresent what they're about. But I have to say that the following excerpt from the book disturbed me. I did cut a fair bit out but I was true to the general gist of the passage, which opens with Laura soliciting the authors' advice:


We've been homeschooling for going on six years... Family members are starting to say, "All he does is watch tv and play video games," and I don't know what to say to them! My son is almost 14 and can barely multiply, let alone divide. Should I worry? Any reassurance and/or ideas will be greatly appreciated! Laura

We answered: Dear Laura,

Whether we should or shouldn't worry, I don't know. But most parents sure spend a lot of time doing it. And I think we would worry no matter what choices we make...

"Doing nothing" is a judgement -- it usually means "you're not doing what I think you should be doing." Actually, it's just about impossible to "do nothing" -- try it sometime...

And those family members? Tell them to get a life, too. (121-122)


I really like Ned and his blog. I think he's very intelligent. But if this letter looking for advice crossed my desk, I'd start screaming for a good talk and tell them it's high time for him to get tested. Patrick is fourteen, and I treat him almost like an adult. He has to abide by "house rules" since we're paying the bills, but I give him quite a bit of leeway in his course selection and what he does in his own free time. If this were my son, I'd sit him down and find some general "path" he wants to take career-wise. If he already knows that he wants to dig a ditch for a living or some other "unskilled" job, I'd be ok with it if that is the way my child is bent. (Patrick is more the sarcastic college professor type and would be unsuited to the ditch-digging.) I'd explain to him that in five more years, he'll either be in college or full-time work because the Nintendo doesn't pay the bills. To get your own apartment or just generally not get swindled out of the 20 cents you'll earn each hour digging those ditches, you need to learn how to do basic math. And as soon as we rule out learning problems, it looks like we have four years to get crackin' on it.

Test him with the free curriculum tests, buy tests through a homeschool company or even get free testing for learning difficulties through your local school district if you must, but get him tested! Rule out a learning problem first. Then pick a math curriculum at his level and start some sort of directed learning. You've been letting him do things on his own for six years in the math department. You didn't mention how English and Social Studies were going; maybe he's fine in these areas. But you don't have much time left before the birdie has to fly the coop or get a job or *something.* Surely Laura doesn't want this kid to have all his friends flop over and eat pizza when the "boy" and his friends are 43 years old.

Now watch me wheedle like a politician:

But I don't think that even Laura or other parents who are "too lax" with their children in the education department should be regulated. Once you do that, you have to set up an authority to determine when someone's good enough... and as we covered earlier, that presents a whole new set of problems.

One thing I like about living in Missouri is that there are no standards my curriculum must follow. Yes, there are certain subjects I must teach, but if necessary I could teach G with Elf and Emperor in the same class. That's actually what we do during summertimes. G has a lot of trouble with reading and yet somehow magically tests at the fifth-grade level in public school. However, he has difficulty with readers that six-year-old Emperor is using and he hates reading. I can tell that he wants to be the "big brother" so bad in our homeschool, and it doesn't work out as Elf can read circles around him and winds up teaching him how to do the math problem or make a small "k."

So what should we teach our children?

Ah, I've purposely not answered the question! Weasly me. I would teach Elf and Emperor the same things at the same level I'd teach G despite the six-year difference between them. I would not teach G and Patrick the same things despite their being very close in age. I think it really depends on the child, your vision for the child and what you feel the job market or the "world" is going to have in terms of opportunities when your child comes of age.

Personally, I'm no unschooler. Imagine public schools about 50 years ago, and then imagine those teachings in my house and us in our jammies and you've pretty well got what we do right there. I'm very much a curriculum in a box person, but the problem is that I buy lots of different things and try to get them all done. We did not one but THREE FULL math curriculums last year. Yes, we did. It was a lot of worksheets. But we wound up knowing those concepts up, down and sideways. It took more than a full year. This year we are only doing TWO full curriculums, but we will skip a few pages in one. This way the children don't get too used to being asked their math questions a certain way and will better be able to (I think) think more creatively mathematically.

I have a reading, grammar and spelling curriculum for English. Is it any wonder we're not out of the "second grade" stuff when we're stopping constantly and writing letters and reports?

But that's Elf and Emperor. Maybe I would do things differently if I were homeschooling yet another child. I want little Woodjie Pumpkin Onion McCheesy-doodle Bitsy Boy Cuddles to start talking and his "schooling" is very much directed with that in mind.



  1. What you are describing here is the Montessori method (just by a different name). I'm a teacher, and in my experience, this method (if used in entirety) only works well if kids are started in it at about 3-5 years old.

    For most kids, I think an established curriculum works better, but WITH the leeway to go off in tangents and explore thoroughly the things which grab the kids' imagination.

    Madame Monet, in Marrakesh
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine

  2. Unschooling can be good but some parents go to the extreme with it. You know the ones who have no school at all and just teach through measuring things or going to a farm. All that is good within reason but you have to have some structured learning also. If I just let Jacob chose when and what he would learn he would never have school. lol

    the whole not knowing how to multiply and divide thing would really bother me. that is a sign that something is not going right whether it be her teaching method, him needing a tutor, or his needing to be tested for a learning disability.

  3. Thoughts?

    Oh man! You touched on so many things I don't even know where to start!

    I admire you because you do all your own curriculum right? I have a course I follow that is set up for me. They have to finish that grade within a 12 months time. Each quarter they takes tests before they go on to the rest. I basically probaby do what a teacher does and our progress is monitored. Thank goodness for me! I am NOT as IN-DEPTH minded as you are!!! Okay, well I can be but I'm too scared to let it out like you do. I know if I started really talking about what goes on in my head like you do, comments will come pouring in. I'm scared of what they would say. Ha ha!!!

    Okaaaay, as far as that lady goes who's son can't do basic math for his age. That is SCARY. That is also sad that he is allowed to vedge all day rather than work on those things he has a weakness in. Geesh! My boys have video games but they have to homeschool AND do their chores in order to have fun.


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