Would You “Unschool” Your Child? Why Traditional Classrooms May be Counterproductive To Your Child’s Success
I have a strained relationship with traditional education that started shortly after I received my BA in English/Professional Writing. In 2008, I found myself in the middle of the recession, fresh out of college, eager to change the world with four years of education that included a dash of Art History, a pinch of International Studies and a healthy serving of Creative Writing and Media Literacy. And for the next year and a half I found myself slinging the same Dairy Queen soft serve until I eventually landed a job teaching sex ed. I was one of the lucky ones. Many of my friends took their degrees and school debt to the world of retail where they stayed, underpaid and unhappy, but unable to find work using their Philosophy and Graphic Arts degrees.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame school for the fact that I’m not quite where I want to be in this point in my career. I embrace being educated in a variety of areas and the experience of being away at college, although I’d appreciate it much more without the hefty price tag. But as I continue to navigate the peaks and valleys of my career path, I’m not totally convinced that the traditional approach to school is what works best for everybody. And as a parent, I’m willing to be completely open to other alternatives than the “neighborhood school, homework, and keep your fingers crossed for a scholarship” approach that myself and many of my peers experienced as young people. When I picture my daughter’s future I want her have a say in what she wants to learn, and how and when she wants to learn it. I want her to read Alex Haley novels but still study the theories of Tupac Shakur. I want her to be able to paint a picture, punt a football, write a poem or whatever she wants to do and still have an equal shot at success like anyone else. Most of all I want her to be happy. While some say folks my age prioritize happiness way too much, I am really beginning to believe that whether you’re clocking into a cubicle for eight hours a day or making six figures on a private yacht, if you’re not happy, none of it matters. So when I came across an article about “unschooling” I was intrigued.
The mater mea piece describes the educational movement of “unschooling” as a path of self-directed learning that allows children to make their own decisions and navigate their education. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, an estimated 220,000 Black children are being home schooled. Black adults apparently aren’t the only ones experiencing micro-aggressions and discrimination during their day. The piece also points out, school can be just as challenging in the hallways as in the classrooms for your kids:
“Similarly to the race-based workplace micro-aggressions adults face, kids can be subject to upsetting (and at times dangerous) encounters with classmates and teachers. Black children are more likely to be disciplined—and face harsher punishments—than their white classmates for the same or lesser infractions. And even in spaces that support Black children, Eurocentric curriculums can leave something to be desired.”
As my peers get older and find themselves now raising school age children, I can’t help but recall the horror stories that I scroll through on my timeline and in news headlines: teachers telling the “curvy girls” they can’t wear tights, nooses being hung in locker rooms and even just the teacher that has labeled the black kid in class as disruptive from gate where kids of other races would be labeled as “leaders” or “creative thinkers”. Is this the world I’m sending my daughter to get an education in? I’m not jumping on the home-schooling bandwagon just yet, but I will say the traditional school setting may not be worth it if my child has to endure harassment and hurt feelings just to get a diploma.
The article also points out that home-schooling may be the way to close the “belief gap” or “the gap between what their teachers believe they can achieve and what students can actually achieve”. As an educator, if there’s one thing I do know is that a teacher isn’t capable of providing students with the tools they need when they don’t truly believe in them. Something is lost when you have teacher in front of a classroom that truly believes they’re wasting their time.
Home-schooling may also be a way to provide students with teachers who are not only there for a paycheck, but because they are invested in their future. Akilah S. Richards, is a prominent visible Black unschooler from Atlanta. She’s been unschooling her daughters, 13-year-old Marley and 11-year-old Sage, for the past six years. She defines unschooling as “child-centered living and learning” catered towards what naturally interests the child. Richards shares how unschooling is about so much more than education:
“Psychologically and biologically, human beings want to manipulate their environment and curiosity is innate. Unschoolers believe that we want to nurture that skill, and allow those skills to be developed and applied to any area of interest for a child. Because it’s not just about learning, it’s about confident autonomy—sovereignty.”
“Unschooling tends to start out being about education—an alternative to something problematic in school. But it’s really about so much more than that; it really is about what it is to own yourself.”
She expressed the importance of autonomy, something traditional schooling completely conflicts with since it focuses on the structure and order that comes with lesson plans, curriculum and a teacher leading a group as opposed to the process of learning being a discussion that constantly flows both ways. Richards says in many ways that system sets up young people to fail:
“A lot of us end up as adults realizing that we don’t have good personal leadership skills. We don’t make the best choices for ourselves, we don’t trust ourselves, we don’t expect other people to trust us fully. A lot of [these things] come from the lack of practice with autonomy growing up. Then we turn 18 and we’re expected to make a bunch of grown decisions with no practice. None.”
Richards emphasizes that for people of color autonomy is an especially foreign concept fostered from generations of slavery and oppression:
“We have a history—particularly in America—of being oppressed as people of color. And so we parent from a survivalist lens.”
“We’re parented from that space, and that imprint is still there. So now, even though we have the resources to become the CEO of a company, or form our own and boss that out, we’re still doing [it] with a lot of the same personal and emotional trauma of not trusting ourselves, of not feeling like we deserve something or that we’re valid. And a lot of that starts in childhood.”
Richards also attempts to shed the image of homeschooling and unschooling creating awkward or unsocialized kids mentioning that kids’ personalities aren’t as influenced by the outside world as we may tend to believe. If you’re worried unschooling is just some progressive term for a daily agenda of video games, naps and Cartoon Network, Richard shares that we’re not giving our kids or parenting far enough credit:
“If you had a child in typical school—public, private, charter—and then you said, ‘Unschooling, I’m feeling it. I want to try it.’ and for the first month your kid just wants to take naps and play video games, they needed to do that.”
“Those are just practices that we don’t understand because what they’re doing in that instance is giving themselves the mental quiet they need to tap into ‘Ok, what is it that I want to do with my time?'”
“These are the things that [can] happen quite organically when children are allowed to be bored. That’s a big part of unschooling, encouraging boredom, because it also says, ‘Ok, so what are you going to do with it? And how can I help you?'”
I’m not exactly sold yet on the practice of unschooling and lucky for at least another year or two I don’t have to be until me and my spouse figure out what best suits our daughter. What I will say is that the practice is proof that there is no one ideal way for all kids to learn, and parents should feel like they have alternatives to what’s always been done, especially if there’s no solid proof that it works. More than that, children should learn in way that works best for them without fear that they’ll be judged or left behind. Lastly, I don’t want to raise my daughter to embrace and enjoy education only to end up in a job that she dreads going to each day.
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.