One family's quest to learn together
Last week Australian 60 Minutes aired a segment on Unschooling families. Reporter Micheal Usher interviewed two Australian Families who advocate Unschooling children, plus America’s most well known Radical Unschooled family, the Martins. Unschooling has received mostly negative attention from Australia’s mainstream media, and for me it felt as though Micheal Usher and the producers at 60 Minutes started out with the plan to yet again sensationalise Unschooling, but gave just enough positive review to perhaps inspire more Australian families to give it a go. The segment began with the introduction to Unschooling being “The new approach to education that will have you falling off your chair…” and ended with Dayna Martin and her family’s approach of Radical Unschooling just to throw the cat among the pigeons, and guarantee some heated debate on the programs website.
The first Australian family had young children, still at home being unschooled. They discussed how their children thrived in an unschooled educational environment, and found it a better fit than mainstream education. The second family from rural Victoria had 5 boys who all been unschooled and gone on to tertiary studies and further education, (other than one who currently works as a farrier shoeing horses, and admitted to not learning to read very well). Dr David Zinger, a senior education lecturer at Monash University also threw in his two cents worth about how we wouldn’t allow children to choose what they eat, so therefor they shouldn’t be allowed to choose what they learn either. With all due respect Dr. Zinger, of course that’s the line that you’d take, if every Australian parent took to Unschooling, you’d be out of a job! Of course a television segment on Unschooling just wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Martin Family in the USA. Dayna and Joe Martin call themselves Radical Unschoolers, which the editing team at 60 Minutes would have us believe means that their home is a free-for-all with kids running wild and bouncing on trampolines until 3am every night.
For me, the segment highlighted that every child has different learning styles and requirements. Whilst some are very happy in mainstream school, and are doing fine, others might not fit that mould. If children are interested in pursuing further education to specialise in a specific field, then they will more than likely be motivated to learn the skills required to do this. But equally so, if a student struggles with reading or other academic pursuits, but has a passion to pursue a career which doesn’t require a high school certificate, is it right to torture them with 12 years of academic studies?
I think the Martin Family are always used in this type of journalism as the extreme example to get the debate raging in the audience, and that actually makes me feel pretty sad. I’m sure Micheal Usher did not fly all the way to the US just to ask the Martins how late their children go to bed. Beyond the silly questions, you could see that the Martin children have amazing skills. They’re woodworking, blacksmithing, playing instruments and are computer literate. As oldest son Devon states, he believes he can learn almost anything he wants independently. Dayna Martin also keeps a blog, The Sparkling Martins, which highlights some of the great things her kids are getting up to. And even though in the interview, Dayna and Joe tell Michael that their kids choose what and when they eat, a link to Dayna’s raw food website tells me that she is passionate about healthy eating, so I doubt these kids are living on Fruit Loops.
Unschooling isn’t Unparenting. Each of the families featured in the 60 Minutes segment was actively facilitating their children’s learning. They provide them with books, tools, experiences and life-skills to help their kids learn what they are passionate about. Every one of these parents is hands-on, participating and learning alongside their kids. They haven’t just left the kids in a room with a television, computer games and a refrigerator full of sugar and said “you figure it out”. Unschooling is all about trusting your children to make sensible choices, and in order to do that a parent needs to trust that they are doing a great job of parenting. Kids will learn to read if you read to them regularly from a young age, and visit the library often to find the books on the topics that interest them. They will learn to count if you start counting with them as toddlers through songs and games and then involve them in everyday mathematics. They will learn how to learn if you model research skills, and provide them with the tools to follow their passions. They’ll be encouraged to learn more if you show an interest in the things that they enjoy. And, they will learn healthy eating and lifestyle habits if you model these things, rather than try to ‘teach’ them. If your children are given complete freedom over what to eat, how could you expect them to be healthy if the kitchen is full of junk food? So in response to Dr. Zinger, I say we can trust that our children will learn what they need, because we are great parents who provide opportunities for learning, and are always there encouraging them.
No, Unschooling isn’t Unparenting. To me it just means that we don’t follow a curriculum and a time frame for what and when things “should” be learnt. I’ve spent lots of time in classrooms following curriculums and guidelines, enough to know that not everything kids learn in school is essential, or vitally important for either childhood or adulthood… but that’s another whole blog post 🙂