Friday, February 18, 2011

Classical Unschooling

A few people asked, after my last post, to hear more about classical education and/or/with unschooling. I can't say that I'm an expert on either approach, or at anything at all related to homeschooling. I've been reading on the subject for almost ten years but no amount of reading can prepare you to actually educate real children in the midst of a busy home and we are only just beginning that stage of things.

There are a handful of well-defined home education "philosophies" out there for parents who are putting together their own curriculum and there are lots of more "curriculum-in-a-box" providers as well. But, in my experience, most families use a combination of two (or more) approaches and find that things evolve over time as the children grow. I don't want my thoughts on unschooling or classical education to come to define either of those approaches because if you know another family approaching home education this way, it will probably look completely different. This is one of those areas where I am totally comfortable being a relativist.

An extreme definition of "unschooling," in my mind, is: letting the kids do whatever they want with regard to their definition. I have never actually heard of any family that actually does that, for the record. It's not even legal in a lot of states. I find that an occasional dose of "unschooling" inspiration is a guard against feeling discouraged and defeated. In the midst of a large family and a busy life, there are definitely times when formal school does not happen. At all. During a time of crisis this could go on for weeks. I personally don't think that this is harmful for children and it is encouraging to know that there are whole populations of people, and even education experts who think this is the best and only way to educate children. I have definitely heard of and met some pretty darn impressive kids who came from "unschooling" families so it seems to work, in some form, for some people.

In the materials I've read on "unschooling," several elements attract me. First, it is a very "child-centered" approach. Unschoolers usually see children as inherently intelligent, thoughtful, creative, and self-motivated and believe that, left to their own devices, they will educate themselves (including learning to read) just fine. I also like that children have, in theory, limitless time to thoroughly explore what interests them. Eric and I homeschool, in part, as a reaction against shortcomings in our own education. We both would have preferred more time to really dig into the things that interested us rather than stick to the classroom agenda.

All that said, we don't ever see ourselves embracing this approach fully. For one thing, while all of our children seem pretty intelligent, they definitely differ in the personal initiative area. For another thing, as bad as I am about sticking to a routine, I do know that my children thrive better when we have a routine. And, while Eric and I would have loved more freedom in our education, we also wish that we had been introduced to more of the riches of literature and philosophy and world culture than we were.

Enter classical education.

Classical education relies on the "trivium" concept: children move progressively through three stages of learning first absorbing facts (the grammar stage), then learning to argue (the logic stage), and finally learning to fully express themselves (the rhetoric stage). Home educators who use a classical approach typically have a rich and rigorous program of study with a huge emphasis on the study of history. I was initially turned off by some materials I read on classical education because it seemed to lack respect for the innate creativity and imagination of the child, forcing them to think and learn a certain way. It seemed to view children as empty vessels for the parents to cram with a certain number of facts before it was time to ship them off to an Ivy League school at age 16.

I've since come to see that this is a rather extreme view of the classical approach and just as I don't know any families who truly always let their children do whatever they want, I also don't know any families who approach classical education in that way. And based on my very limited observation of children, the trivium pattern seems to be a sensible one. Also, classical education just sounds fun to me. And that is no small thing when I have to live with and supervise whatever it is we are doing for education around here.

So I tend to say that we are "classical unschoolers" because the materials we use are definitely drawn from classical sources. We plan to teach the children Latin and we will probably use history as a "spine" for most other subjects. But we also think children needs lots and lots of free time to explore and read on their own. Formal lessons are short, we're okay taking days off when we all need a break or a neat opportunity arises or if we are moving for the second time in less than a year and have a newborn in the house (just to pull one example out of thin air).

So there's a nutshell description of our approach and I will try to illustrate it a bit more in the coming months. Feel free to ask more questions about how we got here, what we do, or what we're planning for the future.

The pictures for today's post are courtesy, once again, of Robyn. We get together for science and music activities once a week and last week talked about volcanoes. The kids all loved it but Robyn and I love how unimpressed they look in the pictures. Very funny. The more impressive yeast+hydrogen peroxide combination failed us (turns out that H2O2 expires--good to know!) so we had to resort of baking soda and vinegar. Oh, and Joseph has a loose tooth!


Robyn said...

This sounds great, Q! good approach!

Ladybug Mommy Maria said...

I would say that this approach is how our family homeschools as well. But it's been a natural progression! I have a post on my blog (somewhere) about classical unschooling, too. I'll have to find it!