In 2011 I lived for almost 6 months in New Zealand and worked as a nanny for a family who chose homeschooling for their two sons (5 and 13). Although I had heard of homeschooling during my pedagogy studies but it was now my first personal encounter with the alternative concept. After my arrival I learned that the family had chosen the unstructured form of homeschooling: Unschooling.
Daily routine in an unschooling family
Jeremy (names are all changed), 5 years old, on the lower end of the Autism spectrum, verbal. His 13 year old brother Quinn was educated at home because he felt he was not challenged enough in school.
Their mother Miranda, teacher, spent the whole day at home where she worked on a new business idea and learned with Quinn. Now and then I saw her writing formulas on a large, white board or did maths with Quinn.
Dad Kendrick was also at home, he worked in finance.
Although unschooling meant little to no structure, it didn’t mean that the family had no regular daily routine. Between 8am and 8:30am we had breakfast, then I went with Jeremy to the local Playcentre, at 12:30pm we had lunch, at 3pm the cookies and coffee and at 5:30 dinner.
It was very important for the family to have this routine. Dinnertime was the most important meeting. We talked about our day, what Quinn had learned, what he wants to know more about, what were highlights of the day? Everyone shared their experience. We talked about the latest news we had read in the newspaper or on the Internet or heard on the radio.
Although the family had a TV it was rarely used. Sometimes they watched a movie together on the weekend.
Jeremy wasn’t supposed to go to school and should be homeschooled just like Quinn. On one hand, Miranda didn’t want him to be exposed to health risks at school. Secondly, they wanted him to learn in his natural way without the influence of school.
The basic approach was that Jeremy should have the opportunity to learn in his natural pace in a stimulating environment. A special support was not provided. Although the family took part in a program that regularly gave tasks to the family to perform with Jeremy, there was no focus on that.
Once an occupational therapist visited and asked Miranda about their goals for Jeremy. She answered “We don’t have specific goals. If he learns, he learns.”
Quinn’s education looked a little different. He still had a lot of freedom how and what he learned. They told me that last Christmas he focused on learning to play guitar for a few weeks. He also worked on the development of a board game. However he mostly learned the subjects he would also have learned in school.
When the family decided to go on a summer vacation to the Netherlands, he began to learn dutch in order to be able to communicate while they were there.
To encourage teamwork with other children his parents sent him once a week to basketball training. He also met every Friday with other homeschooled children to work together on a project.
How I felt? Confused and challenged!
So this was my starting point: Being a social worker, working 6 years in family/social services with socially disadvantaged families and with children/teenagers with behavioral problems and a learning disability. Work with children with a challenging behavior was very structured. They needed the structure and predictability as they often had no structure at home. Structure meant attention. When there is someone who makes sure that rules are respected, there is also always someone to see if the rules are respected.
In my studies and in my work I had learned that “learning” should have a goal, something to work towards to. To be able to predict the learning process and the result, to follow a certain path, and the educator/teacher leads and guides the child through the education process, which was extremely important – so at least I had learned.
And then I came into this unstructured concept and I suddenly was facing a situation where I had to let go and follow the learning process of the child, not supporting and challenging all the time, not demanding to establish a plan how a particular result can best be achieved.
Honestly, I was close to my limit. While I had got to know a very laid back and relaxed approach in early childhood education through Playcentre, I now found myself confronted with an equally relaxed approach in the school system. I always had this idea that children learn through play in daycares and at school they learn highly structured subjects. But there was no schedule. Little to no structure.
At first I thought it was very chaotic and a LONG day! I was used to that time passes by very quickly because in social group work we always had activities going on. But here it felt like time stopped all of the sudden because I followed Jeremy’s learning pace – which meant we sometimes sat for 1 hour on a bench and just watched a construction site – he loved it! Just observing and discovering.
My biggest challenge was to let go. Sitting back and observe together with Jeremey. Letting go of the thought that I as the professional expert should now intervene and guide or direct him.
This is the difficulty of unschooling. There is a fine line between directing and letting go. Unschooling is about a stimulating learning environment, it’s about reacting to stimuli from the environment, stimuli that are interesting for the child. Of course, I was able to implement some elements into his learning environment but it shouldn’t be too much directed by me. It was all about the child’s interests and needs.
I often had a desire to talk to the parents and enforce my methods. But I felt that would have been disrespectful. They had chosen this approach, they are the child’s parents. They have the right to decide what form of education their child gets. No one should take that away from them nor judge about it.
I supported Jeremy so in his learning process as much as I could and tried to modify my work within the unschooling approach. That was not easy but I learned a lot! Especially about how we see children. How their learning process is influenced by adults – and how difficult it is for adults and especially professional experts to let go and engage with the child’s learning pace.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we meet children and teenagers with special needs. I was used to that deficits need to be fixed. On the paper, in pedagogical approaches, is written a lot about “strength-orientation”. However, the practice in Germany has taught me something else.
In New Zealand, I had discovered “real” strength orientation for the first time – in the unschooling and homeschooling approach. And I began to reflect my role as a social pedagogue and how I feel about my clients.
And thus the real problems started because I realized that I no longer agreed with the highly structured education systems in Germany. I had learned the difference, had seen the positive sides and saw all of the sudden that in Germany parents don’t have the right to be able to decide freely about the education of their child.
Why? Because there is not only compulsory education in Germany, you also have to attend school. Every child has to go to school. Parents have the opportunity to choose a school but they can only do that within the provided structure.
Parents in Germany are not allowed to do homeschooling and therefore the right to choose the education of their child is taken away from them.