Unschooling With A Curriculum Pt 3: 9 Things To Avoid

You can read part one of this series here and part two here, and follow it up with part 4 here.

I thought I’d address some of the things John Holt encourages avoiding when unschooling homeschooling. A lot of these are good general advice and a great way to incorporate unschooling methods into your home, even if your children attend a traditional school.

1) Don’t Ask Leading Questions
    If you have ever helped your children with homework you’ve seen the side effects of this…”but Mom, that’s not how the teacher told us to do it!” Most school curriculum makes questions so specific, and taught in such a limited way, that children are often not able to transfer what they’ve learned to the same problem phrased a different way. And it’s not just children…think about all the parents claiming they have no idea what their children’s common core homework is even asking them to do. Jerome Bruner said that much of what we do in school only makes children feel that they do not know things that they knew perfectly well before we began to talk to them. In our curriculum it would have units studying the parts of speech and insisting a child learn “the rule that verbs need nouns,” or something like that. I’d think, My daughter has never once said, “Need I that!” in reference to needing something, or at least not since she was two and learned the rules of speech (without, I may add, anyone teaching them to her). 
2) Don’t assume all learning takes place with you as an authority figure
Most learning in fact takes place through interaction. Bruno Bettelheim has pointed out that when a child’s efforts to get a response from the world and the people around him fail more than a few times he may well decide that there is no use trying. For a long time I struggled getting my daughter to be engaged in her learning but as soon as I approached her as not an unbending authority figure but as a mother eager to listen and engage with her, my responsiveness changed into an eagerness and williness on her part to try at school. We know that this is true especially for babies who are encouraged to talk more with their parents. Initial studies proved that the more words a baby hears earlier on, the more intelligent they are later in life. Further studies showed the connection to be less about the vocabulary, and more about the parents engagement and encouragement of the child’s language development.
3)Avoid correcting (learning) mistakes
Children learn independently through successive approximations. They do something, compare the results with the goal, see differences, and try to reduce those differences. This can clearly be seen in children learning to talk. Adults could not, even if they tried, correct every verbal mistake an emerging talker makes, yet children learn to correct themselves through discovering that their message is not having the intended effect. Correcting learning mistakes is not only needless when children are motivated towards a goal, but they hamper the desire to reach that goal, and the confidence of the child that they are capable of figuring it out themselves. Mistake correcting leads children into a habit of silence, false guessing, and refusal to actively participate. 
David Hawkins, who has written extensively about the benefits of “messing around,” writes that, “When the mind is evolving the abstractions which will lead to physical comprehension, all of us must cross the line between ignorance and insight many times before we truly understand.” Mistakes are beneficial and should be treated as such.
4) Don’t teach without being asked
Way way too often parents rush in to help their children before they ask for assistance. We’ve all heard that screaming, “Mommy no! I can do it!” Things don’t change much when children get older. Unwanted assistance, or even unwanted information says to children, “I know you’re proud of yourself for knowing/doing this, but you actually are still very incompetent and don’t know ALL about it like I do.” Think about how infuriating it was when your older siblings would spout off their knowledge when you just shared yours, or when a co-worker or friend buts in with unsolicited advice. No one, no matter their age, likes it. This is partly why allowing children to learn on their own terms can be so successful. By teaching we are almost always implying that they not only lack knowledge but lack the ability to get the knowledge themselves. Of course, in a school environment children are so accustomed to being the lowest on the knowledge totem pole they wont take the initiative to learn themselves. It took a year of my refusal to help my daughter learn things before she began taking initiative herself. It’s better to not allow these tendencies towards lazy learning to even develop,
5) Don’t do all the talking
In classrooms the only person who really gets to talk is the teacher. Un-manipulated conversation, by which I mean not answer-pulling or trying to get them to talk so certain points come up, is not only a way for children to answer their questions but for new questions to develop, and the process of learning to continue. Conversations do and should lead and digress all over the place. Allow it to happen. Your children may not learn what you wanted them to, but they will surely learn something and develop those all important neural connections.
Explanations can leave much uncertain. We think that if we are able to phrase something in just the right way, our meaning would become clear. We only have to look at the rush of couples divorcing for communication problems to see that we are not good at doing this though, not at all. Look at these early paintings of elephants that were done by an artist who only had one described to him. Even the best combination of words is likely to fail.

6) Learning takes time. Don’t rush it.
One of the main reasons that people say they homeschool is so that their children can learn at their own pace. When learning to read it can be really frustrating when your child will sound out a word, turn the page, see the same word, and be unable to say it. It’s not that they have faulty memory, but that their memory hasn’t yet become accustomed to recognizing word patterns. Don’t assume they’re not smart, or not trying (as I did quite a bit our first year), but let them take their time. Schools place heavy emphasis on pointing out and correcting mistakes, over and over and over. But part of the motivating factor in things like reading is getting to the story. In trying to figure out what is going on, “perfection” in sounding out words is left by the way side. This is why children who learn to read on their own terms have very high levels of reading comprehension while schools are struggling with it. Learning to read accurately comes with practice, and practice is easier when you enjoy your task. Schools flip this by emphasizing accuracy through forced practice, leaving children unwilling to read, and unsure how to focus on story meaning. 
7) Or inhibit it.
The other downside of a set curriculum is that it does not create relevancy with children. In On Learning to Read, Bruno Bettleheim talks about children who were so deeply shamed and insulted by the stupid material they were required to read aloud and the equally stupid questions they were continually asked that they could not and would not respond to them. If you’ve ever looked at a first grade beginning reader you will understand why first graders would be unwilling to read them. The material is bland, the sentences mean nothing, there is no reason why they would WANT to read them. My daughter has such a hard time reading but she constantly begged to be able to read chapter books. I finally said yes, and after discovering they were too hard, we began working with more complex picture books, like the Henry and Mudge series. Her “reading level” was not close to the level of these books but she struggled through them, with a lot of help from me, and her reading has improved more in the past couple of months than it did all last year. The same could be said for the questions I’m often supposed to ask her about the book. “Why did Henry give Mudge his crackers?” Because he was sick! Duh! I read the thing, that was the whole point of the story! Things like whether she makes side comments to me, laughs, puts on a sad face, show me a lot better whether she is comprehending the story than those insulting questions would.
8) Don’t encourage seeking teacher approval
By this I mean, don’t encourage children when they second guess their answers against you. Children, especially when often subjected to tests and other examples of their mistakes, will begin to feel wrong, even about their correct hunches. So they seek approval from their teacher, coming up and asking “Is this right?” I’ve flat out refused to answer that question. “How can you check it yourself?” is the best answer to these questions. My husband and I were both shocked at how many student at our university would walk up to the professors and ask, “Is this right?” even during examinations. College age students who are not able to do anything without adult-approval and a pat on the back is the result of an excess of focus being put on correctness in schools.
9) Don’t force uninteresting topics
This is relevant to all children but it causes the most trouble with poor or inner city children in public school. Relevancy in the material they are reading, the topics they cover in history and science is almost always absent. Most readers and workbooks have little in common with the daily life of these children. Sesame Street was such a break through program in part because it presented learning material in a setting that city children would understand. Opponents to standardized testing often oppose them because they place already disadvantaged children at more disadvantage, by using problems that are outside their scope of reality. If you’re a boy who has never seen a horse, it is much harder to read a story about a girl who loves horses and comprehend her possible motives.If you are concerned about your children have a limited scope don’t expand your material, expand their experiences. 

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