I had a conversation with an unschooling friend not long ago. We were talking about the way concerned family members express their doubts about unschooling. She shared that her own mother rarely asks about their unschooling life because it's just easier to not know all the details. My friend figures that by not asking for details, her mom can create her own, more easily digestable version of what their homeschooling life looks like. This makes sense to me. Unschooling confuses lots of people. No school? How ever will they learn?
My friend did go on to report, however, that her mom recently dipped her toe in the pool, so to speak, and asked a few questions. They were chatting on the phone and her mom asked how the kids were and what they were up to. After my friend responded that all was well and that their circus class was a highlight, her mom cleared her throat.
"Honey, I'm just wondering," she stammered. "How are they going to get, you know, general knowledge, without ever having been to school?"
My friend and I laughed as she continued telling me about the conversation. Admittedly, our laughter comes from a place of total confidence in our children and their healthy development and full, vibrant lives. Long distance relatives clearly don't have the same advantage.
But she brings up an interesting point, I think. General knowledge. Hmmmmm. Let's see. Does she mean those mundane and completely irrelevant details that we all spent hours and hours memorizing in school so that we can to this day amaze our friends when we play Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy? Or maybe she's talking about the information someone needs in order to successfully navigate the world around them. Could general knowledge also be the set of skills which allow someone to complete a particular task? Could it be that general knowledge is simply a term people use to describe the kind of smarts that a person should have so as not to appear stupid or ignorant? I don't know about you, but I didn't learn "general knowledge" in a classroom. I learned it everywhere else.
When I reflect on the times in my life when I have felt that I should have known something that I didn't, I am unanimously reminded of school. Tests, exams, oral reports, pop quizes. I learned at an early age that it was very important to have the right answer at all times, and to never look foolish.
The thing about unschooled kids, though, is that they usually don't struggle with the same need to perform. Feelings of inadequacy are rarely associated with how much you know about a particular topic. Because learning is not associated with performance and is something done purely by internal motivation, unschooled kids often skip this unnecessary and painful rite of passage. If you don't believe that memorizing bits of information to please and amaze your teachers and friends at school is important, then it doesn't matter anyway.
I shared in a post recently that my daughter Macy didn't even flinch when a well meaning friend asked her to name a particular state on the wall map. When I say she didn't flinch, I don't mean that she answered the question immediately. She didn't. Rather, she asked a question in return: "Why?" I was stunned, and proud. I took her question to mean: "What relevence does that bit of information have for you and why are you putting me on the spot?"
My unschooling friend and I agreed that in this day and age, it takes about 12 seconds to Google something and find out that little factoid you never knew. I recall at some point in Junior High or High School memorizing the three branches of our US government and their particular functions. I passed that test way back then and maybe even wrote a paper about it. I don't remember those details today. I don't need them. But when I do, I know who to call and where to look. That works just fine for me.
My kids are learning that I don't know everything and that learning who to ask is half the fun. At a family gathering recently, a distant relative asked about homeschooling. "So you are the children's only teacher?" I smiled and tried not to laugh. I politely explained that I was only one of many, and that I learn just as much from my children as they are learning from me.
Becky is the unschooling mother of three (Janey, 12, Macy, 10 and Charley, 7) attempting to raise her children with compassion and respect. She taught elementary school for 9 years before discovering unschooling when it was time for her oldest to go to Kindergarten. She credits Sandra Dodd, Mary Griffith, Jan Hunt, and just about every other person she interacted with at her first HSC Home=Education conference 6 years ago, as her inspiration to find a more natural way of living and learning with children. She is a passionate and radical transportation activist and is starting a non-profit carsharing organization in her town. You can read more of what Becky has to say at http://lifewithoutschool.blogspot.com She can be reached at ashlandcarshare@gmailcom.