The Backwoods

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Thinking Outside The School Box

Posted · 43 Comments

After eighteen years of thinking of my children’s education in what turns out to be a totally backwards way…I’m finally figuring it out.  And boy, do I feel like I stepped off the bus three stops too late.

It’s not a homeschool versus public school debate, but rather a style of learning debate that goes on inside my head lately.  I’ve been reading about the philosophies of homeschoolers and find myself more and more intrigued with the idea of ‘unschooling’.  Not because I want to sit around and do nothing, which is how it at first sounded to me, but rather because my kids may be better served armed with life skills than with math facts.

Robin is lousy at math. She has a memory disability, which makes memorizing math facts an almost impossible task.  And so, because she struggles with it, the answer has always been to focus on math.  Special services in math.  Extra math minutes in place of recess twice a week.  Repeated testing and evaluation to see how her math skills are coming along.  Clearly she is not going to have a career based on math skills, but the best thing we can do for her, as her educators, is to inundate her with math facts until by some miracle, she absorbs the material.  Sounds ridiculous when put that way, no?

Meanwhile, almost without notice, Robin is an excellent writer.  She can weave fiction together or re-create reality into words to tug at your heart.  And guess what?  She loves it.  She’ll most likely continue to write well into adulthood and maybe she’ll even make a living with words…but she already earns A’s…so what more are we to do?  She can’t divide fractions…we must focus on that!

Bull.  Robin needs creative writing free-time, not calculus.  She needs to lay in a hammock in the sun and jot down story ideas or do cross words to improve her vocabulary.  She needs exposure to classic literature, not a hundred multiplication facts a day.  She needs to have confidence, to be joyful, and yet every single day she is reminded by her math class, that she is deficient…that she is somehow less smart compared to her peers because 8th grade math is a mystery and her brain doesn’t work like theirs.  And then, to concrete that idea, we give her annual testing in which she is compared to her peers, so she can fail and do it again.  A test that reminds her she is not good enough.  Last year she was “proficient” and we all cheered, but what of the years before when she was left feeling inadequate and stupid?

And so, my argument is, why spend hours each week on trying to convince her to master a skill she struggles with, rather than apply those same hours to something she enjoys and will actually benefit her future?  Why not help her learn math through ‘life’ and stop torturing her with worksheets, giving her the free time to work on things she is really good at!

If Robin spent June through August in summer school studying math, by the end of the season she would have a grasp of geometry, on paper, and she might forget it by the time she takes another geometry class.  But if she spent that same summer helping build our cabin, using a tape measure, finding angles for rooflines, cutting up boards, building shapes, finding 16 inch centers, dividing to center the windows, computing board foot to buy and roof drops for length of boards…she would have gained actual usable skills that she will remember, time and time again.

And people would say, “Oh, she took the summer off of school…”  And this may be true, but did she take the summer off from education? Or would she gain more from those months of hands on work than from three years of pencil and paper?

On the other end of the spectrum, several of my kids will never, in their entire life, need to learn how to write a five stanza poem.  It would serve no purpose.  They may never write an email, let alone a story and their life goals are different than Robin’s. Some of my kids will gain little from a modern education.  Their time would be best spent mending fishing nets, a valuable skill in our area…or building their own cabin.  They may gain more spending five minutes listening to the old man down the road tell them the best way to tie a hook to their line, then five hours learning proper punctuation. (and I say this as a mother of multiple children who suffer brain damage, so please don’t tell me I’m belittling and short-changing my children’s futures until you’ve spent a day in my house…)

And I don’t apply this thought only to those who lack strength academically.  I also have kids in my house who excel at everything they attempt. And why can’t the same rules apply?  Would Anthony be better off reading a text about sea creatures, or at the beach exploring with his own hands and eyes, forming his own hypothesis and conclusions, then running home to Google to compare his findings? And if I force the assignments, if I require a certain number of hours sitting in front of a computer or with a textbook, am I not possibly destroying the natural thrill or his yearning for knowledge?  Whether the child struggles or if things come easy to him or her, there are clearly educational benefits to living a life free of the constraints of a classroom, whether that be in a school building or in their living room.

There must be a balance, and if the scales for our family tips more in the direction of life skills and lessons than toward formal education, it will be because we’ve carefully looked at each of our children’s situations and based our decisions on those, rather than what most think of as the norm.

I’m not discounting the value of memorizing facts or studying texts, because surely in some applications those techniques have a place.  Certainly I couldn’t have gotten through college without those skills.  And I realize one can never know which direction a child will go as they grow and develop.  But often, and perhaps more often than not, a non-traditional education is more beneficial in the long run than what we typically think of as schooling.  I only wish I’d stepped outside the box a little sooner.

43 Responses to "Thinking Outside The School Box"
  1. Truck Irwin says:

    Yay! Yay mom for learning about learning! I barely made it through school eventually getting a degree in art. Learning all of the other crap ‘because I had too!” Out in the real world I started doing some graphics work on computers and got really turned on with it… and now some 20 years later, I am enjoying a very techy, computer science career. One that requires, math, logic, writing skills and yes, even art! You don’t learn life in the classroom. You learn life out there – doing cool stuff that turns on your brain!!! Hurray!

  2. Linda McCabe says:

    Brave for your bravery! We homeschooled our two sons just the way you described here. And I would do it again in a heartbeat. We traveled, built things, read dozens of books together, they explored and pretended and created. They have both graduated from college now (both with honors, so I know they got what they needed) and have both said that they are glad we homeschooled. I too admire and respect good teachers and would not want their job, but loved doing it for our boys.

  3. Lori says:

    yes! school focuses on deficits and what a child doesn’t do well — there’s little time for giving them extra support with what they *do* do well (especially if it isn’t athletics or some club that already exists).

    good luck with your homeschooling/unschooling adventure!

  4. Stargazer says:

    Thank you for this.  I agree completely.  I’ve been a fan of your blog for quite awhile, but I am even more excited to read it now that you’re a fellow homeschooler too!  Welcome to the dark side… bwahaha!  🙂

  5. I call us “semi structured unschool”  or “child led” and it fits.  I consider cooking and building all valuable education  Way to go momma!

  6. Sara says:

    Im very dyslexic and survived my schooling through strength of personality and creative coping skills – with plenty of trouble I assure you.  It was my mother who taught me the important things in life, not my teachers (all they taught me was that there are correct answers that are required and thats that).  I endured hours of extra tutoring and I know parents are where education starts (and sadly ends in many cases).  You know your kids and clearly honour each of them for who they are and understand the importance of the best skills are not always the correct skills.

  7. annon says:

    The problem with education is that things like math are taught as facts, and units, packages to consume and regurgitate at the proper time.  Your example of building is beautiful because that is functional math.  Math that exists in the world and is useful to us can be much more easily understood than math as a conceptual exercise.  Indeed if Robin ever has the joy of truly understanding the language of math and finding that her mind can work in that way it will be a fantastically emancipating experience, but she won’t find it by crunching numbers in a room, she will find it on her own path, from a direction she follows.

    Being able to communicate with the written word is a strange and powerful gift, but the greatest talent of a writer is not just to be able to communicate but to be able to understand another’s mind and show that understanding through language.  We love authors because they speek to our minds, and our experiences.  She has to travel, and meet people and have experiences, like the ones you are giving her by building a cabin and living in nature.  And one day she will meet someone who’s mind speaks in numbers and not in words, and she will learn math through the person not from some book.  She will write then for that mind, and she will understand the beauty of numbers like she understands the beauty of words.

    Your children are indeed lucky.

  8. Peedab1111 says:

    Reminds me of a story I read once….A squirrel,, a bird and a fish went to school, of course, the squirrel exceeded expectations at the tree climbing class but failed flying and swimming, and the fish was excellent at the swimming classes but failed the tree climbing and flying class, and the bird aced the flying class, but was terrible at swimming and climbing.  So they had the fish concentrate on his flying and climbing, and the squirrel was put in remedial swimming and flying classes, and the bird was tutored in swimming and climbing.   The fish died in a flying related incident, the bird and the squirrel drowned.  Moral of the story – If they had concentrated on their strengths, instead of their weaknesses, they would have THRIVED in their intended environments.

  9. imawoman says:

    Kudos!  Too many kids graduate from high school not knowing how to spell correctly, do math without a calculator, read a map, tell the difference between astronomy and astrology, or know who our first President is.  Ditto for life skills:  many can’t cook a meal, change a tire or balance a checkbook, much less write a simple Thank You note for a thoughtful gift. 

    (Warning – Statistics, math, and finance lesson ahead):  40% of new college students have to take remedial courses.  What have our kids been doing for thirteen years, seven hours a day (not including homework time!), if they weren’t learning the basics?  Now, not only do they have to pay for that education, but they have to take out a loan to finance that education, too. 

    I just started hs’ing my two boys (12, 8) this past school year, too, mostly for academic reasons, but also for the many reasons you listed on your My WHY of Home School blog.  I wish I had started when my oldest was in Kindergarten, but every ingrained idea about getting a “proper education” kept me from taking that step.  Now I have to backpedal and try to re-ignite that desire for learning that got burnt out of my kids so long ago.  Keep hanging in there and listen to your instinct!

  10. As a kid with multiple learning disabilities, my parents took me mostly out of the public school system.  In most ways, it was the best thing they could have done for me.  I was mostly “unschooled” and learned at my own pace the things that interested me in the way that suited me best.  I truly thank them for giving me that education and the power to know how to use my strengths.  BUT, as an adult, I wish they would have gotten me more outside help in math (that is where most of my learning disability problems come from).  I’m now going back to college after 14 years.  I didn’t go to college because of my lack of basic math skills.  I know I’m not the only college student struggling with math, but I go back in my head over and over wishing I would have learned math in junior high and high school.  I really wish my parents would have made me spend more time on what I wasn’t good at.   I don’t want you to think what you are doing is wrong, I agree with “unschooling” most of the time.  I think it really can be the best way to learn.  Unfortunatly, many parents forget that when kids grow up, with a learning disability or not, they are too often held to the same (unrealistic) standards.
    So often, as an adult, I have been passed over for opportunities, jobs, etc, that I was highly qualified for, because of my “lack” of traditional education.

  11. CK says:

    I think you hit on something that public education seems to miss time and time again: destroying the natural thrill and yearning for knowledge.  When learning is interesting and fun, the information is retained.  What you are doing for your children is wonderful.  They will benefit and continue to learn over an entire lifetime, opposed to only learning enough to be graduate.  And what they are learning is more valuable and beneficial in the real world than much of what is taught in public schools.  Bravo for you…and your kids!

  12. Chelsie says:

    Here! Here!
    Do you know about this blog?
    They’re an unschooling family of 4 & her most recent post may hit home for you 🙂

  13. MickelsonBJ says:

    I think I like the taste of everything in this post…maybe, except one idea. I also struggled through math during most of school as a kiddo. Not enjoyable. But, I learned to work hard at something I wasn’t gifted at, be resourceful in getting help from parents, peers, and teachers, pray for help when I knew I needed Heaven’s assistance, and finally “crack the code” so to speak and find some success. I never really liked math, but I loved being able to finally feel some success in something that was not a natural fit for me. That experience has benefited me in many other aspects of life — even things I feel come a bit more natural.

    I know that you’re not recommending that children not try things that come less-naturally to them, so I’m trying not to over-state my point.

    Good post!

  14. John says:

    I love this article – so true; and “This I Believe” just illustrates it perfectly – what a brilliant piece of writing that is!

    I’ve said this kind of thing before at work – we can get really hung up on those things we’re not great at and it has very little impact.  Take a sportsman or woman – a really elite one – take Lance Armstrong: he didn’t get to win the Tour de France seven times by concentrating on his… pole vaulting (or whatever), he did it by working hard (really, really, really hard) on his bicycle and becoming the best at what he was already good at.

    People all need to understand their strengths as well as their weaknesses – these are what define us and make us individuals.  If we focus on our weaknesses (especially if we do that at the cost of focussing on our strengths) we’ll just all be bland average and pretty much the same as each other.  Where’s the personality in that?

  15. Bobbyspain says:

    the standards that are artificially set be people who dont know you ,or your kids may just have to be ignored . my dad went thru 7 th grade , but he could build a large fine house or a small beautiful piece of furniture . i envy people who end up getting to be who they are and not who they have to be made into. my son had adhd and a short span of concentration. he graduated summa cum laude and is a television news director, an occupation he didnt even think about till college. youre kids ought to get to be , or do , what means most to them in their lives. sometimes they wont know what that is until it jumps up in their faces. help them with their hearts and the rest will just follow.

  16. Tyme2fly_lydia says:

    Bravo! Bravo!   I just wished I knew more about Homeschooling when my kids were young….   I know your kids will reach the stars and grow in leaps and bounds  ~ AT HOME!

  17. Erica says:

    I have been thinking about this same thing for the past couple days and today a friend posted a link to  this post and another friend posted about unschooling. Seems like my search for what to do and direction to take has been answered. 

  18. Jennymacballard says:

    Great post! 
     My son struggled with a learning challenge his whole school career.  Educators acknowledged his problem, but admitted they had no way to help. Yet still they criticised us when we allowed him to leave school a year early. He learnt more in 2 years on his own, than they manage to instil in him in 11 years. Best decision we ever made.  He’s now 25 and earning a good living with practical skills, even does his own taxes LOL

  19. Marcia says:

    As my son goes through the public school system, I can see reasons more and more why people would homeschool.  However,  I don’t know if I agree with the “unschooling” aspect of it….or maybe it is the WORDS “unschool” that I have a problem with.  I saw a bunch of episodes on TV about unschooling and let me tell you I couldn’t stand the parents views on education and learning.  The  kids spent almost all day every day playing video games.  THIS will not help them with anything in their future….except maybe hand/eye coordination…yeah right!  The parents let the kids choose to play video games and/or watch tv for as long as they wanted every day.  What you are talking about in your blog makes total sense.  There are however, some math skills and some spelling skills that are pratical and needed for everyday use….such as counting money money or knowing how to spell enough to write invoices for cutomers if you own a business…etc…I like your description of unschooling because it really focuses on the child’s strengths and the future of the child, which really makes sense.  I think you shouldn’t call yourself unschooling because really that is not the truth you are just being more creative in your homeschooling.  One question I have, though, is do you feel that your children will understand a routine and schedule with being homeschooled?  With any job or business you still are going to have to deal with a schedule or routine…getting up at a certain hour…starting business at a certain hour, etc.  love your writing!!  keep up the great parenting.

  20. Kristy K. James says:

    Amen to that!  I’ll never use the knowledge I learned in science, algebra and other useless classes.  What a waste of time.  Educators need to figure out where a student’s interests and abilities lie…and then plan their education accordingly. 

  21. Lks says:

    Ah Keri, you love to stir the pot!  I know you well, well enough to trust that you can do this, and do it well.  What ever you decide, you will put thought, discussion and evaluation into to see if it is working.  You are also an amazing person at looking through strength based glasses – and I adore that!  What scares the crap out of me, is that most people should not do what you are doing, should not adopt special needs children, should not home school and should never consider home school without a structure.  I know you can do an amazing job,( don’t worry, I know you will screw something up and are not perfect) – but the discussion and example worry me.

  22. katt says:

    Wish the public school special ed dept I teach in thought the same way. I can only keep working with IEPs and scheduling classes accordingly and hoping for the best. Luckily, some parents are willing to see that their son/daughter isn’t meant for writing, math, science, etc and is willing to focus on their strengths, encouraging them to pursue that which they enjoy and can hopefully use to support themselves post-high school/college. Good for you for seeing what your children’s futures hold and giving them the tools to be great!

  23. Mjsmamma says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, even though my 7th grade daughter attends public school, where she is a straight A student and excels at math, science, art and music. I wish I could test my theory that her love of learning was fostered by me, thank you very much.

    When she was very little (3-5), if she showed an interest in something, that’s what we’d focus on. You want to watch turtles mate in the street? Ok, we’ll sit, and after an hour when my butt is numb and I suggest let’s give them some privacy, yes I will take a picture to remember. You want to build a lizard trap that partially blocks the back door? Ok, and guess what? It caught a freaking lizard! 🙂 Whenever she had a question that I couldn’t answer intelligently, or even if I thought my opinion could be better informed, off we went to the library. Through her, I saw the world in a different light, and was encouraged to give her as much information as I possibly could, and let her run with it.

    And when she started school, I asked for ‘enrichment activities’ that would take what she was learning beyond the written word. It certainly helped her better understand her assignments.

    Recently, the assignment was to come up with a fake product and make packaging and an advertising campaign. I asked her why couldn’t we try and make your NannerNut cookies and put the packaging to use? Ok, so they were totally disgusting, lol, but her and her partner had a blast trying and they were really proud of their accomplishment.

    I commend you for your bravery to home school, and although I wasn’t
    able to home school, I think parents can just talk with their kids and give them the opportunities to learn more fully. Of course, now Google would be a faster source than driving to the library every day! 🙂

  24. Kasey says:

    I agree with you one hundred percent. Spot on.  You are an amazing, perceptive mother.  How many people do we know who have spent thousands of dollars to provide our kids with a college education, only to have them end up working in retail, cleaning houses, waiting tables because they could not get a job in the field they majored in?  Meanwhile, they are faced with years of debt to pay off student loans.  I say our children need more life skills and less useless memorizing or being forced to fit in someone else’s idea of a perfect box.  Stick to your guns.  Your kids will grow to be amazing adults.

  25. Tiffany Haller says:

     Amen!  I have a 16 year old that has always struggled with math.  From the time she was in 3rd grade, the school recognized that there was a problem and proceeded to bombard her with math.  She would take a math class with the rest of her grade, then take a remedial class to teach her what she was supposed to have learned earlier in the day.  This went on for 3 years.  She doesn’t get it, and you can’t make her.  Now throw in her 15 year old brother (you know the one) who is freakishly gifted at math, earning several perfect scores on his standardized tests, while she is always in the 1oth percentile.  Yeah, that makes her feel even worse about good ‘ol MATH!  But put that girl in the kitchen, and look out.  1/4 cup of this and 1/3 of that, no problem!  Her brain just picks thing up a bit differently.  The school system does not have the madpower to accommodate her needs, fortunately for us, her brother is now in high school.  We have a sort of “one room school house” thing going here because we are so small, (7 kids in the high school) so he is able to help her in class.  I have struggled with thoughts of pulling her out of school all year, I just don’t think I would be the kind of help that she needs.  You are an amazing Mom, Keri, I wish I had the smarts to do what you do.

  26. Lauriebak says:

    Bravo!  Gardener’s Multiple Intelligences is a fact of life, not just good pedagogy.  I’m really glad you are putting it to work with your kids and encouraging their strengths!!

  27. Perrydise4 says:

    As a fourth grade teacher, I wish every administrator and person in public office could grasp the fact that being able to pass a test isn’t what every child needs. Life skills, learning to get along with others and finding joy in everyday far exceeds any end of level school. I wish you were my principal. You really get it!

  28. Pawsnivy953 says:

    YOU know your children well…whatever Robin’s path…don’t let her be brought down by test scores…teach to her strengths…your thinking is spot on…and I am a public school teacher…all children can learn…but not all children learn in the same way…it sounds like you have your answer…

  29. Mara Maxwell says:

    How do you let go and let them choose?  This is my first year and how do you not say hey we are going to do math spelling and la science history, How do you start a day off?  please give me a scenario?  

  30. Mara Maxwell says:

    You are a breath of fresh air 😉  I too started homeschooling this year. I am struggling with trying to fit my daughter in a traditional setting get so much work down in a day blah blah blah.  And when I step back and look at the whole.  I find my daughter is either unhappy, stressed and yelling at me.  I see myself frustrated and trying to understand why its not clicking.  why I lay out a certain amount of work and expect it to be down by the the days ends and she messes around the whole time. Day after day.  Not that she doesn’t understand it I know she does because there are days when she is so focused as in a classroom setting and its done asap. WOW I am so pleased. I want more days like that I tell her.  But maybe this is not the right way to do it. The school year will officially be over May 18, and things have gotten a bit better but not to my liking. So maybe I need to sit back and let her drive.  I do belong to a Charter School that I have an assigned Education Specialist and we meet once a month and go over her work and she collects a sample from each subject.  I feel like I have to have a certain amount work down but she never says its to little or too much. I tend to stress about it. But after the meeting I am always feeling great and pumped that I am doing good 😉  This week she starts STAR testing CA state tests and we have been working on math and LA to make those test scores high.  But after I am going to let her drive for awhile I will try my hardest to let go of control.  Pray for me so I can let go.  

  31. I have been considering unschooling as well. After 6 years of eclectic relaxed homeschooling, I believe we are moving to the unschool direction. I feel that my kids learn so much more when they are doing what interests them.

  32. With my children’s struggles in the public school system and the frustration I have with teachers violating the terms of their IEP’s because they want to see what they can do without the assistance I wish I could sometimes do this. In one instance the math teacher did timed math quizes and graded them because she wanted to see how quickly her students could accomplish the problems…grrrr… got them finally excused from grading after a big battle. In the mean time my child felt like she was the dumbest one in the room because she only got about a 1/4 of the problems done. This is not the case but in the public school system academically she suffers because of her learning disabilities.

    • You have to remember that teachers are being told what to do in their classrooms by administrators. This teacher may have had no choice in the matter. And now, people are calling for teacher’s pay to be based on student performance, when not all students learn the same way is a terrible idea. And when parents are neglecting their children’s education. My husband has spent our money on supplies, food and clothes for the kids he teaches because their parents spend any money they have on the latest phones and gadgets and designer clothes. Blame the system, not all the teachers. There are bad teachers but there are fewer than you think.

  33. LSF says:

    you understand your children…..and you said it best…..and you have to decide what will work best for them!  how exciting it must be to do what you can and know is best for them! 

  34. Karen Loethen says:

    Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, I am coming to the same thought that “unschooling” might make more sense.  For all of these years I have struggled to “teach”…stuff.  I find that I am constantly redefining things in my head and unschooling is what makes sense to me.  Why teach and push and struggle with things that don’t work for you?  I remember LOTS of focus on math when i was a kid…I STILL can’t do math!  All that focus did was make me feel ignorant.Instead, why did no one focus on what a writer I am?  I am a very good writer, but no one ever said so back then…Hey, you live and you learn. 
    And that goes for US as the parents.  Living and learning…not a bad way to live.

  35. Loisgroat says:


  36. Mollyjojo13 says:

    Brought tears of joy to my face,I love to hear this! Yes you are amazing, and sharing with so many. Thank you

  37. Julie Tipton says:

    I love reading your views on education!  As a public school teacher and a parent they often give me lots of food for thought:)

    • Oh, thanks, Julie! That means a lot coming from a teacher…as I’m just floundering through and it’s nice to have some validation from someone with experience!  I have teacher friends who agree…who have taught my own kids…but the model of the classroom needs restructuring in many situations. Our local school is leaning towards a more hands on education…which I would love to see happen. 

      • Barbara DenBoer says:

        You’re absolutely right!  I love the more hands-on stuff.  I figure I get more accomplished when we immerse in a fun writing project rather than a paper for a paper’s sake. 

  38. Diane Cameron says:

    Amazing, you are just simply amazing!  No one knows your children’s needs better than you do, so you are the best teacher for them hands down.  I think it is awesome that they are learning every minute even if they don’t know it! 🙂

  39. Paula Colvett says:

    Excellent, excellent, excellent article!  

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