Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Breaking News: Unschoolers Not as Good at School as Schooled People

Seems there was a study that came out a few weeks ago, which came to the conclusion that unschooling does not "work" as well as either schooling or structured homeschooling.

I realize I'm a little late on addressing this one, considering it's a study that was published in early September, so has already been blogged about pretty extensively, but with how little time I've spent at home (or at the very least in my home city--my family is currently staying in an apartment while some major repairs/renovations are going on at our house) in the last month (I've been in Ontario, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine) this is the first time I've been able to get around to it!

I'd suggest reading the whole press release, though I find these parts especially relevant:
"The investigation compared 74 children living in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: 37 who were homeschooled versus 37 who attended public schools. Participants were between 5 and 10 years old and each child was asked to complete standardized tests, under supervision of the research team, to assess their reading, writing, arithmetic skills, etc."

"The study included a subgroup of 12 homeschooled children taught in an unstructured manner. Otherwise known as unschooling, such education is free of teachers, textbooks and formal assessment.
'Compared with structured homeschooled group, children in the unstructured group had lower scores on all seven academic measures,' says Martin-Chang. 'Differences between the two groups were pronounced, ranging from one to four grade levels in certain tests.'
Children taught in a structured home environment scored significantly higher than children receiving unstructured homeschooling. 'While children in public school also had a higher average grade level in all seven tests compared with unstructured homeschoolers,' says Martin-Chang." 
Upon reading that, a couple of things immediately come to mind:
  1. The method of judging "success" that was chosen was standardized tests.  Schooled kids and schooled-at-home kids practice tests all the time.  They get good at taking tests, because they take tests.  Young, unschooled children who are not used to tests obviously will not be as good at taking tests, regardless of how much knowledge they have in the areas they're being tested on.  Unschoolers don't generally aim to be "successful" by being good at tests: they aim to be successful by being good at living life!
  2. Unschoolers learn on their own timeline.  The children in this study were between 5 and 10, and were being tested on the things the educational system has decided should be known at age 5 or age 7.  I couldn't even read until age 8 or 9, so if I had been tested at age 7 or 8, I would have been way below "grade level." However, that doesn't seem to have harmed my ability to read now...  I don't really agree with using standardized testing as a way to judge achievement and success at all, but even just going with those by-grade-level tests as a way to meassure such things, I feel that were the study to instead look at teenagers, say, between 14 and 18, the results likely would have been quite different...
  3. The definition of unschooling that was used seems less than accurate.  No teachers or textbooks?  As I've said before, unschooling doesn't have to mean unstructured.  It just means that unschoolers have the freedom to choose more or less structure.  So if (rather unsurprisingly) the authors of the study--the ones separating the children involved into different categories--don't even know what unschooling is, it doesn't seem that that separation will be very accurate. 
I also take issue with the fact that one of the professors overseeing the study notes that this is one of the first "nonpartisan" studies to compare school, homeschooling, and unschooling, when as Wendy Priesnitz points out, an academic institution, using the tools and criteria of an academic institution, is reviewing academic institutions (like schools), it's hardly nonpartisan.

Of course, the author of the study also had to throw in a little comment about how structured homeschooling may provide academic success, but that school is an important place for socialization.  I don't think I even need to add any comments to that one.

This study joins the many other studies showing that homeschoolers do better on standardized tests than do schooled kids, which isn't really surprising.  And I don't personally feel that yet another study saying so adds anything to the home education movement as a whole.  We already know that, and personally, I'm just tired of standardized tests being held up as the one and only sign of success for children and teens.  Instead, I worry that, as flawed as the methods in this study are, it will add fuel to the fire of disapproval directed at unschoolers, both from society at large and from within the home education community.

And all of this just brings me back to a question that seems to keep coming up in my life lately: what, exactly, constitutes success?  If you're using test scores as your criteria, then those 12 young unschoolers who participated in the study are failures.  But if your criteria are different, if instead you're looking--actually looking, not just marking tests and studying at a distance--for things like passion, joy, involvement, curiosity, excitement, learning, then I'm quite sure your results are going to look very different.

And really, which one would you prefer?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Against the Current: Talk from the Toronto Unschooling Conference

I just arrived home yesterday from the Toronto Unschooling Conference, which was a truly lovely weekend.  Talking to lots of cool people, hanging out and just relaxing...  And, of course, presenting a talk.  Being the perfectionist that I am, I still have some feelings of oh, I should have written the talk sooner.  I should have practiced it more.  I should have spoken slower.  But honestly?  Overall I'm pretty happy with how it went!

It really is too long for a blog post, yet unlike last year's talk, I really don't feel like this one can be broken up into multiple posts.  So, I shall simply post it all despite it's length, with a "read more" option so people who aren't interested don't have to scroll forever to get to older posts...  So, here it is!

Against the Current

When I was six, I went to a street fair with my mother.  My little sister was probably there, too.  There were booths, from different companies and organizations, as there are at every street fair I’ve ever been to.  One of them was about the meat industry—it was probably PETA—and I think that’s the first time my young self made the connection between those furry and feathery creatures I so enjoyed spending time with, and the food on my plate.  Right then and there, I decided I was no longer going to eat meat.
I don’t even truly remember this incident.  When I try and pull it up in my mind, all I get is the shadowy almost-memory of a story told so many times, you can almost see yourself there.  My mother is the one who always told me this story, until I got older and started repeating it myself to those who queried me in-depth about my dietary choices.
I didn’t stop eating meat right away.  As determined as I was at six, Chicken McNuggets and hot dogs proved too much of a temptation right up until I was eight and gave those up for good, too.
But the decision was made at six, the summer after my parents pulled me out of kindergarten, and looking back now, I feel like that was probably the first major decision I made in my life that went against the current.  It seemed like everyone else ate meat, but this was not something I wanted to participate in.  This is yet another time when I’m so grateful to have parents that supported such a decision, despite my young age.
Now, this isn’t meant as a morality tale.  Though I still don’t eat meat, I’m not interested in convincing people to change their diets, and that’s definitely not the point of this speech.
It’s just an interesting example of how making decisions counter to those of the dominant culture started early on in my life.
Just by virtue of unschooling, all of us here have made a radically different choice in how we live and learn than that of the mainstream.  Whether you chose to never send your kids to school, pulled them out later on, or decided yourself to leave school, it was a huge decision, likely accompanied by much soul-searching and thought.  Possibly also a large amount of reading and researching and discussion.  Maybe you just followed what felt right.  But whatever path lead you away from schooling, I’m sure the impact of that choice was felt in a profound way.
Yet as big a thing as unschooling is in our lives, sometimes I think it isn’t apparent to others just how very many choices we’re making differently in our day-to-day lives.  Not only does the unschooled child answer with a shrug and a “why on earth should I know that??” look when asked what grade they’re in, the unschooled parent winces when they hear a parent, as so often happens, threaten to leave their child (who is very much enjoying themselves sitting on the plastic pony in the mall) behind if they don’t come right now!  The unschooled parent likely doesn’t understand how parents can scold their children for getting dirty, or rejoice at the beginning of each school year, or if they do understand, they shake their head sadly at their memories of a less enlightened time.
As an unschooling teen, one may make sympathetic noises when their friends complain about being grounded yet again, while secretly just not getting it.  Not allowed to go anywhere?  Why would parents do that?  And why are they listening, anyway?  Can’t they just… walk out?
Then there are the news stories on TV about back-to-school, the article in the paper about the importance of preschool in a child’s later “academic success”, the advertisement on the bus shelter about the failure a person will be if they don’t go to university…
In a hundred different ways or more, day by day, the society around us is telling unschoolers what they’re doing is wrong.
And that’s just unschooling.  If you’ve also made other different and radical choices in how you live, if your views on many other things are very different from the dominant culture, it gets even worse.
So how do you navigate in a world where you live so differently from those around you?  How do you find and maintain community?  How do you deal with the constant pressure to conform to the edicts of the dominant culture?  These are questions I think a lot about in my own life, and am continually attempting to answer.