Unschooling Resistance to Planning and Keeping Records

By Beverley Paine

Recently I was asked which of my books or articles offered the best advice to unschoolers who have to register with their state home education authority, especially for those natural learners for whom writing lengthy documents about our children’s learning feels ‘wrong’.  This is something I battled with myself as an unschooler – the need to balance my responsibility as a citizen intent on not breaking the law (even if I did disagree with it!) and my need to stay true to my beliefs and values as an educator.

However, if I’m absolutely honest and I need to be, my reticence wasn’t about a need to comply with the law, or feeling irritated that I was answerable to someone other than my children for their education. It wasn’t even being irked that I had to seek approval to home educate in the first place, or being annoyed at the silly bureaucratic paper-work and never-ending ignorance about the nature of home education by the authorities. What made me balk most was a deep seated insecurity based on my perception that I was being judged as a parent and a person and that I would be found lacking in some way and told I couldn’t do what I wanted and needed to do. I was afraid.

Sure, all those other reasons were valid and real. I’m not making light of them. I’ve worked hard for many years to make life easier for other home educating families starting out because jumping through those hurdles is daunting. But what stops us in our tracks and makes us hesitate and feel insecure is the doubt that we’re not ‘educators’. It’s easy to think of ourselves as parents, simply getting on with life and living, playing with our children, doing our own thing and allowing learning to unfold naturally, effortlessly. We did it for our children’s first six years and no-one hassled us then: why can’t we simply continue doing it?

I truly wish it was that easy. And for some families it really does stay that easy. I wasn’t one of them. Like most unschooling families our educational journey was a huge compromise, most weeks floating somewhere between bouts of doing school-at-home and simply learning naturally. The urge to interfere, intervene, enhance, introduce new opportunities, gently direct the children into activities and directions we valued most as parents was always present. Natural learning makes sense but it is hard to describe. Most of the time we don’t know how and what our children are learning. We trust that learning is happening but deep down we’re not completely sure ‘education’ is taking place: it takes years to de-school ourselves, undo the conditioning and dismantle the myths we’ve picked up about learning and education from our personal experiences. Until that time arrives, we are constantly beset by doubt and insecurities about the efficacy of natural learning as an educational alternative to school.

And that’s where I was at. Holding desperately onto the concept of trust, keeping my fingers crossed that all would be well and my children would ‘turn out’ okay. People could see that my approach to education was producing desirable results and they wanted to know how they could replicate it. Just ‘trust’ I’d say, somewhat tentatively. It wasn’t enough. Trust in our children’s ability to learn is predicated on trust in us and that’s something our own educational experiences worked hard to eliminate! In those early weeks, months and years we need evidence and proof that natural learning is a viable and successful approach to education, if only to hold the doubts at bay when stress knocks down our convictions and life gives us a hard time. And we can count on it to do that! We need to be ready, confident and assured about home educating our children because all too often it is the first thing we think to let go, or are encouraged to give up by well-meaning others to give up.

One of the things I’ve discovered as I’ve grown older is that my memory is not as good as I think it is. And it’s subjective. The darn thing changes details on me! There’s only so much I remember and I can’t be 100% sure I’m remembering it accurately. I tell stories about my children’s early lives now and worry if that really happened. Rose-coloured glasses, tinged with the desire to meet a present need, might be misrepresenting or twisting the account. How to tell? How can I be confident talking about our home educating life to families seeking advice and reassurance? I wrote things down. I took photos. I made notes. I collected scraps of paper, drawings, kept things that meant something important at the time. I wasn’t obsessive about it (and now wish I’d taken more photos); I simply collected enough to gradually start to feel confident that what we were doing every day was a valid approach to education and that it really was working. And over time I gradually started to communicate confidently about natural learning, unschooling and home education because evidence plus trust is an incredibly winning combination!  

Here’s my take on registering as unschoolers: just because we reject school doesn't mean that we reject the very useful tools planning and recording. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t naturally make plans. And we all record some things, some more often than others for sure, but everyone keeps some kind of records. Planning and recording exist in everyday life and we constantly use them to achieve our desires more effectively and efficiently. School doesn’t have a monopoly on writing or recording plans. Every area of life uses plans. People record their plans, evaluate their plans, adjust them, review them, and renew them. Some plans live in our heads, but others, especially more complex ones, are recorded, either on paper, on our hard drives, or on our phones, because that is the only way we can recall them in the detail we require. School life may be remembered as one long tedious need to fill endless pages of paper to satisfy other people’s ambitions, but what we’re doing with our children isn’t school, it’s different and we’re doing it for different reasons. Our need to observe, reflect and record how and what our children are learning happen not because we need to be like those teachers in school, but because we want to understand our children’s needs and how we can meet them. For many unschoolers their aversion to writing, planning and recording stems from the context of meaningless activities disconnected from real purpose they experienced as children. It’s a understandable knee-jerk reaction, but it undermines the efficacy of these tools and how they can enhance and add value to their home educating lives.

I seriously think that if we have been exposed to planning and recording enhance in a natural way as children, and had we been given sensible and meaningful opportunities to practice and use these tools, we would be more comfortable and not intimidated by them as unschoolers.

Most of us don't hesitate to buy a recipe book (or download recipes off the 'net), write a list of ingredients, make the meal, adjust the recipe (jot notes on the page) to suit our taste if we're keen to make it again. Some recipe books go further: they tell you about what kitchen utensils you'll need, some basic cooking methods, how to set up your kitchen, etc.

My book Getting Started to Homeschool is a recipe book with those extra bits. In it I encourage you to write a personalised individualised curriculum for your child. A curriculum is simply a ‘course’, a plan that we propose. Plans aren’t set in concrete: they are simply suggested pathways to achieve our goals. And goals and objectives aren’t set in concrete either. They are based on our needs and desires and these constantly change. Our plans – our natural learning curricula – need to be flexible and adaptive to these changes. When following any road map we have the liberty to take another path, but if we take notes on where we’ve been we’ll remember that highlights and pitfalls and should we revisit that area – and in learning and life we constantly revisit old ‘lessons’ – we’ll do so with greater insight and understanding. That’s efficient learning.
Your unschooling ‘curriculum’ can be whatever you want it to be. If you need it to be responsive to the particular needs of the home education regulatory authorities you can shape it to suit. Using eduspeak and school subjects makes it easy for others to understand what we are talking about, but it’s not necessary. If you feel confident we can communicate our purpose and approach/methods describe your curriculum in any way you desire.

So, even though the title of my book says 'home schooling' I believe it is a great starting place for unschooling families intent on living and learning naturally. There are articles on both my Homeschool Australia and Unschool Australia websites where I talk about the necessity for writing your own unschooling or natural learning curriculum and why I honestly believe you'll be more confident throughout your home education journey if you do. I have met many unschooling families who sadly give up home educating and start seeking 'the perfect school' simply because, without planning and recording, they have no concrete evidence to convince themselves their children are learning what they  believe the children should be, especially as the children get closer to or into their teens. Or the doubts of others slowly undermine their confidence.

I started writing Getting Started with Homeschooling when our youngest, who was fully unschooled, was nine years of age. I packed into everything I knew about education from my experience as a homeschooler and unschooler, my natural learning perspective, experience as a voluntary teacher's aide in an alternative classroom, early childhood education studies at university, stints on playgroup/kindergarten/school councils, as well as everything I'd picked up from talking to hundreds of home educating families. I wrote it to meet the needs of all home educators. Back then it didn't seem to matter so much what we called ourselves...

I developed my Learning Naturally Diary for home educators who lacked confidence in allowing their children to simply play or follow their interests all day. Most parents tend not to fully value the activities their children choose, or see the intrinsic educational benefits or outcomes of them. Parents also don’t recognise the educational value of everyday activities that are naturally part of life, things that we ask our children to do to help with the smooth, efficient running of our homes and family life. By regularly recording what are children are doing, and what we bring into their lives, in the Natural Learning Diary I highlight that ALL activities in our lives are educational. We are learning all the time. And by using this form of record, hopefully we'll send a message to the authorities that home educators recognise that play and ordinary everyday activities are an important and vital part of a child's education.

Having examined many different school curricula I realised that by and large they are built on what is known about child development: that is, what children need to learn as they grow, meeting their physical and social and emotional needs. It’s not rocket science and it’s not complicated, but generations of curriculum writers have made it overly complex. What happens in our homes and as we move about our communities enjoying all the learning opportunities naturally available to our children is a complete education.

Years ago, prompted by requests by parents who felt lost when it came to planning and recording, I developed my Home Education Report system. In essence I designed it to be an easy way to retrospectively plan and record our home education life. The idea of using the terminology 'assignment' for activities came from looking at my daughter's high school report card. It was easy for me to see her brothers were doing far more activities (assignments!) that she was at school each year. I read through three different state curriculum guidelines and condensed them into one page statements for each subject. I created three levels of education (early childhood, middle childhood, and early adolescence) instead of year levels because I think stages make more sense than age when it comes to childhood development. The idea is to use this ‘objectives’ part of the Report as your curriculum (though it isn't individualised and does include a lot of eduspeak!) The blank pages are for recording the ‘assignments’ (activities, unit studies, outcomes of hobbies, etc). While your children simply get on with whatever they choose to do each day you are making brief notes and recording their ‘education’ in a form that suits bureaucracy and will help you build confidence.

The Sample Natural Learning Learning Program and Review is one a friend gave me permission to publish several years ago. She initially had trouble getting approval in South Australia when she stated her intention to allow her children to learn naturally. After a provisional registration period she produced an incredibly detailed review. Together with her planned learning program, the document shows natural learning at work, but described in a way that educators can easily understand. I published it to show families that you can do what you want and still satisfy the needs of the authorities. We don't have to sacrifice how our children live and learn because we are recording what is happening, we simply only need to record our plans and keep some samples of our children’s work to illustrate the learning that is happening. Planning and recording are useful aides to many things in life anyway and we already use them for some things, why not this too?

So, for writing unschooling learning plans (curriculum) for the purposes of registration I would recommend:

* Getting Started with Homeschooling Practical Considerations
* Learning Naturally Diary

* Home Education Report (whichever one suits your child)

* Sample Natural Learning Program

Available from my daughter's website: http://alwayslearningbooks.com.au/.

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