I’ve heard this question a few times over the last month or so. Actually, it seems to be right up there with “What about socialization?”on the list of things people say when you tell them your child doesn’t go to school. Tiresome, maybe, but it’s actually kind of an interesting question to unpack.
First of all, “keeping up” isn’t really a concept that makes any kind of sense within a framework of unschooling, but I assume that the questioner probably means something along the lines of “How do you know if your child is learning the same things as schooled children born in the same year as your child?”
Short answer (for strangers in grocery stores, my dentist, and people whom for various reasons I really would prefer not offend): Oh, he’s learning all the time.
Longer answer ( for people who are actually interested): I don’t know that at all. In fact, with the wonderful richness and variety of things there are to do and learn– and the freedom to make his own choices and explore his passions– I very much doubt that my son is learning the same things as his schooled eight year old peers. Why would he be?
Cue the next question: “But don’t you worry that he’ll fall behind?”
Short answer: Not really, no.
Longer answer: I don’t expect his learning to follow the same patterns or trajectories as that of schooled kids—or for that matter, other unschoolers. He won’t learn things in the same order or at the same pace. He’ll probably continue to delve deep into his interests, spending days and weeks and months exploring them, rather than dividing the day into short blocks of time and jumping from task to task and topic to topic.
At a given moment in time—say, age ten– an unschooler might well look “behind” a schooled kid on a standardized test. Or they might not. Either way, I’m happy that we can opt out of these comparisons and the constant assessment of learning. What meaning would it have to know that a particular unschooled kid is “behind” most school kids in, say, reading? Math? Writing? Who would that benefit?
Learning should be about curiosity and enthusiasm. It should be fun. It shouldn’t be a race. One of the great things about unschooling is the freedom to learn on one’s own schedule. What message does it send to kids if we are constantly monitoring and scrutinizing and evaluating their learning? I love that my son is free to learn in his own way, at his own pace; that he chooses what he wants to focus on; that he owns his learning and takes pride in it.
To which the questioner usually says something like, “But what if he doesn’t choose to learn, say, math?”
And it is usually math that people worry about, it seems. No one ever says, what if he doesn’t choose to learn Mandarin, or what if he never studies Mayan cultures, or what if he doesn’t learn to paint landscapes… because people generally recognize that while those things might be wonderful they aren’t necessary in day-to-day life in the way at least basic numeracy is.
Which in itself kind of answers the question, doesn’t it? No one wants to be incompetent. No one wants to be ignorant. If basic math is necessary in day to day life, it will probably be learned in day to day life. The need for it will arise naturally. Case in point: My son has never followed a formal math curriculum but he had no trouble converting between dollars and baht on our recent travels in Thailand.
But what about more advanced math?
Yup, what about it? How much do you use trig or calculus? I’m guessing, for most of us, not at all. I’m guessing most of us, if we suddenly needed it, would have to relearn it anyway. I’m pretty confident that if my son— who is, despite relative strangers’ apparent concerns about his higher math, only eight— decides to pursue an interest which leads him to encounter a need for trigonometry, he’ll learn it without too much trouble. Motivation is a wonderful thing. So is KhanAcademy.
And it probably helps if you’ve never learned that math is boring, or hard, or pointless, or that you aren’t good at it. It helps if you get a kick out of the Fibonacci sequence, watch Vi Hart videos and make hexaflexagons, and have adult friends who announce, with delight, 3:14 pm as “pi o’clock”.
Bottom line? Keeping up is highly over-rated.