Beverley Paine on Home Education and Unschooling, an interview 2014
Personal experience as a student, classroom volunteer, home educating parent and support person made me aware of the considerable and important differences between the nature and characteristics of children learning from home as compared to school. Home education offers children and parents access to additional time and resources to fulfill their mutual and individual educational and social goals. There is considerably less emphasis on competitive education, with children focusing on developing self-confidence through increasingly having a voice in the direction and content, as well as the how and why, of what they learn. More importantly, from talking to thousands of home educating parents over two decades I have noticed that when problems occur parents work diligently to find effective and successful solutions. The daily practice and focus on helping their children learn turns parents into effective educators.
There is no right or wrong ways to home educate: practices and styles, methods and approaches are as diverse as found within parenting. We began by modelling our home learning environment and activities on our daughter's kindergarten experiences, a combination of a play-based curriculum, daily use of spelling, grammar and maths student workbooks, science unit studies, art and craft activities and reading together. I saw myself as her teacher and our day was structured around her education. Within weeks we had begun to relax into a more natural pattern of learning that was more responsive to our needs and better reflected our values and lifestyle. It didn't make sense to do pages of work or construct activities to learn something because it was next on the list. Learning worked better for both of us when it was personally meaningful and relevant. Over the next year, as we transitioned from a school-at-home approach to unschooling, building a greater understanding of how we learn naturally, I noticed that working from my daughter's educational and developmental needs as a starting place, together with my intimate knowledge and understanding of her personality, temperament and disposition, home education became easier and more efficient. Contrived lessons gradually gave way to simply learning from life.
Why did you unschool your children?
We naturally fell into a more relaxed style of education once I realised my children were learning all day, not just when I was teaching them. Not only that, but they retained what they learned without revision and had greater understanding of concepts. I was curious and started to observe how they were learning and noticed that because I was on hand all day to answer questions and offer help when asked learning was exceptionally efficient and that embedded in everyday domestic life are many of the topics covered in the classroom. As children grow, particularly in the areas of ability and responsibility, the complexity of tasks and interests also grow offering increased learning challenges. Unschooling simply happened because it made sense and worked.
How did they learn? What was a typical day?
Our lives were busy, productive and full. The children naturally encountered lots of learning opportunities through engaging with every day activities such as chores, helping us with our interests (building, landscaping, gardening, volunteering, writing, alternative technology), being involved in the community (outings, participating in events and celebrations), and pursuing their personal interests and hobbies. They responded to and used information from a variety of sources; places they visited, people they met, us, books, television, documentaries, computer programs and the internet. Learning was continuous, though not always in step with what children of similar ages would be doing at school.
A typical day would begin with the children arising at whatever time suited them individually. They would then start doing whatever they liked, usually playing or reading. Breakfast was on hand for when they were ready to eat. If I wanted to introduce an activity I would usually engage their interest before they settled into their morning game. Chores played an active role in everyday and we did these together as an integral aspect of the children's unschooling curriculum. There is a huge amount of skills, attitudes and knowledge embedded in daily chores about the home covering all areas of the curriculum, especially health, personal development, maths, language development, science.
The children would organise their own lunch and usually help prepare dinner. They would look after and play with their pets. We would do an incredible amount of talking throughout the day about what we were each doing or thinking. I developed a time saving habit of stopping my activity to attend to their needs and questions in a timely manner and found this attention prevented many of the usual disruptive behaviours seen in some of my non-home educating friends' children. We would often spend from a few minutes to sometimes hours exploring answers and problem solving.
Playing games with the children was another avenue we exploited to build and consolidate learning across the curriculum. A favourite past time was finding or making different board, card and dice games. The children also spent a lot of time outside on our four acre property, either playing, climbing trees, building cubby houses or helping us in the garden, and growing and planting trees.
Because learning was fully integrated with everyday life, 'lessons' were generally spontaneous and met the child's immediate learning need. Their personal development and growth dictated the rate and pace of their education, with their interests adding considerable scope for extension in all areas of the school curriculum in a natural way.
What do you think were the benefits of unschooling as opposed to formal education?
Unschooling is responsive to children's immediate learning needs and this makes it an incredibly efficient form of education. With support, children learn what they need to learn when they are motivated and most interested to learn. Their learning is multi-layered: on the surface an activity or question may only cover one aspect but is also answering other questions as well as completing or reinforcing knowledge previously acquired. Nothing happens in isolation, it is all interconnected. This frees up considerable chunks of time to simply do whatever it is they want or feel the need to do. Having choice within the supportive framework of the family builds responsibility and independence and strengthens children's innate motivation to be an active participant in their learning journeys.
Were there any disadvantages in your opinion?
The most compelling disadvantage is that unschooling is that very little is understood about how children (and people) learn naturally and there is considerable pressure on home educators to teach children rather than assist them in their learning journeys. I had to overcome my need to interfere and direct my children's education which usually ended up producing motivation issues and difficulties understanding concepts. I needed to de-school my thinking and learn how to match my support for their education process to meet their individual learning styles, preferences and needs. This naturally took time but meant that I got to know my children very well and this resulted in very close personal relationships which remain solid to this day.
Do schools offer anything that you cannot?
The community is a vast resource that can, with persistence and ingenuity, be tapped for learning across all curriculum areas. Schools have only just begun to haphazardly to tap into this resource in meaningful and useful ways. We had the freedom and ability to make use of what the children needed most when they needed it. It is becoming a lot easier for unschoolers to make use of the community as a resource as home education becomes more accepted as an alternative platform for education.
Learning from home was also cost effective. Apart from the obvious savings from not having to buy school uniforms, etc, our children were less affected by peer pressure, fads and fashions. They enjoyed being individuals, judging toys, clothes and gadgets on their merits and their own interests and needs.
One of the main things schools offer which we were happy to avoid was the mind-crushing inability to deal with conflict among students and sometimes between students and teachers. Conflict at home was given a priority: issues were resolved in a way that met everyone's needs and satisfaction. This wasn't easy but at least it was possible.
How did you measure the progress of your kid's learning? Did they keep pace with the educational levels of their peers?
It was my role to be observant and pay attention to their needs and interests. This deep knowledge of who they are and what they needed and interest in order to grow and develop in all areas meant it was very easy to be responsive. I kept the house stocked with a wide range of materials and resources, most of which were used voraciously. We led a busy, productive life with an emphasis on construction, recycling, repairing and reusing, building a strong work ethic with an appreciation for nature and the efforts of other people, both functional and aesthetic. This was natural and easy because it reflected and built on what interested us most, but if the children's interests and passions diverged from ours we made space in our busy life to accommodate those as well.
For registration reasons at first, then because I am very interested in how people learn naturally I kept records of my children's educational progress. I read four state and the first national curricula in order to understand what schools require of children and stayed interested in what was happening in classrooms. What I was particularly interested in is why so many children are failed by the school system and how I could avoid making those mistakes.
Keeping pace with peers was not as important as the children learning what they needed to learn at any particular point in their development as people.
What was your education? At a school? Was it a positive experience for you?
School was a positive experience for me personally although it did not adequately prepare me for an adult life or the world of work or tertiary education. There were large gaps in my education, not relating to content but to personal development such as an understanding of motivation, responsibility, and self-knowledge.
Reflecting on my personal education as a child it is easy to see that I used certain subjects at school to reinforce my ability and talent in areas that were of high interest to me, namely language and science. My parents' interests and hobbies also played a huge part in my education and it is easy to see how that shaped the direction of my life as an adult.
What are the challenges of unschooling? Do you think it is for every child and parent? If not, who does it most suit?
The greatest challenge unschooling parents face is to let go of the need to be in control of their children's education all of the time and to allow the child to have a say in the direction and content of what they learn and do each day. This is learned gradually as confidence and trust is built in the natural learning process. Integral to this is letting go of the need to judge experiences as good or bad or educational or otherwise: we are learning all the time and often it is only afterwards when we reflect on what has happened that we can see the important lessons.
Education has to offer choice to parents and children: unschooling needs to be available for parents who wish to explore a different and exciting way for families to learn. It isn't something that happens to a child, it's a lifestyle that families create together. For many reasons it may be difficult for some families to embrace, but if they are determined to have a go, it's possible. There is a growing network of support to help families find their feet and feel confident unschooling.
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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.
Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.
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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine
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