'Unschool' parents: Kids can be own best teachers
Suzanne Fisher-Miller cradles son, Ocea, 1, as son, Khai, 5, (foreground) and daughter, Miyana, 9, craft Valentine's Day cards. Fisher-Miller believes in what she calls child-led learning and sees her role as facilitator as her children explore their interests.
It's midday on a Friday, and 9-year-old Miyana flips through a book about dragons before her attention turns to making Valentine's Day cards at the kitchen table.
Her sister, Aeyah, 7, across the table, expertly threads a needle and sews a tiny cape for a clothespin superhero.
While other children their age are quietly sitting in a classroom, the Fisher-Miller children have the freedom to pass the time without order and doing as they please in their pursuit of knowledge.
Younger brother Ocea, almost 2, drops marbles into the bell of a trumpet. "He's using it as a funnel," says their mother, Suzanne Fisher-Miller. Brother Khai, 5, plays noisily with two friends, the back door slamming shut as they run in and out.
What may look like bedlam is a radical style of home schooling that the Fisher-Miller parents think is best for their children: unschooling. It's child-directed or child-led learning. Some call it relaxed home schooling. Topics aren't learned until a child expresses curiosity, and they're dropped as soon as the child is ready to move on.
Their curriculum is whatever interests them in life. There are no textbooks in their East Nashville home, nor lesson plans, schedules or tests.
Their parents say this unconventional style of learning shows respect for their children as full human beings who can learn lessons from everyday life.
Children, they feel, don't need to master reading or multiplication tables until they're ready. These families reject the structure of formal schooling that, they say, crushes creativity and curiosity.
But some education experts — and even fellow home schoolers — feel this free-form style could lead to gaps in learning. They are afraid children do nothing all day or develop strengths but ignore their weaknesses.
'Trusting your children'
When Miyana asked her mom where carrots came from, the family took a field trip to a farm. Learning often emerges in their childish games, like the time Miyana created play people from orange peels and started figuring out how many of them would have to share if she only had three forks.
Her mother, however, did not turn that moment into a structured math lesson about division. Rather, she let it unfold at Miyana's pace.
Twenty-five Nashville-area families are on an unschooling list-serve group, but many more families in the area unschool, perhaps as many as 300, said Fisher-Miller, who established a Nashville unschoolers group last year.
"It's trusting your children to learn for themselves," the 33-year-old mother said.
"Learning comes from the inside. You cannot make a child want to learn," she said. "In today's school system, it's not a love of learning but it's 'Let's push facts down your throat and have you regurgitate it.' The best thing I can give my child is to love to learn."
Author Resa Steindel Brown, an educator and national expert on child-directed learning, said now, more than ever, parents should explore alternative education styles to match the fast-paced world. Youngsters are children of the Information Age, a time of technology and fast media, she said.
"The way our children take in information is much faster and involves more of their sensory perception — think TV, the Internet and Podcasts," Brown said. "The way they pursue information is different from sitting in a classroom with a book reading it from front to back."
Is it best for children?
Some educators expressed concern that this free-form style of education isn't good for children.
"If unschooling is curiosity-led, not all children are question-askers," said Cindy Benefield, who oversees home schooling for the state Education Department. "If they're focused on one area, the child may know everything about gardening but won't know multiplication tables."
"It's risky to put all the eggs in the child's basket," said Mary Jane Moran, an assistant professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, where she instructs future teachers of pre-kindergarten to third-graders. She has not studied unschooling.
"If children are the only lead horses, then there is no educational map through which they are led in a purposeful way," she said. "It's random starts and stops. Therefore, there is less opportunity for deep learning."
It may be better to have a negotiated partner ship between a child and and a parent who knows the child's needs and abilities, Moran said.
"You can make curriculum come alive and make it more relevant and tie it in to real-world experiences without throwing out structure," said Terry Weeks, 55, a professor of educational leadership at Middle Tennessee State University and the national teacher of the year in 1988 when he was at Central Middle School in Murfreesboro.
Retired Metro schoolteacher Clata Miller is a grandmother of unschoolers and feels torn over the learning philosophy.
"I would be doing things differently, but I can't say what they're doing is not going to be successful," said Miller, the grandmother of Miyana, Aeyah, Ocea and Khai.
The Franklin woman would prefer a more planned and thought-out learning environment for her grandchildren but respects the hands-on approach their mother takes to tap into the children's interests.
"But as an educator, I feel you have to use your knowledge and experience as an adult to bring to them the things they need," Miller said.
What about gaps in learning, worries Tina Bean, a former Metro schoolteacher who home-schools her 7-, 9- and 11-year-olds.
"It's fine to cater to their interests somewhat, but sometimes you have to say, 'Sorry, you have to do this, too,' " said Bean, 39, who lives in Antioch. "My 11-year-old, given his druthers, would never do spelling and always do math."
The leader of a Montessori school, which also follows a child-centered philosophy but with some structure and limits, explains society's reluctance to accept unschooling this way:
"I think that's because people ultimately do not value children or trust them," said Sherry Knott, executive director of Abintra Montessori School in West Meade and an admirer of unschooling.
"They do not think children are capable, when in reality they are," Knott said.
School systems rejected
Families often turn to unschooling in rejection of what they see as a one-size-fits-all school system they say crushes curiosity and creativity. Advanced children get bored waiting for classmates to catch up, while slower learners can fall between the cracks.
They also shun traditional home schooling because it follows the same mold of telling children what they need to be taught and how to learn it.
"The object of school is to make everyone come out the same. That whole concept offends me," said Chelsea Gary of Franklin, who is unschooling an 18-year-old stepson, Chris, and her other two children, ages 3 and 5. There's nothing a school system could do to persuade her to enroll them, she said.
Chris, nestled in an oversized red beanbag in his bedroom, said he hated reading until his parents pulled him out of school in California in December 2005 so he could direct his own education at home.
"I've learned more in the last year than I ever did in public school," said Chris, who spent the first few months "deschooling," getting used to his educational freedom.
A giant TV, shelves of CDs and a nearby computer loaded with video games are easy distractions in the typical teen-age bedroom. But Chris said he's not tempted because he's more interested in what he's reading, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things.
"Topics I don't like, I skim it," he said. "It's kind of a cool idea. I focus on things I want to use in life."
Life, he hopes, will mean either being a rock star or chef — that's why he spends the afternoons working at a Panera Bread cafe or rehearsing in a heavy metal band. He's not sure if he'll go to college.
"I want my children to grow up retaining all their creativity and interests they were born with," his stepmother said. " I can't imagine someone crushing that out of them."
It's not a new idea
Unschooling, while still an underground movement, has been around as long as modern-day home-school education — and some say as long as humans.
Each family has its own approach. For the Fisher-Millers, there's an emphasis on nutrition and money management.
"Honestly, what do children really need to know when they graduate from high school — to balance their checkbook, change the oil in the car and check the tire pressure, real-life things," said Suzanne Fisher-Miller. "I think those things are just as important as history, math and reading."
Today's unschooling parents tend to have college educations. Fisher-Miller has a high-school diploma and started a math degree.
They are often two-parent households in which one parent stays home.
"I thought I would never be a stay-at-home mom. I'd been a photographer and artist," Fisher-Miller said.
Her husband, Brian Miller, too, put his photography career — and its long hours — on hold and took a pay cut to work at a Wild Oats Marketplace so he could be home with the family by 3:30 p.m.
At home, they practice "strewing," leaving books, games and other interesting items in their children's path for them to discover.
That's not to say there is no parental involvement.
Rather, these parents said, they must be totally aware of the needs of their children and able to find resources to seek out information, whether that's the local librarian, an entomologist at a nearby college or the grocer who can explain an exotic fruit.
To critics who say their children are missing out on socialization, they say there's plenty of time to make friends outside the home, whether it's visits to museums and the zoo with other home-schoolers, weekly gatherings of home-schoolers at a park or tae kwon do lessons, they said.
"Instead of being shoved into a class with people the same age, they can choose to be around all kinds of different people," Gary said.
Unschooling parents talk about respect for their children, who in the outside world are often treated, wrongly they believe, as "lesser humans" without much say in things.
They trust their children to gain the knowledge they need within their own time frame.
"Elijah hates writing, coloring, and painting," unschooling mother Amanda Slater, 30, of Hermitage said about her 5-year-old.
"It's never a thing he chooses to do. I assume at some point, he'll want to. I don't like children being forced into something they're not ready for," she said.
"Elijah's not writing now, and that would get him in trouble in school," Slater said. "School wouldn't wait for him to read or write until 8 or 9 or let him do multiplication and division in kindergarten, when he's ready for it."
Likes books, doesn't read
Miyana loves books. The pile in the living room. The stacks they check out of the library. The hundreds of shelves full at the bookstore.
However, the 9½-year-old doesn't read yet.
In an unschooling household, that's no reason to sweat.
"What's important to us is that she learn at her own pace," her mother said. "We feel that the joy of reading is just as important as learning to read, and we don't want to force anything."
That kind of pace would not be tolerated in formal schooling, she said.
The brown-haired girl has an extensive vocabulary and can read some words but other times turns certain letters around — like "b" and "d" — because of dyslexia, her mother said.
"When she does start reading, she'll be reading way above her grade level," Fisher-Miller said. That's been the case with other unschoolers who were delayed readers, she said.
Take the now-adult children of author Brown, a home-school program director in California who raised her children to learn at their pace at home.
Her oldest son did not start reading until he was 9, and by the time he was 11 he was taking electronics courses at a local college, Brown said. By 14, he was a computer system administrator for Warner Bros.
"The age of normalcy to read is between 3 and 9," said Abintra Montessori Executive Director Sherry Knott. You'll find 9-year-olds in public and private schools who aren't reading yet either, she said.
But assistant professor Moran said a 9- or 10-year-old who is not reading yet could be at risk.
"There are sensitive periods of development when children are open to new kinds of information," Moran said. "If a child is going on 12 and finally comes around to reading and everyone else has been reading for four or five years, she's disadvantaged academically and socially."
By the time the Fisher-Miller children reach high school age, their parents believe they'll be learning completely on their own.
"A lot of parents would get nervous. 'Are they learning enough or getting enough?' I don't have that anxiety," Fisher-Miller said. "I really believe in my kids."
'Unschool' parents: Kids can be own best teachers