unschooling: the data set

unschoolinglargeCan I just say that I LOVE YOU PEOPLE and all your great questions and insights and curiosities and whatnot? This is so fun already, and we’re only on Day 3! (Day 1, Day 2)

Some of you are going to squirm and twitch at the haphazard way I’m approaching this blog series (hmmm… what do I want to talk about today?… how about… this?). But it’s all in the name of unschooling, so structure? Meh.

Today I want to talk about something professional-sounding: a data set. A data set is just what it sounds like. A collection of data. For our purposes, I’m specifically referring to: the collection of data children should have learned by the time they reach the end of their K-12 schooling.

(Notice I said “should have learned” and not “will know,” because, let’s be honest, how much of what we learned in grades K-12 do we still know/remember at the end of our time in high school?)

I have so (so, so) many people ask me this (or a similar) question: “What do you mean, your kids aren’t learning all the subjects?? How can they not learn the subjects??”

And I smile, because WHO INVENTED THE SUBJECTS?? What are these magic subjects of which we all speak?? Who decided the data set? Who made the list of what humans from the ages of 5-18 need to fill their brains with in order to function in the adult world when they become 19-year-olds and beyond?

(I don’t know the answer to this.)

What if I don’t really like the data set? What if it’s not really that it’s not my preference, but that I truly believe it’s outdated and misguided and that we just sit back and ACCEPT AND BELIEVE IN IT without even asking why it is what it is?

Why does the K-12 data set include things like: writing algebraic formulas and graphing functions; knowing certain dates in U.S. History; understanding photosynthesis; diagramming sentences?

And not: shopping for vegetables/chopping them/cooking them; moving to a place where you’re a minority and learning your neighbors’ language; making things and selling them online; keeping a journal of your thoughts and experiences?

Or: changing a tire; navigating a globe; learning firsthand about other religions/cultures; designing logos?

One sweet reader asked yesterday (and I’m not picking on you!): “Does this mean they skip entire subjects? Will they only have an elementary understanding of certain subjects? Aren’t there certain requirements for what kids learn? How is this different from truancy?”

She wasn’t being critical. She genuinely wanted to know. I answered her with my own questions:

“When you say “skip entire subjects” or “only an elementary understanding of certain subjects,” what do you mean? Which subjects do you have in mind? And how much is an “elementary understanding” of them? How old are you now, what field of study are you in, and what do you still remember from the other fields you studied (but didn’t interest you)? A lot? A little?”

Speaking of photosynthesis, the girls and I were discussing it in the post office parking lot this morning (I know. Amazing.). I told them what I could remember but said if they wanted more detailed info, they could google it. “I learned all about it in 5th grade,” Livi said, “and probably 4th and 3rd grade, but I don’t really remember much.”

Right. Most people don’t. Even though we learned it every year for years upon years. Why don’t we remember? Well, because it was just one more thing in our massive data set. It wasn’t connected to something we cared about. It was just another chapter in our science book. Memorize the definition, take the test, forget it, move on.

A lot of people are afraid my girls aren’t learning anything because they don’t “study” certain “subjects.” But, in reality, they’re learning all the time. They ask questions all the time. (Our 8-year-old asks questions ALLALLALL the time.) And, when it’s something they really want to know, they remember the answer. And if I don’t know the answer, they check the wild worldwide web.

Can we be honest for just a minute? How much of the K-12 data set (the subjects) do kids reeeeeeally need to know? And what’s going to happen if they don’t learn it by the time they’re 18? Is it possible we’ve been duped into believing that this super-special list is the be-all, end-all for life?

What if it’s not?

This blog series thing is hard for me, because I want to say ALL THE THINGS in one post. Which I can’t do. So we’ll end with this:

1. What are some non-negotiables for you when it comes to the K-12 data set? (what things do you absolutely want your kiddos to have learned by the time they graduate?)

2. What things do kids learn in school that you could take or leave?

26 thoughts on “unschooling: the data set

  1. Kelly

    My friend Sharon told me about your blog. My family and I embark on our “official” homeschooling journey next year (my kids are 1 & 4 now) but we already learn so much in our days. We can’t help ourselves! 🙂 We feel strongly that keeping wonder alive & making sure our kids know how to keep learning things throughout their whole life are two of the biggest components. Kelly

  2. Laura

    I am a high school teacher in the public school system in Palm Beach Couny, Fl. What do students really need after 12 structured years of schooling? To read complex pieces of text, to be able to think about them, and to be able to communicate your thoughts clearly, both verbally and in writing. If this is your perfected skill set, you can do anything!

  3. Gale

    There’s actually a question between your two questions…

    1. What are some non-negotiables for you when it comes to the K-12 data set? (what things do you absolutely want your kiddos to have learned by the time they graduate?)
    Reading (without it there is so much you can’t learn). Critical thinking. Basic math (without it there is so much you can’t do). How to write. The overarching concept of science (what it is, what it isn’t, and a few concepts). Enough literature to think deeply. An overview of the Bible (I can’t “teach” them faith but I can teach them what God gave us, the Bible, and hope that faith grows from there). Then of course things like how to tie your shoes, how to cook, how to be a friend, how to clean, how to remain sanitary. How to tell time. How to use a calendar. How to count money, and how to manage it wisely.

    1b. What are the stuff that you know are not essential, but are so close to your heart that you can’t bear to not teach them. Or that, while I know they COULD get by without, I think will benifit them and want to give them that gift.
    Poetry, literature, a foreign language, art, a overview of history with deeper travels into at least some of it, Sign Language (the non-foreign language no one considers), politics and how to research your vote, gardening, good handwriting. How to creep up on an animal and watch it without scarring it away. How to follow animal prints. Just a little bit of latin. Etc. (My husband would add computer programming, science, advanced math).

    2. What things do kids learn in school that you could take or leave? Diagramming sentences. Economics (except percentage rates…THAT is useful in life). How to write “academically” though really, if they want to go to college they’ll have to do that.

    Not unschooling, but I could see that later. I don’t think I could just let my child “do whatever.” I would want him (them, but only one is homeschooled) to be learning SOMETHING. But once they got past those basics I’d feel much more comfortable letting them choose what those somethings were.

  4. Jennifer

    1. Critical thinking, teamwork, and communication skills.
    2. Nothing…? I keep trying to think of things to write for this one, but I think you can learn something even from the most “pointless” activity.

    1. Marla Taviano Post author

      You probably can learn something from the most pointless activity, but when you have a choice between a pointless activity and a meaningful one, which would you choose?

  5. Sharon

    My first comment was already too long, so I’m doing this one separate. It really has nothing to do with unschooling, but here goes.

    I had to laugh about Nina asking questions all the time. My 4 yr just started preschool at a Montessori school and the teacher recently mentioned how curious she is and how she asks a lot of questions. I thought to myself, “Uh, yeah, I know. She doesn’t just do that at school.” (My same thought when I was told that she knows her numbers. Yep, who do you think taught them to her? I’m well aware that she knows them!) Anyways, I read recently that the average 4 yr old asks 400 questions a day, and that girls tend to ask more. I shared that info with my husband and a couple of months later when we were in the car with our daughter and she was incessantly asking questions, he turned to me and whispered, “How many questions a day did you say a 4 year old asks???” We don’t see this as a bad thing at all. It can get tiresome at times though.

  6. Sharon

    I got good grades, but did exactly as you described: “Memorize the definition, take the test, forget it, move on.” The first non-negotiable that came to mind was reading. Skimming through other answers, I thought, yeah, math is important. I think enough to balance your checkbook and budget is necessary. I wasn’t all that great at math (I’m pretty sure my Geometry teacher only passed me – just barely – out of the kindness of his heart), but I am really good with money as far as not spending more (or even as much as) I have! I also think writing is important as well as spelling. I know some people just are not good spellers, but I tend to think it looks bad when I see a lot of spelling errors. I can’t believe how many errors I catch when reading in every day life. News articles, books, magazines…..

    Anyways, also want to mention that in reading through the 1st and 2nd day posts, as well as the comments, I found myself thinking this: “I have never been interested in homeschooling, but, hmmm, maybe I could get on board with unschooling???” No idea what my husband would say (he’d love it if I homeschooled – no way!), but I guess I need to learn more before I can even intelligently bring it up to him.

  7. Amy McAdams

    I am sure you are going to address this at some point, but…. what do you do about state requirements and a transcript of grades if they want to apply to college? Do you have requirements about how many days a year they are ‘in school’?

  8. Ali

    I am one of those people who struggles at memorizing dates and keeping historical data in context. I often mix-up events and place them in the wrong era, and when you throw in names and places, I’m lost. The study of history has always been hard for me.
    But I love stories. I LOVE stories. I often wonder, what if someone had taught me history utilizing more stories rather than memorization of facts? Would I have better retained it?
    It’s a shame because now I shy away from studying history. But every now and then I catch history through a story, and I am deeply captivated.
    What does this have to do with unschooling? Well, I think that unschooling allows families to really hone in on a child’s learning style. Everyone gathers and processes information differently. As learning styles are discovered, children are able to grasp more information through that avenue. And retain it. So much of what I have not retained from my K-12 education might very well have to do with learning it in a way that my brain could not process. As I better get to know my own kids, I am eager to understand how they take in information and how they engage it. The challenge will be supplementing their public school education with creative presentations of ideas that interest them in ways that click with them. Check back in a few years and we’ll see how it’s going. 😉

    1. Deborah

      Ali…you’d *love* to be in our sixth grade Social Studies class…the first words on the notes of the class outline underneath the heading of “What is History?” “The story of people since creation” and “A puzzle about which much is known”…and off we charge into the stories of PEOPLE! I don’t guarantee that kids will love history at the end of the year…but I’m thankful to say I can’t remember having fielded complaints on the content and the learning as we go. 🙂 I figure if The Greatest Teacher Ever (Jesus) taught using stories, why would I try to go elsewhere? 🙂

      I’m so glad you’re getting to do that with your own kiddos! What a wonderful blessing! I’m sure they’ll have some beautiful memories of learning with their family! <3

  9. Tara

    1) I would say (like everyone else) reading and basic math. I would include algebra and geometry in basic math, but not calculus, trigonometry or anything more advanced than that. I would also add world history and formal writing. I think knowing where we came from helps us understand ourselves and others. And formal writing/grammar because most people need to express themselves in written form at some point in their life. You can be the most intelligent person on earth but if you constantly mix up their/there/they’re or your/you’re usage people will assume you’re not so bright.

    2) We spent an entire year in elementary school learning New Jersey history. Than I graduated, left state for college and have spent the large majority of my post-high school years outside of NJ. I’m not using that Jersey history education so much!

    1. Tara

      Just had a thought: my biggest beef about public school isn’t so much the time spent learning stuff you may not need. After all, learning is good for your brain even if you never use what you learned again. But the time that is wasted changing classes, socializing, etc.

      (and also I said mixing up your homophones makes you look less intelligent and then used the wrong “then” Haha)

  10. Candice

    I think I am a little confused. I was probably overly blessed with awesome teachers, but I really remember a TON for elementary school. Seriously so much stuff. Also, I feel like learning for the sake of learning is valuable even if certain parts don’t directly relate to what we do in the future, it helps our brains grow. There are studies done on brain development, and school aged children are in a critical window for soaking everything up, and then giving them the ability to learn more as an adult if they learned more as a kid. What I am trying to say is learning is a discipline that paves the way for success in other disciplines regardless of if the same exact knowledge is what is being used.

    The stuff you are teaching in unschooling sounds really great, really. But I think that is stuff most parents used to teach their kids outside of the classroom anyway, but now most parents expect teachers to just do it all. Same with Sunday school and church education… most parents think they can just send their kids to church once or twice a week for them to know everything they need to know about God, but that’s not true. The parents need to be actively involved no matter what.

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  12. Ann

    I never got the chance to respond to the questions you asked me yesterday, but seeing as you used them in today’s post I’m going to focus on those ones here.

    “When you say “skip entire subjects” or “only an elementary understanding of certain subjects,” what do you mean? Which subjects do you have in mind? And how much is an “elementary understanding” of them? How old are you now, what field of study are you in, and what do you still remember from the other fields you studied (but didn’t interest you)? A lot? A little?”

    I don’t have any particular subject in mind. Can we fill in the blank with any subject? 😉 If unschooling is student-led and interest-driven and the student absolutely hates _________ what do you do? I don’t think you or any other unschooler would let your kids graduate illiterate so at some point do you “force” learning on a student who absolutely hates reading? (Yes, you can read aloud together and try to find books that engage the student so that they want to read. However I know kids who just plain hate reading. They can do it, but it’s a struggle for them and they don’t read well. Do you force them to practice reading more?) If your student loves to write, but hates it once you start working on proper sentences or spelling what do you do?

    What subjects didn’t interest me? Math! Never liked it as a student and still don’t like it. I learned what I needed to get A’s at the time but would definitely fail many of those same tests if I had to take them right now. My siblings absolutely hated it. There were regular tears and pulling out hair in frustration…but now (in our 20’s and 30’s) one has a doctorate in physics and the other uses advanced math in his line of work. Now they sit around and discuss advanced college mathematical concepts for fun. …so yes, it’s very fun and useful for them now. However it was pure torture for them for most of the homeschooling years and they are in careers they love but never would have envisioned themselves in. I’m not saying that everyone who hates math should be forced to do it because it’s going to turn in to a useful thing they enjoy (that still hasn’t happened for me!) but I also can’t deny the extreme transformation that took place with my two siblings. If they were unschooled, they could do basic math, but disliked it and cried and pulled out their hair because they hated it so much, what would an unschooling parent do?

    I’m not trying to pick on unschooling–I think an unschooled student will get a more practical and meaningful education. I completely agree that there are many things taught in school that aren’t useful for most people in real life. The current school system is flawed, but students (whether in a traditional school setting or not) are still required to meet certain learning requirements in each grade. What do you do about requirements that may be useless for your girls, but are still requirements?

  13. Krysten T

    I think reading, writing, and math through Algbra I are the basics I want my children to know. I also want my children to have a firm grasp of American and World History and geography. Current events are much easier to understand and relate to if we know where they are taking place and the context behind the event. For me learning how to type made a huge difference in my ability to be successful in school.
    I admire your willingness to let your girls lead their education.
    I think in the typical school too much time is spent on math. Once I got into Algebra II and III even the teacher could not tell me when I would use the information or formulas. My time would have been better spent with Home Ec and business electives.

  14. Jennifer Martinez

    Reading, Math, Citizenship and Critical thinking are my non negotiable “subjects”. Granted we work on them in many different ways other than just sitting in front of a book but they are all must learns for our family.

  15. Shanna Lehr

    HI Marla! This is a great series. As a home school Mom myself, I am always looking for ways to integrate life and learning. I would say my non-negotiables are reading, spelling, and basic math. Without these, life just becomes more difficult. We are often at the Library where I say to my girls, “what do you want to learn about today?” My almost 9 year old always comes up with (nerdy) and super smart books about the way things work or some global journey. My 7 year old wants to read about Barbie. How different these children are! But, they are each learning grand amounts about baking, food preparation, how to host people in your home, exercise, JESUS, and so many other things as we simply go about life. Our state requires us to test at the end of the year and honestly, I do cover all of the “subjects”, but mostly because I’m putting a buffet in front of them to see what sparks their interests. We’ll get more specialized as the years go on and I see what they are most interested in. We aren’t all going to master every subject to high levels, but we can master one or two and perhaps make a life out of studying something we love! I’m looking forward to more on this subject! Thanks for taking the time to blog it.

  16. addie

    Hey Marla, I have two questions… 🙂

    1. Ive always wondered this about unschooling but didn’t want to come across as offensive, so since you are asking, I hope its ok to ask…. do your kids take tests or do you just put them in real world situations and see how they do (like giving them a shopping list and a certain amount of money and let them get the groceries and stay on budget)…. also, I know homeschooling families have to turn grades/reports into the state and such… are unschooling families required to turn anything into the state/government… if so, what is it? If not, then how do you negotiate around truancy? (not saying your kids are truant, but how do you justify that to the state, know what Im saying?)

    2. this one is more specific…. do your girls have any plans for the future? After yall move to Cambodia, is that where they plan (at least for now?) to spend the rest of their lives, or do you ever see any part of your family coming back to the states? What about you and Gabe – do you think you will stay over there forever? I know you really cant plan your future like that, just was wondering if yall were thinking about that at all.

    Good luck

  17. MK

    You know, sometimes I think back on all of the random electives available in middle and high school, ad I think they may have been the most helpful classes. How often I wish that I knew more of the basics of sewing or cooking, or that I had a better understanding of building/tools so I could cheaply repair my own home. I’m beginning to think things like Home Ec and Shop class would have had much more lifelong value. And while those are all things we can certainly learn together at home, I’m realizing it’s naive to assume we’ll get it all done. With a traditional school day and traditional extra-curriculars – it becoming more obvious to me how easy it is to run out of time for all the truly helpful stuff…you know, when you’re too busy studying 4 years worth of Latin verbs (why why why did I do that?). You’re making me think. 🙂

  18. Lisa Basner

    Reading and math are my non-negotiables. Reading is essential in everyday life for EVERYTHING. Math is essential, even if it’s just for balancing a checkbook or figuring out a budget. I love math, but my K-12 skill sets did not prepare me for budgeting, staying out of debt or any other money management skills. You can’t send a kid out into the real world and expect them to survive and handle their money wisely, if they haven’t been taught. It got my husband and I into some financial difficulties early in our marriage. Thankfully, we sought wise counsel, and got our finances straightened out before our mess was very big.

    Science, memorizing all the dates for history, and PE. I agree that being active should be a priority in everyone’s life, but by controlling and structuring it to death, kids end up hating it!

    1. Tara

      I just wanted to say that I totally agree with your “math is essential” comment, but that I wish my school had spent a lot LESS time on “math” and a LOT more time on practical budgeting type stuff. My (elective) accounting class that taught me – among other things – how to compare savings accounts for the best investment was way more useful than the calculus class I had to take. I don’t know about Marla, but if I choose to homeschool my kids when they’re older we’ll definitely focus on things like budgeting, balancing a checkbook, understanding insurance and mortgages, etc. We’ll spend a lot less time on advanced math unless it’s something they really love and want to pursue in their career. I guess what I’m saying is I agree that “you can’t send a kid out into the real world and expect them to … handle their money wisely if they haven’t been taught” but I feel like that’s actually taught better at home than in a school setting.

  19. Melissa

    1. My biggest non-negotiables are learning to read and write. Life is so much harder if you’re illiterate. And I want my kids to be able to write well because, well maybe this is just important to me because of who I am, but being able to convey your ideas in the written word is a valuable skill. But reading first and foremost because without reading you are so limited I think. We use reading for so much of our every day life that we don’t even think about. And there are important life skills that sort of stem out from that – these are not nom-negotiables obviously, but I want my kids to learn how to use public transit and the ability to read the stops on the map and such is important. Stuff like that that reading flows into.

    2. What is the point of phy Ed? I know kids need to be active and move but why don’t we just let them do that instead of turning it into a class. I learned how to play badminton, whoop de Doo, how is that ever going to be useful in my life? I mean it’s not like I hate badminton and I’m picking on it, but if I really wanted to learn it, I would have anyways. Why do we have to structure everything so much that we even have to structure how we get to move?

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