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Developing a Homeschooling Philosophy: The Unschool Mambo
Lisa Rivero

Several months into our homeschooling journey, I took our son and two of his schooled friends, home on a school holiday, to our city's public museum. Listening to one of the children, a former classmate of our son, rattle off a list, in order, of the Ancient Chinese dynasties as we entered the Asian exhibit, I was briefly plagued by doubts about whether our son was "learning enough." I even wondered--just for a tiny moment--if I should plan an ancient history unit so that he would "keep up" with his peers in the classroom, even though he had expressed little interest in ancient history at the time and we weren't doing formal unit studies.

Most homeschooling parents have experienced these attacks of doubt at one time or another, especially when we unconsciously measure our own child's accomplishments and progress against those of children in more traditional learning environments. Such disquieting moments can not only wreak havoc with our moods but also shatter our confidence.

Fortunately, later that evening, after giving the matter more careful thought, I realized that our approach to home learning, an approach that I've come to think of as creative and pragmatic unschooling, was indeed appropriate for our son and our family. I was then able to appreciate more fully the other child's willingness to share interests and knowledge, without my feeling threatened or insecure. Had I not had an underlying, firm based on which we'd built our own approach to homeschooling and education, however, I would have been less likely to see the situation objectively and more likely to make unnecessary and potential detrimental changes in our routine, based more on what looks good or what I thought would look good than on our child's unique needs.

Developing an Unschooling/Homeschooling Philosophy

David Guterson writes in his book Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, "If you're going to keep your children out of schools you had better decide what an education means because no one is going to do it for you." When our family began homeschooling, we took this advice to heart. Having already been interested in issues of education, parenting and human potential for several years, I used the first year of homeschooling as a self-imposed sabbatical of rest, thought and study. While our then seven-year-old son deschooled, I gave myself the time to reflect on, reconsider and revise everything I'd thought was true about learning and education.

Those months have been invaluable in giving us a smooth start in our homeschooling journey. Without some theoretical underpinnings that reflect family members' dynamics, personalities and circumstances, a homeschooling family can easily fall prey to doubts and be overly influenced by the latest educational fads or comparisons with other learners. For unschooling families in particular it may be even more important to understand fully why we do what we do, more than just "learning happens all the time" or "I follow my child's lead."

Last fall, in a bookstore, I heard our son talking to a friend of mine about the presidential election. They were discussing write-in votes, whether they really counted for anything, and he proceeded to list the various requirements for becoming president, information he'd picked up from a paperback book at the library, knowledge that wasn't assigned or that I had anything to do with, much less knew he knew! I instantly was reminded of the museum visit. My friend, a homeschooling veteran of over six years whom I greatly admire for her patience and calmness, took the conversation in stride, unfazed by any educational implications real or imagined.

Each family's educational theories will be unique, of course. That's the whole point. Ours is continually refined and enlarged as we meet new people, read new (and old) books and learn from our son and from life. I've grown to feel confident and comfortable taking what works and rejecting what doesn't to create an integrated and individualized philosophy of learning, even when the ideas themselves comes from larger works or concepts that may be at odds with each other. The voices of several educational theorists have become like trusted friends, and the result is a little like the chorus to Lou Bega's "Mambo NO.5":

A little bit of Dewey for a start
A little bit of John Holt adds some heart
A little bit of Elkind helps us wait
A little bit of Eda's not too late
A little bit of Mihaly, we're in flow
A little bit of Roeper helps us grow
A little bit of Maslow shows the way
A whole lot of love and we're okay!

John Dewey: Order in Experience

John Dewey's contributions to ideas of progressive education were monumental, but what has struck me most strongly in the context of homeschooling is his emphasis on the child's experience and his call to understand the roles of subject matter and organization within rather than apart from that experience. If we watch our children, we see how their experience of the world is both rich in content and progressively structured from within.

Our son's passion for comic books illustrates this perfectly. What began as a curiosity about Charles Schulz's illness grew into a self-directed progression of study of the whole of the Peanuts canon, comparisons with other comics from recent years, the role of comics in history and popular culture, invention of his own comic character and strips, hours of drawing and writing that strengthened both writing skills and fine motor development, and months of unabashed fun. On some days he would digress, such as finding all of the World War I Flying Ace strips, learning about France during the First World War, and reading about the real Red Baron. Within this comic experience he "covered" aspects of language arts, history, geography, even science (Superman's response to the earth's gravity) and math (graphing the types of panel-to-panel transitions in Tintin). He also intuitively organized his learning in such a way as to keep himself challenged and make connections with prior learning.

I couldn't have designed a better "unit study" if I'd tried.

John Holt: Thoughtful Parenting

Although John Holt is known in the homeschooling community primarily for his theories about learning, he's enriched my understanding most profoundly with his thoughts on parenting. His book Freedom and Beyond has been a treasure trove of insights, including this piece of advice which has changed the way I deal with all children: "If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued." I can add no more.

David Elkind: Formal Instruction Can Wait

I have to admit that when our son started kindergarten, I thought that David Elkind's ideas didn't apply to us. After all, our son was precocious and eager to go to school. At the time, Elkind's notion of delaying formal instruction for young children just didn't make much sense for a highly gifted learner.

Now, however, I am one of Elkind's biggest fans. Having re-read his book Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, more carefully this time and with an eye toward home learning, I realize that our son would have benefited greatly from a more relaxed, less formal early education. Elkind suggests that what young children need is a "prolongation of opportunities to explore and investigate on their own" rather than early formal instruction, and that interference with the child's self-directed impulse to learn not only hampers learning, but sets the stage for dependence on adult direction and guilt about any self-initiated activities.

The result has been that we think of the early years of our son's education, at least before middle school, as an extension of his early childhood education, but at a level appropriate for his age and interests. Formal instruction can wait.

Eda LeShan: Rethinking Achievement

Eda LeShan's book The Conspiracy Against Childhood is now over thirty years old, but her words and warnings about how we treat our children are as vital and pertinent today as when they were first written, perhaps even more so. In a chapter titled "The Healthy Aspects of Under-Achievement," she describes the "underachieving" child as someone who is "telling us what is wrong with the world more than what is wrong with himself."

LeShan was instrumental in helping me to see education differently, to question my knee-jerk responses to words and ideas. Underachievement is always bad and needs to be fixed. Or does it? We need excellence in education. But just what does "excellence" really mean? Or "challenge"? Or "standards"? Have we adjusted our educational expectations to meet the changing and increasing information available? Or are we just doing things because that's the way they've always been done? In our homeschooling, we try to approach each educational decision with fresh eyes.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi: Engagement with Everyday Life

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi's theory of flow adds a deeper dimension to our understanding of education for life. He has found that people experience a state of flow when they can combine work and play and when "a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable."

In our home, we are careful to talk of work and challenge as something that can be inner-directed as well as outer-directed. If our son chooses to write a story just because he wants to, with no intention of sending it for publication or even showing it to anyone else, the time spent is still work. We also make no distinction between work and play. Work can be joyful. Play can be difficult. Perhaps by experiencing the flow of honest-to-goodness hard work that is freely chosen and utterly fulfilling, our son will be in a better position to choose a career that will feel more akin to a vocation than just a job.

Annemarie Roeper: Education for Self-Actualization

Annemarie Roeper, an advocate for all children and a pioneer in whole-child gifted education, makes a crucial distinction between education for success and education for self-actualization. Education for success uses outside standards of achievement as the foundation and structure of the learning environment. Education for self-actualization, on the other hand, is based upon and built around the growth of the child and the success that is an inherent part of a self-actualizing life.

The difference is a profound one for the way in which we measure our homeschooling success. This is not to say that understanding fractions or being able to write a good paragraph is not important, but they are not what we ultimately value in our family's home education. We look first to whether we are providing for our son's growth of self, whether we are helping him to know himself and his unique place in the world, to find his own path in life and be able to follow it, and to change that path if he so desires. Rather than view success as fixed milestones on that path, we understand success to be an inherent, inextricable and ongoing part of the journey itself.

Abraham Maslow: A Theory of Self-Actualization

Finally, Abraham Maslow offers an understanding of just what is meant by a self-actualizing life. It is not, as he wrote, to "grit one's teeth and squeeze," but rather a long process, a slow accumulation of habits. Maslow offers eight ways in which we can facilitate self-actualization:

1. By experiencing life without self-consciousness.
2. By viewing life as a series of choices, an ongoing process.
3. By listening to our unique voice of self.
4. By being honest rather than not.
5. By being courageous rather than afraid.
6. By working to do well the thing one wants to do.
7. By recognizing moments of peak experience or true joy.
8. By giving up our defenses.

For us, curriculum and academic decisions are made within the context of these habits of mind, rather than vice versa. For example, we rejoice when our son loses himself in learning, when he spends an entire morning on his own pursuits without a thought for time or evaluation or outside expectations. Such unselfconscious learning is rarely possible in a more structured learning environment, where a child is often continually made more self-conscious rather than less by the intrusion of "helpful" suggestions or imposed interruptions.

What's Your Homeschool Mambo?

I don't expect any other family to adopt our own education philosophy. Some children are more goal-oriented than others. Some are naturally more energetic, more easily distracted, more reflective, more idealistic. They have different passions, strengths, weaknesses and challenges. Some parents are more naturally drawn to structure or messiness or multi-tasking or deep concentration. That's why by casting our net as widely as possible--by talking to other families, reading books and magazines, and thinking about our experiences and options--we can have a better chance of finding and creating the homeschooling approach that works for each one of us, a little bit at a time.

John Dewey. Experience and Education
John Holt. Freedom and Beyond
John Holt. Prisoners of Childhood
David Elkind. Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk
Eda LeShan. The Conspiracy Against Childhood
Eda LeShan. How To Survive Parenthood
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Annemarie Roeper. Annemarie Roeper: Selected Writings and Speeches
Annemarie Roeper. "A Personal Statement of Philosophy of George and Marie Roeper." In Roeper Review, Vol. 19, Issue 1.
Abraham Maslow. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

Copyright 2004, Lisa Rivero

This article was first published in, a site sponsored by Home Education Magazine "to support and defend and promote and encourage unschooling in all its many shapes and forms."

Copyright 2005 Lida Rivero

Lisa Rivero is a writer, home school parent, college instructor and gifted education and home schooling advocate. In addition to writing, she enjoys cooking, working with young readers and writers, and learning something new every day. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband and 13-year-old son. She is the author of two books about homeschooling gifted children: Creative Home Schooling: A Resource Guide for Smart Families (previously titled Creative Homeschooling for Gifted Children and Gifted Education Comes Home: A Case for Self-Directed Homeschooling.

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