Thursday, June 2, 2011

Unschooled at the FPEA Homeschool Convention

This past weekend, I attended the FPEA (Florida Parent-Educators Association) homeschool conference in Orlando. It's the largest homeschool convention in the country. The FPEA reported at the conference that there are 43,000 homeschoolers in Florida. I would estimate at least a quarter of that number was at the conference. For one weekend, homeschoolers completely took over the gorgeous Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center.

I expected to walk away from this conference feeling like I needed to do more....more planning, more worksheets, more structure. Turns out, I came away with a renewed sense of confidence in the path I'm already on, and a reminder to follow the child.

Sounds very Montessori, does it? Ironically, I think I only heard that term used by one speaker. His name was Pat Farenga, a proponent of "unschooling". This approach to homeschooling often conjurs up negative images of lazy children lounging around watching television and playing video games. That was always my impression of it.

It's actually more about allowing the child to set his own goals, choose his own course of study, follow his natural course of development, and provide him with the appropriate resources and learning environment. The underlying premise is that the most powerful impetus to learning is intrinsic motivation. If you have the genuine desire to learn something, you will learn it more easily and retain it longer. Instruction that is not requested impedes learning.

I have always been skeptical of the unschooling approach....I mean, what if something important falls through the cracks??? I am WAY too much of an uptight planner to be this relaxed about homeschooloing my children!

However, Farenga presented a lot of convincing research-based evidence to support the efficacy of this approach. If you're interested in learning more, his website is a great starting point.

Unschooling (which is essentially homeschooling without using a structured curriculum) seems like a natural progression from the Montessori phiolophy. I'm not sure I'll ever be brave enough to be a full-blown unschooler, but I most definitely see using this as a guiding philosophy. 

Although Farenga's two lectures were by far my very favorite at the conference, I also picked up a lot of other great ideas and inspiration. Time and time again, I was reminded not to be in a rush. I need to allow my children to learn at their own pace, and not force them to do things before they are developmentally ready.

I expected to learn more about academics and the nuts and bolts of homeschooling, but I actually came away with several reminders, which are perhaps more important.....
  • Focus on strengths.
    Ignore weaknesses whenever possible.

  • Play is the work of the child.
    Little ones need lots of unstructured play time,
    and they will learn from it.

  • Education is not just about academics.
    It's also about character and life skills.

  • Don't sacrifice my relationship with my child
    at the alter of education.
Overall, the conference was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with other homeschool mothers and reflect on the reasons why we have chosen this path. Tomorrow I will post the product of these reflections.....
My Homeschool Intentions


  1. I recently found myself teetering between the extremes of unschooling and classical education. I have seen both at work in my own home, and see the benefit of both philosophies. My older son, Jackson (5 yrs), just started decoding without the benefit of ever receiving formal instruction from a phonics curriculum (which was still in a box in my house). Yes, I taught him to read, but in small moments during play as he expressed interest. I am in no hurry to teach him how to write because he is not yet ready to sit and work at it, but when he asks, I help him write and teach him the correct way to do it.
    At the same time, we were recently involved with a homeschool enrichment program that takes a classical approach. I saw firsthand my son learn a 32-point history timeline in 6 weeks with minimal time spent doing it. He learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance, sing the Presidents, the Books of the Bible, the Apostles, and several other chunks of data. I see the truth that he is a sponge, able to learn lots of facts quickly and retain them to be filled out and given deeper context later. I love the idea of him knowing the periodic table by 5th grade, making it easy to learn what it all means in high school. I absolutely believe in the importance of teaching our children higher-level thinking skills and giving them the ability to discern truth from lies, debate effectively and defend a biblical worldview by the time they graduate.
    In that setting, I struggled with doubt about my decision to wait for my son's readiness to start formal education. Then he started to read without my fancy curriculum. So now, like you, I feel validated in my individualized approach to teaching my child. I plan to take the best of the philosophies and ideas I come across and tailor it to my child's development. Yes, he will need to learn things eventually that would not be his natural choice, but at this point, I see little benefit to strapping him in a chair and killing his natural enthusiasm with tasks he's not ready for. Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

  2. Thank you for your comment! Yes, like you said, I would have difficulty abandoning a classical education altogether. There are many things I learned as a child that I have retained to this day because of daily drilling and repetition.

    I suspect the key to success with an unschooling philosophy is not that you just leave the child to his own devices, but rather give him the tools and guidance he needs to form his own path to learning. Be a facilitator - not a dictator. Help the child delve deeper into subjects of interest. Teach them HOW to answer the questions they have.

    I don't think unschooling means doing "nothing".....not at all. It's just letting the child be the driving force behind his own education.

  3. Rebecca, I think that you really picked up some great information about education and learning. One of the points that you made jumped off the page at me: "Education is not just about academics. It's also about character and life skills." In working with and assisting college students I am amazed daily at how inadequately they have been equipped by their education and/or their families to just deal with what I refer to as "activities of daily living". My job relates specifically to assisting students with non-academic issues that hinder them from staying in school. Many of these students don’t know how to budget time or money, pay bills, balance a checking account, shop for groceries or a process for how to handle a problem. I think a hybrid of unschooling and classical education can be a brilliant way for children to learn about their world, life and how to live it.

  4. Hi Janet! Yes, life skills have to be taught just like math and reading, and I think I forget that sometimes. I need to TEACH my boys to make their bed, wash dishes, and clean the toilet....and let them practice doing it! Practice makes perfect! :)