Radical Unschooling, Unschooling, Tidal Homeschooling, and the Wearing of Shoes that Fit

This is part of a (much) longer response to the comments on my "Lovely, Lovely Low Tide" post. I thought this part of my comment was relevant to the ongoing discussion here:

I am certainly not perfect
and I try show my warts and all on this blog. I am constantly pondering
and working with questions, and I wonder sometimes if that makes me
seem inconsistent, like people must be wondering if I’m ever going to
pick a lane! I am comfortable, though, with who I am (my favorite John
Paul II quote was, "Families, be who you are!"), and who I am is
someone who likes to mull over a wide range of ideas and see what
WORKS. For me, for us, for my kids, my husband, in our unique and
ever-changing situation.

I sometimes do feel an urge to "belong" to one school of thought or
another, to find that label that fits me perfectly. As I said in my
original Tidal Learning post, I couldn’t find the label, so I made one
up. It’s useful mainly as a way of answering people’s questions when I
meet a new homeschooler.

I have written elsewhere about how some part of me seems to stick out
of every niche I enjoy visiting (and that is probably true for most
people). I’m a pro-life Democrat, for Pete’s sake! Sort of. Ha!—I
don’t even fit THAT label across the board.

But still there is that desire to find the perfect label. There are
times I read Charlotte Mason and think: She makes so much sense! I want
to be a whole-hog CMer! And other times when I read Sandra Dodd and
think YES, I grok that, I’m an unschooler! But the reality is, I have
places where my understanding doesn’t completely line up with either CM
*or* radical unschooling. And that’s fine. I can still learn from both
schools (unschools?) of thought, and identify with aspects of each.

One area I’m keenly interested in is the balance between a rich
unschooling environment (the kind of environment & relationships
Sandra describes so vividly in her book and site) and the logistical challenges
of raising a big family, especially with my special-needs son. When
you’ve got big kids and babies in the same house, all with their own
(sometimes conflicting) needs, you’re probably going to have to make
compromises somewhere. Tia, that’s the issue you seemed to be exploring
in your post on Always Learning—-how your need for a clean, uncluttered
space seems to you a valid need that benefits the whole family, and how
you feel able to maintain that without shortchanging your children of
your time or attention. It seems like a good question to explore, but
is perhaps a bit out of context on that particular list. And I saw that
the reactions of experienced radical unschoolers there were coming out
of a sense of concern that your vision of it being possible to maintain
a tidy home while unschooling might make newbies feel like failures if
they can’t pull that off.

Probably some of the friction comes in the different definitions people
have of unschooling. I try to consistently use "radical unschooling"
when describing the lifestyle Sandra speaks of, which incorporates an
approach to parenting that believes kids grow up happier and nicer if
there aren’t constant conflicts with parents over chores, TV, and so
forth; and that the way to avoid that kind of tension is to relax
control in those and other areas.

While I find much to learn from in that vision of parenting, I cannot
say it totally lines up with mine. I’m completely on board with "say
yes as often as possible"—but I also see myself as the leader of this
crew of kids and am comfortable with the notion of parents being in authority
over their children. I don’t see authority as a bad thing or
necessarily meaning there will be friction and discontented children.

But I digress. I was saying that as I understand it, "radical
unschooling" has a specific meaning, and some discussions are not going
to be relevant in a radical unschooling context.

Just plain "unschooling" is a tricky term, because to some it means
radical unschooling, and to others it means "kids growing up without
‘doing school’ either in a schoolhouse or at home"—without necessarily
applying to *parenting* style. You’ll find, then, families who consider
themselves unschoolers but where the parents have an authoritative (not
the same as *authoritarian*, and I credit Jeanne Faulconer for writing
a post years ago that first made that distinction clear to me)
parenting style. That probably best describes how Scott and I are
raising our kids. So while I have great respect for people like Sandra
who have, by all accounts, raised some fabulous, considerate,
compassionate, respectful, nice kids according to the parenting
principles that accompany radical unschooling, I’m coming from another
perspective, one informed by my Catholicism (the only label that truly
fits me across the board), my experience, my husband’s viewpoints, and
the temperaments and needs of our specific children.

So yes, I think you can be both an authoritative parent and an
unschooler, and there are unschooling discussion lists where it might
be interesting to have that discussion, but I would naturally expect the
experienced & happy radical unschoolers to speak up with strong
arguments from their perspective. And if they all disagreed with my
opinion, I’d have to say, well, I went to the vegetarian banquet
looking for hamburger recipes!

Still, I love to hear the RU perspective, with its emphasis on JOY.
Joyful parent/child relationships, joyful person/learning
relationships, peace and delight and harmony in the home and with the
world. It’s a refreshing vision—invigorating, I think is the word I
used in my Low Tide post. Sandra’s work truly refreshes and empowers
me, and I would hate to discourage anyone from encountering it, even if
I’m not a radical unschooler myself.

One insight I had about myself during this current re-immersion in
Sandra’s website & list is that I was able to put my finger on why
our foray into pure CM method this past winter/spring fell flat after
six weeks, so that I found myself—for the first time in our
homeschooling experience—with a roomful of discontented kids.
(Discontented with our learning experiences, I mean. They have
certainly all been discontented before, like whenever I cook dinner.)

The realization that
came to me via my rethinking Sandra’s philosophy is that what was
different about our High Tide time this winter was that always before,
while we may have been taking an excursion aboard the S.S. Charlotte
Mason, I was captain of the ship, adjusting our course as needed, and
pulling into port for refreshment or exploration as my young sailors
required. This time around, I turned the ship’s wheel over to Cap’n
Mason herself—and much as I love her captain’s logs, she doesn’t know
my crew the way I do. After six weeks, they were ready to mutiny.

So I am back where I belong: comfortable in my own shoes. I’m a Tidal
Homeschooler, and it works for us, makes for fun times with my happy,
pleasant children. But it was the Radical Unschoolers who taught me
this lesson, and I will continue to enjoy learning from their
perspective— just as I learn from the pure Charlotte Mason folks and
the Real Learners and the classical-ed folks. I
really, really like to learn. So do my kids, so I’m content to "be who
we are."

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19 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Liz says:

    I think that I don’t fit into labels because I’m not happy following ideology over instinct. What has been most difficult for me is sorting out when it’s my instincts saying, “This is not right for my family”, and when it’s my fears.

    I first found your Bonny Glen blog from a post you made on a RU list, but I don’t describe myself as a RUer any more, even though it’s probably my primary homeschooling AND parenting influence, and the place where, if I had to pick only one category, I’d be most at home. What I got out of your blog in the beginning was the sense that it was OK for me to be primarily attracted to unschooling, but to modify it according to my family’s needs. That’s not really a view which is very defensible within an RU environment, because RUers are focused on getting people to understand what RU is and because it is so radical, it’s very hard to do that if newbies think they have an out in “we tried it but it doesn’t suit my family”. But once you thoroughly grok unschooling, you can come out the other side, as it were, and realise that following your instincts regarding your own family in some areas isn’t a defeat, it’s an expansion of your thinking beyond the comfort of absolutes…

    I have no idea if that made any sense. But I enjoyed this entry, it made me think.

  2. Liz says:

    Oh, and one other thing – I eventually arrived at RU as part of my quest to learn how to live peaceably and joyfully with my extremely free-spirited, anti-authoritarian, justice-minded daughter. I didn’t come to it from a point of embracing the theory first and then fitting my family into it. I think that’s probably an important pointer towards my thinking on the subject…

  3. SmallWorld says:

    Wonderful post.

  4. Becky says:

    This past year, as the kids have grown and we’ve been adding ever more activities (which I can’t really call extracurricular, because some have become the curriculum, or instead of curriculum), especially since the end of March, and since the boys have demonstrated that the are definitely less academically-minded (especially in the WTM sense) than their big sister, I’ve come to realize that we are classical unschoolers. I was helped along in the discovery of classical unschooling last summer researching some alternative methods for a hs’ing friend whose son was miserable with traditional classical, and little sparks started to go off for me.

    In the past few months, as the activities bloomed and blossomed — and the warm weather arrived — and the formal studies dwindled away to nothing, I realized that by describing us “classical unschooling”, I really mean that we’re classical sometimes (until just after Christmas lol), and unschooling at others (until about September). Which I guess is probably Tidal Homeschooling 🙂

    Erm, where do I sign up for that new group….?

  5. patience says:

    I’ve recently written a post on why unschooling isn’t right for my family, even though there is much about it that does resonate with my own educational and parenting philosophies. I also wrote about why I am scrapping all notions of “school subjects” because they are too limiting … and thinking about those two posts in the context of this discussion makes me realize the labels for homeschooling are too limiting too.

    I think there comes a time for most seasoned homeschoolers when categories like “unschooling” or “classical” or “CM” et al no longer fit exactly with what we are doing. Over the years we create and perfect the [insert family name] method of schooling. That doesn’t necessarily mean eclectic, which is just another label and a rather weak one at that. What it does mean to me is that most homeschoolers I know take bits and pieces from all kinds of methods to make something solid for themselves.

    I like the way you have coined the term Tidal Homeschooling for your family. A friend of mine likes to say she is “Jack-schooling”. Maybe with all these different categories, styles, methods, labels, the homeschooling community is showing its growth as a phenomenon – and maybe with further growth, greater wisdom, and more confidence, we will go beyond the need for those labels altogether.

  6. Jeana says:

    I love your tidal homeschooling idea. I too have somewhat of an unschooling heart (and we are more authoratative parents) but we do some structure, mainly when I’ve observed a need for it in my kids.

    I don’t see what the controversy is. Why does anyone need to fit in a category? I think it makes the most sense to educate yourself and then do what you think is best for your family.

  7. Beth says:

    I love reading your ‘pondering methodology’ posts. I’ve homeschooled my kids for eighteen years and I still can’t come up with the one perfect label so I just stick with ‘homeschooling’ and when necessary — say in response to someone’s question — enter into an explanation, or discussion of methods, philosophies, styles, and needs.

    What I have found very frustrating over the years, both in daily life and on the internet, is the divisiveness and judgmental behavior that are so often created — either deliberately or inadvertently — by subscribing to specific labels. It is very important, I have found, not to underestimate a label’s ability to shut people out, while at the same time locking others in.

    I very much like your Tidal Homeschooling descriptor, because it could be something I could use to describe our life. You just never know what the tide is going to bring in or take away! Such is the joy of homeschooling 🙂

  8. Ann C. says:

    Great post, Lissa.
    I love the way that homeschooling can be custom tailored to each family– and to each child in the family. This requires parents to be fully present, observant, and peaceful on the journey. I guess this can be the hardest thing, really… to trust one’s instincts without growing rigid or too invested in one “right” way. Rigidity often leads to panic when the child doesn’t fit the Plan. And I’m not just thinking of curriculum following moms in this case. I know a number of radical unschoolers who freak out at regular intervals and start cracking the academic whip.
    This abrupt see-sawing back and forth is what stresses children in my view.
    It’s not at all mellow like the shifting tides that you describe. “Tidal Homeschooling” seems much healthier and more respectful of the children’s learning and living needs.

  9. j says:

    Low tides, high tides, rip tides?! Lol, it’s homeschool surfing.

    Your “tides” are somewhat seasonal, right? Waldorf was your answer to spring fever, CM was how you handled the post X-mas slow down, RU is usually designated for pool/beach season, right? I believe you gravitate toward classical learning, unit study, and Latin in the fall, right?

    But right now RU is a little more than a new set of summer clothes, isn’t it? It sounds like all of your children are meeting developmental milestones this summer and need a bit more flexibility. It also sounds like you’re taking this time to gather thoughts on how to foster a core of stability, safety, healthy habits and curiousity while your children are out exploring as well as trying to find time to write. Am I right?

    Also, are you still pegging?

  10. Melissa Wiley says:

    LOL, J, I suppose that from the blog, it may seem like my methodology moods and shifts are more extreme than in real life. It’s tricky, you know, to write about educational *influences* without making it seem like I’m switching hats completely. In order to write thoughtful and thorough posts about, say, Waldorf or CM, I try to speak about the subject in some depth, and this may indeed give the impression that I’ve gone zooming off in a new direction.

    In reality, it’s much more subtle. For example, I noticed that Beanie was getting lost in the shuffle, so I pulled out my Waldorf books for a reminder of lovely things we can do together. We did a lot of painting and handcrafts this spring, inspired by a fresh perusal of my Waldorf stack, but it’s not like I switched over to a Waldorf curriculum and then abandoned it a month later for radical unschooling.

    The unschooling posts grew out of my desire to share Sandra’s book with my readers, and I just happened to read the book this month. 🙂 I find much inspiration and food for thought in her book, just as I found much in Donna Simmons’s work this spring, and in another perusal of CM’s Volume 6 this winter. And part of what I’m doing with this blog is trying to bring interesting ideas and viewpoints to the table.

    Our winter CM term wasn’t drastically different from our prior learning experiences; our morning read-aloud times have been a staple (yes, one of our most successful pegs!) since Jane was tiny. What was different this time was my decision to follow CM’s ideas exactly (or nearly exactly) as she lays them out, rather than borrow, tweak, and adapt. Now THAT was something of an experiment, one worth attempting, and it confirmed for me that our fluid, tidal way of living suits our family better than a firm schedule of lessons and readings.

    It may be that autumn will find me *writing* about Latin and classical education again, or perhaps that will happen over the summer! But it won’t mean that I’ve put the unschooling hat on the shelf and donned the Latin-centered cap; it will mean that out of the rich, busy tapestry of our days, that is the thread I’ve picked up for the purposes of discussion here.

    Hope that makes sense!

  11. Alice Gunther says:

    Lissa, I don’t know what I like better, your post or your thoughtful, reasoned, interesting comment!

    Lissa, no one explains the nuts and bolts of home education (and how to do it beautifully) better than you! You are a Tidalwave of Inspiration!

  12. J says:

    So, you mean that it isn’t a label or a theory that drives your schooling, rather your perception of your family’s needs?

    That’s interesting. When you listen to people speak about these theories (and even HS in general), you get the feeling that it’s all very bottom-up. There is SUPPOSED to be a specific set of implicit goals such as “wonder,” “well-roundedness,” “emotional awareness,” “rigor” and perhaps even some covert mission statement out there, right? These goals supposedly educate the theory and account for its methods, right? But doesn’t it seem like those goals sometimes get lost in a confusion of method and theory? And if those goals get lost, what happens to the child and to the family? Do they simply become products of method and theory? Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t help families to be more explicit about goals in family life and childrearing and to be less explicit about methods. Perhaps blog about mission statements and personal beliefs about desired short term and long term outcomes rather than how doing x means you can surf with the cool moms. 😉

  13. Melissa Wiley says:

    J, you’ve asked some interesting questions and I might tackle some of them in a post. But let me speak first to this:

    “Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t help families to be more explicit about goals in family life and childrearing and to be less explicit about methods. Perhaps blog about mission statements and personal beliefs about desired short term and long term outcomes rather than how doing x means you can surf with the cool moms. ;)”

    Sometimes you wonder if it wouldn’t be more helpful for *me* to be more explicit about childrearing goals, or for homeschooling bloggers in general to do so?

    I’ve read many a post about what hs’ers are aiming for, and why they’ve chosen this path. I’ve written about that myself, from time to time. It would be hard to write on that topic day after day, however, and I think my readers would get a little tired of hearing about what kind of people I hope my children turn out to be!

    Would it be “more helpful to families” if I were “less explicit about methods”? I don’t see how. My aim here, which is written at the top of this blog (see the righthand sidebar), is to “share the resources that make learning a joy.”

    Homeschoolers (and school-schoolers, for that matter) have a bewildering array of choices for educational materials, and one of the things I’m trying to do here is share my firsthand experiences with some of the options.

    “Perhaps blog about mission statements and personal beliefs about desired short term and long term outcomes rather than how doing x means you can surf with the cool moms. ;)”

    Again, I’m not sure if you’re speaking to hs bloggers in general, or to me in particular.

    If you’re seeing a “cool moms use THIS method” tone in my posts, I think you’re misreading me; I am not trying to sell anyone on ANY particular method, and I write about more than one method, sometimes in depth, because I find it interesting to look at what an educational philosopher is proposing, and how those ideas might play out in a real home.

    “Perhaps blog about mission statements and personal beliefs about desired short term and long term outcomes rather than…”

    Why not blog about debt reduction, or food, or politics? All are topics worthy of discussion in a blog format. But they aren’t my topics. If you’re seeing a hole in the blogosphere, why not fill it yourself? I’d be the first person to add you to my Google Reader queue!

    I’m not sure my personal family mission statement would make for interesting reading on an ongoing basis. It might make for one meaty post. I have written about our hopes for our children in the heart of many posts, because those hopes are what informs the decisions we make day to day. Short term, long term goals…I think my Rule of Six, which has appeared in my sidebar since this blog’s inception, sums up my short-term (daily) goals for my children pretty well. What kind of adults do I hope they will be? Honest, kind, happy, brave, interested in other people and in the world, with healthy habits. But I’m not sure blogging about that vision on a regular basis would be “more helpful to families” than posts about concrete subjects like getting ear molds made, or book reviews, or discussions of methodology.

    As I said, I do think you’ve raised some interesting questions about goals implicit in educational methods, and education with a vision in mind vs. educating with a specific child’s needs in mind, and I will try to address those questions in future posts. But the last part of your comment puzzled me. I blog about what seems interesting to me, and what I hope will be interesting to my readers, and I do hope to be helpful. I assume readers who are not interested in or helped by my content won’t stick around.

  14. Elizabeth Foss says:

    You wrote:
    “But it was the Radical Unschoolers who taught me this lesson, and I will continue to enjoy learning from their perspective— just as I learn from the pure Charlotte Mason folks and the Real Learners and the classical-ed people and the Waldorf folks.”

    I’m not sure I understand this since “Real Learning” can include Charlotte Mason, classical, unschooling and even a little Waldorf. Real Learners are people who tailor the education to the needs of the family as suggested by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, Real Learning families might use a pure CM curriculum and sometimes the same family might usnchool. Sometimes, a family’s Real Learning journey looks like “high tide” and sometimes it looks like “low tide” and sometimes we have art binges or nature binges or we are all learning together in the midst of a crisis. Frequently, the atmosphere changes with the seasons and often, it changes with the passion and interest of the learners.It all counts as learning as long as it’s in the context of the real life of a real family.

  15. Melissa Wiley says:

    Hi, Elizabeth!

    What I meant by that was that I have benefited in many ways by your book as well as the years of insights and ideas shared by the people on the CCM list and the 4Real forum.

    I wasn’t suggesting that I have developed a method or theory of education; “tidal homeschooling” is a metaphor, not a movement. It’s nothing more than a useful image for people who, like me, think in word pictures. Useful to me, at least!

    Yes, as the women who share their family’s learning adventures on the 4Real forum and on their blogs show on a daily basis, there are many, many ways “real learning” plays out in a family context. I think your book does a beautiful job of connecting Charlotte Mason philosophy to a Catholic perspective and showing how rich and lively a literature-based, nature-study-embracing, attachment-parenting, Catholic-family-centered education can be.

    I have learned much from you, and from pure-CM people (like The Common Room family), and radical unschoolers (like Sandra Dodd), and Waldorf homeschoolers (like Donna Simmons), and classical-ed folks (like Willa Ryan of Every Waking Hour, who strikes me as classical, CM-influenced unschooler—not to pin a label on her, of course!). I’ve learned from many people, and tidal homeschooling is my personal assimilation of what I understand about education thus far–a metaphor that describes how we live, not a method we strive to follow, if that makes sense.

  16. Christie says:

    huh. I got from J’s post that she was agreeing with you and suggesting that the labels were essentially useless (like a tool only for seeing if you could surf with the waldorf moms or the unschool moms…ect). What I got from her comment was that others should do as you have and throw off the labels and do as you have by blogging about mission statements and goals – the personal stuff rather than blogging about their efforts to fit into certain labels.

    Anyway, I always love your long bg picture posts. I often have so many of these thoughts swirling around in my head and never get to putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard so eventually give up on me.

  17. patience says:

    Aside from everything else, which is extremely interesting but don’t get me started! – I’d like to comment on this one aspect:

    “So, you mean that it isn’t a label or a theory that drives your schooling, rather your perception of your family’s needs?”

    It makes sense to me that homeschooling should be strongly influenced by the parent’s perception of her family’s needs. But at the same time I worry myself that I do *too much* of this, and that I would benefit from having a definite foundation that remained stable through the years but over which we could lay simple changes as called upon by seasons, emotional needs, etc.

    When my dd was 4 – 6 years old, we mainly did unit studies. That was the basis of our homeschooling. It gave us security and trust, knowing that’s how we framed our education. When we outgrew them, it was hard to find something else that fit. Too many good choices, I suppose! (And the fact that nothing fit exactly to what we wanted/needed.) Someone told me once that I had homeschooler’s ADHD, and she’s probably right. These days, I use a bit of this, a bit of that, and because of this lack of adherence to one Old Faithful method it can get easy for me to derail myself or question whether I’m doing things properly.

    So while I’m against labels I do wonder sometimes if I would be better off choosing one plan and sticking to it. I wonder if anyone else ever has the same inner debate?

    Sorry for what is ostensibly a blog post in your comments list!

  18. Becky says:

    “So, you mean that it isn’t a label or a theory that drives your schooling, rather your perception of your family’s needs?”

    For our family, it isn’t the *perception* of our needs but the actual needs that drive our schooling, not to mention all of the other decisions we make and directions we take 🙂

  19. Vanessa says:

    Hi Melissa,

    I just wanted to thank you for this series and sharing your experiences and reflections … they have helped me have peace with the incongruity of the approaches I admire (like you, Sandra Dodd, Charlotte Mason and a dozen others), and in the midst of the idealistic mess, to know what to call my similar, eclectic tidal style of home ed. Over the last several years I have sent countless people here to read your Tidal Homeschooling series.


    P.S. I haven’t visited for a while … congratulations on your flourishing writing. My children are intrigued by “The Prairie Thief” and won’t rest until I investigate it further!