Tidal Homeschooling, Part 3

January 26, 2006 @ 3:09 am | Filed under: , , ,

I found a major flaw in my metaphor.

I’ve been writing about what I call “tidal homeschooling,” the way my children experience an ebb and flow of alternating periods of deliberate study, directed by me, and periods of what is sometimes called “natural” learning but which I more often describe as “accidental” learning—the enormous quantities of facts and ideas children are wont to soak up when given time and freedom in which to do so. I’ve described the periods of structured study as our “high tide” times, when I charter a boat and lead my merry little crew on a fishing expedition in quest of a particular skill or subject, in contrast to our “low tide” times when they wander off, each in her own direction, to explore the shores and tide pools of the world, eager little beachcombers gathering sackfuls of treasure. Because of the high-tide voyages, I cannot accurately call us unschoolers; but because of the frequency and fruitfulness of our low-tide times, which sometimes last for months, I have shied away from various other home-education labels as well, finding more in common with the outlook of the unschoolers than with any other group. Since no label fit, I coined my own term which seems to aptly describe the rhythm and manner of learning that takes place in our family.

But I was mulling over this excellent post at The Common Room (subsequent mulling-over being the usual pleasant result of reading a Common Room post) and it struck me that my metaphor breaks down when I come to the beachcombing part.

“The adults in the child’s life,” writes the Headmistress, referencing Charlotte Mason,

“have the ‘power of appeal and inspiration,’ and the responsibility to act ‘the part of guide, philosopher and friend’ to these young people with wonderful minds but no knowledge to speak of.

“Or… we can just abandon them to their uninformed judgment about what’s important and what isn’t, leave them to their own devices, and allow them to believe that their own judgment about what is and is not important to know is just as well informed and solid an opinion as Mortimer Adler’s, Thomas Jefferson’s, Peter’s, Paul’s, or…. yours. Leaving children to pick up what scraps of knowledge they think to ask about, willy nilly, is not doing them any favors. It isn’t respectful of their situation as newcomers to the world or to the adults they will grow up to be. And if we don’t do our job as the adults in their lives when they are small, the adults they grow up to be will have a malnourished background upon which to build.’ “

For a brief moment, the unschooler in me bristled defensively. Not that I think the Headmistress was denouncing unschooling with this statement—she has made gracious remarks about the philosophy in the comments section here on Bonny Glen and elsewhere. But this statement jumped out at me: “Leaving children to pick up what scraps of knowledge they think to ask about, willy nilly…” Is this, I wondered, exactly the sort of experience I have enthusiastically hailed as our low-tide times? Allowing children the freedom to learn by undirected exploration of the world? To be sure, what I have witnessed and described as the collection of a sackful of treasures is a rich and bountiful harvest of knowledge, not an aimless scrounging after scraps. And yet…is there a willy-nilliness to their education? Am I—are unschoolers—leaving too much up to chance?

Then it occurred to me that I’ve overlooked an aspect of my beachcombing scenario. I’m the one strewing the beach with treasures for the children to discover. You see, this is where the metaphor breaks down. Sometimes, yes, I am simply the person bringing the children to the metaphorical strand and turning them loose to explore. But other times—a lot of the time, when I think about it—I have visited the beach in advance and filled the tide pools with interesting creatures; I have hidden the treasures behind the dunes.

This strewing is something unschooling parents talk a great deal about. It is the same thing Charlotte Mason meant when she said, “Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas…we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food,” urging parents and teachers to provide hearty feasts of ‘living’ books and firsthand encounters with the natural world. Of course, Miss Mason recommended regular and orderly mealtimes, while an unschooler would probably say that the human mind thrives best when allowed to graze. But in both cases, we see a committed, thoughtful parent doing the shopping and preparing the food. I am doing just as much preparation (to jump metaphors again) during our low-tide times as I am during high tide. Whether I am piloting the boat on a fishing trip—as I am doing now with our studies of German and Shakespeare—or whether I am hiding bits of sea glass in the sand for a wandering child to discover (or not), my role is indeed that of “guide, philosopher, and friend.”

And so I see that my metaphor needs tweaking. And I continue to chew on these ideas (with apologies to the gentle Headmistress for running off with her post in my mouth), which—like everything connected with Charlotte Mason that I have come across in the past ten years—provide such stimulating nourishment for my own mind.

At any rate, the tidal homeschooling metaphor is not a method; it does not shape what we do. It is useful insofar as it is a way of answering the many variations on the question, “How do you do it?”—which is to say, “What does homeschooling look like in your home?” This is a question homeschoolers are constantly asking one another, and it is a root question in many discussions between homeschoolers and folks whose children go to school. And perhaps a better way of answering it is to apply the Writers’ Rule: Show, don’t tell. I think this is why we love blogs and discussion boards: we crave these peeks into other homes.

One of my favorite “peeks through the window” is Elizabeth Foss’s lovely book, Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home. Here we have an entire book full of examples both practical and lyrical to the “How do you do it?” question. The Common Room family lives in another house full of enticing windows. This post at Cottage Blessings is a glimpse into a cottage that is truly a blessed place—so much so that I am daily tempted to pack up my little brood and move right in. (Wouldn’t Alice be surprised!)

Other recent peeks-through-the-window I have enjoyed:

Castle of the Immaculate
Living Without Schooling
Relaxed Homeskool
Mental Multivitamin
Every Waking Hour
Karen Edmisten

And these books:

Homeschooling With Gentleness by Suzie Andres
Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves by Alison McKee
A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola—like Real Learning, this is a book I return to over and over
• The about-to-be-published Catholic Homeschool Companion, edited by Maureen Wittman and Rachel Mackson—a glimpse through many windows!

    Related Posts


12 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. aliceG says:

    This post is *excellent* and gives me so much to think about. Oh, and thanks for the mention of “Cottage Blessings”!

  2. Karen E. says:

    “Then it occurred to me that I’ve overlooked an aspect of my beachcombing scenario. *I’m the one strewing the beach with treasures for the children to discover.*”
    This is exactly what I was thinking as I read this … for, as much as I say that we “often unschool” or that I’m “the schizophrenic homeschooler”, bouncing around among methods and non-methods, the bottom line is that I’m always there, guiding and directing. They are, after all, *children* and so vulnerable.

    Many interests develop from the strewing that goes on here, and that is, um, reassuring at least. It’s in large part thanks to the rich soil that the plants are bearing fruit.

    Thanks for another great post full of worthwhile reflection. You must stop being so readable, though… I have strewing to attend to.

  3. DeputyHeadmistress says:

    Thank-you for the link, and for a lovely post. You’re quite right- I wasn’t intending to denounce unschooling at all- far from it. That post was very much a response to the practices recommended by the public school teacher linked in the post, who said that it’s a lie for a teacher to tell a student that a book is an important book. I can understand the point of view some hold of not forcing a child to a book he hates. I objected to the teacher’s suggestion that one should actively withhold sharing the opinion of great readers that a particular title is an important book to read or a classic because the opinion of those people might unduly influence the child’s opinions. That would be like refusing to tell a child interested in sewing which sewing machines experienced sewers consider best.
    I really like your metaphor, by the way, and I shall be looking forward to seeing how you decide to tweak it.
    I would also venture a guess/observation, that even the most UN of unschooling parents of my experience avoid being spattered by my willy nilly brush because when they do answer questions their replies are full of references to other information and ideas- they can’t help but be interesting becaue they are such interesting people, and they are not afraid of sharing their opinions, thoughts and ideas with the people they love best in the world.

  4. Selkie says:

    Epilogue, Backstory, and a Few Things About Homeschooling Philosophy

    Epilogue: we got in the van not long after my sad little post and You Shook Me All Night Long was playing on the radio. I cranked the volume until the dashboard rattled and sang along. The boys thought this

  5. CityMom says:

    I think that what you are describing has a lot in common with Maria Montessori’s notion of the “prepared environment.” We make interesting materials available for the children to work with, follow their developmental needs and interests, and find that they choose to work when they are ready.

    Montessori wrote “The environment must be prepared by an adult who knows the child’s inner needs. Our concept of hte education of children thus differs not only from those who do everything for a child themselves but also from those who think that they can leave the child in a purely passive environment.”


    “By his passive attitude, he removes from the children the obstacle that is created by his own activity and authority. The childre can thus become active themselves. The teacher is satisfied when he sees them acting by themselves and making progress. Without attributing anything of this to himself he can be inspired with the thoughts of John the Baptist, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.'”

    The authors of Natural Structure, which combines Montessori methods with Sayer’s Classical education, write that this child led, prepared environment teaching philosophy is more at the heart of Montessori than the works that she created, and that this philosophy can be applied to other sorts of work.

  6. Cay Gibson says:

    Willa Ryan has a post entitled:
    “Montessori-Unschooling-Trusting the Process”

    Here’s the link:

  7. Davidus says:

    We give our children choice within limits or guides we set – just as they will have in the real world. An appropriately placed fence or guide-line encourages a much more complete exploration.
    Putting up a back fence meant our children used the whole yard. Previously they left the back quarter alone. Also, even though the fence on a bridge couldn’t stop your car falling off the edge, do you still drive in the middle of the bridge?
    As the children get older I provide a diverse selection of books from which I want them to read, and others they show me for approval. As we approve/disapprove books we explain how we arrived at the decision. This is the best way we have found to develop discernment – through practical examples.
    I agree that the term “Tidal Homeschooling” is still a good metaphor with the implied randomness partly modified.

  8. Karen E. says:

    Thanks again for pointing in The Common Room’s direction. I’ve bookmarked it … lots of great stuff there.

  9. Dell (PrairieFrogs) says:

    Thanks for a great article. Your strewing the beach with the things your children will glean is a great image!

  10. Liz says:

    I think it isn’t so much unschooling as the way that unschoolers communicate their philosophy to the outside world. There are two problems: first the “school people” who assume that because you aren’t using canned curriculum that no education is happening, and secondly the wannabe homeschoolers who think that all you have to do is bring the kids home and let them run free. Serious unschoolers have a destination (even if it isn’t the same destination as P.S 21 down the block), they do strew things about, go places, do things, read books etc. In point of fact, real eclectic homeschooling or unschooling is probably a whole lot more demanding in one sense than sitting them down in front of the TV with Abeka video school. Because it doesn’t fit the stereotype that public education has imprinted on people’s minds, it is sometimes hard for those outside to envision it. I think that anyone reading homeschool blogs for even a few weeks would quickly figure out that for these families education is a way of life.

    As a former eclectic homeschooler, let me assure you that the best thing your kids will learn is how to learn without someone spoon feeding them. My niece (growing up in an eclectic homeschool) taught herself Chinese, my daughter taught herself horse training, and my son led us both into the Catholic Church through his reading of Augustine and Church history. All three of them have had tackled college (my niece is still there, my two have graduated), and they continue to be willing to learn new things. Meanwhile we watched my public schooled kids struggle with college classes when they weren’t being taught in a spoonfeeding fashion.

    I just think it’s important to be careful how we communicate this to people outside of the homeschooling community. Sometimes we make it sound like it’s all fun and games, when we know that there’s really some hard work going on as well. Of course former homeschooled kids, like my daughter, who make a big deal of the hot cocoa and read alouds and forget about the pages of math problems and penmanship practice probably feed the myth. Then when they go and get college scholarships and teaching assistanceships it makes the first group of people perplexed and the second think that just letting their kids run free will do that for them too.

    I think homeschool blogs have a real future for educating non-homeschoolers of both types. Hopefully, they will also answer those critics who think you need to do two hours of prep for every hour of teaching and can’t figure out how you teach kids on several different levels at the same time. Having grown up with a mother who taught all 8 grades in one room school houses, I never had those kinds of worries, but apparently some people do.

  11. Melissa Wiley says:

    Deputy Headmistress wrote: “You’re quite right- I wasn’t intending to denounce unschooling at all- far from it. That post was very much a response to the practices recommended by the public school teacher linked in the post, who said that it’s a lie for a teacher to tell a student that a book is an important book.”

    Yes–and I ought to have made it more clear in my post that you were addressing that particular topic–my apologies! What struck me about that schoolteacher’s post you linked to is that the teacher’s assertion (“How did we become so arrogant as to think we had the right to say which books were important to read and which aren’t?”) sounds very much like the sort of thing one of his sophomore students might say. (Simply substitute the “we” for “you.”) And if teachers “have no right” to decide one book is more important for a class to read than another, how do they (or school boards, administrations, etc) have the right to say ANY specific subjects are “important” enough to be included in a school curriculum. Doesn’t the very nature of formal schooling require some authoritative figure or figures to determine what knowledge it is important for the student to acquire?