adventures in unschooling

An Unschooling Dilemma

How do you learn basic skills that don’t come up in daily life? If they don’t come up in daily life are they as necessary as we think they are?

Basic math seems to come up quite often. Contrary to popular belief I also believe algebra also comes up in daily life. I see algebra as a kind of way of using your brain to solve problems where you only have part of the information. You use the information you do have to figure out what the missing information must be. I’d love to find a concrete example of this.

How often do you use handwriting in a day? I noticed that I use it mostly to write lists and fill out forms, besides that I do most of my writing on a computer. I have also noticed that most people’s handwriting is elegible – which explains the PLEASE PRINT on most forms. We all know that although Doctors are very educated, but no one can read their writing besides pharmacists. (My mothers handwriting is beautiful, but she has written in a journal everyday for a few decades.)

The question of “How do you learn basic skills that don’t come up in daily life?” came up for me last week, after I asked Cassius to write down a grocery list of food he would like . He was complaining that there wasn’t any food he liked in the house. He insisted it was too hard for him because he couldn’t spell any of the words. He did make a short list which was all capitals and spelled incorrectly.

I had an unschooling panic moment “Oh no! I haven’t made my child do spelling tests, book reports, and write in a journal every day. He’s not going to know how to write or spell unless I make him!

I realized that he had be avoiding writing because he felt he wasn’t good at it. It had been pretty easy to avoid it because the opportunity only came up when I asked him to write a list, a card, or a letter to a friend. He writes on the computer – (mostly passwords). Then the question comes up, if it is so easy for him to avoid how necessary a skill is it? If this skill becomes necessary at a later time, wouldn’t he learn it easier at that time?

To put things in perspective, Cassius only learned to read about two years ago. He insisted he would never be able to, then he picked up a novel he had heard on audio book and read it from beginning to end. He now reads for hours everyday.

I think if it wasn’t clear that Cassius was frustrated and wanted to be able to write, I wouldn’t worry about it. I found it interesting to note that, the fact that Cassius couldn’t write as well as he wanted too and was frustrated about it, came up in the course of daily life. It wasn’t because I was testing him or trying to make him meet a “learning outcome” expected at his age. It was because we were trying to solve a problem: There was no food he liked in the house. Writing a list of food he liked for us to buy at the store, was a solution to that problem.

This led to a new problem to solve. How to help Cassius learn how to write. I tried giving him spelling tests, but we both quickly lost our enthusiasm for that. I figured if I could get him writing, spelling would come. I tried to tell him that if he practiced every day, even if it was boring, he would improve. Unfortunately, every unschooled kid I’ve met has little patience for monotony, unless they have a strong motivation to endure it.

I was stuck trying to figure out how to make Cassius write, when Rosalind suggested I ask him what he wanted. Did he really want to spell and write better and why? Genius! His answer was that he wanted to be able to write stories. Of course this was no surprise – he has always been writing stories in one way or another.

His answer made me realize that I needed to stop trying to make him write, and trust that if his desire and need to write stories was important enough, he would find a way to do it. I know from past experience that he will do it in his own time. At the right time he will suddenly move from “this is impossible” to “I love this!”

This doesn’t mean I will stop encouraging him or finding resources that may interest him, but it does mean I don’t have to make him write. I just have to trust him.

I’ll let you know what happens.

I can tell this is very important to him.

4 responses

  1. bruce mccoy

    very interesting – i tutor a 3rd grader that is only interested in Bionicle, and I can get him to read about the, as you say, complicated stories – but it doesn’t bother him that it’s complicated. he can’t afford a computer, so i’m trying to figure out how to give him more interactive means to read and write. any suggestions?

    April 1, 2009 at 4:23 am

  2. jascairo

    Over the past few months (sorry for the late reply) I have been trying to think of an answer to your question. I don’t have a answer except that it should be something that has meaning and a purpose to him. Could he write into Lego magazine with a picture and description of his creation? Maybe a bionicle penpal?

    It is too bad he doesn’t have a computer. The computer is a wonderful motivational tool – infact, that is how Cassius has actually started writing. He has been posting descriptions of his lego creations on and answer email from his friends.

    May 8, 2009 at 9:08 pm

  3. elisa

    our tall girl seemed also to be on the verge of writing, but struggling with it a bit. the trick for her was to give her the perfect book to write in, something she really loves. we’ve also had a kind of natural writing time appear in the late mornings, where we end up playing at for the little one and at for the tall one…the second is great for custom word games. we’ll do that, or she’ll work on a story she is writing, or write an email back to her aunt, or write a letter to a friend in another country. i’ve gotten her to write down lists for a long time, and she sees me journaling all the time, and has her own which she writes in sporadically. cassius could write to us anytime!


    July 16, 2009 at 10:51 am

  4. We are at a similar point in my little girl’s writing. I am curious to know how things have progressed in the past couple of years.

    October 13, 2011 at 9:52 pm

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