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What’s a Test? Why Unschoolers Test Scores Prove Nothing about Method

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What’s a Test? Why Unschoolers Test Scores

Prove Nothing about Method

By Linda Dobson

Tree Fort unschoolersOn September 8, 2011, results from a study by Concordia and Mount Allison University. The study’s intent was to compare 74 children living in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: 37 who were homeschooled, which included 12 unschoolers, versus 37 who attended public schools. “Participants were between 5 and 10 years old and each child was asked to complete standardized tests.”

An interesting side note you might want to hang on to for future conversations:

The research team also questioned mothers in both samples about their marital status, number of children, employment, education and household income. The findings suggest that the benefits associated with structured homeschooling could not be explained by differences in yearly family income or maternal education.

The tests provided researchers with scores on seven academic measures. In a nutshell, the structured homeschoolers did best; the schooled children next best; and the unschoolers brought up the rear.

It’s very hard to put much credence into a study of such a ridiculously small number of children. In a blog post I read (sorry, I didn’t keep it and have no idea who/where it is), the writer praised the study as finally comparing apples with apples. I was unpleasantly surprised that anyone could see the study that way, then concerned that many others might think the same thing. It’s one more example of how perspective is everything, and I hope people may use this post to explain that, no, this study compared apples to oranges.

School Perspective Compared to Unschoolers Perspective

Most of us are familiar with the school perspective as so many of us have first-hand experience with it. It goes something like this: To learn, one must have a teacher dole out information. Your assignment as student, if you choose to accept it, is to work very hard to retain the information provided so you can score well on tests. When you score well on tests, you will be able to tack on four additional years of schooling by going to college. The better your test scores, the better the college you can attend. “Success” will ultimately be achieved when you getting a good job so you can make as much money as possible.

See also “7 Tips to Help Your Child Learn without Teaching.”

Less familiar is the unschoolers perspective which goes something like this: “I would be against trying to cram knowledge into the heads of children even if we could agree on what knowledge to cram and could be sure that it would not go out of date, even if we could be sure that, once crammed in, it would stay in. Even then, I would trust the child to direct his own learning . For it seems to me a fact that, in our struggle to make sense out of life, the things we most need to learn are the things we most want to learn. ” ~ John Holt in How Children Learn

This means unschoolers don’t go about learning in the same way as schoolers.

Why Unschoolers Test Scores Prove Nothing about Method

1. Unschoolers don’t necessarily use text books. Text books are used to break down information into tiny fragments that can be “crammed,” to use John Holt’s vision. These are the same fragments reviewed on age-driven standardized tests as children pass from grade to grade. Standardized tests are based on text books.

2.Unschoolers typically have different goals related to education and life priorities. Rather than take the good grades-good college-good income route, unschoolers can be much more interested in helping children maintain the inherent pursuit of and joy in learning that comes to the forefront when information-cramming doesn’t kill it. They may also be more concerned with enhancing independence, self-sufficiency, creativity, curiosity, and a host of other life aspects unaddressed in the schooling environment.

3. Unschoolers don’t necessarily use teachers. You may consider parents as the teachers, but often parents embrace a role more akin to being a “learning coach,” or facilitator of learning. When a child’s natural interest in learning about the world remains intact, parents help that child by finding and obtaining resources, mentors, volunteer and apprenticeship opportunities and, of course, by keeping their chauffeur’s hat close at hand.

4. Unschoolers believe in the value and power of play for young children. This study was performed on children 5 to 10 years-old. Do 5 year-olds really need to do well on tests? Schools think so. Unschoolers don’t think so. In fact, increasing amounts of research back up what these parents have known for decades…play is children’s work. (See, for example, American Journal of Play.) It’s also how young children exercise imagination, curiosity, wonder, and creativity (play of the mind), skills that help them as they grow to become involved in meaningful learning as opposed to the “knowledge cram.”

Humans aren’t born with the capacity for abstract thinking. Rather, we grow into it, somewhere around the ages of 7 – 10. Until children have that ability, then, memorizing facts to spit back on tests is just that, an exercise in memorization. But please don’t call it learning.

5. Unschoolers don’t necessarily take tests! Just as text books, teachers, curriculum, college-as-goal and other school accoutrements fall by the wayside for unschoolers, so do tests! That’s why it’s impossible to do a pure apples-to-apples comparison of various methods of education that depend on a test score. It would be equally unfair to base a comparison on a school child’s ability to engage in imaginative play if, in fact, imaginative play was a foreign event.

Different educational goals lead to different approaches. Different approaches lead to different resources. Different resources lead to different results.

Viva la difference!

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