How Do Unschoolers Prepare For College?
by Alison McKee
Whether you are a practicing unschooler or are considering the unschooling option, I’m pretty certain you have put some thought into your child’s future. That future may include a college education. If it does, rest assured that unschooling can be a wonderful way to prepare for college admissions.
College preparation becomes a parental goal at different times in the lives of children. In some families, there is the expectation that all children will go to college. In other families, college is seen as one of many life choices a child may make. No matter when we begin having serious thoughts about college, there are certain things we, as parents, can do which will help keep the doors of college open should our children want to go.
Colleges and universities are discovering that test scores and knowledge of traditional curriculum are not always the best indicators of college success. This is to the advantage of unschoolers. Admissions committees are broadening their search for students to include capable students who show a vigor for learning and an interest in expanding themselves. It is understood that in some cases, students who have been locked into traditional mainstreamed education, and have even done exceeding well there, may not be able to handle the rigors of higher learning. Our family discovered this when, at seventeen, our son decided to apply for college. This young man, who spent most of his time fly fishing, engineering at a radio station, singing, and studying German, was told by an admissions officer that, while he clearly did not have the same educational background as the incoming freshmen, his life demonstrated that he knew how to learn, had an interestingly diverse background, and appeared to be a self-motivated student. It was on this basis that his admissions to six colleges were granted.
If I am honest, I have to admit that, when they were born, I expected my children to go to college some day. You might say it was hard for us to envision anything but a college education for our children. Yet, as parents, we chose to unschool our children because we recognized, as we watched them grow, just how limiting our own college preparatory life had been. Our preschool-aged children seemed to be more imaginative, creative and enthusiastic about learning than we could remember being since our own preschool years. Once we recognized that our children were natural-born learners, we felt obliged to find ways to expand their learning options rather than confine them to the rubrics of a standardized curriculum. Unschooling seemed to offer us the means to meet that challenge. At every step of the way we discovered that our children’s self-motivation had to take precedence over any decisions we could make regarding their future if we wanted them to find success as adults.
In the preschool years, it seems almost ridiculous to consider the question of college, yet in this day and age, many parents are feeling the pressure to prepare their children for that opportunity almost from birth. In my opinion, all parents -- unschoolers and non-unschoolers alike -- need to be cautious about yielding to these pressures. How can we prepare young children for college when we have no idea what the world of our children look like when they are ready to go to college? Our world is changing too quickly for it to be considered a wise move to begin the process of reining in the developing creativity and curiosity of a young mind by the expectations of a curriculum that will certainly be outmoded by the time our preschool children are teens. Unschooling provides us with the opportunity to avoid such folly. Even though we can’t imagine what our world will be like fifteen to eighteen years from now, we do have the means to prepare our children for that world.
Those who are going to be the educated survivors (and thrivers) in the future will be those who can think creatively, problem solve, and adapt to change. With the exception of a few who may be severely cognitively disabled, all small children come into the world possessing those skills. Although we may not recognize it, every time our preschooler creates an imaginative song to play by, designs a tree house or learns to welcome new friends into his/her social circle s/he is practicing the skills of creative thinking, problem solving and adaptability in developmentally appropriate ways. Without being given many opportunities to generate, manipulate and work through these simple life tasks our children may be unable to think creatively, problem solve and learn to adapt to change when it is time for them to enter the adult world. Rather than allowing the temptations of computerized learning and standardized curriculum to tempt us into thinking that our children will be disadvantaged should they not participate in such learning activities, we should embrace the view that our children have the inborn ability to learn necessary skills of survival and achievement. Those skills, uniquely expressed in each individual child, will be learned when we allow them to follow the tendrils of what interests them into a world far broader than the limitations of a curriculum. We know this to be true from the many successes of by such persons as Albert Einstein, Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill, and so on. Therefore, by joining your children in their own creative pursuits you will do more to help them become successful learners than by providing them with an expensive curriculum. At this stage of the unschooling journey, your investment in a possible college education should involve allowing your children to learn how to learn by providing them ample opportunity to live in an authentic child’s world.
As parents who embrace unschooling principals and the value of a college education, don’t panic and feel you must give up the one for the other. There are so many ways to help your children achieve this goal. When your children are school aged try at all times to remain focused on helping them learn to learn within the realms of their own interests. This may mean that you will be challenged to explore subject matter which has never been considered worthy of curricular development, let alone appropriate for young learners to explore. In my family, our two children challenged us to facilitate learning interests we knew little or nothing about. At eight, one wanted to learn about dissection, at ten, a foreign language. The other, at twelve, was a devoted long distance swimmer and an emerging Shakespearian dramatist. The pursuit of these interests required that we turn to our community and avail ourselves of its resources. Hours at the library, helping the children learn to research their own references, and more hours skimming catalogs, reading to them from material too difficult for them to read independently, and practicing, practicing, practicing; all these things helped our children acquire skills needed by all college bound students. At the library, authentic interests helped them develop the skills of good researchers. (One demonstrated her research and writing skill by presenting us with a twenty-page paper which convinced us to get a Great Dane.) Ordering from catalogs helped one learn the value of spending educational dollars wisely. Learning parts for Shakespearian plays taught the personal value of staying with difficult work until subject matter is understood. Practicing for swim meets brought real meaning to the value of working at a repetitively boring task to achieve a personal goal. While they may, in the eyes of many, have spent their time learning the “wrong” things, they discovered, when they were teens, that their love of learning could most successfully be expanded upon by enrolling in college. Their enthusiasm for learning earned them that right.
You may already recognize that my husband and I had a change of heart regarding our expectations about the necessity of a college education. By the time your unschooled child reaches the teen years, you may have the same change of heart. Why? Because, as our unschooled children start taking on their own “personhood,” we become aware of what little control we have over who they will become. As children become teens, their interests take on many divergent paths. Knowing the value of an educational dollar and having little understanding of where he was headed in life, our thirteen-year-old gave up trying to learn math and devoted himself to fly-fishing in preparation to become a professional fly-tyer and fishing guide. Who could counter the wisdom of possibly spending money unwisely when these were our child’s goals? Who could counter the wisdom of our daughter as she prepared for a life in the theater? Drama school seemed such a wise choice, and the tuition for it, so much more reasonable.
When our children voiced these career goals, we felt compelled to support their decisions, all the while knowing that they might have a change of heart at a later date. Since our teens were truly running their lives, our sole responsibility to them was to maintain the position we had held for so long: Facilitators of their educations. As such, we took our responsibility towards continuing to help them grow quite seriously. At the time our son became interested in fly fishing, he was still involved with studying German, singing in a choir, and volunteering at a radio station. He didn’t give up on these interests. Rather, he continued to expand them and simply began reading about fly fishing. Reading about fishing became an in-depth study of particular aspects of world and United States history, science and literature -- the backbone of any college education. Meanwhile he decided to try a university-level German class. Success in it made him want to try a history class. (His research project for that class had to do with the development of the Catskill School of fly fishing in the eastern United States.) Between fishing, the university classes, and singing, he was able to find ample time to read books (some on tape when he was tying flies) and immerse himself in the life of our community. This well-rounded life was ample preparation for college.
In a similar fashion, when our daughter became deeply interested in acting, we suggested that she read many different plays and playwrights. Her readings, like those taken on by her brother, broadened her understanding of history and literature. When she wasn’t reading or acting she was involved with choir, volunteer work, paid employment, and tons of babysitting. This life experience was ample preparation for college admissions. Like her brother, all the while that she simply lived her life, she honed the skills of a devoted learner.
When our children chose college, their devotion to learning and desire to pursue that learning within the context of the college environment, made them strong candidates for admission. There were few skills they didn’t have that would keep them from gaining entry to the schools of their choice. Being self-directed and informed learners, they knew they had to learn math. It took each of them about four months to do so. After that, they found unique paths into colleges and universities. One eighteen-year-old chose to take select courses at a technical college and at a four-year university, in preparation to be matriculated at a third college a year later. The other presented a narrative transcript describing his five-year fishing career, an ACT score, and the record of his college classes to universities and colleges as his record of learning. With these unique backgrounds, both were able to get into college. Most importantly, they never had to sacrifice their unschooled lives to the narrow confines of a standardized curriculum and, like fish to water, they adapted to college life with ease. One has graduated and one is soon to graduate. A.McK.
Alison McKee lives in Wisconsin. She is the author of the popular book “Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves” published by Bittersweet House.
(Please see their ad on p. 9)