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Learning at its Best

Homeschooling/unschooling my son

My son is 4 years old, and next September, he’s supposed to enter “the system” and start school. My wife and I have been exploring options for his schooling until he’s old enough to make his own decisions about it.

We were planning on having him attend the private school at which I work, but we really can’t afford it. We might be able to manage the tuition for each year by sacrificing our ability to save for our retirement, but we can’t afford the $10,000 deposit. Although this private school is an extension of the education system and they do some things I disagree with (mandatory homework, grades, age grouping), they also do a lot of things right (student choice in some areas, lots of student leadership opportunities) and would do a fine job of “educating” my son.

We looked at the public school options in our area, but are worried about rolling the dice for our son’s education. We know how important it is that he has a good teacher and we want to make sure we have someone with whom we can communicate our concerns about how school works. Unfortunately, although there are many excellent teachers in the public system in British Columbia, very few of them will admit how damaging grades, homework, etc… are to student learning.

The problem is, I don’t want education to be done to my son like it’s some kind of disease with which we need to infect him. He is already plenty curious about the world and desperate to understand how it works.

So my wife and I are both doing research about homeschooling, unschooling, anything we can find which breaks the mold of a typical education. I worry that if I send my son to a regular school that they will indoctrinate him with things like limits to what is possible for him to do, gender stereotypes, etc…

We’ve had discussions about grades and recognize that they demotivate children from learning. For children who are doing poorly (in grades), they stop the learning process completely. For children who are getting good grades, they impose arbitrary limits on what the students are expected to be able to do.

We’ve talked about homework. My wife is worried that if I work in a system which requires students to do homework, will I be jeopardizing my job if I argue against it for my own son? I don’t give homework to my own students and this worries her not because she sees the homework as having any value, but because I work in a system which requires it and I’m rebelling against that system.

We both recognize that age groupings are a bit silly. My son has a friend who is 8, another who is 3, and so on. He doesn’t place boundaries on who he plays with (except that they have to be willing to play) and who his friends are. Why should we place boundaries on who he learns with, and what he learns?

We want our son to have tonnes of choice about what he learns. We recognize that when he is youngest he will have a bit less choice as he is less aware of the possibilities that exist, but we still want to instill in him a sense of self-managing his learning.

I might be considered somewhat of a radical in the education world. Perhaps most of us who write for the Cooperative Catalyst might be? My wife however? She would not consider herself a radical. However in very few conversations about these issues and some research she has done herself about the problems, my wife has recognized the problems in the education system. Obviously she has a lot of experience in said system and she remembers some of the awful experiences she went through and she is drawing upon those experiences to recognize that she doesn’t want the same thing for her son.

The question which is worrying both of us is, are we doing the right thing? Can we make this choice for our son? If he decides he wants to go to “regular” school later in life, will we have hampered his ability to “fit in”? Should we even be concerned about these issues?

About David Wees

David Wees is a Canadian teacher with 7 years international experience. He started his career in inner city NYC in a failing school. He met his wife in the spring of 2005 and together they moved to London, England where David taught in a small private school which was David’s first exposure to the International Baccalaureate curriculum. London was too expensive, even compared to NYC, so after 2 more years they moved on to Bangkok, Thailand where David taught for 2 years. David has co-authored a textbook for IB Mathematics, and has his Masters degree in Educational Technology. He is now in Vancouver, Canada, working as a learning specialist in technology. He blogs regularly at


22 thoughts on “Homeschooling/unschooling my son

  1. David,

    In my experience, you are going through a typical period of anxiety that comes along with doing something other than the status quo. While I do not have children yet, this conversation has been had by my wife and I. We are of the same mind that to begin, progressive homeschooling (to differentiate from religious homeschooling and include a broad range of what it may look like) is the way to go.

    From conversations I have had with numerous parents who homeschool/unschool and friends who were homeschooled/unschooled, everything works out in the end (if the parents are sane!). So the answers of questions of “will s/he adapt if s/he chooses to go to public high school?” and the like are “yes, s/he will be fine.”

    You know damn well that you will prepare your child for a wide array of challenging life experiences. You will uphold academic rigor in your child’s learning, and help him to develop beautifully socially and emotionally. That is what I call success.

    The rules of school are not that complicated, and they are pretty easy to figure out. And I know that if your kid chooses to someday play that game, they will kick its ass. I bet they will even help other kids to “win” too.

    All the best,

    Posted by Adam Burk | November 13, 2010, 10:19 am
    • Thanks for the vote of confidence! I think you are right, but when choosing an option for our son that 99% of other parents don’t choose, I always wonder if there is something to the wisdom of the crowd…

      Posted by dwees | November 13, 2010, 10:21 am
      • David,

        I was in exactly the same boat with my daughter 7 years ago. Teach at a private school, do I send my daughter to one… Money, of course, is a concern, especially as my daughter can’t attend my all boys school. The bigger issues for me revolved around whether a private school education is the best for my daughter. The schools that I considered at the time are all girl, university-prep schools, both a long distance from my house. In the end, my wife and I agreed that no child should sound that much time traveling each day and it was too early to tell if a university prep-school was the right place for her. In the end, we moved across the street from a public Elementary school with a good reputation and we have not been disappointed. She has surrounded herself with friends that are intelligent and caring. She loves to be busy and has involved herself with choir, band, drama, Odyssey of the Mind, volleyball… Has sheen been bullied? Yes. Has she had poor teachers? Yes. Do we fight the homework battle? Of course. Does she grow through these experiences? You bet. She’s just entered Middle School and regularly describes her day as “awesome!”. She’s in a grade 6/7 split class and has friends in all grades of the school. Age classification doesn’t seem to be what it was when we were young. As much as I feel like a hypocrite at times for not taking advantage of the independent school education that I strongly believe in (and that has put food on the table for the last 20 years), I honestly believe that my daughter is on her way to becoming a well-rounded, caring, intelligent young woman.

        Posted by Marc | November 13, 2010, 1:03 pm
      • My good friend and I joke about starting an on-line campaign to “stop group think!” The irony is hilarious!

        Posted by Adam Burk | November 13, 2010, 9:26 pm
  2. go ahead jump in. you can always quit and send your kid to school. it’s harder the other way around. let me know if you need help 🙂

    Posted by amanda enclade | November 13, 2010, 9:13 pm
  3. Another take:

    In both the posts and comments, folks have said things like, “if you send your kid to school, they will [do x to the kid]. Rhetorically, I think lines like this express a commonly held conflation of public schools and the teachers who work in them. Why not say “it” will do something to a kid? Why “they?” Because teachers are agents of schools: I get it, but I resist.

    School does bad things to teachers, too. There are evil people in all walks of life, and we need to keep them from our children. However, not all “bad” or medicore teachers are evil. While I agree that they don’t do much to rehabilitate the system or its image, “bad” and mediocre teachers might have in them the makings of “good” teachers if they weren’t complicit with the system or coerced into enforcing its rules.

    Certainly we teachers share a large measure of responsibility for how schools operate, but we we work under a political regime that is heavily invested in doing to us what it asks us to do to kids: we are coerced, we are managed at the expense of learning how to do better, and we are measured, judged, and punished in a narrow way. Our unions aren’t strong in the right ways to change this. Our leaders are invested in making sure that their school systems survive, which means they direct us to play by the rules so we get the moneys attached to the rules. It’s not so simple as to say, “Don’t send your kid to public schools; the teachers will get him.”

    I don’t mean to imply that this post and its comments aren’t heartfelt, well reasoned, and accurate, but we teachers could use a hand from parents in pressuring our administrators, divisions, states, and country to let us do what’s right.

    The system limits teachers’ potentials as surely as it limits students’. It’s not just “us;” it’s “it.”

    It’s not like I can refuse to compromise and keep my job – and you all know how much I like to question and see what happens.

    All I read about on the policy wonks’ pages these days is how unlikely an ESEA reauthorization is because of the numbers in Congress and its members’ priorities. What the hell. Why the hell is Congress about its members’ priorities? Why the hell aren’t its members toiling ceaselessly to craft a bill that authorizes real educational reform? Where is the pressure on them?

    We all share responsibility for exerting that pressure.

    So let’s take care of our kids as we know best, but let’s also make it clear to our government and its representatives what it would take for us to gift our children’s curiosity back to public education. I think that’s part of what we’re doing here. I certainly thank you for this post, David.

    Apart from teaching and blogging and tweeting and learning, here is what I do:

    I tell my son’s public school teachers that I don’t care about his test scores and that I will exempt him from those tests if it helps them teach him better. I tell his teachers about how much he likes to research and learn independently. I explicitly authorize them to try out with my son all the lessons they wish they could teach if given carte blanche to differentiate at will. I’ll do the same for my daughter when she enters kindergarten.

    I don’t know that my entreaties have made a big difference yet, but my son is happy and back into art at school and at home this year after a discouraging hiatus. I’ll take that for now.

    Is it a cop out to stay in the system?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 14, 2010, 9:21 am
    • Chad,

      I have been thinking about this shift of thinking from “they” to “it” quite a bit lately. I was recently in a workshop on adaptive leadership that talks about how to hold space for ‘heated’ conversations to take place. An example of work being done in HIV/AIDS prevention, the facilitator put a sheet of paper in the middle of the room that read “HIV/AIDS.” She directed people to consider that if they were angry they were angry about HIV/AIDS, not about her being there to talk about it with them.

      This sort of refocusing on the problem is important so that we don’t get stuck in partisan thinking. The conversations happening around “Waiting for Superman” are a great education example of how some refocusing may be necessary. People have gotten very angry at Guggenheim over various aspects of that film. I think we need to refocus that energy and say instead, “I am totally pissed off that public schools suck. I am pissed that they sucked when I was there and still suck now that my kids are. I want something fundamentally different.”

      Posted by Adam Burk | November 14, 2010, 11:43 am
      • That could be the form letter we send our reps, word-for-word.

        Posted by Chad Sansing | November 14, 2010, 1:48 pm
      • thanks adam for one of the greatest lines ever:

        “I am totally pissed off that public schools suck. I am pissed that they sucked when I was there and still suck now that my kids are. I want something fundamentally different.” This is exactly how I feel and why we choose no school for our kids.

        I often tell parents that the school system will not change until they step up and challenge it. We must remember that most people are of the same flock, following the status quo, doing and believing what they are told, just like they were taught to do in school. It seems that most teachers and parents, who obviously care about their kids, are understandably interested in their own comfort, social standing, whatever, and are therefore not willing to rock the boat and confront what needs to change. For any real shift to happen, there always needs to be those willing to step out and risk being ostracized and even fired. It’s the only thing that will eventually create the impression (and then a real critical mass of teachers/parents joining forces) that it’s safe enough to join the ’cause.’

        Posted by amanda enclade | November 14, 2010, 2:15 pm
      • Thank you, Adam.

        As a person who had a fine public school education — and as the parent of a 7-year-old who is thriving in a public school — I would rather not hear generalities that reduce some fine teachers and administrators into generic stereotypes, demonized others.

        Being involved and supportive (and challenging the status quo when needed) goes a long way. Change is always needed, and it starts within.

        Posted by Jay Collier | November 19, 2010, 11:24 pm
  4. Hi David and All,

    My two cents:

    I think that many of us who parent thoughtfully and mindfully may be destined to explore a variety of schooling and unschooling options over the course of our kids’ childhoods. I think what is critical is that you attend deeply to the needs of your child as I’m sure you do. Borrow your child’s eyes and use this as your lens as you visit the different options. Then, go with your gut. Have courage as others express disbelief for the choices you make. Let “I am making decisions with the needs of my child as my guide” become your mantra. Then give it your best shot. Commit deeply to whatever course you choose. But in the back of your mind know that there always different choices that can be made if things are not working out as you envisioned.

    As a resource do you know the work of Brent Cameron (Self Design.) He is an amazing guy and his organization has been an incredible resource for homeschooling parents in BC. His book is a must read for any holistic educator. See his Wondertree Learning Center as well as Self Design Institute

    Start here:

    And good luck!


    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 14, 2010, 2:03 pm
  5. It seems to me that we shouldn’t be thinking about “it” or “them,” but “us.” Forgive me if I’m misreading these posts, being new ’round these parts, but aren’t we all educators? As soon as we start talking about “it” or “them” we divorce ourselves from being part of the solution. I’m guessing that we all were products of the public system no matter where we teach. Wasn’t there some part of that system that worked that inspired us to take up the mantle and go into education ourselves? Maybe, just maybe, our children will be inspired by a public school teacher in their journey. After all, no system is flawless, whether it be public, private or home-schooling. I agree with Paul, weigh your options and go with your gut. There is an element of risk in any decision.

    Posted by Marc | November 14, 2010, 3:06 pm
    • Marc,

      Your point is taken. Please understand that by terming the problem “it” I am not divorcing it from my sphere of responsibility. In fact, I am using it to gain some objective perspective. If I go right to “us” then there is a good chance I will begin infusing the issue with my own, whether that be issues of job security, self-esteem, or otherwise. But to talk about “it” allows me some distance–not so much that I feel like I can just walk away–but enough where I know the issue started before me and is bigger than me. Yet I am certainly the one to do something about “it!”

      And to your question of some part of the public school system inspiring me to go into education myself the answer is actually no. Nothing in the system inspired me. Rather it infuriated me. My love of learning persists in spite of my formal schooling k-undergrad. It was because I thought my experience was so poor, and I understood why it was so bad that I thought I might be some one to change how school happens.

      I agree that no system is flawless, but in this case, the system is fundamentally flawed. There is a difference, and we need to be talking about it.


      Posted by Adam Burk | November 14, 2010, 6:45 pm
    • Marc, you point out a useful tension. A lot of work here is figuring out how we can change it. Certainly, our efforts have to begin with ourselves, but we also need to innovate in growing out the cultures of our classrooms, schools, workplaces, and other relevant circumstances so that they can spur change in public education. I write a lot about changing me at my own blog, and I write a lot about changing it at this blog, though there is obvious interplay between the two parts.

      I am unconvinced that a teacher focusing exclusively on him or herself – without robust support in taking on the system – can affect the kinds of change we all want to see. We do change it piecemeal by making our classrooms – in whatever form they take – more human. We need to help one another leverage our learning to make more of an impact on a system that marginalizes us. Even if we choose to marginalize ourselves geographically and ideologically from the system, we need to continue confronting it politically until it changes, or we can launch a “shadow” system that’s viable for our students, parents, and communities.

      The system worked for me in that I bought into what it told my about intelligence because it made me feel intelligent. However, I let it pile biases and prejudices on me regarding other kinds of learners, and it took me years of teaching my own students to shake off my blinders. The system did not work for me in that I did not use it to become compassionate, or even to learn how to change a tire or hammer together a set for drama class. The opportunities were there, buried in a college prep curriculum, but I scorned those opportunities because of what I believed about honors classes, AP courses, and my own “specialness” as corroborated by grades and teachers whose points of view I mimicked. Because I was successful in the system does not make the system worth preserving.

      You’re right, Marc, that I connected with many teachers. They were kind and generous to me and taught me a lot about reading and writing and, sometimes, art and the other subjects. I was like them.

      The system doesn’t need to work for teachers like them and kids like me. It needs to work for the kids who don’t connect and who get shut out of authentic learning because of the arbitrary schedule and judgments we heap on them from birth through adulthood. It needs to work to transform teachers from judges to mentors. A system that helps such kids express themselves, that helps them learn at their own pace and directions without judgment, and that helps them return their gifts to their communities is the one I’m most interested in fostering and preserving.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 15, 2010, 7:45 am
      • I am new to this blog and just want to share my gratitude for the way you integrated passion and intellect (and we and it) in your post.

        I am currently volunteering in a second grade classroom and am interested, also, in the integration of challenge and support — and the integration of brainstorming/creativity and critical thinking — and how to foster both within a classroom, within the various groups of 3-4 students that I am mentoring.

        I am inspired by these discussions.


        Posted by Jay Collier | November 19, 2010, 11:33 pm
  6. If I had a partner, I’d homeschool my son. He’s going to a mini-school (5 kids), and went to a freeschool before that. Both cost about what daycare costs – under $800 a month. I love what unschooling offers a child. Have fun on your adventure! (I teach math at a community college, and see daily the damage done by schooling.)

    I’m putting together a book, Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and the Internet, which may offer you some inspiration. If you’d like to be one of my readers (letting me know which chapters are best and which are least interesting), I’d be happy to email you a copy of the manuscript. Anyone here who’s interested can email me at mathanthologyeditor on gmail.

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | November 15, 2010, 11:27 am
  7. David, Just a brief thought to add to the thoughtful comments already here. I love the sweet simplicity of your post, and the way you are thinking about this problem in terms of your own child, and his mom who has slightly different values and positionality around the institution. In addition to the great pieces of advice offered here (I really hear Marc on the us vs. them argument), the kind of schooling you choose for your son is also an expression of yours’ and your wife’s life values: what matters to you in terms of achievement, what kinds of things you and your community hold as important around attainment and degrees–what your son will take on as a lens through which he sees the world. Schooling symbolically “defines” us, internally and externally. What do you want your son to value? What do you want him to hold as important? Do you want him to have the “tickets of power” that brand name educational institutions confer?

    I’m just saying, this is where the rubber hits the road.

    Posted by Kirsten | November 18, 2010, 9:31 am
  8. An update on this post. I’m planning on submitting an application to my school. It’s expensive but of all of our options it seems to balance our educational philosophy versus our other family needs the best.

    Posted by dwees | December 17, 2010, 1:32 pm
  9. Thought everyone might be interested in this radio program about unschooling….

    From Oregon Public Broadcast Radio show Think out Loud

    David Loitz

    Posted by dloitz | March 10, 2011, 1:13 am
  10. David,

    I just found your post and I am new to the coop. But let me say – my wife Angie and I have been there. We took the hit and flipped a coin and my wife gave up a 50K job and we bought a 10 acre parcel and moved the family 4 hours away from where I work to a community where 20% of the kids are homeschooled. I commute on Thursdays and Mondays to run a small progressive charter school in MN. They live on the the South Shore of Lake Superior in Northern WI. For us it isn’t us versus them, it is about the priority of being with our children. There are so many books and resources about homeschooling. It was and is the best decision we ever made. For us, school is very stressful for families. We didn’t want that to permeate our lives. We started a blog about our homeschool lives and other ramblings. You can check it out on Feel free to contact me directly if you want to bounce ideas off someone.

    Jamie Steckart

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | March 21, 2011, 10:39 pm


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