Saturday, August 8, 2009

Sid the Science Kid

E got a Sid the Science Kid movie from the library. I watched it with her and it made me think of the difference between unit studies and unschooling. The show is all about how "learning is fun!" and "science is fun!" and the scientific method- question, hypothesis, theory, observe, report, conclude. It's a cute show, and of course learning *is* fun and science is cool. But there's something missing...

First, Sid goes to school. He has a good school- 4 to 1 student to teacher ratio, lots of outdoor play time, and a teacher who actually observes what the kids are interested in and caters her teaching to that. So, as far as school's go- while that's totally unrealistic and I'd almost say impossible- that's a nice portrayal of how school could be in theory. I do like how the teacher is very patient with the other boy who is pretty hyper and not always on track with the other kids.

Here's where it goes off track though. 4 kids are not ever going to be interested in learning the same thing every day, let alone the 20 to 30 in a realistic classroom. That's why schools can't really *work.* That's why they have "classroom management" and lots of rules to keep everyone doing the same thing at the same time and grade levels and the worry about being "ahead" or "behind."

But let's pretend for a minute that the kids were all in sync like that. The difference between the unit studies and unschooling is this- unit studies try to fit all the "subjects" into a given interest. They *use* the kids' interest to facilitate the teacher's real agenda of teaching all the subjects, while trying to keep the kids upbeat about how FUN it is. So, in the episode about the bird houses, Sid's questions about birds gave the teacher and his parents a "teachable moment."

Of course, since the show is created to be educational, Sid went right along with everything they wanted to teach him. And it had to "look" educational. A proper amount of hands on, the right amount of sitting at a desk, the questions all followed the scientific method. There was an element for every learning style- visual, hands-on building, drawing, writing, story telling, singing. He came to a complete finish with all his questions answered and it was properly documented in his journal.

Life isn't always that neat and linear though. So, neither is unschooling. And unschooling isn't about using the interest to fuel something educational. It's about the interest being worth something in and of itself- whatever that interest might be. And the joy of following the rabbit trails that teachers fear are getting "off subject," but unschoolers know that is where learning happens. Connections are being made even if it looks messy.

What if Sid dropped the questions about the birds, when he saw the twigs from which the nest was made? What if he started asking about where the bird got the twigs? And what kind of tree was it? And is that the same kind of tree in Grandpa's yard that the dog sniffs all the time? And why do dogs sniff trees? Bloodhounds have better senses of smell than all the other dogs. For what type of work were bloodhounds first used? Where? Are they still used by in police work? What's a K-9 unit? Where do the criminals go when they get caught? How does the court system work?

What if Sid wanted to stay home from school to build that bird house with his dad? His dad bought the supplies while Sid was at school. What if Sid went with him and learned about the cost of the wood, the different types of nails, the name of the roads they drove on to get to the store, and how the economy was affecting the gas prices. The show portrays Sid's parents as "good parents" who supplement his school learning. His mom is "cool, but now it's time to go to school" where it's implied, the real learning happens.

I just happened to run across this link yesterday that gives a real simple list of the difference between schooling and unschooling. I thought it was pretty interesting.


  1. I don't think they were probably trying to unschool... and its hard to cram all of that in 3o minutes. :) Not to spur on debate but aren't you making choices for E by NOT doing curriclum? Not presenting it as an option to her? That part confuses me about unschooling. That the child leads and the parent strews but the parent is choosing what to strew and outruling any school like activity. My boys beg for structured learning and they do plenty of unschooling the rest of the time.

  2. Right, they weren't trying to unschool. It just made me think of the differences. :)

    I guess the answer to that question depends on what you mean by "doing curriculum." Everything is an option to her, including curriculum. I don't outrule anything because it is school like. We have flash cards, maps, map puzzles, a numbers poster, lots of books including that chemistry book. She plays on starfall and similar sites.

    Yes, I choose what to strew. I can't possibly strew everything in the whole world, just like no amount of curriculum can cover all parts of all subjects. So, I choose what to strew based on current intersts or similar things. Or random things she's never seen. Or things that look fun or interesting.

    More often than not, the things we explore aren't even the result of my strewing. It happens when we are at the store or the library or driving or watching tv. She sees something and asks a question and off we go to find out more. Which leads to something else and something else. Which gives me ideas of new things to strew.

    If your boys are begging for structured activities, and you are providing them, then you are following their interests. The difference with unschooling is that when E is finished doing a structured activity that she choose, if she wants to watch tv or do anything else that doesn't look "educational" I let her. I not only let her, I help her, I enjoy it with her, and I find more things like that for her to do. Because all of her interests have value, whether we are covering a "subject" or not or whether it is structured or not.

  3. Emily, Thank you for this post. Think my kids wouldn't enjoy "Sid the Science Kid" much (mine are older anyway). It has always frustrated me the whle "perfect little classroom" propaganda on tv and in books for the younger kid set and then once they are a little older they go realistic and make a point of saying how much kids hate school. This is the very reason my kids prefer watching grownup science documentaries to "kids" versions--no school propaganda.


    Strewing may or may not include curriculum type stuff (in our bathroom ae various workbooks the kids occasionally pick up and do but I don't make them, they are subjects I know the kids are already interested in or present things in a new fashion, and if they do do them then it it is as a fun activity like you might do crosswords or wordsearches and not as "school". When I strew stuff I strew history books/biographies/historic novels because my oldest adores history (she is 11), I strew classic stories with interesting covers and lots of drawing materials as well as bowls of rocks and things with field guides because my 9 year old adores reading and drawing and has a thing for researching scientific things, and for my boy--well he is nearly always beside one of us helping out so right now there is not much strewing necessary for him though he enjoys doing pages and pages of classic workbooks in math and phonics (he is 7) when the mood hits him so those are out and available as well as lots of early reader books with mecahnical stuff/science experiments because he loves those. When my kids ask for structured school time we do it, but it only lasts for an hour and they ar done for months. :)

  4. "Perfect little classroom propaganda" that's exactly it! E is always saying she's going to school. I play along with her, because she enjoys it. But when she asks if I want to come I say "No way! School is boring!" lol I've got to counteract some of those messages from tv. :) I'm not worried about it, because in a few years she'll be old enough that her schooled friends will be telling her how much they hate it. It's just annoying to see how tv portrays it.

  5. When I talk about school I'm not refering to workbooks, in fact I try to stay away from them and find the curriculum that is hands on and involves games. My boys crave more structure and consistancy in their schedule. They like to know what is going to happen and when, if they don't have that they get grouchy and start misbehaving.

    I guess I see unschooling as more of a dislike of school rather than letting them explore... it seems like all the unschooling stuff I read is against anything that even resembles school and see's school as evil. I don't agree with that. I don't disagree that kids do learn on their own. I like the happy middle and I think it works the best for our family.

  6. You're right Ceanne- a lot of unschooling stuff does become school bashing. I guess I get caught up in that too. I also find a lot of good info on letting them explore- I guess it just depends where you're reading. The best unschooling info, for me, is the stuff about parenting peacefully, and finding ways to partner with my kids. That's where I've done the biggest shifts in my thinking- though the actions still need a lot of practice.

    Unschooling isn't necessarily anti-schedule either. A lot of unschooling families are "fly by the seat of your pants" types, but not all. Unschooling schedules just take into account everyone's preferences and desires, use collaboration to figure out what to do and when, and are flexible to change. Unschoolers try not to get emotionally invested in the control factor of a schedule at the expense of their kids happiness.

    Not saying that you do that! If your boys are happy with your schedule- that's cool! :)

  7. I remember saying to someone once that if there was actually a school like the one on "Sid", I might, for a minute, consider sending my kids! Thanks for this post. I've been working at deprograming myself. In a lot of ways, I'm all or nothing. I either have an entire unit study week planned out or I let everyone sit around and watch tv all day long. There is something in the middle of that and I'm trying to find it. I have started making lists of possibly activities and then just getting them out and putting them in front of the kids. You know, if they aren't already occupying themselves? It's going well so far!