Here in British Columbia the Ministry of Education runs traditional brick-and-mortar schools and several virtual school programs called Distributed Learning programs. What began as a means of delivering courses to rural families in remote locations via the Internet has morphed into a way for homelearning families to gain access to the funds and resources that are available to schooled children. In exchange for these benefits homeschoolers are required to jump through various regulatory hoops and this may conflict with certain homeschooling philosophies. Fortunately, BC offers a variety of DL programs including those that fall under the Independent Schools Act, which allows for flexibility in meeting government requirements. One such program in particular, Self-Design, has successfully attracted hundreds of families who follow an unschooling approach to home education. The rest of this article will focus on our experience with Self-Design and how we reconcile our unschooling approach to education with the demands of a Ministry-funded education program.
I refer to our style of homelearning as Free Learning, although a more commonly used and better-understood term (at least among established homeschoolers) would be unschooling. We do not use curricula and we do not have a schedule whereby we sit down and “do school/learning”. In our family there is no distinction between “learning” and what the children naturally choose to do throughout the day or are required to do based on the needs of the family (such as grocery shopping, for example). I do not consider myself a teacher; I am a facilitator. I pay attention to my children – what they choose to do, the questions they ask, the subjects they are drawn to – and then help them find resources with which to further explore these subjects or activities at a pace dictated by the child. I will occasionally suggest activities, books, games, etc. if I think they might be interesting to my children, the same way you might recommend a great gardening book to a friend who you know loves to garden. The children are free to say “no” to my suggestions and I respect their choices. There is little room in this kind of homelearning for prescribed learning outcomes, standardized testing, grades, and other requirements for school funding. Yet our program has managed to fulfill Ministry requirements while being inclusive of families who wish to pursue autonomous learning.
Because funded schools require an attendance record our program requires learners to record the number of hours spent each week (12.5 for kindergarteners and 25 for grade-school aged learners) on various subjects. Since unschoolers consider all waking hours to be learning hours it becomes pretty easy to document a mere 25 hours over a 7 day period. With respect to subject matter, our program does not break these down into the traditional school subjects but rather uses a model with 11 broad and diverse categories. Some are more traditional, such as Science or Numeracy whereas others like Living Skills and Relational Skills recognize that learning is a full-life experience. Basically everything we do throughout our day or week fits into one or more of the categories. In this way our DL program provides a way to conform to Ministry standards while recognizing that learning involves more than just “the three R’s”. I have developed a simple system whereby during the week I jot down brief notes about what the kids have been up to that day. At the end of the week it is then easy to fill out the online form and meet our weekly hours requirements.
Some form of reporting is required by all DL programs, whether in the form of portfolios, written reports, or homework and assignments. In our program the reporting happens weekly and is called “Observing for Learning”. The emphasis is actually on educating parents and caregivers to “see” the learning that takes place naturally throughout a child’s day, rather than placing value judgments on what the children are doing. While it may sound daunting to have to write a report each week, this has been one of the unexpected benefits of this program for me. It has given me a reason to stop and pay attention to what my children are doing at times when I may be working on something else and they are “just playing”. I will often notice a learning situation where I might not have seen one had I not been externally motivated to pay attention. This has cemented my faith in the natural learning process and provided me with much joy, reward, and encouragement. I take lots of photos so that at week’s end I can look through them and remember what we did. I also use my weekly notes (see above) as a reminder. As for writing up one’s observations, the program allows for flexibility and creativity as it tries to accommodate the various personal styles of parents and learners. I myself love to write and it is no burden for me to put together a report on what we’ve been up to the past week. I write my reports in the form of a journal or blog post entry with casual language and lots of photos, coloured text, and even audio files and video links. Others put together short videos, a visual portfolio, or other creative means of describing what happened for the learner that week.
The requirement that a child’s education be supervised by a BC-certified teacher is met in our program through the use of specially-trained Learning Consultants (LC’s). LC’s take on a maximum of 10 students, though many choose less than that. Their job is to translate our casual weekly reports into “Ministry-speak”, categorizing learning into the Prescribed Learning Outcomes dictated by the province, recording the information in a child’s permanent record, and ultimately evaluating progress based on a loose system of “grading” that recognizes the natural variations in learning pace among children. For me, personally, this information is irrelevant and I rarely bother to look at it nor does it enter into my conversations with our LC. It therefore does not intrude into the learning relationship between myself, my children, and our LC and I often forget that it’s part of the overall process. We selected our LC based on her bio which suggested she fully embraced our learning style and family values when it comes to education. She has been with us for 3 years and is a wonderful resource and support. She has come to know my daughter well, provides wonderful insights into her unique learning style, and suggests great resources based on her intimate knowledge of my daughter’s interests and passions. She always suggests, never pushes or pressures us. She shares in my enthusiasm and joy about my children’s learning path, and is a great source of encouragement when moments of doubt distract me. This past learning year she began to engage in Skype video chats with my daughter directly in lieu of that week’s learning report. My daughter has thus also formed a relationship with her as someone who likes to hear what she’s been up to and what she is passionate about. As my daughter gets older she will become more active in the reporting process and interact more often with her LC. This past year my son joined the program and we chose to have the same LC for him. It was invaluable to have someone who already knew our philosophy and the lifestyle and environment in which my son is learning.
For our family the requirements set down by the Ministry of Education have not been difficult to meet due in large part to the way our DL is set up and the high value they place on self-directed learning. The benefits of jumping through these hoops, in addition to those mentioned above, include a large sum of money each year that we are free to spend on virtually anything that is learning-related (which, for unschoolers, is just about anything!). Doled out in three installments using a very handy preloaded Visa card, it makes spending the money and accounting for it a simple and hassle-free process. With my son starting his first grade-level year this fall our family will have over $2000 to spend on activities, supplies, and anything else we’d like to provide for our children to foster their learning. This can make a huge difference for families and we very much appreciate the funds.
Being enrolled in a DL program means the Ministry doesn’t actually recognize us as homeschoolers and in that sense I’m sorry not to be officially counted among their number. But for those who are new to homelearning, and especially unschooling, a good DL program can provide great support and a sense of community through the often challenging process of following an educational style that is so far from the mainstream. As an added side-benefit it can provide “technical-looking data” full of “school-y language” that can stave off the criticisms of doubting extended family members while still fully supporting unschooling. At this point in our journey I am confident enough in the process that I could go it alone. But we’ll be staying with this program for the foreseeable future because I very much enjoy interacting with our LC and all the benefits our program provides.