It’s pretty common for people new to the concept of unschooling to ask, “If you don’t test your children, how will you know if they’re learning?” I’ve always found that such a curious question. Just think how profoundly the education system has woven itself into our psyche to think that the only way to recognize knowledge in a person is through testing them!
When we feel the pull to present quantitative evidence to somehow “prove” unschooling is working, I think it speaks to the trust we have in ourselves. We fear that our personal observations are somehow less meaningful. That critical voice in our heads whispers, who are we to gauge our children’s learning?
Testing is touted as impartial. And yes, for a system where the grades awarded closely determine a student’s future, ensuring teachers can’t unfairly influence grades is important. But we’ve taken that system and generalized it to apply to life: we can only learn by being taught; someone else knows better than we do what we should learn; learning only counts if you can prove it on a test.
But I would argue that our observations are even more valid, because we’ve removed the artificial nature of the testing environment and are observing our children in action in the world. We see them using what they’ve learned, right in front of us: the vocabulary and knowledge they’ve picked up is peppered into their conversations, with us and others; the numeracy they’ve picked up is apparent as they calculate the cost of things they’d like to buy or the time left until we leave; the day-to-day skills they’ve picked up are obvious as they bake us a birthday cake or read their favourite website or write a note to their sibling etc. We see them learning a wide array of knowledge and skills—to a breadth and depth that exceeds the school curriculum—and using it to live in the world. What they don’t do is use it to complete a test. Somehow that seems superfluous.
The idea that testing is the only real way to “prove” knowledge gained is just another layer of distance between school and the real world. And though we may comfort ourselves with the thought that we’ve turned our children’s learning over to “experts,” it also adds a layer of distance between us and our children—we don’t feel as compelled to pay attention.
The challenge still remains though, that others are often looking for tangible “proof” from us. When friends or family start to question us, they are still expecting an answer that fits their worldview: “She’s in grade four and she got three A’s on her last report card.” Nobody questions that—it’s proof of learning all wrapped up in a pretty bow.
It’s so much more difficult to explain the intrinsic value we see for our children in the unschooling lifestyle, in terms most people will understand. “He tried scouts for a few weeks, but didn’t like how the leader regularly resorted to yelling at the kids to get them to do what they were supposed to do, so he decided to quit.”
Will they be as impressed as you that your son didn’t agree with how the children were being treated and chose not to subject himself to that uncomfortable environment? Will they see the wonderful level of self-awareness that choice displayed? Realize the number and depth of the conversations you must have had together as he processed the situation? The incredible amount of useful learning that moving through those circumstances implies? Likely not. There’s a good chance they’re thinking, they have to learn how the real world works sometime.
In my experience, it wasn’t worth sharing those kinds of examples in response to questions about learning—they often sparked more concern and questions than they answered. So, when questioned, I was more likely to reply, “It’s going great, thanks. I see them learning every day and it’s working well for us right now.” And then remind myself that I didn’t need their approval, even if it would be nice to have their support. Instead, when I was looking for helpful feedback I’d turn to people who understood our lifestyle, namely other unschoolers.
But absolutely, it can be uncomfortable to not have the tangible proof of test results and report cards to fall back on, both when you’re casting about to shore up your confidence, and when others are peppering you with questions. There are other ways to build your trust in unschooling, including thoroughly understanding how it works, but if you’re quite adamant that testing is a necessary component of the learning process, then there’s a good chance unschooling won’t be a good fit for you.
Want to dig deeper into learning without school?
Curious About Unschooling? — What are some of the questions that are typically pondered when people begin to explore unschooling?
Seeing the Learning in All Their Activities — Seeing the learning is our work to do, not theirs—they’re already busy doing the learning! So how do we find it?
Seeing the Learning in the Quiet Moments — Our society doesn’t look kindly upon quiet moments. They use words like lazy and apathetic. But they’re only seeing the surface, not the rich soil being cultivated underneath.