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Life Learning Ladder of Doubt

Ladder of Doubt
Dealing with life learning doubts one rung at a time
By Marnie Black

Our family withdrew our eldest two sons, Anthony and Mitchell, from school back in 2000. What a leap of faith that was! We had to get out of the system after the havoc it had wreaked on our boys. Even our pre-schooler, Jeff, had been negatively affected, as most of his life had been lived in a family under stress.

We agonized over the decision. Homeschooling looked so risky, radical, and unproven. I wasn’t sure I was ready to take the full responsibility for educating our children.

Would they learn?

Would they have friends?

Would they behave?

The school situation just got so bad that we had to do “something drastic.” The decision was researched and carefully considered but was also a matter of desperation. The boys weren’t learning at school, they didn’t have friends, and their behavior was atrocious. To be honest, so was mine – my parenting style resembled John Wayne subduing the enemy as I battled the boys out of the house and off to school each day. After school was an endless round of tears, tantrums, homework, “time outs,” and bed battles. I took the Parent Effectiveness Training course but initially it just made me think I was a failure.

Life was awful.

Homeschooling was the other side of the fence. Even if it wasn’t as great as we hoped, we figured life couldn’t get any worse. I was reasonably confident on the learning front; the two boys had both spontaneously read before starting school, and their math was above grade level. My time spent in the classroom had convinced me they weren’t being taught much they didn’t already know. I was sure they could learn more interesting stuff at home.

Would they learn?
Would they have friends?
Would they ever produce anything?
Did we need some structure?
How would they move on in life with knowledge and skills but no qualifications?
How long could we go on like this?
They were getting older. Should we do some math lessons?
Were we just avoiding reality?
Had I given up my life?
We took a deep breath and pulled the boys out.

The initial adjustment phase was tough – all that bad behavior that we’d endured in out-of-school hours now had all day, every day to expand into. I met some other homeschoolers and envied the relaxed relationships and lifestyle they had. Life wasn’t yet any better for us, but I began to think it might be. Doubts lingered.

Was I up to it?

Would the kids adjust to school again if it was all a big mistake?

Would Mitchell regain his love of learning too?

Would Jeff learn to read?

Would I ever get through a day without a battle cry?

Why did I think I could do better than the system?

Other homeschool mothers seemed to have it together. Their kids actually listened to them – their families even seemed to like each other! I spent all day trying to get my guys settled so I could have five minutes away from them. Every time I tried to get away, I had to come back with all guns blazing to try and restore order.

Had I given up my life?

Would I ever get five minutes to myself?

Why did parenting have to look like a bad remake of How the West Was Won?

After a couple of months, the boys actually played together without incident for up to an hour at a time. One of them joyfully announced that he was making friends with his brother again. The neighbors commented on how much healthier they looked. Wow, this was bliss! We were all happier, but.…

Were we just avoiding reality?

Would they learn?

Would unschooling work?

When I looked back at how my boys had learned before they started school, unschooling made sense and I really wanted to give it a try. Our first priority on leaving school had been to settle everyone down and hope that learning would kick in later on. The homeschooling literature said to allow a month of recovery time for every year children had been in school. I was reluctant to jeopardize our new-found peace by introducing a school-at-home regime but my husband was very doubtful about unschooling. I held my breath and waited.

Right on cue, four months after leaving school, Anthony expressed an interest in learning about the planets. Off we went to the library, and he began a huge astronomy project. Wow, life learning works!

Would Mitchell regain his love of learning too?

Would Jeff learn to read?

Would I ever get through a day without a battle cry?

“I continue to climb my ladder of doubts. Old doubts are left behind, and new ones crop up all the time. I’ve come to accept that doubt is part of the journey. I just deal with one rung at a time.”

We settled into the life learning lifestyle. We went to exhibitions and homeschool activities, watched documentaries and movies, and talked endlessly about everything under the sun. I became less bossy and more understanding. My Parent Effectiveness Training started to pay off. I stopped flip-flopping between model parent and John Wayne and talked to the boys reasonably. I learned to stand back respectfully and let them play and learn. I watched them learn through play every day from the moment they got out of bed. Through play, both they and their toys took on roles from fiction and history and coped with earthquakes, wars, family upheaval, and everyday life. We joined the local homeschool group and the boys found playmates there. They were learning, I was enjoying my part in the process, and we weren’t alone on the journey, but….

Would they ever produce anything?

Did we need some structure?

How would they move on in life with knowledge and skills but no qualifications?

Life and learning went on, and I was reluctant to rock the boat by changing anything when things were going so well. The years slipped by in what I now look back on as the glory days of homeschooling. Most of our week was spent at home in days of endless play. We had a weekly shopping and library trip, homeschool group fortnightly, and trips to the city for homeschool activities once a month. At home, we read lots and we cooked, played board games, and messed about with science activities.

The boys’ endless imaginative games had developed into what they referred to as “the episodes.” Each of them had a game in which the three of them had a role to play, and they took turns to play an episode of each game. Whole days were spent in this way. At some stage, they decided to develop the episodes into books and board games. Around the same time, they started family newspapers and magazines. To begin with, Mitchell’s spelling was really odd but gradually that corrected itself – I guess from all the words he absorbed visually through having so much time available to read. Life was good, they had become a unit, they were producing work, but....

Would they ever have friends beyond home school group?

Should we have some structure?

Would Jeff ever learn to read?

There were twenty children on our street, and – because I was a mum at home – after school, on weekends, and on school holidays our house was full of kids. Either I was minding them, or they just ended up here because there was always something happening. The whole tribe came to our place, played games, dragged out the dress-up box, and made movies. The movies became more complex, and the boys started script writing and story-boarding. There was still the reading worry about Jeff, but everyone I respected in the homeschool world said, “Don’t worry. Just wait, it will happen.” But….

What if he had missed some essential preparation while we were all stressed out?

How would I know if there was a problem or if he just needed a bit longer?

What if it was too late?

“Doubts are useful. They help us to consider, examine and re-examine our homeschooling and assess whether something needs to change.”
As it turned out, Jeff didn’t read spontaneously as his older brothers had. Maybe he would have done so if we’d waited long enough, but he got sick of waiting and asked me to teach him. We used the phonics approach from Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolf Flesch, and Jeff was reading independently five weeks later. So now they could all read, they were all happy, they were all learning. All my worries were over – except that as the neighborhood friends started high school, one by one they stopped coming to play and our house was much quieter. The boys still had each other, they still played long and complex games, wrote books, and were working on fabulous movie projects based on their books, but…

How long could we go on like this?

They were getting older. Should we do some math lessons?

Were we just avoiding reality?

I found some math tests and persuaded the boys to complete them. I discovered that they could easily do what was expected for their respective grade levels. I toyed with the idea of getting more formal, although we were all too busy learning to follow through. To ease my worry about math, we agreed on an hour of math per week but found it hard to stick to.

How long could we go on like this?

They couldn’t learn by playing for ever, could they?

What about higher math and science subjects?

A cousin introduced the boys to computer games. I worried that it would be the end of everything. For several months, all they wanted to do was play those games, and much of the lengthy imaginative play that had been the hallmark of our homeschooling went by the wayside because one of them was always on the computer and the others were just filling in time, awaiting their turn.

Would this be the end of effective home education?

Would their eyes, brains and fitness be permanently damaged?

Without computer time would they fall behind schooled kids?

I set time limits and insisted on hourly screen breaks and that they get some exercise. The computer game obsession passed, but computer time became a regular feature of their days. After a while, I did notice the learning involved. They learned history while playing Carmen Sandiego, and computer time also developed skills in typing, file management, word processing, desk top publishing, spreadsheets, presentations, and movie production. I began to realize that they will spend their adult lives in a world in which computers are much more prevalent than in my generation and that their computer time prepares them for that. Perhaps it contains more learning than people of our generation appreciate. We tend to think of reading time as valuable and educational but computer time as frivolous. Back in the 1700s, reading novels was considered frivolous but the recommended alternatives, reading Fordyce’s Sermons, for example, have certainly fallen from favor these days.

“In likening the doubts to a ladder, I may have made life learning sound like a long hard slog in mid-air. On the contrary, it is more like an adventure playground with fabulous lookouts, interesting challenges, cosy cubbies, and interesting spaces to explore. It is sometimes challenging but the views have been worth the climb.”

Gradually, the boys’ writing projects became more ambitious and sophisticated. At the same time, Anthony’s interest in science became more serious, and let loose on the Internet he found science websites, blogs, and podcasts from all over the world. He made long lists of science books he’d like for presents. Okay, higher subjects didn’t seem to be an issue, but…

What about moving on to university?

Should he try Open University?

How would he go with a schedule that discouraged exploring interesting tangents?

He was too busy learning so we let the idea simmer for a couple of years. In the meantime, he began writing a history of astronomy, a book which grew to gargantuan proportions. He was visiting astronomy websites daily and often knew astronomy news before it hit the mainstream media.

His brothers continued to play for hours, but one of the team was far less available. They still planned and wrote movies together, but their projects were so ambitious (for example, a three-hour murder mystery), and filming days so infrequent and complex, that they aged noticeably between scenes. Mitchell expressed an interest in doing a writing course and, after I had to talk his way in because he was “too young,” the tutor was astounded by his maturity and the quality of work he turned in.


In the meantime, Anthony decided to start on some subjects with Open University and excelled. The most difficult part was adjusting to deadlines and resisting the temptation of interesting tangents. So university level work didn’t seem to be a problem, but…

What about getting in to a traditional university?

How many open uni units would be necessary and with what results?

How would he have time to study other interesting things while doing a degree?

Getting in to university turned out not to be a problem. Two open uni units with excellent results were enough, and Anthony solved the non-assessed study time problem by going part-time. He has spent this year getting excellent uni results with time left over for his voluntary job and to study science and politics in the self-directed way he always has.

Meanwhile I’ve moved on to my next set of doubts:

How do you encourage teenagers to get more sleep and exercise?

How educational is Facebook?

How do kids who aren’t keen on university move into a job they actually want to do?

I continue to climb my ladder of doubts. Old doubts are left behind, and new ones crop up all the time. I’ve come to accept that doubt is part of the journey. I just deal with one rung at a time. The next rung on the ladder is sometimes within easy reach and at other times seems to require acrobatic finesse. Sometimes the ladder feels more like a spiral staircase when I revisit the same doubts at a higher level. I’m sure you have your own ladder of doubt to climb no matter where you are on the home education journey.

Doubts are useful. They help us to consider, examine and re-examine our homeschooling and assess whether something needs to change. Often we decide to leave well enough alone, and sometimes we decide it is time to make changes to adjust our homeschooling to match our kids’ ages, stages, and interests. In likening the doubts to a ladder, I may have made life learning sound like a long hard slog in mid-air. On the contrary, it is more like an adventure playground with fabulous lookouts, interesting challenges, cosy cubbies, and interesting spaces to explore. It is sometimes challenging but the views have been worth the climb.

Marnie Black has been unschooling in Australia for eleven years and continues to have doubts despite the growing evidence that it was one of the best decisions she ever made.

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