How a New Book Helped Clarify my Thoughts on Screen Time and Other Educational Fears


Let me tell you the story of two nagging problems I had and how a new book entitled Unschooled by Kerry McDonald helped me unravel them.

I had two problems:
1. The occasional refrain from my student, “I don’t have a choice, do I?”

2. The enormous amount of screen time he seemed to consume.

One style of homeschooling that I’ve run across over the years is “unschooling”. It’s homeschooling, but where the child decides what and how he or she will learn.

On one hand, I have always been intrigued by this idea. Isn’t that really the end goal of all education? To have students so motivated that they just learn what they need to learn all on their own? On the other hand, what if they aren’t motivated and just stare at a screen all day?

When I heard that a book about unschooling was about to come out, I couldn’t wait to read it. (Literally. I couldn’t wait. I wrote the publisher, asked for an Advanced Reader Copy, and they sent it to me the next day!) You can find it at Amazon.

What I discovered was a rich resource. The author not only brought the experience of unschooling her four children, but she also found numerous examples of other unschoolers around the country and even sprinkled in stories of a few public schools that are incorporating these ideas!

While the book treats unschooling as a secular topic, as a Christian homeschooler, I agreed with the author's core principle in that it is parents who are responsible for a child’s education. None of the people she interviewed were identified as Christian, but she did list a website called in the back.

I found the material fascinating. I loved her distinction between education and schooling. I loved the many stories of successful unschooled graduates. But would it help me with my problems? Yes. It helped me realized that I have been doing a hybrid mix of unschooling and traditional homeschooling for years. I’ve long understood the best way for kids to learn is to use their natural curiosity to study the subject themselves.

Just a few weeks ago, we were covering the Lewis and Clark expedition as part of history and for some reason, my student suddenly felt compelled to stop everything and learn the names of all the states. I dug out the puzzle map, handed it to him, and left him alone. (We lost the Hawaii-shaped piece some time ago.)

The name is printed under each individual state. It took about 15 minutes and he had mastered them! He was so proud, he asked me to take a video of him naming all the states, including Hawaii, on the puzzle map so I could text it to his brother in college. Because we were not bound by a strict schedule, we were free to take the time to do this!

In fact, we often do. We are also free to change course if something isn’t working. For instance, we totally switched our math curriculum to one he likes better. I'm not sure I'm ready to say, "You don't have to do spelling anymore," but, after reading this book, I am certainly more open to suggestions from my student and anyone else.

But what about the screen time? Thankfully, Kerry McDonald devoted a whole chapter to the question of technology and education. To summarize, she explained that computers, tablets, phones, etc. are tools that kids see adults using. Naturally, they are curious as to how they work. She also said that they may fill a need in children that perhaps just need to decompress after a long day of scheduled activities.

It made me wonder: what was the need screens were filling in my student? What are the things he’d rather do? It dawned on me that meeting with friends, sports practice, and even entertaining us on the piano would always trump screen time.

Here he is at his recital playing the theme from Rocky.

He is much more extroverted than I am and he enjoys social interaction very much. I theorized that, for him, YouTube videos of America’s Got Talent or Minecraft how-to’s or unbelievable trick shots was a kind of social activity for him.

I asked him what he thought of my theory and he agreed.

My goal this year was to drop out of everything and learn about my student. What I discovered is that I need to get him out more with other kids. #irony

What I liked most about this book was that it gave me some new perspectives and encouraged me to have even more conversations with my student about his education. As he grows, I hope to hand over the reins of responsibility to him more and more. Until then, I’ll be using my own screen time to search for more things for my student to do with other homeschooled students. 🙂


2 thoughts on “How a New Book Helped Clarify my Thoughts on Screen Time and Other Educational Fears”

  1. We dumped spelling for “Studiedly Dictation” years ago. It builds both spelling and note taking skills. Takes about 10 min a day on days we do it.

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