Unschooling Goes to College

My oldest son, Eric, 16 at the time, wanted to learn to computer program for a possible interest in pursuing video game programming.  Naturally, he wanted to learn the programming language that real video games are programmed in, C++, and so our hunt for resources began.  We tried a few beginner books that might help him start to learn on his own, but it did not work for him.  Soon after, we discovered that in our state of North Carolina, a homeschooled student can enroll in the local community colleges as a dual enrollment student in his junior and senior years in courses that are not “requirements for graduation”.  We looked at the list of courses offered at one nearest us and discovered they did indeed have a beginner course for C++.  Thus began our process of enrolling Eric for community college courses.

First, we had to jump through the hoops of filling in the appropriate paperwork.  Done.  Next, Eric had to take a placement test that all new students are required to take in order to determine if you qualify to take the beginner level university courses, or if you need to take some remedial courses in order to better prepare you to be successful in college level courses.  It is an untimed test; one can take it as often as they like; and the results are available immediately.  At the college library, a study guide was available, so Eric and I proceeded there to obtain a copy.  Because registration was only a few weeks away, I suggested that he gear up to take the test as soon as possible, in case he had to retake it.  He agreed and arranged to study from the guide for a week.  The weekdays came and went with only a cursory glance from Eric at the study guide.  The weekend before the day he was to take the test, again, he barely looked at it.  I questioned his course of action, and he claimed that it seemed pretty straight forward to him.  Ah, my first twinge of panic.  Does he not understand that his failure on this test could jeopardize his getting the course he desired?  But, deep down inside me, I discovered new questions I hadn’t encountered before in our homeschooling journey . . . Did he understand that this is a “test” of our homeschool?  Did he understand that this is a “test” of my parenting choice to encourage self education?  Of course he didn’t!

Alright, take a deep breath.  This is his first foray into formal academics.  This is a good time and place for him to learn the lesson of “compliance or consequence.”  I was not one to pester, cajole, or demand, so I simply sat back to see how he felt about not passing the test to the level that would allow him to take the course of his choice.  We arrived at the college, stood in line, signed in, and waited for his turn to take the test in the computerized testing room.  I sat out in the waiting room and watched as my six foot son sauntered into the glass window lined room and took a seat at one of the computers.  He made himself comfortable and proceeded to take the test.  I watched as he leaned back in his seat to ponder the questions before him from time to time, at several instances he put his hands behind his head and rested a while before proceeding, and then, after an hour or so, slowly and casually arose to bring his completed record number to an employee to tabulate after which he rejoined me to await the results.  I asked him how he thought he did, and he felt comfortable with his performance.

It didn’t take long to be called up to look over the results.  Okay, here we go, lesson about to be learned regarding schooling practices.  The test counselor started off saying how impressed she was with his results . . . that it was the best of the day . . . What?  She was surprised to discover that he was only a junior in high school as she proceeded to share that he had completely passed out of all English and writing classes and could begin with college level, and that he had passed sufficiently with math to take the computer class he was interested in enrolling.  Well, drat!  What does that mean for his work ethic during the course of this programming class?

We completed the process of signing him up for the proper introductory class, although Eric was disappointed that it was a general computer programming course as a prerequisite to the C++ course he actually desired, but he was content to jump through that particular hoop.  Because his segment of the student population were only allowed the last day for registration for classes, Eric was required to take an evening course, although another homeschooler he befriended in line got the same course, among others, so Eric felt an added level of comfort with the knowledge that he would know someone there.

Before Eric began his community college course, and because the placement test didn’t create an opportunity for him to learn about schooling practices typically needed to pass coursework, I decided to have some discussions with him about various implications that could result from this experience.  Frankly, Eric never had any previous interest in knowing our family’s educational beliefs or philosophies.  To him, his life is his life and if we parents were learning and stretching in order to offer this life to him, then that was our prerogative, although he has always been grateful to be homeschooled in the manner we created.  I decided to approach our conversation from the standpoint of his own present goals and future career path.  I explained to him that because he had rarely done any formal academics and certainly never kept grades of work completed or regular course tests, that we would have to be creative when it came to any plans he might have for matriculation at university.  I enlightened him to the opportunity that his community college coursework could offer in “validating” his homeschooling experience.  If he were to take a math course and pass it in this setting, it would validate all previous math knowledge.  If he were to take an English course and pass it in this setting, it would validate all previous English knowledge.  This information had no impact on him.  Eric was simply taking this course to learn computer programming.  Period.  Further, he had no inclination to feel responsible for how his success or failure impacted our parenting reputation or that of the homeschooling or unschooling community at large.  Well, fine.  This is how I raised him; to learn for the reason of learning and developing one’s gifts that will bless himself, his family, and the world at large; not for society’s accolades, which includes parental status.

And so, Eric proceeded with his first community college course.  He was fortunate to have a very “unschooly” professor who took a strong interest and liking to both Eric and the other homeschooled young man.  The professor announced to the class that if one gets 4.0s on their programs, they will receive a 4.0 as a final grade.  He went on to announce that he had to go through certain knowledge the first few weeks in which there would be a test, but that he put no stock in it, but simply did it to fulfill the requirement of the school.  Eric took all of this at face value.  I was quite nervous about his seeming naiveté.  One day, as I was driving him to his class, I asked what was happening that day.  It was the day of the test, and he hadn’t studied, as he also didn’t care about that particular knowledge.  He ended up with a high 80s score on that test, but subsequently, began to make 4.0s on every program that was required of him.  Throughout the semester, Eric eagerly anticipated attending class and enjoyed the experience.  At the end of the course, he received a . . . . 4.0.  The professor apparently was good for his word.  On the other hand, it again didn’t serve to help Eric understand what is typically required from a student for college course work.  That is, until he took the actual C++ class.

The following semester, Eric eagerly signed up for the C++ class he wanted in the first place.  This time, although we still had to register on the last day, he was able to get a day class since most people didn’t do well in the introductory class and didn’t want to continue.  However, he also soon discovered that he had a more traditional professor.  Eric was given a run down on the first day of class as to how grades would be determined.  A certain percentage was given for homework, a certain percentage for tests, and a certain percentage for the final.  This professor also didn’t have any special interest in Eric and his desire to learn computer programming.  He was simply another student in his class.  Eric was immediately negatively impacted by this type of learning environment, but he determined to continue to focus on his goal . . . to learn to program using C++.  Eric attended each class, didn’t turn in most of the homework, didn’t study for most of the tests, but did get a 4.0 on each program he created.  Throughout the semester, Eric dreaded attending and complained passionately about the professor’s personality and interactions, or lack thereof, with his students.  He received a 3.0 in the class, true to the word of this particular professor.  Eric was not happy with this arbitrary grading pronouncement upon his learning experience.  His perfectionism surfaced and it bothered him that he didn’t receive a 4.0.  Having learned to program using C++ entitled him to a 4.0, in his opinion, and he certainly realized he could have jumped through the other hoops to gain the 4.0 the way the professor outlined, but he felt it was a random set of criteria that didn’t acknowledge any of the real learning that can be exhibited regardless.

Eric found himself at a crossroads of sorts:  continue to learn for learning’s sake itself as he had always done for his education, or conform to this entity called schooling practices?  Stay tuned for my next post . . . Success or Failure?


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