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Thinking Scientifically as Unschoolers

by Beverley Paine

It's not easy to see that we're covering the curriculum as unschoolers, particularly with subjects like mathematics and science, because we rarely overtly 'teach' them. It's only natural to feel concerned that our children are receiving an adequate education, enough to satisfy both their current and future needs and ours as parents. In addition, if our children are exempted from attending school we need to demonstrate this to the Education Department during the review. The way I handled this, while still staying true to our learning naturally philosophy, was through recording.

Without recording it is hard to see what science is being absorbed by our children. Recording helped me notice what they were doing and made it easier for me to translate that into educational jargon that soothed my anxiety. I also did this with maths. I had to learn to think mathematically to be able to recognise the way in which I used maths concepts and calculations in everyday life. It is the same with science.

If you look at your state's school science curriculum you will see there is a strand which should be called something like 'thinking scientifically' or 'the scientific method'. I made a mental checklist of the kinds of things that flagged that my children were thinking scientifically. This helped when it came to recording at the end of the day (during our sample recording weeks) for me to 'see' the science that had been happening.

For example, instead of always proving that something is right or correct (which is the dominant way of thinking such as looking for similarities, etc), the scientific method asks us to test our theories. I cultivated this questioning approach in my life and encouraged my children to test their understandings too. For example, instead of saying 'look, this caterpillar has 6 legs', I would ask, 'I wonder if all caterpillars have six legs like this one?' If my children brought something to me (and they still do as adults as we all in awe of nature), I'd model asking questions in this way.

Testing, by asking "where doesn't this happen" or "does this happen in the same way every time" or "under what conditions wouldn't this happen", also generates a great deal of science thinking, talking, experiments and activity.

In the kitchen, if we're following a recipe, I'd ask something like "I wonder what would happen if we used x instead of y?" And explain that this is how cooks come up with new recipes. It sounds like cooking, but it is an application of what I call the scientific method. Particularly if we did what chefs do and record the changes in our cookbook as well as the effects that result from the changes (e.g., send the recipe to a friend because it was so yummy, or add a note on the page that including an extra egg didn't make it rise better but made it taste like omelettes!)

Science explores, in depth, generalisations and tests them to see if they are true. So, if your child makes a generalised observation about how people are or behave (stereotypes), you can explore if it is true in all situations. When (in what kinds of situations) do people behave like this? Do people of different ages behave like that (when does that behaviour first start to show, what prompts the start of this behaviour, etc)? Do people from different places behave like that (is is a cultural or social phenomenon)? Have people throughout time always behaved like that? And so on. On the surface it looks like we're doing 'society and environment' from a curriculum perspective, but we're applying a scientific way of thinking because we're testing our assumptions. In this example, the science 'topic' our conversation might be said to be covering could be the genetic differences between individuals and how inherited traits affect behaviour; or perhaps how weather affects behaviour; or even how illness, aging and disability affects behaviour.

The task for the parent is to learn to recognise that it isn't just what our children 'do' (activities, topics) when learning about science, but how our children are thinking and constructing their concepts about how the world works. Developing a handy and succinct checklist of things to look for to help you recognise the many ways we all think and work scientifically each day helps enormously.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine

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