October 18, 2018
One of the major reservations that people have about homeschooling in general, and unschooling in particular, is how you’re going to find the time to teach a whole 12 years worth of curriculum to your kids. I started thinking about how much learning happens in your average public school and how much time it would take to replicate that learning on your own time under various assumptions, and I think what I’ve come up with can really shift the conversation.
So we start with the nominal amount of time devoted to learning. The day is usually divided into 60 minute blocks for 6 hours. Each school does this differently. Some have something like seven 45 minute blocks, but it generally averages out to about 6 hours of class time per day. 6 hours per day x 180 days per year x 13 years = 14,040 hours. Assuming a 2,000 year like adults work, we’re talking about 7 years of “full-time” work to cover what’s taught in school.
Right off the bat, if we assume that your average 11 year old could actually spend 8 hours a day focusing, kids could actually start school at the age of 11 instead of 5, and still finish at 18. It may seem unlikely that a kid could focus that much, but remember that the 6 hours spent in class doesn’t include time on the bus for kids or time spent at outside school activities. I think kids in school probably spend at least 8 hours a day in “school mode.” This is also disregarding summer, which could be an issue, but we’re going to ignore it for now and I think we’ll find that it’s not a problem. I’m also disregarding homework. I think this is ok though, because young kids in a lot of districts actually don’t have a full 6 hour day, so I think between having a shortened schedule as young kids, and homework as high school, it probably comes pretty close to evening out. And I’m of the belief that kids shouldn’t really need homework outside of school anyway, so I’m going with it!
So! Assuming a 60 minute period, how much time is actually devoted to learning? Well, we’ll assume 5 minutes for attendance and miscellaneous stuff at the beginning of each class. That knock over 1,000 hours off our total. Side note: I was surprised to learn that kids spend a THOUSAND HOURS! on attendance. We’re down to 12,870 hour, which is a little less than 6 and a half years.
If someone grew up on a desert island (and they somehow knew rudimentary English), and they wanted the most basic Western education, at the pace of a normal adult work year, they could get the whole education in half the number of years a kid spends in school.
But I don’t think kids actually get 55 minutes out of every class. At least half of every class period is spent with the teacher answering questions and helping with assignments. So either the kids either need help, or they don’t. If they don’t need help with the assignment, then they’re not really learning anything (at least, I’m not a huge fan of just regurgitating facts onto a worksheet). If they do need help, then 27.5 minutes of that time, divided among 30 students = less than 1 minute per student of learning time. We’ll round up to a minute.
That obviously makes a huge dent in the amount of time needed to replicate a school schedule. We’re down to 6,669 hours, or about 3 years and 4 months on a full time work schedule. This is something a clever and motivated teenager wouldn’t have trouble with. Assuming a child was properly motivated, they could literally start going to work with you every day starting around the age of 14 and a half, spend all those days doing school, and still finish by the age of 18.
Whoa there, hold up! You might say that a 14 year old with no school up to that point would be so far behind at that point! True, but what are the chances that a 14 year old who spent the last 14 years hanging out with you wouldn’t know enough to start on the kindergarten curriculum? Even if you, for whatever strange reason, made it a point to never try to teach your child anything, your 14 year old would probably FLY through the first several years of curriculum, you know, learning colors, shapes, spelling, arithmetic, basically everything that the first seven years of school teaches. I think most people have a vague fear that if their kids don’t spend 13 years in school, they’ll end up like they were raised by wolves. And it’s true, that kids with absolutely no education in the U.S. often end up as really poorly functioning adults, but most of the time when kids get absolutely no schooling, it’s because they grew up in desperate poverty, possibly with abusive or drug addicted parents. It’s tragic, to be sure, but if you’re reading this and considering unschooling your kids, that’s not you. I propose that kids with absolutely no schooling who spend their whole childhood around kind, well-educated, and productive adults, would probably turn out indistinguishable from your average high school graduate, but that’s just my opinion.
Regardless, of the 27.5 minutes of class time we have left to devote to new knowledge acquisition, how much actually gets used for that purpose?
As someone who went to a good public school, I would say that between kids screwing around, administrative interruptions, answering questions during lecture (that maybe only 1 kid needs the answer to), reviewing old material that may not need to be reviewed by all or most kids, and the time devoted to listening to kids read out loud, we’re talking about 15 minutes or less of actual, new knowledge acquisition for each 60 minutes spent in class.
That’s 3,510 hours, or 1 year and 9 months of full time work. To cover what it takes public school 13 years to cover! I think this is where some major education discrepancies come from. Some kids spend the whole 13 years learning, and some kids barely (or don’t even) get in their 1 year and 9 months.
And I don’t say all of this to disparage public schools or even to say that it could be improved, I know that it’s incredibly hard to organize and educate hundreds of kids of different ages and ability levels simultaneously and to pick them up and drop them off and feed them, etc. I’m just saying that you, as a parent with only your children to educate, have a giant advantage in that you don’t have to do all this extra stuff that leads to time not devoted to educating your children.
Just because I’m an extreme kind of guy, I would even go so far as to say that if you factor in how much faster a 14 years would learn elementary school stuff, and consider the impact of general cleverness and motivation, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility for a smart, motivated kid to fit the whole K-12 education into just a year or less of intense study. And this doesn’t even address the fact that college courses squeeze into a quarter what is covered in a year of high school!. It’s possible the pace could be pushed even further!
But! The point of all of this is not to argue that you should only educate your kids for a year, or that you should wait until your kids are 17 to teach them anything academic.
My point is, rather, that managing to find the time to fit in the whole K-12 curriculum should be the least of your worries.
The real question, is how much more than a K-12 education can you give your children, given that you have a whole 18 years to teach them whatever you want? (Or at least, whatever you can convince them would be good to know.)
Education, then, is not so much a problem of time, as it is a problem of motivation. Based on my math, kids only really need to be motivated for 1 year and some out of the first 18 of their lives to be “ready” for college. If you could foster a love of learning such that they spent a whole 10 years highly motivated to learn valuable things, I think they’d be close to having an education equivalent to a master’s degree by the time they were 18.
It’s possible to brute force force 3,000 hours of education over 18 years. That’s basically what the public school system does, at least for people who don’t enjoy it, which is a lot of people.
But if you can make a kid actually care, if you can make them actually see the value of learning and of building things, if you can show them how to follow projects through to completion and create value in the world, then they can achieve the equivalent of a K-12 education 10 times over by the time they’re 18.
We're sharing what we've learned in the course of doing some unconventional things in the hope that we can help others do better and get more out of life.