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"Our family unschools but my 11 year old has recently been asking if she can take tests. I'm confused. She says she doesn't want to do school at home - she just wants me to grade her work. None of our unschooling friends give their kids grades and all the moms are telling me not to do it. Help!! This has become a daily conversation."
~ "Lenora", Colorado Unschooling Mom

The topic of issuing grades to unschoolers definitely rankles quite a few hairs. Usually the most common argument against giving grades is that it violates the very essence of the non-traditional school philosophy. When you start to give kids grades, so the thought goes, you begin to chip away at the natural love of learning that inherently drives kids to want to do their best - without outside motivation.

An interesting phenomena that some unschooling families experience happens when the kids ask for their work to be graded. Parents are left scratching their heads, wondering where they went wrong in their child-led learning approach.

For many unschooled kids, asking for grades is a natural part of growing up. Let me explain.

When kids reach early adolescence, between the ages of 10-12, they reach a stage where they want to begin to form their own identity. Up until that point, our children pretty much reflect the family's identity in the way they speak, dress, think, and behave.

Maybe you've already experienced some of the rebellion. They want to buy clothes like everyone else is wearing. Or, they ask to spend more time at their friend's house instead of attending family events. One day your preteen wouldn't be caught dead holding your hand in public; but the next day at home they want to snuggle with you and watch cartoons.

These experiences are an adolescent's way of discovering who they are. They know their role within the family, but they are beginning to stretch their wings and figure out who they are in the bigger, wider world. They know one day they will need to stand on their own two feet - and they want to be able to do that with confidence.

Pre-teens aren't necessarily shunning everything their family raised them to believe. Instead, they're taking calculated risks to see if a different belief may fit them better. Heck, many of us did the same thing with those mental lists of all-the-things-I'll-never-do-when-I'm-a-parent.

How Do Grades Fit In?

Even though our American culture sometimes shuns smart, we definitely don't give dumb too much respect. (Just look at how your preteen treats you since they discovered you don't know all the answers.)

Sure, you may have given thoughtful and moderated praise to your unschooled kids over the years, but that's not a very objective evaluation of how smart they may be. Grades, so an adolescent mind reasons, give a much better measure of where they stand in relation to other kids their age. Grades help them form their sense of self and how they fit into the world.

Put yourself back in your 12-year old shoes and see it from their perspective:

  • Good grades plus athletic nature means you won't be the butt of dumb jock jokes.
  • Poor grades in just one subject means you're not a complete failure and there's still hope.

Some unschoolers may only need a month or two of graded work to get the information they want about themselves and their ability to achieve academically. Others may find grades add a new layer of motivation to their desire to learn. Using a narrative grade report that critiques strengths and weaknesses, for example, may give some kids a useful insight for their journey of personal growth.

Do You Give The Grades?

Refusing to give your unschooler grades may wind up in an unnecessary power struggle.

Your child's request to take tests or have her work graded is really a search for affirmation of who they really are. Up until this point, they've been told they're a certain type of student - a certain type of learner. But, all they have is your word.

As an unschooler, you've taught your child to take the lead in the life and in their education. You've taught them to seek out information and discover things on their own. For many kids, asking for a report card takes these life lessons and puts them to personal use, with your help.

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April 04, 2020


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