In the Parenting Roundtable conference call in October the first parent to speak, dtomboy, mentioned that she “unschooled” her kids. I've always been pretty interested in the learning process and education, particularly the Montessori Method, so I checked it out and discovered a pretty incredible canon of works and a thriving community promoting the freedom and trust of children. A few of the FDRers that I told about unschooling seemed very interested, and I've also noticed that several more joined the Unschooling Facebook group, so I wanted to take a moment to sort of formally introduce everyone to the idea and hopefully get the discussion going. I've read several books and articles on the topic in the last two months or so, but I am by no means an authority on the subject.
First let's talk a little about what schools are from the unschooling perspective, and therefore why a new and radical approach is necessary to child learning. John Holt, the founder of the unschooling movement wrote in How Children Fail that compulsory education creates children that are, even in the early grades, gripped with fear and surrounded by danger (physical in some cases but mostly psychological). The Teacher-Classroom relationship creates a need for the child to constantly validate himself both to his teach and his classmates, and he is constantly afraid that he will fail, inviting the anger and disappointment of his teacher and the humiliating wrath of his fellow slaves (yes, John Holt often uses the term slaves to describe children in school). But even more fundamentally, the very nature of compulsory education creates an atmosphere where real learning is nearly impossible. He writes:
“If we and not the children choose the task, then they think about us instead of the task, with crippling results...The point I now want to make is that “success,” as much as “failure,” are adult ideas which we impose on children... It is nonsense to think that we can give children a love of “succeeding” without at the same time giving them an equal dread of “failing.”
Babies learn to walk, and falling down as they try... do not think, each time they fall, “I failed again.” Healthy babies or children [here he means psychologically healthy], tackling difficult projects of their own choosing, think only when they fall down “Oops, not yet, try again.” Nor do they think, when finally they begin to walk or ride, “Oh, boy, I'm succeeding!” They think, “Now I'm walking! Now I'm riding!” The joy is in the act itself, the walking or the riding, not in some idea of success.”
But as Holt says, teachers compel students to focus on the means, not the end. Grades were created to give children the initiative to learn (like they need it), but now students focus on the grades. If a teacher drills a child in an attempt to force his memory to bind itself to a particular mathematical concept, he will think only of satisfying the teacher and regaining his freedom. And if we give children tests as a proof of their knowledge, they become obsessed with that particular test, forgetting anything they might have learned as soon as the paper leaves their hands.
John Taylor Gatto, while not part of the unschooling movement, was adopted by its members as another voice of reason on child freedom and learning. He taught in New York for 30 years, only to quit his job after receiving the Teach of the Year Award to write and speak about the true nature of compulsory education. In Dumbing Us Down, he provides us with the 7 lessons that schools really teach kids:
- Confusion: ”Confusion is thrust upon kids by too many strange adults, each working alone with only the thinnest relationship with each other, pretending, for the most part, to an expertise they do not possess.”
- Class Position: “My job is to make them like being locked together with children who bear numbers like their own. Or at least endure it like good sports. If I do my job well, the kids can’t even imagine themselves somewhere else because I’ve shown them how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes. Under this efficient discipline the class mostly policies itself into good marching order. That’s the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.”
- Indifference: “I teach children not to care too much about anything, even though they want to make it appear that they do.”
- Emotional Dependency
- Intellectual Dependency
- Provisional Self-Esteem: “Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long, so I teach that a kid’s self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged… The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but should instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials.”
- One Can’t Hide: “I teach students that they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance… There are no private spaces… no private time… I assign a type of extended schooling called ‘homework,’ so that the effect of surveillance, if not the surveillance itself, travels into private households.”
With a new knowledge of children and education in mind John Holt began to work out the type of environment and care that would actually assist children rather than stunt them, that would allow them to pursue their own interests rather than the abstract goals of one or many authority figures. A few of the major tenets include:
Trust: “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words - Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple - or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves - and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”
Freedom: Unschooling is interest-driven, project-based style of learning that the individual child is responsible for. For example, an interest in bridges will not lead a child immediately to engineering concepts, but instead he will want to build a bridge! And through this project, in order to reach his goal he will inevitably learn about structural integrity, tension, different bridge designs, etc. And if he wishes to continue pursuing this interest and make better bridges, he will discover that in order to do so he should learn about the nature of bridges.
Real Intelligence: The purpose of learning is not to know your multiplication tables or diagram a sentence, but rather to have a true, thorough and intense relationship with the knowledge that you acquire. Children need to know what really happens when you divide 12 by 3 on a concrete fundamental level before they can understand what 12/3 is. “The true test of intelligence if not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do.”
Options: A parent might often have great ideas to help their child learn, or a particular project or resource they might benefit from. But the parent cannot simply force this idea onto the child. Rather, in an open relationship, the parent could introduce that idea as an option to her child, placing it as a point of interest on their path that the child could either stop and see or pass right by.
Children are different: Children are not pigeon-holed into right brain/left brain or introvert/extrovert. Every child is different and has his own unique personality. For him to learn and grow to his full potential, his education must fit him exactly. And the only person who could build such a specialized system is him. Also important is the idea that not all children need to learn all the same things.
From what I've read so far I believe the unschooling model fits so very, very well with anarcho-capitalism, and should certainly be pursued as an option to parents future and current. Of course, the truth that unschooling fails to touch on is that children need both the proper learning environment and the proper family environment, and that a problem with either will lead to problems with both. Children require consistency and a knowledge that the world is an understandable place. Unschooling, in theory, can help provide this to children, but only in families that do the same in every way possible.
How Children Fail by John Holt
How Children Learn by John Holt
Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto
The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn
The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori