Monday, December 29, 2014

Unschooling Isn't "Unparticipating:" Responding to Attacks on Unschooling

Looking over the writing I've done this past year, I'm realizing how many things, though they were shared multiple times on my Facebook page, never made it onto the blog! For instance, that I was interviewed for an article on unschooling in the Montreal Gazette way back in August (a sidebar to the accompanying longer and more negative main piece), and the reactions lead me to send in a letter to the editor. One particularly frustrating letter lead me to write a long response for Life Learning Magazine, and fellow frequent contributor Jennifer Head was also moved to write a response! Those two pieces were then put together by Life Learning into a lovely free PDF booklet. Here's a sample from my portion of the booklet:

Will children really gain the exposure they need outside of school?

“The premise of the ‘learn what excites you’ is one that we all hold in high regard,” Writes Ms. Sanders, the author of the aforementioned letter. “That being said, we don’t know when we are young what we don’t know, and education is that door opener.”

No, children don’t “know what they don't know.” But where the mistake is made is the idea that a. schools are the only place to gain exposure to different topics, b. that schools provide exposure to the most important things, or the things every single child should know, and c. that schools do a good job of imparting knowledge on the subjects they do expose students to.

I'd counter that all three of those assumptions are wrong. Inside of schools, only a few subjects are taught. Outside of schools, learners have the whole world to choose from when it comes to their learning. It's also important to note that unschooled children are far from alone in this process. Parents, acting as facilitators, seek to provide exposure to a variety of things, and children find interests--find learning--through friends, neighbors, family, the internet, the library, homeschool coops or groups, local classes, museums, travel... The world is a big place, and it's full of a whole bunch of options.
To read the rest of my article, as well as Jennifer's great piece, click on the image below!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Authentic, Personalized, Flexible Learning: Why Curriculum Will Never Be Good Enough

I've always been against the use of any type of curriculum that isn't chosen expressly by the learner themselves, but I found myself wanting to explain why I felt that way. What was so irredeemable about externally mandated educational plans? This is the answer I came up with.

A curriculum is stagnant. It's created as a solid, linear plan, detailing what facts, theories, and formulas an individual should know and in what order they should learn them. It's designed by people other than the learners themselves, it's based on the idea that there is one core body of knowledge and set of skills that hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of children should all have, and that they should all learn it at the same age. It doesn't grow with the individual, it doesn't bend or adapt. It exists as a series of check marks, a string of benchmarks and numbers that have little to do with what's actually best for the learner, what they care about, their unique strengths and quirks and ways of being in the world.

True, deep, and meaningful learning can never be contained in something so stifling as a standardized curriculum.

There are some words and phrases I go back to again and again to describe my own life learning experience. My learning was always authentic, I say, because it was always learning that felt relevant and interesting. It was personalized, unique to me and what I wanted and needed at any given point. It was flexible, because I could always choose to learn different things in different ways with different people.

This kind of learning is pretty much the exact opposite of a pre-packaged curriculum. It's learning that is constantly evolving and changing as the learners themselves evolve and change, alongside their family and communities. It's the ultimate in authentic, personalized and flexible learning, better in my mind than any faddish new curriculum or teaching methodology that's taken those terms as handy buzzwords.

Reading selfie!
If the learners themselves aren't deeply involved in the shaping of their own education, if they aren't able to make important choices about what and how they learn (with supportive adults there to give a helping hand, find resources, play games, and otherwise enjoy the ride), then I don't think learning really can be any of those things. It becomes, instead, a pale shadow of what learning should be, as it's strangled by adults' desire for control over a process they can never truly own, a bureaucratic need for measurable educational progress, and a deep-set distrust of children and their innate abilities.

In this desperate attempt to make learning into something controllable and measurable, not only do we miss out on the richness that comes of learning for the sake of learning, but learning also becomes something that's complicated in really unnecessary ways. The more talk of methodologies and new teaching practices, or the latest curricular advancements and improvements, the more education--and by extension learning--starts to sound like something arcane and difficult, something that must be left in the hands of well-trained experts lest ordinary folks mess it up by not knowing the correct approaches or methods.

This has always bothered me since in my own life, learning has never been complicated. Difficult sometimes, confusing on occasion, but never complicated. You go where you need to go to get the knowledge and skills you want, which means that sometimes turning to an expert for a specific topic or trade is what will serve you best. But the actual process of learning isn't nearly as complex and hard to understand as so many educational experts seem to think (or at least seem to want other people to think).

If you believe that learning is complicated, then you believe that it has to be carefully designed and constructed, which means curriculum. But when you realize how unnecessary and actively harmful a standardized curriculum can be, the whole world opens up. Suddenly there are so many different things you can learn about and explore and do. There's no rush, so it doesn't all need to be packed into a certain time frame; you can learn from many different people, not just teachers.

It's exciting, fun, difficult, sometimes overwhelming, but it is always rewarding. Outside the confines of a curriculum, I've been able to focus on what's interesting and important to me, the things I feel genuinely matter. I feel very good about my "education," because it's mine. It's not the education someone else thought I should have.

That owning of your learning, the authenticity and joy it can bring into your life, can never be replicated by outside forces with big plans. It has to come from you, and your own exploration of the amazing world around you.

A big thanks to Sol, Chantal, and Lua for their editing assistance on this post! 
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