Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"Ideological Nonsense" or Revolutionary Education? 5 Outrageous Things I've Learned as a Practitioner of Unschooling

Negative mainstream media articles about unschooling--like the tides, the changing seasons, and election years--are a perennial phenomena, as familiar in the autumn as falling leaves for those of us who keep an eye out for such things. Sometimes, though, it’s not even an article about unschooling, and instead the snide remarks--or in some cases even outright calls for governmental bans--are tucked into a wider-ranging piece. That’s the case in the recent article from The Guardian titled Is the state sometimes wiser than parents? Starting out with a defense of the state sanctioned body shaming of children in the UK (based on the extremely unscientific BMI), it quickly moves on to the topic of home education, broadly, with special mention of the horror that is unschooling:
Some may be getting an adequate education – we just don’t know. But it is clear that some parents are subjecting their children to ideological nonsense that they term “non-schooling” or “delight-based learning”, in which there is no curriculum, structured learning or testing; instead, children are encouraged to “learn through living”. This is an outrageous state of affairs. We rightly argue that children worldwide have the right to attend school, so why not here? Home-schooling should be banned in all but the most exceptional of circumstances.
Frustrating? Yes. Funny? That too! I had to crack up at the “outrageous state of affairs” bit in regards to children--gasp!--learning from living. I could get into the author’s wider point about what role the state versus parents should play. As a (collectivist, anti-capitalist) anarchist my own views on the matter should be clear: I’m for children’s rights above parental OR state control, and am in favour of anything that contributes to children’s rights to bodily autonomy, freedom of thought, self-determination, and safety, and against anything that hampers those things. But instead, I’m going to keep things focused on life learning, and how very effective and delightful (another thing education apparently shouldn’t be!) it is.

5 Outrageous Things I’ve learned as a Practitioner of Delight-Driven, Inquiry-Based, Self-Directed Life Learning (a phrase I even put on a T-shirt, by the way)


Fun is as important as education, and the two tend to go hand in hand. In “progressive” education circles the term “play-based learning” has become very popular, and while play needs to be recognized for the incredible importance it has in learning, too often what is meant by that phrase is nothing like true (self-directed, collaborative, spontaneous) play. Instead it’s adult-directed activities designed to “educate” young minds, which usually isn’t that much fun at all, and even when it does manage to be fun, still doesn’t have the same benefits as children’s play. Unschoolers get LOTS of time to play, to have fun, to do things simply for the joy of them. Every single activity doesn’t have to be justified by it’s supposed educational value, and instead children--and adults, too!--can do their best to live an enjoyable life, confident in the knowledge that learning is ever present.

A curriculum has no place in real learning. When adults in power decide what every single child at a given age needs to know (and what they don’t), where the lines between subjects will be drawn (and that there should be lines between them), and how those subjects should be fed to children (regardless of the differences in how each child learns), children are robbed of the sense of excitement, discovery, and freedom found in self-directed life learning. Children have the right to make their own decisions and their own mistakes, to think their own thoughts and choose where, how, and with whom they want to spend their time, in an age appropriate way, and within reasonable constraints of family, community, and finances. What stands out to me about my own unschooling upbringing is how flexible and collaborative it was, something I never would have been able to experience within the constraints of a curriculum.

Solitude is as important as socializing. Arguments that unschoolers (and more broadly all home educated children) are lacking in socialization is predicated on the idea that there is one ideal level of socializing time that is right for every single child… Which is pretty absurd, when you think about it! Unschoolers can figure out, with help and support from the adults in their life, what type of and how much “socialization” is right for them and their unique personality and needs. Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all curriculum, there’s no one-size-fits-all model of socializing, either.

Boredom and downtime are essential parts of learning and living. When every moment of a child’s life is planned, organized, and monitored, they lose out on the time needed to process experiences, daydream, and find creative ways to fill their own time. No emotion should be vilified in the way that boredom frequently is, and when it’s instead embraced as simply part of the experience of being human for many of us, it becomes easy to see all the benefits it brings.

Children and adults can work together as equal partners in the adventure that is unschooling. In schools there is a very clear hierarchy, with teachers making up the ruling class and children the very clearly ruled. When you learn outside of school, you have the opportunity to re-imagine what child-adult, teacher-student relationships can look like and be. Children have different needs than adults, are smaller and less experienced, and are at a different developmental stage than older people. But different needs don’t mean lesser ones, and respectful relationships between caregivers and children make up the backbone of unschooling. It’s through cultivating trusting relationships, open communication and good time spent together that a learning partnership is formed, where all parties can work together to pick activities, learn exciting new things, and reach chosen goals. Life learning isn’t neglect; it’s about living and learning together.

It can be easy to let negative media exposure get you down, but instead I choose to just re-iterate, again and again, what unschooling actually is, how it works, and the role this philosophy can play in transforming the way we, as a culture, look at education. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and sadly there will always be people whose reaction to not understanding a lifestyle is that it should be banned. But while change will always seem threatening to some, the reality is that unschoolers--along with other self-directed learners--are doing something truly revolutionary, and pointing the way towards a future of greater respect for children, and greater understanding of the way humans best learn and grow. Which I’d say is outrageously delightful.

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