The Beauty of Non-Schooling

September 12, 2010

Regular readers will be aware that I choose to keep government as far as possible away from anything important.  This most definitely includes education.  I have always been a strong supporter of home or neighbourhood schooling.

Given the age in which I grew up, I was particularly impressed by the pioneering work of A.S. Neil at Summerhill which was loudly extolled during the 1960s in England.  My friends and I dreamed of going there to revel in the freedom of what was essentially self-education.

It was a great pleasure, therefore, to read in yesterday’s Globe & Mail about the new movement towards what they call “unschooling.”

The small but growing movement … is known by many other names, including deschooling, life learning and edu-punk. At base, unschooling is home-schooling returned to its postwar progressive roots, far from the Bible-thumping mould that has come to dominate the modern image of home-schoolers. Unschooling takes children out of schools, but, unlike a lot of home-school approaches, it doesn’t import the classroom into the home. It does away altogether with educational clutter such as curricula and grades. Unschoolers maintain that a child’s learning should be curiosity-driven rather than dictated by teachers and textbooks, and that forcing kids to adhere to curricula quashes their natural inclination to explore and ask questions.

Home-schoolers – and unschoolers in particular – are by nature difficult to count. But observers say that, thanks in part to social networking and the blossoming of Internet resources, their movement is growing.  One sign is that dozens of unschooling families will converge … this weekend for the fifth annual Toronto Unschooling Conference. Another is that since 2002, unschoolers have had their own publication, Life Learning Magazine.

Meanwhile, school boards and education ministries are embracing experiential learning.  There was a time when students were drilled and heavily tested on rote memory, such as the names and dates of British sovereigns. But research suggests that this is a temporary, limited form of learning: Kids gain more when they can ask questions and learning is tied to emotion … Some children thrive in the classroom and others don’t and, despite the best of intentions, the system sorts them into winners and losers. Recent initiatives by education ministries and school boards to shrink dropout rates, promote alternative schools and improve kindergarten are all fundamentally an effort to reduce the sorting. Unschooling’s underlying idea is that all kids are winners.

One major concern with interest-based learning is that there will be gaps in the child’s knowledge.  But, seriously, do you remember every subject you were taught at school equally well?  Most certainly you do not.  Primarily you have retained that which caught your interest. For me it was languages and history; I ignored most everything else, especially science.  As I got older, in my 30s and 40s and beyond, I developed a strong interest in certain aspects of physics and chemistry. Quite frankly, nothing I had been taught twenty or more years earlier would have been of much value to me and I simply went about reading and learning as I needed.

That is how I see unschooling working.  The more we can encourage it, the more independent and the less under the heel of government and corporate interests will the next generations be.  And wouldn’t that be more valuable than knowing the dates of British kings or the cube root of 100?