Monthly Archives: March 2013

Boredom, Creativity, and How Unschoolers Learn

boredom, creativity, and learningIn Life Learning Magazine’s July/August 2004 issue, I wrote an article about how unschoolers learn and the benefits of boredom. I described how, in my experience, “if one is brave enough to hang out with boredom for a while (in oneself or one’s children), they will find that boredom can be the great motivator, a push to develop one’s inner resources.” I wrote about how I’ve found that what we call boredom can be tool for developing my creativity. I also found that my life learning daughters often looked bored but really weren’t; sometimes, lacking a window into our children’s brains – and prompted by our lack of trust in the process of learning – we can make assumptions about what’s going on (or not) with our unschooled kids.

So I was interested to read that a British academic agrees that boredom is a creative state. Dr. Teresa Belton interviewed a number of authors, artists and scientists in her exploration of the effects of boredom. She wasn’t, of course, talking about how unschoolers learn, but she concluded from the responses of her interviewees that “children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

Unfortunately, children in school don’t often have the luxury of that time. As a result, boredom can mean something entirely different in that context. As writer Claire Madgwick notes in an article in the upcoming May/June issue of Life Learning Magazine, school can lead to a state of tedium. And she quotes John Holt from How Children Fail: “We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do for even an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.”

Given that most of us experienced that type of schooling, it’s no wonder that a fear of boredom and a drive for diversion are embedded in our culture. Ironically, as adults, work and even many of our leisure pursuits often involve what seem like repetitive and boring chores. If we’re going to be good role models for our unschooling / life learning kids, we’d do well to provide ourselves with some regular “stand-and-stare time.”

Grades are an abomination, said Benjamin Spock…33 years ago

Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child CareWhile sorting through some old files the other day, I came across a newspaper clipping from June, 1980. Dr. Benjamin Spock – author of the iconic book Baby and Child Care and who died in 1998 – was in town, addressing a thousand or so school trustees, administrators, and teachers. And he had something important to say about tests and grades.

He told them, “People who think that education has to be crammed down the throat of a child…think of education in terms of hurdles. Adults who don’t trust children…think everyone has to be coerced… But grades are an abomination. They mislead the parents and the child.”

Spock, who was known for advising that children be treated with respect and for encouraging common sense, also reportedly reminded his audience that teachers of Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin said they were hopeless at school and “would grow up to become insignificant adults.” “See how wrong,” he noted, “the school people can be about this philosophy of grades.”

Apparently, the message wasn’t taken very seriously.

John Holt: Figuring Out Unschooling for Ourselves

John Holt - photo by Wendy PriesnitzA couple of years ago, Pat Farenga asked me to contribute an essay to a book he has edited that  provides a unique insight into John Holt and his work, via contributions from people who knew and worked with him. I was delighted to participate and am pleased that the book – The Legacy of John Holt: A Man Who Genuinely Understood, Respected, and Trusted Children – has been published.

On his blog, Pat wrote about the book. He quoted a paragraph from writer and philosopher Aaron Falbel’s essay, which addresses one of the issues I’ve been writing and publishing about lately. Aaron writes: “…if John Holt were alive today, I think he would be saddened by the efforts of some people who try to turn his term ‘unschooling’ into some sort of a system, into a set of rules that must be followed. John trusted parents to learn from their experience with their children. He didn’t say, ‘If you’re going to call it unschooling, you’re going to have to do it my way.’ He wanted them to figure out what was right for them, for their whole family.”

Of course, those who attempt to define or redefine “unschooling” today probably don’t care much about what Holt would have thought. But I do believe it’s important to include rather than exclude families in the tent that shelters those who would trust both children to learn and grow, and their parents to guide that growth.


Moving Beyond the Factory Model of Education

stop schoolAn article from LinkedIn about schools and the future of education was shared with me yesterday. It was written by Heather Hiles, founder and CEO of Pathbrite Inc., a start-up that markets an educational portfolio platform.

She has decided that our education system is no longer relevant, that our current economy doesn’t need the factory model of education designed for the Industrial Era. Instead, she writes, a whole new set of skills is required now and in the future – things like problem solving, creative and independent thinking, and adaptability. That’s not exactly news to me and most of my readers! Here’s an article I wrote about that in Life Learning Magazine three years ago.

Hiles has been recently inspired by the work of Sugata Mitra. He’s the person who, in 1999, dug a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected computer, and left it there, with a hidden camera filming what happened next. Kids from the slum played around with the computer and, in the process (and without adult intervention), learned how to use it and how to go online, and then taught others what they’d learned.

In her article, Hiles springboards from describing that to presenting a vision of self-direction and applied learning that is, she writes, the way of the future. Here vision involves replacing rote learning and testing with “inquiry, search, discovery, application, presentation, encouragement and validation.” Of course, life learners / unschoolers (and all babies) already do that. But it’s great to see the light bulb turn on for others.

Then, she gets confused. In spite of her excitement about the kids in Mitra’s projects who learn naturally without being taught, Hiles’ vision also involves the nonsensical notion of students “learning how to learn.” As I’ve written countless times – and as Mitra’s work illustrates so well – children are hard-wired to learn; they only need to re-learn that ability if it has been stolen from them by school or other circumstances.

Hiles displays no other evidence of adultism. So maybe she arrived at that conclusion because she is, after all, marketing an educational product to teachers. But I think she has displayed a common logic lapse resulting from inadvertently being as stuck in the status quo as the system she criticizes. She is not alone. So often, I encounter people who understand the problem with how we’re currently educating children and young people, but aren’t able to take their concerns to their fullest conclusion of abolishing compulsory classroom teaching, curriculum, and testing. And they have an ideological block that doesn’t allow them to learn about homeschooling / unschooling in order to take it (and its lessons for the future of education) seriously. Remarkably, the school model has become so entrenched in our cultural worldview in just a few hundred years that most people – even those who understand that it’s past its best-before date – have difficulty envisioning anything much different.

As I’ve written elsewhere, home-based education is not an experiment. It’s how people learned to function in the world for millennia. And there is no reason that people today can’t do the same thing. School is the experiment, not the lack of it. That experiment is in trouble and we urgently need to use our understanding of how people learn to invent something more relevant to our kids’ needs, as well as those of our society and its economy. It might not be unschooling for every learner, but if there is a will to think outside the compulsory factory model box (which writer David H. Albert calls the “day jail”), the alternative model is there.

And, by the way, the teachers who are insulted or otherwise bothered by such statements (like those commenting on the Hiles article) need to realize they can be part of the problem or part of the solution. Many of their colleagues have already joined us in making the changes that are clearly overdue.

Instinct to Learn

Children Have an Instinct to LearnI believe that children have an instinct to learn (and that anecdotal evidence is pretty well backed up by research.)

Unschooling parents (or those who want to be) often worry about how or if their children will learn without schoolish things. Well, one of the underlying ideas that people have about education is that children need to be taught how to learn. And I think that’s where many parents go wrong.

People have an instinct to learn. Children are born with the desire to discover what they need to know about the world around them. The late Robert White, a developmental psychologist and Harvard professor, called this instinct to learn, to manipulate, to master an “urge toward competence.” What he meant is that we are born with not just a desire, but the need to have an impact on our surroundings, to control and understand the world in which we live. Children who are lucky enough to have families who trust that need are what I call life learners. They don’t need to follow somebody else’s second-hand curriculum, to be artificially motivated to learn, or to be tested about something they are learning. They don’t need school. They can live as if school doesn’t exist.

Unlike people who have been told to sit down, line up, be quiet and wait, life learners don’t just sit and wait for the world to come to them. They actively try to interpret the world, to make sense of it. As Leonardo da Vinci put it, “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Unschooled kids are constantly learning…and also experiencing the pride that comes with having understood new things and having mastered new skills. As the adults living with these constantly learning young people, we are most helpful when we can honor their right to set their own learning agenda, trust them to learn what they need to know, help them develop in their own ways, and provide opportunities that will help them to understand the world and their culture, as well as to interact with it.