Monthly Archives: April 2013

Freedom From Compulsory Schooling and Children’s Right to Live and Learn in Freedom

children must have the right to live and learn in freedomOne of the foundations of life learning / unschooling is freedom from compulsory schooling and compulsory instruction. Many of the articles in Life Learning Magazine can be distilled down to that, and I personally write a great deal about children’s rights to control what they learn – as well as when and how – and what they do.

Boston College research professor Dr. Peter Gray has written a thought-provoking and important new blog post on this topic, framing this topic in terms of the right to quit in many aspects of life. He wrote, “Schools, like all institutions, will become moral institutions only when the people they serve are no longer inmates. When students are free to quit, schools will have to grant them other basic human rights, such as the right to have a voice in decisions that affect them, the right to free speech, the right to free assembly, and the right to choose their own paths to happiness.”

That harkens back to an article that Life Learning’s sister magazine Natural Life published in 2008 by teacher Jim Strickland, in which he also questioned compulsory schooling. He wrote, “Compulsory attendance laws undermine learning by creating an atmosphere of coercion, mistrust, and manipulation. They do this by their very existence as the faint (or not-so faint) hum in the background of each potentially joyful moment in every classroom. We all know the best way to make anyone hate doing something is to force their compliance under threat of punishment. Learning that is meaningful, lasting and real can only take place with the consent and willing participation of the learner. One cannot teach the values of freedom and democracy using a totalitarian pedagogy. The medium is the message.”

Interestingly, Jim Strickland works in the public school system, trying to make change from the inside, and Peter Gray ‘s new book Free to Learn spends a great deal of time extolling the virtues of Sudbury Valley Schools, where attendance is compulsory!

So it’s left to life learners / unschoolers to lead the change toward respecting children as whole people who can be functioning members of society. But as more and more voices join the chorus (and the level of coercion in public schools becomes more egregious), I am hopeful that we will reach a tipping point. And then, the adult-child relationship in our society will change from one of power, hierarchy, and coercion to one of respect and trust.


On Walking, Laughing, and Trusting Children to Learn

On Laughing, Walking and Trusting Children to LearnI think there are two important things to keep hold of amidst all the talk about how much influence parents should or shouldn’t have in their unschooled children’s lives. One is to retain our sense of humor about life (and parenting), and the other is to remember back to the days when we were trusting children to learn some of the very basics, such as walking, and what our role was in that learning.

Blogger Amy Milstein posted this smart piece today that covers both of those bases. And that reminded me of this humorous piece that we published in Life Learning Magazine back in 2011 about trusting children to learn; it is a sort of forerunner to Amy’s post.

Enjoy…and keep trusting your children to learn, as well as your parenting instincts. Oh, and don’t forget to laugh!

Unschooling and the Power of Authority

Unschooling and the power of authorityOne of the first issues I encountered as a life learning / unschooling parent was to overcome and then challenge the influence of the authority associated with schools. I saw two aspects of that authority. One was the officials who wrote and enforced the laws that affected homeschooling and unschooling (and those – like the truant officers and local school principals who didn’t have a clue about what the law actually said); they thought their authority gave them the right to frighten and control families. The other was the more subtle authority vested in the “experts” who “know” that kids must go to school to learn and that parents who don’t send their kids to school are therefore bad, uncaring, abusive parents, or anti-intellectual. I was rebel enough – and certain enough about the damage wrought by school – that I overcame both challenges pretty quickly.

A few years later, as I became an advocate/activist for homeschooling and unschooling, I realized that many people replace that old authority with something that is just as authoritative: They search for an expert authority on the subject who will tell them how to do it right. That concerns me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I think it’s a poor example to our unschooling children if we want them to be autonomous learners.

My problem is the word “authority.” Clearly, someone who has studied something in depth (maybe even experienced it), has amassed a great deal of knowledge about it, and has become passionate about it is someone to be sought out for information or advice on that topic. But it’s good to remember that their knowledge may or may not apply to us. So even though we might consider someone to be an authority on a topic – in this case education of children – we needn’t give them the power over us and our decisions that normally is invested in authority.

This notion of authority also applies to other aspects of our life learning / unschooling lives. In an article entitled “The Many Subtle Faces of Authority,” published in Life Learning Magazine in 2007, writer, math prof, and mother of grown unschoolers Marion Cohen points out that “the tyranny of wanting to do the right thing for our unschooled children can cause us to replace school-type authorities with a seemingly more benign homeschool-type.” As Cohen sees it, we might invest many things and situations with unnecessary and sometimes undesirable authority. These could range from books, libraries, and websites to get-togethers with other families, structured play opportunities or programs, performances for children, arbitrary family schedules, or various other restrictions created by adult priorities. Cohen writes that giving these things authority can “ignore children’s strengths and streamroll their autonomy.”

Being an expert is tricky. It gives you power to influence or persuade others. And I believe it’s important that those in such roles use our power responsibly and respectfully – whether we’re parenting our own children or assisting other unschooling families. As parents, and when we share our knowledge of unschooling with others, let’s keep in mind the wonderful potential that the writer and activist Starhawk calls “power-with-others,” which she points out we can use to accomplish good things and to effect change through working together.