Monthly Archives: September 2013

Unschooling Reflects Current Cognitive Research

Unschooling Reflects Current Cognitive ResearchAs I wrote in the current issue of Life Learning MagazIne, unschooling is the way of the future, for all ages. So I’m always surprised that so many people think it is wrong, weird, or witless…or even anti-intellectual. In fact, it’s just the opposite; our current education systems are based on outdated science, and unschooling reflects current cognitive research.

When schools were created, it was thought that learning was a sequential process that involved structure, uniformity, and memorization, and relied on extrinsic motivation and control – things like praise, rewards, and punishment. Now science knows differently; modern cognitive research is demonstrating that learning is open-ended and spontaneous, and that people – including children – learn best when they are intrinsically motivated (or what researchers Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan refer to as “self-determination”) and can build on their everyday experiences. We also know now that tests, grades, and a third-party curriculum can actually impede learning. (I’m working on an article about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for the next issue of Life Learning Magazine, and hope to accompany it with a piece about the science of self-organizing systems and how that relates to children.)

Research has also demonstrated the negative effect of emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety and stress on learning. Additionally, there is research showing that lack of control over one’s life and learning can lead to what Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness,” which leads to the giving-up that is incompatible with new learning.

All of this shows that children’s learning processes should be supported, rather than the content being provided, which is the opposite of what happens in schools. Life learners / unschoolers are living like that with our children. And many of us were allowing children to do what comes naturally long before science proved it was the best way for kids to learn. I hope science can somehow, eventually, trump the vested financial interests of the education industry so all children can learn as Nature intended.

The Life Learning Journey

The Life Learning JourneyI’ve been thinking about the term “grown up.” Lots of people talk about “grown unschoolers.” But what does it mean, really? When has a person reached “up”? When they hit six feet tall? When they turn 20? Or 30? Or 50? When they can support themselves financially? Of course, those are all arbitrary criteria, set in relation to our cultural and family experiences. They are mere signposts along the road to a destination that we are not able to locate on anyone’s life map. Maybe, like Peter Pan, we never really grow up! Now there’s a thought that will probably upset many people, since growing up seems to be the paramount goal in our society.

Another really important goal, it seems, is to become educated. But neither is an education a destination; it, too, is a journey. We commonly speak of the importance of “getting an education” and of “finishing our education” and we think of people as being educated or not, as if there were some finite place one reached when learning could stop. But we don’t become educated any more than we ever completely grow up. There is always something to learn…and, in fact, many important lessons are not learned until mid-life or older. An education is not a destination, but a journey – one that begins at birth and continues until we die (or even after, depending upon your spiritual/religious beliefs).

So if your school-free child isn’t learning in lock-step with her schooled peers, just remember that she has a whole lifetime ahead of her to walk the life learning path…and that the life learning journey involves much more than she would ever be taught in school or than she can learn before she grows up.

Unschoolers Modeling Independent Thinking and Behavior

Unschoolers Modeling Independent Thinking & BehaviorI was talking with a couple of unschoolers about modeling independent thinking and behavior. The dad told me that he and his wife do not control their young children’s thinking or their learning, but they do find it necessary to occasionally control their behavior, because it is their duty to nourish and protect their children. I shared with these unschoolers that my husband and I found that precisely because we didn´t try to control our (now adult) daughters´ thinking, we seldom needed to control their behavior. They usually knew what was appropriate, safe, and healthy for themselves. Sure, when they were very young, they sometimes followed their curiosity into potentially dangerous situations, but we were there to abort or rescue if necessary. And sure, when they were little and I was doing the grocery shopping, their choice of food was limited by my selections – something that changed as they grew older, learned about healthy eating, and had input into our family food purchasing.

Mostly, we simply tried not to intentionally put our young daughters into situations they were not yet able to handle, because those were usually the ones that resulted in emotional or physical danger. (Admittedly, making those decisions wasn’t easy because we tried to err on the side of their autonomous decision-making, as well as exploration and learning, rather than being biased by our own overly-cautious comfort levels.) Meanwhile, we communicated with them about life and its many daily choices and possibilities. So, in a modified free-range manner (before that term was commonly used in relation to kids), we allowed them as many opportunities as possible to learn to balance danger and risk.

Just as importantly, we tried to model that balance for them. Learning to think for ourselves – and to act accordingly – is supposedly a big component of education. But much of what passes for an education works against that and actually trains children to pay attention to what others think and say. The education industry promotes the thinking of experts and doses out information from governments, corporations, and various adults who often put their own interests first. The internalizing of the notion that others know best what is good for us results in what the late sociologist David Riesman, in his book The Lonely Crowd, called “other-directed” people.

Looking to one’s peers for direction is an inauthentic way to live. And it is one that I think many who consider themselves to be unschoolers want their children to avoid. Instead, they hope to raise self-directed, free thinkers. But peer pressure is a huge part of modern living, and it is easy to get caught up in it. So, as parents, we should be vigilant about our own self-directedness. As I wrote in this article for Life Learning Magazine in 2004, “Ultimately, I think, the limits of our children’s freedom can only be decided by individual parents who have carefully considered each child’s developmental abilities, and who have examined their own biases.” Then, when we are confident in our own thinking and decisions, and can control our own behavior mindfully rather than relying on what others think, we will set a good example for our children.

Unschooling: Be With Your Child Today

The Child Cannot WaitHere is some unschooling inspiration that is from one of my favorite poets:

“Many things can wait.
The child cannot.
Now is the time.
His blood is being formed,
his bones are being made,
his mind is being developed.
To him, we cannot say tomorrow.
His name is today.”

I find this poem by Chilean poet, feminist, and Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral to be a great reminder of the fact that we need to be with our children today…to spend time with them and follow their lead to learn about the world and how it works.

Be with your child today!

Respecting Children

Respecting ChildrenIf I had to sum up my philosophy of parenting and life learning / unschooling in one word, it could be “respect.” No, not “trust.” Trust is a crucial part of my philosophy. But for me, respect goes beyond trust. Life learners/unschoolers trust their children to learn to read, write, do math and science, etc. without attending school, as a result of their naturally programmed curiosity and interest in the world. That’s not easy in our culture. However, respecting children is, I think, even harder. It means that we value their rights, freedoms, feelings, personalities, temperament, challenges, opinions, motives, needs, desires, abilities, perspectives, personal spaces, and privacy. We not only trust them to learn but practice respecting children and their right not to learn certain things in certain ways and at certain times/stages. That’s how I expect to be treated as an adult and I believe that children deserve nothing less. (I should add that neither trust nor respect preclude adult care, communication, and guidance as necessary.)