Monthly Archives: August 2016

Dear Media: I’m Anti-Schooling, Not Anti-Intellectual

Anti-schooling, not anti-intellectual

It’s that time of the year where I live: Kids are going back to school. Those kids who aren’t following the crowd back to school are used to fill the media’s need for novelty.

I don’t do media interviews about that anymore.

I got tired of explaining the irrelevance – and the actual harm to learning – of things that schools and our popular culture present as necessary to life and learning. That includes (but isn’t limited to): defining certain topics as academic and others not; one-size-fits-all curriculum, and study topics and programs that aren’t originated by the learner; testing, grading, marks, and diplomas; power and control by the privileged; age segregation; coercion and compulsory attendance at school.

I got tired of explaining that being anti-schooling does not mean I’m against public education or publicly supported learning. I got tired of explaining how we could divert the resources used to pay for all the above aspects of schooling into abundant and stable public support for libraries, museums, science centers, learning centers, art galleries, maker spaces, and any other places that people can freely use for learning.

I got tired of explaining that it is possible to be anti-schooling and not anti-intellectual. None of this fit the shallow needs of the media. I don’t do media interviews anymore.

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Experiential Learning is Children’s Work

Experiential Learning is Children's Work by Wendy PriesnitzChildren’s ability to practice experiential learning through day-to-day living is the foundation of what happens in democratic schools and unschooling homes alike. Part of that experiential learning is kids doing real work in the real world, motivated by their own real interests and goals. It is not pseudo work where kids are “allowed” to “help” adults or where they pretend to do real work with the aid of toy tools.

Unfortunately, there are few places where children can experience the adult world in that way. Most children – and even many homeschooled ones – don’t have nearly enough opportunities to be with adults who are doing their own thing in the real world and not, as John Holt once put it, “just hanging around entertaining or instructing or being nice to children.”

The working world of adults is not very accessible to children because we fear they will get hurt, get in the way of or slow down production, or abuse or break the equipment. But in my experience, that has not been the case. Take my own family as an example.

Our unschooled daughters Melanie and Heidi (now in their forties) grew up living, learning and working in the midst of our busy home-based publishing business. They had access to all the tools of that business and never abused them. They mimicked the careful manner in which we used those tools and respected them as necessary for making our family’s living. More importantly, they used those tools in creating their own businesses, which we respected in return.

There are many opportunities for children and young people to learn in and be of service to the real world and, at the same time, participate in experiential learning. These include volunteering with community organizations, participating in their parents’ businesses or at their workplaces, working for pay or as apprentices at neighborhood businesses and running their own enterprises.

Although I don’t want to romanticize the past or ignore abuses against children, at other times and in other places, children had or are given the opportunity to do real work at their parents’ side, as well as on their own accord, and to be involved in the life of their communities. In our more complex society, this same type of opportunity and respect for children’s abilities is still possible if we all share a sense of responsibility for helping develop the minds and attitudes that will lead us into the future. Today, no one has all the experience and information necessary to prepare young people for a rapidly developing future. But we can share our skills and experiences with our children or take on other people’s kids as apprentices in order to pass along our knowledge and attitudes.

That sometimes may involve the adults sorting out the mindless bureaucratic requirements from the necessary safety concerns. Kids need the sense of accomplishment that comes from being trusted with a real job to do in the real world. They benefit from the increased self-esteem that comes from participating – at whatever level – in a functioning group.

Everyone benefits when kids develop the confidence that accompanies being in control of themselves and of their surroundings. And they don’t need the sort of “protection” that results from lack of adult trust and preparation and that keeps them sitting on the sidelines and away from meaningful work.

Aside from safety, there are other reasons for sidelining children and preventing experiential learning from happening. Showing respect for a child’s developing skills takes patience. Doing a task ourselves is usually easier and more efficient than allowing the time needed for a child to do it. Children’s results might be not good enough for the satisfaction of perfectionist adults. And some people just underestimate what a child can do.

However, personal empowerment begins with realizing the value of our own life experience and potential to affect the world. Our children deserve the opportunity to be part of – and learn from – the daily lives of their families and communities.

Portions of this post are based on an essay that appears in the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.

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Lazy Learning

Lazy Learning

Lazy Learning – Interest-Based Learning is the Opposite of Lazy

Few things seem to trouble parents more than the possibility our kids might be lazy. I guess it’s the legacy of that old Puritan Work Ethic – and you don’t have subscribe to any particular religion to suffer from it! Like our current style of public education, which is based on it, the belief that hard work makes you a better human being dates back to the Industrial Revolution. That attitude might have been a useful tool for factory owners trying to make their employees productive, but it can actually be counterproductive today, when working smarter and more creatively are keys to success and happiness.

Funny, then, that our education system still embodies the Puritan Work Ethic. In school, learning is work, and anything else is being lazy. Children’s time is regimented into study periods and programmed in pursuit of “learning outcomes,” and even their out-of-school time is scheduled for homework, tutoring and more lessons or organized activities. Parents and educators mistrust anything that looks like inactivity or being lazy, and bustle around trying to motivate our kids to “find something useful to do.”

Unfortunately for these children, work for its own sake – or because somebody else tells you it’s good for you – just doesn’t make sense. The long hours school students are forced to spend memorizing, cramming for exams and doing homework seldom produce much real learning. Some kids are luckier – and arguably better educated – because they are part of a growing movement dedicated to the realization that learning doesn’t have to be work and that children don’t have to be forced to learn. As unschoolers, their curiosity is trusted to do the job.

My family was part of the birth of the modern unschooling movement, four decades ago. When Heidi and Melanie were children, they didn’t attend school. Nor did they see learning as work. They didn’t use a curriculum or workbooks, nor were they graded or tested. They learned math, reading, writing, science, and geography in the same way they learned to walk and talk. Their learning was experiential and inquiry-based, led by their interests, needs, and curiosity. They explored, investigated, asked questions, experimented, took risks, got ideas and tested them out, made connections, made mistakes, and tried again. It was a rich and joyful way of life, with knowledge and skills picked up both purposefully and incidentally, guided by their innate need to participate in, explore, and make sense of the world around them.

A lot of what they did day by day looked like playing or daydreaming…or like being lazy. In our society, play is the opposite of work. As products of that Industrial Age-induced work ethic, we think of work as unpleasant, something one does during the week in order to afford to play during the week and summer vacation. We have made education into an industrial process, where facts are stuffed into people like so many sausage casings. And that, of course, is work. We have turned a potentially joyful experience hateful with our schedules and rules and structure. And we have confused our children, who are smart enough to know the difference between the challenge of doing productive work and the numbness that results from busywork that doesn’t accomplish anything.

The basis of unschooling, on the other hand, is that children are born to be curious, independent, active, self-directed learners, and will remain that way if school doesn’t dampen their natural curiosity about the world by turning learning into something unpleasant into work. Children don’t naturally think in terms of math or reading being “hard;” we create those feelings if we force them to learn these skills before they are developmentally or emotionally ready, or before they are interested. When people memorize something without truly understanding it, they haven’t really learned it. When a skill is mastered in the context of an interest and need experienced in the real world, it is truly learned. It might look like “lazy learning,” but it’s actually real learning.

Melanie is now a conservation horticulturalist who runs a native plant botanical garden that is part of a university environmental sciences center. Heidi is a graphic designer and musician. They pursue their adult lives with the passion, joy, curiosity, and self-reliance that were hallmarks of their unschooled years. Their “work” is fun, and they continue to learn about the world as effortlessly as they did as young children. I think that’s evidence of a successful education and a successful life…and all a parent could wish for.

A version of this essay first appeared in Life Learning Magazine.

Students are People Too: Why Language Matters

Students are People Too: Why Language Matters

An acquaintance who is a former teacher asked me the other day how to shift other people – including educators – toward tolerance for, if not an understanding and appreciation of, how students can benefit from informal, self-directed learning. She wanted one small thing that could help change the attitudes of people in her conversational circles.

So I suggested she look at her use of language and its power to make change.

To illustrate this, I shared with her a quote that’s been going around on social media recently by Sir Ken Robinson from his latest book The Element. He wrote. “…education doesn’t need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

After a quick read, I agreed with this statement. However, I pointed out to my friend that the wording of the last part of it is actually contradictory to the idea of major change. True transformation in education will not come from having “achievement” as a goal, nor from adults thinking they must create special environments for learning (i.e. schools) and inserting kids into them. Instead, it will involve acknowledging three things:

  • The world itself is a wonderful learning environment.
  • Kids naturally want to learn from birth (until adults bore that natural inclination right out of them).
  • Children don’t need to be coerced to learn if they are in control of the learning agenda, “true passions” or otherwise.

Now, I’m sure Robinson understands all of that. But his words are steeped in an academic brew – a tea that encourages the status quo of schools as babysitters, rather than educational and social transformation.

For instance, both Robinson and my friend used the word “student” when referring to learners. In popular usage, that word reinforces the hierarchy and division of power that is part of the problem with our current systems of education. It also interferes with an understanding of the natural, informal, self-directed exploration and learning that can take place in a school-free environment. So I suggest we consider avoiding the word “student” if we want to participate in educational change making.

Why? The dictionaries variously define “student” as a person who is enrolled in or studying at a school or college or who is studying in order to enter a particular profession. Synonyms include scholar, pupil, undergraduate, graduate, grad student, postdoctoral fellow; refinements include freshman, sophomore, junior, senior.

In some dictionaries, there is a secondary definition of the word “student” as someone who takes an interest in a particular subject. That definition could include informal learning. It could broaden learning past the expert-designed curriculum and toward the general acquisition of skills and insights. But it still separates learners into a group distinct from everyone else who is supposedly either teaching or not learning. We are all learners, all the time.

So I believe that life learners can create real change by using language that broadens people’s ideas about how knowledge is acquired, and that expands the definition of learning beyond instruction in schools.

The late philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society, “Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school. Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school. But this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools because sound common sense tells us that only children can be taught in school. Only by segregating human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of a schoolteacher.”

When our words help to prove the folly of that institutional “wisdom,” we will be contributing to an understanding that we are all students of life; to a tolerance of informal, self-directed learning; and to a transformation in the way we educate ourselves and our children that goes far beyond motivating students and retooling schools.