Tag Archives: compulsory schooling

Attacking Teachers, Not the System: When Schools are the Problem, Not the Solution

Attacking Teachers, Not the System: When Schools are the Problem, Not the Solution

Kids attacking teachers is a symptom of a system that does not serve those kids. We need to move beyond bandage solutions and ask what’s wrong. It’s not a shortage of money.

When a teacher complains about being” routinely attacked and abused” by her students, “going home with bruises, scratch marks and bite marks,” and being “slapped and punched in the face and hit multiple times” by her four- and five-year-old students, there is a problem that’s way bigger than lack of classroom resources.

The situation referenced above involves a years’ long fight between a teachers’ union and a government, culminating now in a forced contract. The contract will leave a bad taste all round. And it will not solve the problems that plague public education.

In all the media coverage of this situation, I’m not seeing any discussion about why four- and five-year-olds are attacking teachers. Nor am I seeing discussion about why “teachers are seeing more and more students with a variety of learning challenges who require individual program plans because of autism and other physical or mental challenges.”

You can throw all the money in the world at providing more teachers, more psychologists, and tweaking the system in other ways. But those are just bandages. Parents, teachers, and governments must start examining the root causes of the problem with schools. Why do little kids attack their teachers? Do they not want to be in school? If so, why not? What are the social and human rights issues lurking behind that? Are children respected and trusted in our schools? Why are there increasing numbers of children with “learning challenges” like autism and other “mental challenges”? Why are more children being diagnosed? Are those real diagnoses or symptoms of underlying environmental, health, or economic issues? Are our society’s (and economy’s) priorities for parents and families skewed? Are they evidence that schools as currently configured are bad places for kids to learn? Does anyone care about whether or not children want to be confined to classrooms for many hours each day, for many years of their lives? Has anyone cared to ask the children?

Much of my writing over the past thirty years has addressed those issues. Other people are also asking those questions, of course. But real change will take more than just a few renegades talking among ourselves. If there is public money to be spent (and there is, if our children are considered to be a priority), let’s use it to ask the deep questions, and to challenge the current model of education. Let’s be honest with our questions and our answers. Let’s free all those well-meaning people who want to be teachers so they can actually help kids rather than be attacked by them.

It is no longer subversive to ask about the elephant in the room. Are schools the problem rather than the solution?




Compulsory Self-Directed Learning?

Compulsory Self-Directed Learning?

What do you call it when students are allowed to self-direct their learning when their attendance at school is compulsory? I call it cognitive dissonance. You might call it baby steps in the right direction!

There’s a new school opening later this year in California. It’s called, for now, the UnSchool (the students will be able to choose their own name later). There are also a number of other schools, specialized programs, and organizations that use the term “unschooling” or ally themselves with it.

What they’re really about – and share with life learning/unschooling – is the principle of self-directed learning. And it’s great that so many people are recognizing how much learning happens when one controls, and therefore engages with, their subject matter. As much as that is obvious to life learners (like my family, who practiced self-directed learning before the author John Holt coined the term “unschooling” in the 1970s), it is a huge step for most educators. They, after all, have mostly experienced kids caught in classroom tedium and the rebellious behavior that often results. So the fact that kids can be self-directed learners can come as a surprise to – or even be denied by – most teachers, school administrators, and parents.

My problem is that the schools that do get it – like the UnSchool and the Sudbury Valley Schools, for instance – are still schools with compulsory attendance. And our thinking about learning and learners can be stretched so much further – to include, among other things, children’s rights. Self-direction can be seen as a basic life principle. In the introduction to my 2000 book Challenging Assumptions in Education, I wrote that trusting one thing leads to trust in others, and questioning the assumptions embedded in one aspect of life leads us to question others. (Some refer to this as “radical unschooling,” but I think it’s a natural and inevitable progression in trust and respect.)

If we agree that learning arises not from compulsion, memorization, and repetition of material dictated by someone else but through self-direction, investigation, and discovery, then where is the justification for coercive, compulsory participation?

In that light, I look forward to the day when those who offer self-directed educational opportunities further extend their trust in and respect for children and young people…and stop enforcing compulsory school attendance. That way, they can truly pursue a self-directed education!

Yes, Unschooling is Progressive

Unschooling is Progressive

Yes, unschooling is progressive. I am not sure why this is a difficult concept for many people to grasp. But, these days, I seem to be spending more time than usual talking to people about how most life learners are engaged in the life of their communities – and that, in fact, it’s a large part of how they learn. I am amazed that, at least four decades into the modern home education experience, many (most?) people on the progressive left end of the political spectrum still think learning without school is isolationist and therefore socially regressive.

For instance, I have just finished an exchange with a guy who thought he had uncovered a major contradiction in my thinking and, therefore, in my work. Home-based education, he declared, is highly individualized and focused on the family, which isolates children from society. It’s self-centered by nature, he stated, turning out “graduates” who are lacking interest in society and the common good. That, he pointed out, is totally out of sync with my writing in Natural Life Magazine about social change, the New Economy, environmental issues, and so on. He actually said the “flaw” that he’d detected diminishes my credibility as someone interested in solving world problems…and kindly urged me to drop the “infatuation with homeschooling.”

Always ready to patiently explain and educate, I assured him that unschooling is progressive, after all. I first tried to help him understand the error of his stereotypical view of home education. I agreed that there are some homeschooling families that are insular in their outlook, and assured him that many others aren’t. Stereotyping people who live without school is just as ridiculous as making broad assumptions about people whose kids attend school.

In reality, there are large numbers of civic-minded life learning families for whom unschooling is progressive – adults and children alike who volunteer their time, speak up about important issues, and are active in other ways that will help their communities. These families model public service for their children, demonstrate to their neighbors that children have a voice, and provide a rich learning environment – in addition to creating social change.

I hoped that providing my critic with some examples would help him understand the linkages between learning without schooling and social change. In the September/October 2014 issue of Life Learning Magazine, we wrote about community engagement and unschooling. In the November/December issue, I wrote about place-based education, which allows students to use their local communities as resources for learning by doing. And in the January/February 2015 issue, we tied those two concepts together with a series of profiles of unschooling families that are active in their communities.

As is all too common on social media, the guy didn’t thank me for the information or even take the time to read those articles. Instead, propelled by his righteousness, he immediately went on to blame home-based education for what he called the “current and widespread degeneration of civic engagement.” That, of course, is rather much of an overstatement, but most homeschoolers are used to being told they should fix schools from the inside rather than bleeding off “the cream of the crop” from the system and therefore making it worse that it already is.

Realizing the futility of talking to a wall, I didn’t go on to point out to this person that public schools are not the models of democracy and human rights that he thinks they are. As I wrote in Challenging Assumptions in Education, children learn about democracy by living and participating in one – going to public meetings, educating their fellow citizens about issues, protesting when something happens they think is inappropriate, and so on. Being forced to attend school five days a week, where many aspects of life are out of their control, doesn’t help them learn how to function democratically. So I didn’t bother to suggest that removing the compulsory attendance requirement and top-down methods of operation would go a long way toward putting some reason behind those criticisms.

If he’d been willing to listen further, I’d have told this person that all the things I work on are side effects of the Industrial Revolution. That includes public schools, the separation of work and play, the compartmentalization of functions in society, environmental and public health damage, human rights issues, and the devaluation of home life and of the work of women and children. And the solutions to the problems created by those things are inevitably interconnected.

All I can hope for is that eventually this guy will notice how school-free children and young people are repopulating their communities on a daily basis – shopping, banking, volunteering in seniors’ homes and animal shelters, attending public meetings, going to the library, playing in the park, swimming at the community center. And maybe then he’ll realize that kids are citizens too, and that they are interested in and involved in community life, something that’s arguably easier for school-free kids that for their peers who are sitting in schools, insulated from real life.

Maybe then, he’ll realize that there is no flaw in my belief that the liberation of children and young people is an important part of the solution to the many problems his and my generations have created. Yes, unschooling is progressive…and much more.

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.