Tag Archives: life learning

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?

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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!

Supporting and Nurturing the Mother-Artist

Nurturing the Mother-Artist

When I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, I was a textile artist creating large-scale, multi-fiber installations. By the time my second daughter was born, my experiments with color and texture had expanded to include light, which led me to incorporate stained glass into my work, and later to abandon the textiles. For the next few years, I constructed lamps and panels in a variety of studios, including a storefront beside a motorcycle shop, a kiosk in a field that was part of a crafts village, an artisans’ co-op in a former fishing shanty, and later, our townhouse kitchen. None were ideal for a young mother with toddlers, especially since my chosen medium involved glass shards and soldering lead! What had I been thinking?

I began to realize that I was being called a crafter rather than the artist I aspired to be, and that some aspects of the art world were unfriendly to someone who was a mother-artist. And the logistics of shows and material-buying trips were getting complicated, even with my husband’s support. Even though he and I were equally sharing the parenting role and he was prepared to support my art in terms of income generation, I began to think a change was required, especially since our daughters would be learning without school. So, somewhat reluctantly, I opted for a safer and more flexible life of writing and editing. (And I do realize how privileged I was/am – at least I had a supportive partner and wasn’t a single mother trying to juggle everything by myself.)

I have never gone back to doing art. (At this stage, I’m struggling to re-learn how to knit!) And I can’t say I’ve ever really regretted the choice to switch my creative focus. My mothering has most definitely enhanced – even defined – my writing over the years. I also doubt I would have made any more money as an artisan than I have as a writer; artists and writers – like mothers and other caregivers, male or female – are marginalized in a capitalist world.

The decision, which turned into a home-based family publishing business, seems to have been a good choice for our life learning family too. We integrated the business into our family life fairly well, although we didn’t grow it as quickly as our ambitions wanted, in order to spend time nurturing our school-free daughters. (I don’t use the term “balance” because I don’t think there was any….) I loved working alongside our daughters. They learned a great deal about life and business – and creativity – from participating in our work. And our employees were hired with the understanding that pausing to help a child spell a word or play catch was part of their job description. So life has been good.

However, when the light shines through one of the very few smaller pieces of my work that have survived four decades and many moves, I find myself wishing that I’d been able to find a way to continue developing as a glass artist. On other days, I wonder if I would have been a more prolific and creative writer if I’d had at least some time to myself when my daughters were small…and been able to find a community of fellow writers. I wonder if father-artists change careers when children came along, or if people wonder if fatherhood has changed their work. And would my work (and, yes, my work as an unschooling advocate too) have been more accepted if I weren’t classified as a “mother-artist?”

Now, there is more support for the mother-artist. I recently came across this wonderful Artist Residency in Motherhood designed by Pittsburgh-based mother-artist Lenka Clayton to empower artists who are also mothers. I’ve often thought about how wonderful it would have been if one of those artisans’ markets or co-ops in which I was involved forty years ago had been dedicated to mother-artists so that we could have worked together to assist, support, and inspire each other. And this experimental creative space for mother-artists and their children in London, England seems like just that thing. The model is too late for me, but I hope it inspires other solutions for nurturing the mother-artist.

And, in the end, mothering is an art too, isn’t it?

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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.