Tag Archives: unschooling

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!

Mindful Learning and What You Can Miss if You’re Not Present

Mindful Learning and What Parents Can Miss

Mindful learning involves being present in our children’s lives, trusting them to learn, and enjoying the process.

Maybe it’s because I spent some time on the vendor section of a virtual homeschooling conference website. Or maybe it’s because I read an article in the business press referring to homeschooling as “an industry.” Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking about what we miss because we’re too busy planning the next “educational” outing for our life learning children. Or watching out for the next “teachable moment.” Or chasing what we think is the correct unschooling definition or the ideal life learning lifestyle.

And, yes, we life learners are prone to getting in our own way as much as the parents who are the target market for the conference vendors that make up the industry. Our concern that we’re not doing enough for our kids can result in busyness that we mistake for facilitation. Our momentary lack of confidence in the process can lead us to seek out products and advice that will supposedly help us do it “better.”

But what if success lies with doing less rather than more, with being rather than doing? Think “mindful learning.”

I’ve long been focused on mindfulness and mindful learning. And I’m pretty sure I enjoyed my life learning daughters as much as I could when they were children. But I’m also sure I was often overly-involved with writing, magazine production work, and community activism – or, as one of them reminded me recently, advising new life learners over the phone while the rest of the family ate dinner. And sometimes, I was just too tired or burnt out to be present for, let alone appreciate, each precious moment of our family’s life.

I know I trusted my daughters to develop into the adults they now are, and I respected them as individuals from the time they were born. But the years went by quickly. And I wish I had even more of those wonderful moments to marvel at now. On many days, I forgot to record about the good times in my journal; don’t you do that.

Here are some more keys to mindful learning and living that I suggest you consider:

  • Stay in the present with your children. Enjoy them where they are right now. Share their wonder at a snail making its slow way across the sidewalk. Celebrate with them their video game victory. Notice the feel of their hand in yours as you walk to the park. Play; be silly with them and laugh.
  • Keep in mind that childhood is a real stage of life, not a rehearsal for adulthood.
  • Trust your kids. Remember that the hour of playing with their pet bunny holds lots of learning.
  • Trust yourself to do what’s right for your kids. (Remember that most of us went to school and need to deschool ourselves before we can fully trust ourselves and our kids to learn without school.)
  • Stop trying to control or measure your children’s learning. If they take your lead and remain engaged with the present moment, they will learn. Remember that you don’t really have much control over their learning anyway – it’s mostly in their hands.
  • Pay attention to the difference between manipulation and facilitation. Your kids are watching you, so model learning behavior. Your role is to introduce them to the wonders of the world but not to try and force their interest in any one of them.
  • Remember that learning happens best when it’s not the goal but the byproduct of living.
  • Don’t overcommit, either your kids or yourself. Do they really need all those play dates, classes, and clubs? Examine the real purpose behind them all: Are you signing them up because they really want the activity or because you worry they won’t get enough socialization or stimulation?
  • And lastly, look after yourself. While taking care of everyone else and their learning, make time for you. When you’re not burnt out, you’ll be more apt to stay in the present and not miss all those wonderful moments with your kids. You will have to trust me on that one.

Mindful learning involves being present in our lives. Those learning moments (as opposed to teachable moments!) that we all pursue will happen on their own without your fretting or planning. Pay attention to them – and all the other moments of your family’s life – and you will not regret missing anything.



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.






Homeschooling Research: Fish Climbing Trees

Homeschooling Research

There’s a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein (although there is apparently no evidence connecting it with him): “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I thought of it as I read a tiny homeschooling research study comparing schooled kids to homeschooled and unschooled kids.

Thirty-seven homeschooled kids and an equal number of schooled kids between ages five and ten were volunteered by their parents to undergo standardized testing. The kids taught at home performed better on standardized tests than kids taught at school. That’s not news, although the researchers did correct some flaws in past research methodologies. They also recognized that there are different philosophies among the homeschool population – but only two: structured and unstructured, rather than the continuum along which most families move.

The twelve “unstructured homeschoolers” in this homeschooling research study did poorly on those standardized tests. Of course they did! Those fish in a tree-climbing competition were bound to lose the race.

The question for me is: Why were they involved in the first place? The whole premise of unschooling/life learning is that learning happens as a result of the learner’s interest, rather than somebody else’s agenda or timeline, and doesn’t rely on a standard curriculum, testing, or accountability to anyone but the learner. The researchers do give a nod to that, wondering if “the children receiving unstructured homeschooling” might eventually “catch up or surpass their peers given ample time.” But they don’t say if they want to study that. (Nor do they say if the unschooled kids were coached in testing writing techniques, which is important, since testing measures test-taking skill as much as anything.)

Such studies happen because academics believe that academic achievement – that is, the best performance on standardized tests – is desirable. These particular researchers define the goal of both schooling and homeschooling as “accelerating a child’s learning process,” whatever that means. Babies learn pretty quickly, after all…. Although they make much of the fact that “very few independent (i.e. nonpartisan) studies have focused on the academic achievements associated with home education” and that their study “was conducted by an independent research body that has no ties to homeschooling organisations,” they don’t understand that they, themselves, are not “nonpartisan.” Like most others who conduct homeschooling research, they work at academic institutions that are obviously biased toward, well, academic institutions. Like school.

Although I’m not big on measuring children at all, I understand that it’s part of ensuring that taxpayers money is spent well on schools (whether it does that well or not is another question!). So I will be happy when someone designs a study using unschooled kids as the norm and figures out how to measure schooled kids against that. I’m not holding my breath; there’s too much money at risk in the school industry to have someone prove schools don’t need to exist.

Learning and the Power of Storytelling

Learning and the Power of Storytelling

Long before the beginning of formal education, the printing press, and telecommunications, storytelling was the means for passing information and wisdom from generation to generation. Whether they described real events or utilized parables (or both), stories were the main tool for teaching and learning. Whether told around the campfire at family gatherings, on the battlefield, or in a sacred place, stories introduced listeners to the world of fantasy as well as to the realities of life, helped people understand their world, and provided the means for creating a public memory of history.

Stories remain a mainstay of informal, family- and community-based life and learning. Everyone’s life is made up of many stories. Sharing them is a way to connect with others on a more-than-superficial level, to pass on our experiences, and to build community. As Schenectady, New York storyteller Marni Gillard says, when people are encouraged to honor their own uniqueness, they are more apt to honor each other. Storytelling is a great way to share our uniqueness while at the same time discover our similarities.

Storytelling and Life Learning

In an article for Life Learning Magazine called Run Bus Car Broken, writing professor Gina Cassidy describes how storytelling is also an important step along the path toward joining what author Frank Smith calls “the literacy club.” Gina tells the story of her 21-month-old daughter.

“Coming out of the library, we had discovered that our car’s engine would not start. Seeing the bus go by, we made a dash for it: pregnant mom toting toddler, books, and diaper bag. My daughter thought this was great fun – the running and the bus ride. She blurted it out to her Dad when he came home. It made a great story: ‘run bus car broken.’ ”

As anyone who has listened to a small child breathlessly tell his or her own “run bus car broken” story knows, small moments in time can make great stories. And really, most moments are small ones. In his Life Learning Magazine article World History, Cricket, and the Eye of the Beholder, writer and ed tech designer Nathanael Schildbach reminds us that the stories of history are about everyday life and are being created by us all, on an ongoing basis. He writes,

“Marrying the notion that history is created and that it is created by all of us is the belief that everything is history. Since everything is created and not just spontaneously happening, everything is relevant to understanding history, and I mean everything. Anthropologists learn much about ancient civilizations by looking at their garbage, but have you ever had a history teacher who said that your grandparents’ trash was history?”

Learning is About Understanding

Storytelling is something we all do all day, whether it’s to explain why grandma can no longer walk as quickly as she used to, to share an amusing incident from our day over the dinner table, to gossip around the water cooler at work, to sit down at the computer and write an entry in our blog or social media account, or to play a video game. Stories are one of the main ways we human beings turn isolated experiences and facts into an understanding of how the world works. After all, real learning is not about knowing something, it’s about understanding it. And that’s what was happening all those evenings around those prehistoric campfires!