Sunday, March 3, 2013
Learning and Living Life
One thing a lot of unschooling parents struggle with is how to explain what we do to others. Many parents just say that they homeschool because it is something that most people are familiar with, whereas unschooling is something that not a lot of people have heard of. Unschooling often requires a paradigm shift in the way one thinks about education, and as such it doesn't really lend itself to a ten-second definition that would enable an inquirer to quickly understand it. At the heart of unschooling is a trust that if something is vital to learn in life, that children will learn it without coercion or force. We trust that children want to become competent in doing all the things they see adults and older children doing and thus there is no need to make them want to learn something in order to get a good grade or do well on a test.
Education reformer John Holt has said, "Birds fly; fish swim. People learn." It's simply what we do. Therefore learning need not be treated as something separate from the rest of life. I see it as something similar to religious belief. There are those who treat religious belief as something separate from the rest of life, perhaps something that they engage in on certain days, but that's it. Treated this way, it usually doesn't have too much affect on the way they live their lives. Maybe they attend church on Sunday, but on Monday they treat others unjustly. Then there are those that incorporate religious belief into their lives. They truly live what they say they believe and their belief influences how they think and live. Religion is not something they do, it is part of who they are. Maybe they go attend church, but they also try to live justly. They do things that nurture compassion, generosity, and love.
Similarly, learning can be treated as something children do in school, or at certain times of the day, or it can be treated as something that is a part of life itself. With this outlook, most unschoolers don't see a need to create lesson plans. Whenever possible I try not to separate things from their actual uses. Rather than teaching children about the seasons, for example, by using coloring sheets, discussions, and artificial worksheet pages about these things, my children go outside and have time to play in and observe all the seasons. Right now we have the benefit of living near a river. Usually a couple of times a week, my children have the chance to go down to the river and observe and play. This winter, they could see the ice on the river, people ice-fishing, and they could find various animal tracks in the snow. In the summer, they saw the river rise, they saw blue herons, jumping fish, and they played in the mud and clay.
Every so often I'm tempted to think, "But my child doesn't know this yet, perhaps I need to teach it to her before we take part in a certain activity." I notice, however, that my child often doesn't like such lessons and she won't want to participate in them. Perhaps this is why some think that many children will not want to learn unless they are made to. I notice though, that if instead we just dive into an activity, and she can learn those skills by needing them in the real world, for her own reasons, things go much more smoothly and my child learns things with enthusiasm. Right now my 6-year-old is learning to spell and read. My child did not decide one day that she wanted to spell. She decided that she wanted to play the game "Scribblenauts." This game requires problem-solving, reading, and spelling. My child's goal is to play a fun game, but in the context of playing this game she is learning how to spell and decipher many words.
I'm beginning to notice more and more all the times that adults try to extract something from the real world in order to make an "educational" product designed to teach children something. For example there are activity boards where children can practice tying shoes and fastening a variety of snaps, buttons, and the like, rather than just letting children learn to tie shoes by actually tying their real shoes or learning to fasten a button by actually fastening a real button. How exciting it could be for children to learn math, not just by trying to learn math as something separate from everything else, but by building some kind of structure, sewing an item of clothing, baking something tasty to eat, planning a real garden to grow real food grown for their own reasons, or by having their own allowance to buy some of their own things.
So often when I tell people that we homeschool, they reply that I have their admiration because homeschooling seems so hard. But I think it's only hard when I try to control the learning process. If instead of trying to educate or teach, I try to follow my passions and help my children follow and discover their passions, it is not difficult. The world is fascinating and if we set about discovering some of that richness it is the most natural thing in the world.
I doubt very much if it is possible to teach anyone to understand anything, that is to say, to see how various parts of it relate to all the other parts, to have a model of the structure in one's mind. We can give other people names and lists, but we cannot give them our mental structures; they must build their own. - John Holt
Power struggles can disappear when the person with power stops struggling. - Deb Lewis, Unschooler