If we give kids the foundation to dream, they will figure out the grammar and the history the minute it helps them to reach their goals and make a difference.
~Seth Godin from ‘Stop Stealing Dreams’
My son is guiding his own education led by his interests. Radical idea, right?
This paradigm of learning is known as ‘unschooling‘. Unschooling is considered by most, a radical departure from ‘education’, and many criticize it’s merits and validity. In reply, my question is:
Within the current schooling paradigm, unschooling simply doesn’t match the criteria of ‘education’, because there are no tests, no set curriculums, no standardized forms of measuring accomplishments. But do those elements define learning?
In our experience, unschooling focuses more on learning than formalized education does.
No formalized structures?
If you are new to this idea, this may sound like a radical approach. Even irresponsible. I would have likely had the same reaction just three short years ago. But that was before I experienced unschooling first hand. I speak from personal experience, as I am not an educator, an academic of any sort, nor an expert. But I am the parent of an unschooling child. And a believer of the merits of unschooling through our personal experiences. And here is what I have discovered:
“I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like being taught.”
Now, I see this is faulty reasoning, but I had never questioned this baseline belief surrounding education before. But now, I have experienced a paradigm shift in regards to the concept of learning and my understanding of education has blown wide open.
Within my son’s (limited) formalized schooling experience, independent investigation or discovery was not encouraged. He had to adhere to the lesson plan and use only pre-approved materials. Miro went to Montessori school from pre- to second grade, then moved into the public school system for third and fourth grades. This is where I began to see the system not working for us.
Miro has a quick mind. In the public school system, he often finished his class work quickly as the lessons were not challenging to him at all. Miro often found himself bored. Miro’s biggest complaint during third and fourth grades were that the work was too easy. Read this story, answer the questions based on what you just read. Basic reading comprehension. Something a veracious reader has no problems with. Or, teacher demonstrating how something is done (a math problem, a counting system, a segment of measure, etc.) Now, fill in the blanks and prove that you understood what was just told to you. Follow directions, color between the lines, conform and recite.
The topics changed, but the format did not.
I often spoke with his teachers, but their response was, there was a classroom full of children who were challenged by the ‘lessons’, there was no possibility they could move any quicker. So with their blessings, Miro dove into the other worlds within his books and waited patiently for his classmates to finish.
Then, during the middle of fourth grade things changed. Miro was tasked with helping his classmates, and no longer permitted to read on his own. My son perceived this as a punishment, and did not want to be responsible for tutoring his fellow students. He was teased during recess and began to loathe everything about school.
I am aware that our limited experiences in public school does not qualify us to criticize the entire system, nor is it my intention. I am looking at the paradigm of education and see it did not work for us. Miro wasn’t learning, and the system had not encouraged him to peruse his own interests.
As a parent, I question why ‘institutions of learning’ (schools) demand that children obediently follow the provided curriculum and conform without engagement? Why couldn’t Miro progress based on his own learning style, levels and interests? Wouldn’t that create a more engaging environment for learning?
What your child is passionate about, your child will learn.
The nature of unschooling is to allow your child to determine what interests him (or her) to create the a roadmap for learning. But since it’s not framed as learning, and there are no set structures to follow, passion becomes the driving force. And passions do change, but nothing is lost if your child became engaged during the process and discovered, pursued and tried something new.
Since we’ve been traveling, my son has intentionally perused his interests in mythology, zombies, cryptozology, gardening, cooking, pirates, video games, tae kwon do, acting and sword play, just to name a few. This does not even include the things we’ve exposed to by virtue of traveling, like language, cultures and arts. But in terms of my son’s interests, I assisted and supported him in finding the materials he needed to purse his interests. Without judgment, supporting my son’s passions became my role as an unschooling parent.
If you were ever interested in hearing an excited and enthusiastic young man describe how Prometheus gave the power of fire to man, I would say he’s learned something.
A critical look at my son’s interests would reveal learning has happened within the following formal subjects: history, geography, economy & consumerism, agriculture, sustainable farming, cooking, mining and geology (Minecraft), politics, religions, language, story telling, literature, art and humanities. But since we never called it lessons, I suspect my son might argue that he wasn’t being ‘schooled’. However, as a parent, I am witnessing a process of natural learning.
You treat a child like a sheep in the herd, you will breed a sheep in the herd.
I’ve witnessed passion driving learning. But what makes unschooling work, is total empowerment. My son is empowered to determine what he is interested in, encouraged to explore his passions.
Why? Because if my son chooses to be lazy and not engage in any of his passions for a day, for a week, for a month, that’s his choice. I can hear your thoughts bubbling up inside of you as you read these words. Maybe it sounds along the lines of “You are the parent, you must put your foot down, make the rules.” Trust me, I had a battle with my own inner dialogue when I committed to unschooling that sounded very similar to that. But then I realized, if I only empowered my son some of the time and not other times, that’s not really empowerment, is it?
Discover what your interests are. Pursue that interest. If you can’t find it, ask for help. Not sure what to do today? Explore something different. Try something new. Do nothing. Solve the problem. Even doing nothing is a solution. An empowered solution, I might add. Empowered because if that’s what my son chooses.
It is his solution.
These problem solving lessons are life lessons. This opportunity teaches leadership. Most of all, leadership for his own life. Empowerment to make decisions creates resourcefulness, a skill my son would not be likely to learn in a traditional school.
Leaders are not, as we are often led to think, people who go along with huge crowds following them. Leaders are people who go their own way without caring, or even looking to see, whether anyone is following them. “Leadership qualities” are not the qualities that enable people to attract followers, but those that enable them to do without them. They include, at the very least, courage, endurance, patience, humor, flexibility, resourcefulness, stubbornness, a keen sense of reality, and the ability to keep a cool and clear head, even when things are going badly. True leaders, in short, do not make people into followers, but into other leaders.”
In my option, learning is not something imposed upon a person, it’s something that happens naturally.
A version of this article was originally published at Family on bikes Education series here.
Lainie and her son Miro are living a location independent lifestyle, slow traveling around the globe and living in the present moment. Lainie writes about staying inspired, participating as a global citizen, volunteering, unschooling & natural learning. Lainie and Miro are both following their interests on the road, as the planet has been transformed into their classroom. Often you will hear Lainie say “we are blessed to be accidental world schoolers” and has become and an advocate for “life learning” at any age. Lainie & Miro have taken this philosophy to heart and are producing a series of family & teen oriented retreats in called Project World School.
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