Unschooling: A step further in self-directed learning

By Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko on July 23, 2012
It’s early winter and I’m a volunteer at the local elementary school. I have high hopes of becoming a school teacher and want to gain some hands-on experience. Inside the classroom, 28 little children sit in their chairs, working on their ‘paper cutting skills.’

I glance up from supervising a child when a most wondrous sight catches my eye: snow flakes are softly falling outside the window. Great, fluffy flakes float gently down from a purple sky. It brings to mind a cherished snow globe I had as a child. It was a famous landmark – the Eiffel Tower I think – encased in a plastic dome. When I shook it, the little white flakes would descend in a swirling mass, to land at the bottom. Then I’d do it all over again. The toy would amaze and amuse me for hours on end.

It’s a magical world, but the teacher has a different opinion. She hurries over to the window where the children are already gathered to watch the snow fall. Swiftly, abruptly, she draws the curtains closed. “The children are getting distracted,” she says.

The suspicions I had been harbouring about the nature of schooling and how it might actually prevent learning are being confirmed in this very classroom. These curious minds are missing out on experiencing falling snow. They don’t get to observe, engage, or be awed by it. Judging by the looks on their faces, they know they are being cheated but can’t do anything about it. Instead, under the teacher’s management, they must return to their seats and complete the assignment before the bell rings. At that point, they will move to the next learning opportunity that’s been prescribed for them.

My hand hovers uncertainly over my pregnant belly. Is this what awaits her?

Curriculum, shmurriculum

Fast forward a few years and my daughter is four years old. She’s eager for the world and she wants it all – right now. She’s memorizing entire books by the wagon-load; she’s singing at the top of her lungs. She’s playing “We Shall Overcome” on the recorder. She’s role-playing her favourite characters – Pooh Bear, the Paper Bag Princess, Thomas the Tank Engine. Her two younger sisters, ages one and two, are bright-eyed and in a wild frenzy to catch up with her. They want to dance like she does. They mean to climb trees and build forts, dig up worms, bake cookies, paint pictures and ride a tricycle like her.

Two years later, my eldest daughter is six. She’s making intricate models with origami. She’s demanding to see the universe through a telescope. She’s outraged that there was a time when women weren’t permitted to vote. She’s passionately playing the role of Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings – the book that will shape her sense of fellowship, fairness and even love, for years to come. Her sisters aren’t far behind – one is figuring out how to read, the other never walks by the piano without sitting down and playing a piece.

And the feeling I’m getting is a dizzying fascination and wonderment as they set the pace. It’s their interests, their passions that take the lead and drive the learning. I am amazed by the way they uncover new meaning or add unexpected dimensions and surprising twists and turns to projects they’ve been working on for weeks. I can’t imagine missing all this. My husband and I make do with his income so that I can be home for the short time that we have them.

A few more years pass, and my children are still not at school. I’m still not a teacher. But I’m every bit as interested in education. I’m figuring out how this works. It’s not about imposing my ideas on them; it’s about exposing them to as much of the big, wide world as they can take. It’s about facilitating opportunities for them to grow in all ways. Still, it’s tricky. Surely I have to teach them since they’re homeschooled. I go and buy curriculum. I check out other people’s kids and what they know and compare my kids. I worry whether they’re measuring up.

All the time, the proof is staring me in the eye. Before me are confident, questioning children; their sense of adventure and curiosity remains intact. I do my best not to hamper it. I chuck the curriculum. From now on, I have to teach myself the art of respectful listening and observation of patience and timing. Especially timing. My oldest, despite being literary, didn’t really read until age eight. “Mom,” she says. “I’ll read when I’m ready.” I have to trust her. I know that were she in school, her lack of reading would be cause for concern. (As it turns out, by the time she was 12 she had already been published. At 15, she had written two books and published even more poetry).

As I navigate the waters of ‘well roundedness’ and ‘socialization,’ I steer clear of ‘what they should know,’ and ‘what will the neighbours think?’ I soak up the wisdom of those who have ploughed the depths of alternative education – Ivan Illich, John Holt, Grace Llewellyn, Wendy Priesnitz – and I am reassured that I am doing okay in this new territory called Unschooling, a term coined by John Holt in the ’70s to describe interestbased, personalized learning.

I read John Taylor Gatto and I am set at ease, once and for all. Probably the best known advocate of unschooling today, Gatto claims that “genius is as cheap as dirt,” because it really is. Once you start to value dirt, let go and let grow. He refers to it as ‘open-source learning’; learning is available everywhere in life and not restricted to ‘places of learning’ – namely schools. Gatto proclaims with the assurance of a person who has worked with young people for most of his adult life, “Nobody can give you an education. You have to take an education.” And we’re taking it: the library, the neighbours, the Internet, the university, museums, the bookstore, interest groups, grandma and grandpa.

I joined unschooling groups, both local and online, for a little support. The children, with their ferocious appetite for life, need more; more friends, more community, more opportunities. We started a radio show called Radio Free School, created by, for and about home learners. The show ran for six years out of the university campus. We interviewed people from all walks of life doing all kinds of interesting work – a physicist, a farmer, a novelist, a belly dancer, an archaeologist researching DNA who let us hold a twomillion- year-old piece of poo from an ancient cave in China.

We spoke with researchers on alternative education and advocates for natural learning. We gained confidence as we met adults who were unschooled and who reassured us that unschooling works.

From unschool to school

Six years later, my older daughters are 13 and 11. “What’s school all about?” they wondered. “Can we go and see?” They did and they stayed, leaving just one child at home. It’s different with one. It’s lonely and somehow more challenging without having another child to bounce off. Unschooling changed as we adapted to the new set-up.

Today, my oldest daughters are in public school entering Grades 10 and 12. My youngest has never set foot in a school building but this fall, she will be joining the Grade 9 ranks to explore what this school thing is all about. She assures me she is happy as an unschooler, but would like to attend for a semester before returning to unschooling. She’s a physical type and needs plenty of exercise. Her ambition is to play soccer for Canada as well as to work with dogs. She’s working hard at learning French because family friends who live in Belgium have invited her to visit. She likes structure so we’ve drawn up a daily schedule that includes maths, poetry, art and Canadian geography. The learning happens as a result of the goals, not the other way around. And this philosophy is still with my other daughters. Once unschooled, always unschooled.

They call me a radical and I laugh because I am about as radical as butter. On reflection, what I’ve tried to do over the years, in the belief that humans are natural born learners, is to safeguard those characteristics which are catalysts to learning and living: curiosity, a sense of wonder, humour, creativity, the welcoming of challenge and surprise.

That to me is not radical. Seen from this perspective, what is radical is school as we know it: compulsory curriculum dictated, 9 to 3, five days a week, 10 months a year, for 12 years. It’s only been that way for about 150 years, which on the scale of human history, is pretty recent. Me thinks this could be the ‘great experiment!’

Freelance writer Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko lives in Hamilton, Ont., with her husband and their three daughters. Her book, Self-Directed Learning: What it is, how to do it, and those who have done it, is due to be published this fall. Radiofreeschool.blogspot.ca is still going strong.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2012.

By Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko| July 23, 2012

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