Day 34: Uncovering Unschooling

originally published February 3, 2012

When I was in school – the first time, back when it was an age-appropriate activity and not simply an opportunity to be the “creepy old guy” at the back of my University classes – I would have relished the opportunity to be unschooled.

Unschooling is not about liberating kids from the tyranny of learning, nor is it the same thing as home-schooling. The ideas behind unschooling are that kids would learn best when allowed to learn “naturally”, through life experiences, playing, working, and interacting socially. Sounds a lot better than sitting through a quadratic equations unit in math class.

Educator John Holt came up with the term ‘unschooling’ in the 1970s. On first glance, it strikes me as a predictable result of the baby-boomers having school-age love-children and an abundance of available Quaaludes. Schools were designed by “the man” to “rigidly pigeon-hole you” and “bring down your vibes.” Unschooling allows kids to frolic, to learn from the school of reality. It’s a real trip, man.

I, for instance, learned all I needed to know about marine biology from listening to Country Joe & The Fish.

A number of philosophies are at work in John Holt’s ideas. First he says that kids are natural learners. Well, I can’t argue with that. Kids tend to want to know things, to keep up with their parents and eventually surpass their technological skills and make them feel like a doofus who should still be punching all-caps letters onto a green screen.

Unschoolers believe that opportunities for real hands-on learning can’t take place inside a school. I agree with this, if you want your kids only to learn things like hot-air ballooning and sand-dune surfing, but if you’re hoping they can someday put together a coherent sentence in writing, then maybe a school’s not such a bad place. It seems to me that the chance to learn non-school stuff is plentiful, or it has been since the invention of the weekend. And the summer.

I sure as hell didn’t learn about Warp Zones in any accredited learning facility.

Children do not all learn the same way, this is the next piece of philosophy espoused by unschoolers. This is actually a tough one to pick apart. Kids do learn in different ways, and a lot of schools don’t take advantage of this. But if a parent is really concerned about their child’s unusual learning style (“Timmy can only learn biology by his sense of taste. He needs to lick an actual amoeba, and the local school will not cooperate.”), this sounds more like an argument for home-schooling.

The difference between home-schooling and unschooling is significant. Home-schooling implies there is a curriculum, and that a ten-year-old kid learning at home should end up with the same general knowledge and education as a kid who went to fifth grade (though the former should have a much more impressive grasp on how much things cost, particularly if lunch break was synchronous with The Price Is Right). The unschooled kid is not held by those restrictions.

If your final grade is a rainbow, you are being unschooled.

Johnny has trouble with math? He’ll learn at his own pace, so he might not learn long division until he’s fourteen. Or eighteen. Or never. Suzie doesn’t have any interest in history, so she directs her goals toward learning other things, and is one day shocked to learn there have actually been two world wars.

There are developmental differences between children. Some kids start walking at eight months, others start at fifteen. Therefore, we shouldn’t expect kids to learn things at the same time – some kids will read chapter books at age seven, others might still be scanning Maxim Magazine for the little jokes in the margins and the pictures of boobs at age 37.

Don’t judge.

Again, this is a point I agree with. Kids can get bored when they already know what’s being taught, while others are trying to climb a muddy slope to keep up with a barrage of new concepts they can’t quite understand. It’s difficult, and our education system lets too many people fall through the cracks at either end of the scale. But again, this is an argument for home-schooling. Curricula still need to exist.

Think of Shakespeare. How many kids aged 14 through 18 would voluntarily want to learn Shakespeare? Okay, some would, but we’re talking five percent maybe. His stuff is difficult to read and easy to get completely cluelessly lost in. But shouldn’t every kid get shoved into it? Like him or not, Shakespeare’s writing has influenced… well, pretty much everything that’s come since. Or big chunks of everything – I’m not sure the connection between his work and Jersey Shore has been found yet.

“[I] must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words.” – Hamlet

Back to the tenets of unschooling. John Holt argues that there is not a particular body of knowledge that everyone should possess. It’s more important that kids learn how to learn, then apply that ability to what’s really important to them. Okay, this would do wonders for the future of the video game industry, I’ll grant you that. But there has to be a certain base level of knowledge of things like geography, history, reading ability, math, and so on, for a person to be functional in society.

I’d add the arts to the above list too, though I think unschooling would naturally allow kids to learn more about the arts than any current western school system currently does. This is actually the strongest argument in favor of unschooling.

Then there’s the parental involvement. I applaud anyone who has the time and patience to devote themselves to quality home-schoolery. It has become increasingly difficult for families to try this approach with our current economy, but it can be a really great thing. However in unschooling, parents’ involvement is more about helping kids make their goals about what to learn, then assisting their navigation through those goals.

I assume there’s an exception if your 8-year-old announces they’re ready to learn how to drive.

My question to these parents would be this. If your kid wants to be a doctor, eventually he or she will have to apply to a medical school. If you allow your kid to grow up as an ‘unschooler’, how on earth will they gain admission? There may be a way, but it’s going to be a monstrous friggin’ hurdle to get over.

Were I to be writing 2000 words, I could go into a lengthy rant on how our current education system should be re-worked. But I won’t. I’ll give a few spoilers though… every kid needs to learn what good and bad music/books/movies are, and why they are bad and should not be supported… enough with the fucking calculus already… Not Being A Dick When You Drive should be a high school course… and this website should be turned into a mandatory text book.

But as much work as it needs, we still need an education system. Unschooling should have gone out of style along with ‘ludes and key parties.

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