This is the first time I’ve published a piece by a “guest” blogger, which in this case happens to be my daughter Emma! She published her piece initially on the Daily KOS progressive political blog site (click here to link to it), and got a large number of views, recommends and comments, plus a “Community Spotlight” acknowledgement. I’ve posted it below in its entirety, along with some follow-up replies she made to comments she received…
This is quite a long piece (over 7000 words) weaving a narrative thread through my young life that I think illustrates a key principle of unschooling. That principle is that the natural desire and capability of a young human being to learn and the opportunity to take a “deep dive” into the subject of interest results in a profound degree of broad learning and development beyond the perhaps narrow area of exploration. Note that though the subject of my youthful interest was the “art of war”, the impact and benefit of my learning pursuing that interest was much broader than the narrow and arguably non-progressive subject matter. Also note that very little of this tale involves anything that I learned in school (beyond learning how to read and basic math).
As far as I understand it, the premise of sending kids to school is that they will be given an opportunity to learn things, and in particular, the things that the larger community feels are important for kids to learn to become successful and productive adults. For many if not most people, behind that premise is the assumption that left to their own devices, kids would not learn these important things, and instead will just “get into trouble”, “stare at the TV”, “read comic books”, “play games”, etc.
Certainly in a lot of conventional thinking, kids “free play”, motivated by their own personal developmental needs (whatever they might be) is considered secondary to the formal learning that society generally compels them to undertake. And for the older youth, “playing games” is considered a waste of time better spent learning or doing something more “important”.
That assumption seems to persist in our culture despite what an observant parent or person who has studied child development will tell you, that young people are naturally motivated to learn and develop, interested in the world around them, and if not constantly redirected or otherwise kept away from those interests, continue to explore and learn voraciously. I suspect that many of us adults see our own lives as all about doing what we have to do rather than what we want to do, so whether we are projecting or applying some sort of convoluted logic, we figure that kids are not really interested in doing what they are supposed to be doing (that is learning) either.
As a parent of two now young adult kids, I certainly saw how much they were “learning machines” who loved to dive into things of interest to them. One of the main reasons their mom and I let them leave school and “unschool” during what would conventionally be their high school years, was because school (and particularly all the homework after school) had managed to turn most learning into a chore for them, rather than a passion.
Sure I had gone to school when I was a kid, including to a conventional high school as an older youth. But somehow back then in the 1960s and early 1970s it wasn’t so psychically draining. Maybe because there wasn’t nearly as much homework and there was none of the current standardized test obsession. Though in a mostly white middle-class university town there was the assumption that most kids would be going to college, I don’t recall my parents or my friends’ parents constantly trying to stage-manage our young lives toward that end. Also at my high school I don’t think they even took attendance, because I selectively would leave school during the day and miss one or more classes, but none of the school staff or my mom ever said anything about it.
For me as a kid, my life revolved around the things I did outside of school, and without the pursuit of those things that really interested me, my young life would have been mostly an exercise in compliance at school and perhaps boredom (or worse) at home. One of those compelling self-directed interests that weaves itself through my childhood, older youth and young adulthood was my fascination with the history and the “art” of war.
And that… is my extensive unschooling narrative that makes up the bulk of this piece.
We seem to have become a culture obsessed with programming our kids for success through instruction rather than acknowledging that real learning is mostly about exploration and discovery which includes a lot of the dreaded “F” word… failure. The juxtaposition of two items in the news this week, along with the reappearance of a J.K. Rowlings speech from 2008, speak to this obsession and good reasons to overcome it in favor of a more imaginative learner-driven paradigm for learning, to achieve the right dynamic between imagination and instruction in the human developmental process.
The first news item is recently published research looking at the earliest periods of human development, showing that instruction limits the imagination applied to play and learning among young children.
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Elaborating in responding to comments to my recent blog piece, “When I Stopped Rewarding My Son for Good Behavior”, I expressed the opinion that most kids could readily learn to read and do basic arithmetic, even mostly on their own, if they were not required to learn at a set externally mandated standard age, but instead undertook the effort on their own internal developmental timetable when they were ready and interested in acquiring that skill set. One of my thoughtful commenters took issue with my position, saying…
You think a kid is going to learn long division on her own? Why would she? How could long division ever be interesting enough to typical children that it would at any moment be the most interesting thing they could be doing with their time?
In his October 14 piece for the Economic Policy Institute titled “How to fix our schools”, Richard Rothstein quotes President Obama as saying…
I always have to remind people that the biggest ingredient in school performance is the teacher. That’s the biggest ingredient within a school. But the single biggest ingredient is the parent.
I agree teachers and parents are two key players in an educational environment, and I think there is way too much money and focus spent building a huge educational bureaucracy above and beyond this nexus. Also, I think Obama here is guilty of getting caught up in the prevailing hierarchical thinking and leaving out the most important player in this actualization model… the student.
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Saw a piece today in Education Week magazine, “Panel Says Ed. Schools Overlook Developmental Science”, commenting on a report released this morning by a panel convened by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. As the title suggests, the panel calls out a disconnect between educational practice and what we have learned about the nature of how human beings develop.
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So what the heck does it mean to be an “internally motivated learner”? Is such an animal the exception or the rule? And can internal motivation drive even formal academic learning? In a culture where conventional wisdom seems to think that most of formal education needs to be mandated and externally motivated to be successfully undertaken, I think these are very important questions.
Certainly infants and toddlers learn most or all of what they learn for internal reasons. Infants don’t need to be motivated or instructed in how to walk, they are driven to do so and through practice, trial, and error they figure out how to do so. Toddlers learn to speak with a minimum of instruction, by listening to people speaking around them and learning to vocalize words and put them together into phrases and sentences. They learn a myriad of other skills involving coordination of their bodies with their brains on their own as well. Continue reading →
There is an article in September 3 online edition of Education Week magazine, “Why Not Count Them All”, addressing the issue of whether kids who are a year or more “late” graduating from high school should be counted in school graduation statistics. For me, the whole idea that the process of formal education encompassing generally over a decade of one’s youth leading hopefully to high school graduation has a high-stakes “schedule” makes no sense. It is an unfortunate remnant of the industrial era in which public schooling flowered and unfortunately a residual but inappropriate conventional wisdom of that era. Continue reading →