April 26, 2010
You wake up. Eat whatever you want. Maybe some cookies and milk. Maybe granola. Instead of rushing off to catch the bus or wondering if you did all your homework, you pick up that novel you were reading and finish it. Maybe you want to go out for a jog. Hey, you planted that garden in the backyard and you need to find information on making sure the crops will make it through the incoming cold front. Better do a little reading.
Welcome to the world of unschooling.
I’m actually surprised I’d never heard of unschooling until recently. Home-schooling is teaching kids at home. Parents become the educators and create or use pre-built curriculum for children to learn as well if not better than they would at public schools. At least, that’s the goal.
Unschooling, on the other hand, is letting the child find his or her own passion and do the learning his or herself. In essence, the child would learn in much the same way a baby learns: through play and exploration. An even more extreme form of unschooling called radical unschooling means that the parents will not even discipline a child in the hopes of not stifling creativity or imposing barriers.
And I want you, my dear reader, to understand the difference between these three philosophies, because this is about unschooling. Not homeschooling.
I have a bit of a problem with it. And by “bit of a problem,” I mean, “Sir, we’ve hit an iceberg. And there are meteors falling on us. And Great Cthulhu has risen and is eating the crew. Just thought you’d like to know.”
When I first heard of unschooling, my first thought was, “You’re going to tell kids they can learn whatever they want, whenever they want, at their own pace? And they’ll learn better than formally educated students?”
The hell they will!
Think about it. How many people in this country, or the world for that matter, have the natural curiosity and inclination to just learn at-will? I can count in my hands the number of people I’ve met over the years that might make it through the unschooling system as good if not better than they would fare in the public education system. By giving the child that much responsibility for his or her life, it makes it so that the child will learn nothing unless he or she wants to learn it.
I don’t know about you, but when I was in first and second grade, I wanted to watch Looney Tunes. And that was it. You place that much power in the hands of someone who doesn’t have a clear concept of responsibility and consequences and you’re asking for trouble.
Who is going to do this teaching? A book? The internet? There are certainly people who think that just reading books and going online is enough. I present to you Dan Brown (no relation to the author, I think) who gives a fairly complete look into this philosophy.
Let’s break this down. Schools only teach facts now, but since you can get facts from the internet or from books, you don’t need schools. I’ll admit it’s a great description of a bad school, but even a bad school still forces you to learn things you wouldn’t want to learn on your own. I never had a passion for mathematics. Still don’t really like it, but it’s through math and reading that I found my passion for science, specifically physics and astronomy. I would have missed out on that if I was left to my own devices.
At this point, long-time readers will point out that I have my own set of qualms about the current educational system. Well, yes, I do. I think it’s broken, but even a broken system is better than no system at all. A measure of control is still required to show a student how to learn.
The unschooling crowd proudly yells, however, that you don’t need to know as much as you think. Once you find out what you want to do, you focus on that and there you go. I studied art on my own and have taken only one formal class, yet I think I’ve developed some pretty good skills. The logo on this site, the eye with text, is one of my works.
Sadly, this unschooling argument goes back the level of intellectual curiosity in a student. You can nurture this instinct and good parents can push a child to learn more than the standard curriculum allows. My parents were two such examples, but they are far, far from the norm.
As it stands, unschooling kids suffers from two major drawbacks. First of all, a parent is still required, especially in the younger years. How many families can afford to have one parent at home? If only one makes more than enough to provide for the family, great! Hurdle avoided, but we’re not done yet.
The second problem is that you can’t learn only from books. You do have to go out and experience things. I know unschoolers will say that their kids do go and experience the real world. They can farm, they read, they travel, and they do all the things they love to do. However, what happens when they decide they want to be doctors? Engineers? Who’s going to teach them these professions? How are they going to get into a college, get these kinds of certifications, if they don’t even have a GED? I read everything I could on writing before I got to college. Everything. Once I got to DePauw, however, I realized that knowing all these things did me no good if I didn’t interact with others, share my thoughts with experts, and otherwise learn proper structure before going off and doing whatever I wanted.
I will admit something. The idea that children learn best by play is not a new concept. In fact, I and many other educators embrace it. Whenever possible, I try to make class as fun as possible while still ensuring my students learn. I try not to lecture if I can give the students hands-on examples, activities where they interact with others, share ideas, and discuss. They have to apply themselves, think, put it together themselves with my guidance, and in the end they’ve basically done the same thing they did as babies. They played. And they learned.
But it doesn’t mean that you leave children to their own devices. Children are dumb. They are. I’m sorry if you think your kid is special. This rationale that children want to emulate parents may hold part of the time, but children are children. They don’t want to read a book and learn mathematics. They have to be pushed into learning or they seek out their baser instincts and satisfy only those that give immediate satisfaction.
Let’s imagine, for a second, that we did embrace the idea of unschooling. Everyone had the chance to do it. How long do you think it would take for a massive gap between the educated and the uneducated? Many people are more motivated than others. Within a generation, we’d have one group of people that can do everything needed to survive and has no incentive to go further. Then we’d have a much smaller population that drove forward and and had the resources to learn from experts.
But that’s good, isn’t it? Those who want to learn will learn and those that don’t stay where they are. Everyone gets what they work for…
Let me be as clear as I can here.
This is perhaps the dumbest idea in the world. And this is coming from a guy that once came up with the idea of a giant gun that fired Ewoks with Jawa tracers.
Quiet. There was bourbon involved.
The bottom line is that a formal education is necessary to both be exposed to different ideas and to push students to learn. We aren’t born with the intuition to just learn. We learn what we can to survive. That’s it. Anything else is extra once we meet basic requirements. I’m all for the rights of the individual, but we can’t possibly know how to learn or even what to learn if we just go out on our own. A few gifted individuals may be able to do this, but we’re not all geniuses. If we’re not pushed, we don’t get anywhere. Personally, I’d advocate a mixture of the traditional and Learn by Play methods. Implement better teaching strategies and teachers at school, but also make sure parents get involved. The idea that forcing a child to do something he or she doesn’t want to do will somehow crush the spirit is ridiculous. If you were told “no” when you were a child and lost the will to achieve later in life… I’m sorry, but look at your priorities.
The educational system is broken. I’ll be the first to admit it and get behind efforts to make it better, but to say that you need to just take your kids completely out of formal, structured schools is the educational equivalent of an auto-immune disorder.
Sorry, but until we make some fundamental changes in the ways parents work with kids and kids themselves learn, unschooling will be the equivalent of Lupus.