Anna Dusseau | 3rd May 2020
We are not unschoolers, but we are rapidly moving in that direction. In fact it seems like, the stronger you feel about homeschooling, the more an unschooling approach makes sense and rings true. The very notion that adults always ‘know best’ and that children can’t learn independently runs contrary to evolutionary research, which shows that children are biologically programmed to be autonomous in their learning and that, when active ‘teaching’ methods are employed, this actually switches children off from wanting to know more. What a problem! Or is it? Let’s have a look.
Unschooling is an increasingly popular and evidence-based educational philosophy, whereby children are allowed to learn independently in an, ideally, rich educational setting. This doesn’t mean piles of books and worksheets. Unschooling seeks to activate the child’s natural learning instinct through natural pathways such as free play, conversation, experimenting with materials and ideas, and sharing of knowledge between mixed age peer groups. The thing is, it works. In terms of enabling a child to ‘wire their own brain’ for lifelong learning and curiosity, this is a very powerful concept. In terms of shorty-term memory recall of information to pass exams, it really does depend on the child and whether or not they feel the need to take this route. It goes way beyond the low-level targets set by state education, you see.
When we first started home educating, I would sketch out a rough timetable for the week. I understood the idea of child-led earning and I would allow the kids to more or less direct what they wanted to do, but still, I was shaping the ‘idea’ for days to look like this: Maths workbook, finish animal posters, letter to grandma, baking or painting, and so on. But I’ve become increasingly confident in what my kids can achieve on their own and just a few weeks ago, I switched to letting them entirely lead their own learning, with me keeping a short journal at the end of each day, to capture what happened. Just one morning looked like this: watched Live Earth safari, looked up wild animals in the encyclopedia, began writing a short story about Africa, built a den in the garden, long conversation about university and the books in the library, organised our bookshelves into topics, sent a video to a friend all about Live Earth. Where their minds and learning went on that morning, compared to the ‘adult planned’ morning, is the difference between night and day. Children are capable of so much more than we credit them for. It is sometimes, in fact, the adult-led thinking that is holding them back from achieving their potential.
“The belief that young people are incapable of making reasonable decisions is a cornerstone of our system of compulsory, closely monitored education.”Peter Gray
What is more, dropping the arbitrary curriculum (especially with younger children who have plenty of time ahead to figure out examinations if they want to) and allowing your children to unschool, creates a total shift in emphasis for your family, not to mention a more relaxed and enjoyable vibe. Play, which is essentially what children under the age of ten want to do, stops being a gap-filler between ‘learning jobs’ and instead becomes the source of the learning in itself. That is not to say unschooling children spend their entire day playing – although, in a way, they do – but rather, it is through free play and free thinking, that they discover the learning that they want to pursue and, when they do, pursue in a playful way. I have been a qualified teacher for over ten years and I am just one voice among many, many others saying: ‘this works, period.’