schoolyard subversion

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by aaron, for change, with help
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· welcome to unschooling
· apprentice education
· questioning school rules
· review of arsdigita university
· background
· other subversive sites

2001-04-05 [< * >]

Welcome to Unschooling

What is it?

When I first discovered Sudbury schools, I found them interesting. As I began to research them more, I found them fascinating. It was only shortly ago that I found the missing piece of the puzzle: unschooling.

Unschooling is a phenomenon that is still relatively small, but steadily growing. I had heard mentions of unschooling, and local unschooling organizations, but couldn't find much more information about it on the Web and so I dismissed it as some sort of fringe group that tried to de-brainwash schooled kids. Instead, as I recently discovered, it is a powerful philosophy bounded by a simple principle: kids want to learn. It's based upon the writings of John Holt, which are absolutely magnificent.

Unschooling someone is surprisingly simple. You first deal with what ever regulations your state requires to homeschool (my state, Illinois, seems surprisingly liberal in this area), then the child simply stays home and explores the world as he pleases. Parents and other adults can provide him with advice and assistance on things he's interested in, but must do their best not to force the kid into things. That's really all there is to it. Pretty simple, huh?

How do I do it?

I found out about unschooling through an incredible book: Teenage Liberation Handbook (TLH) [Amazon; price search], by Grace Llewellyn. The book is a thick one, but is practically a step-by-step handbook to unschooling. It is divided into three major sections: why you should not go to school; how to get out of school; and what to do once you've gotten out. It's filled with quotes from Growing Without Schooling, a magazine for unschoolers to keep in touch and share ideas. (I'm subscribing and will report more on it soon.)

The real-life examples and experiences made it clear that this is no wacko fringe group, or simply a program for "gifted" kids. Instead, unschooling crosses nearly all boundaries -- in fact, the book even recommends that adults try some of the ideas too. The book has plenty of experiences where unschooling has improved family relationships, "cured" cases of depression or "learning disabilities", and, most importantly, made kids much more happier.

Various studies that the book cites show that unschooled children are perfectly successful in the "real world" and almost always do better on standardized tests than their schooled peers -- even when they've never cracked a textbook or taken a conventional course. Furthermore, because they have plenty of time to take on real-life work like apprenticeship or volunteering, they are much more likely to develop skills needed to survive in the "real world".

How will they possibly learn without school?

TLH kindly provides help on how to keep up with all the basic subjects (English, History, Math, Science, Art, etc.) -- few of them recommend opening up a textbook or taking a class. Instead, unschooling focuses on the learning opportunities that surround us.

I learned English not from school, but by writing emails and this column, as well as reading heavily. When I tell this to other students, they say: "Oh, I wish I could do that, but I don't have enough time." Well, if they don't go to school, I'm sure that they'll have much more. It's quick and painless: just read interesting books and write about things that you're interested in. Keep doing it and your writing is sure to improve -- no pain or struggle involved.

I've never like history. It's always seemed like an abstract discussion of events and activities that had no relevance to my life and were just plain uninteresting. Worse, the only thing I was graded on was how well I memorized this boring stuff. Other students in my class are fascinated by history, and I've struggled to understand why. I recently figured it out: School teaches history backward. History classes always start towards the beginning of the story and move towards now. This may be a good way to tell a story, but it is awful for telling history. You start in a place I don't know, in a time I don't understand, with people I've never heard of. I'm not interested and I'll tune out. The answer is simple: start with the present and work backwards by asking the question: how did we get here? For one thing, you'll start in a world that I can easily connect to and associate with. For another, you'll ask the same question that I'm asking my self: how did we get here? Best of all, I'll develop a "sense of history" by truly seeing how everything fits in to where we are now. And I probably won't fall asleep.

Many believe that math must be learned in school, or at least through textbooks. This is simply not true, but merely shows the poor job of mathematical education done by schools today. For the most part, schools do not teach math: they teach computation, symbol manipulation, etc. These are only a small part of math and end up being the least interesting, since it can all be done by a calculator or a smart computer. Instead, math is really about the study of patterns and the development of theories. Math is a whole world of abstract beauty, full of puzzles to test your mind.

Science is not the memorization of uninteresting facts, as 12 years of science classes may lead you to believe. Science is merely a process of asking questions and searching answers, along with the combined knowledge accumulated from this search. The process is called the scientific method, and the best science teacher I ever had simply explained it to us and let us explore the world. Her room was filled with toys and puzzles to solve, and things to experiment with. She would often warn us of teachers she once had who had few hands-on activities and simply asked us to read through a textbook. Little did I know that these would be the science teachers I would have for the rest of my time at school. But now I realize that my scientific explorations need not be limited to her classroom, or any other. Instead, the world around us is an enormous classroom and we merely need the time to explore it, and the drive to ask questions and try to answer them.

Art is obviously something that can be learned outside of school. All one needs is the materials and the time to let their creativity flow. School often have many materials that allow to explore different forms of art, and it may be useful to work out an arrangement with your school so that you can continue to use their supplies. If not, there are many art supply stores, and plenty of other ways to find the necessary materials. The most important ingeredient of all, however, is creativity, which is something you must cultivate from inside yourself.

However don't think that unschooling is limited to just a new way of learning the same subjects in school! Instead, it's just as important to do other things: become an apprentice or volunteer and learn how to take care of a "real job"; start your own business; lobby politicians and try to make changes in our government or society; go on an explorative trip around the world to learn about other cultures and ways of living; etc.

As TLH points out, adolescence is one of the most exciting and important times of transformation in a child. Other cultures mark it through strong and powerful experiences: the town coming together to perform a hallowed tribal ritual; sending the child out on a quest or journey making him into a man when he returns; etc. Why do we go on like nothing is happening, throwing our children into a mind-numbing, spine-straightening, painfully useless ordeal?

Today (2001-04-04) I visited a museum which included a themepark-like adventure. Like Indiana Jones, it had you climb through it's mazes and passageways to find the stone statues of the spirits of Reason, Inspiration, Questions and Perseverance. When you discovered each statue, it sang a little song where it stressed its importance. In the end, when you had found all of them, all the statues came together to do a little song and dance number about how the secret of knowledge was to balance all four of them. It was quite insightful and certainly true. If you have Reason, Inspiration, Questions and Perseverance, it's hard to go wrong.

But won't my child become a unsocial hermit?!

Interestingly, I've heard people dislike unschooling not because they are afraid that their children will not learn anything, but because they are afraid they will not develop "healthy social relationships with their peers". Nothing could be farther from the truth.

First, school is not a place to develop social relationships. In fact, it seems designed to stifle them. There is hardly little time for socialization provided, and it is discouraged for the majority of the school day. Any student who does develop a true relationship with someone does it outside of school: at a local meeting place (like a park or mall); when going over to a friend's house; or after school. An unschooler can still do all of these things.

Second, who decided that meaningful relationships could only be had with other people who happen to be in roughly the same physical area at roughly the same age? If anything, this is a severely restrained peer group. I have developed my most meaningful relationships online. None of them live within driving distance. None of them are about my own age. Even among those who I would not count as "friends", I have met many people online who have simply commented on my work or are interested by what I do. Through the Internet, I've developed a strong social network -- something I could never do if I had to keep my choice of peers within school grounds.

But I don't want the kids at home!

Now I have sort of implied that unschooling only takes place at home. This is not true. As I said at the beginning, the unschooling movement considers Sudbury schools part of them, and playfully calls them the Unschooling Schools. Unfortunately, through all of my research in Sudbury schools, I had not heard them mention the unschooling movement -- this would be especially appreciated for fans of the Sudbury model who do not have such a school close by.

Where do we go from here?

I have strong hopes for the growth of the unschooling movement in the future. First, I think that it needs to get the word out: I never knew unschooling was a choice, or that others did it until just recently -- and I've done my best to research these things. So many people complain about the quality of our school systems today, and are ready for a change in the system. Unschooling is not only a change -- it's a tidal wave knocking out all that we know and believe about the school system and providing a vastly different -- and better -- alternative.

Also, I hope to start a community for unschoolers on the Web. If you know of any unschoolers, please point them to me. Have them send me an email (me@aaronsw.com works just fine). I'd love to see more sharing of experiences and collect this great knowledge that exists out there.

Finally, I end with a plea. If you have kids, or know kids, who are stuck in the monotony of school, give them an escape route: buy them a copy of Teenage Liberation Handbook (Amazon; price search). I'm sure they'll thank you for it. It's time for the kids to rise up and take control of our lives again. Our slavery has lasted long enough.

Large portions of this piece are based on an online discussion I've been having. I want to thank all who have participated and encourage you to join in the discussion if you haven't already.

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