"People of Color, People with Disabilities, LGBTQAI People, plenty of marginalized persons have movements behind them, and yet in social justice circles people feel free to openly say “I hate children” without repercussions. Children are routinely beaten in the name of “good order and discipline” (and parents are blamed for not doing so in the name of “not being attentive parents”) and no one pays attention. We expect children to be silent unless spoken to, and we often walk around and talk around them as if they aren’t even there. And possibly more importantly, like our little friend, they notice when we don’t notice them. They notice when we fail to take them into consideration. They notice when they don’t matter. They notice when the world, when those who are meant to love them, don’t fucking see them or hear them. - from “Children Take Up Space (and Notice When We Don’t Notice)” by Ouyang Dan"
"It’s easy to be supportive when your children are interested in what you’re interested in, or are curious about something and their discoveries lead to your own learning and amazement. It’s difficult to be supportive when your child picks up on something that you don’t like – that you may even find repulsive."
Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on Changing Education Paradigms at the RSA. My favorite talk of his, though both of his TED talks are also brilliant. (I can also safely recommend anything in the RSA Animate category, though not regarding education necessarily).
In Doubt: A History, Jennifer Hecht describes the evolution of doubt and its effect on the status quo since the time of Socrates to today. It is both humbling and exciting to read about doubters throughout history and to be part of such a brave and consequential group. And as an unschooler, you are a part of that group as well: a member of the newest age of doubters, a piece of the movement that will shift another accepted truth towards something better.
When one thinks of doubt, it is perhaps easiest to consider religion and the mystical realm in general (that is, “doubter” means atheist or agnostic). But for others doubt is a lifestyle, a way of seeing the world, not as a series a negative denunciations, but as a thirst for truth in all things. Your own truth. It is the willingness to question the world you are presented with and try to find if there is another world underneath. A world that has never been described to you or even hinted at, a world that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but is right nonetheless.
Doubters have unearthed a great deal about our existence, our history and our futures over the years. The Earth was once considered to be a disk suspended between heaven and the underworld. Then the Ptolemaic theory placed a handful of celestial bodies around us, with the Earth in the middle. And finally Copernicus put us, not in the center, but where we really are, floating in space around the sun, one among many.
Doubt has left its mark on science, religion, politics, health. But only recently have new questions been posed about what is arguably the most important facet of human existence: the experience and well-being of children. In The Philosophical Baby Alison Gopnik describes how a foreign species learning our philosophy would believe that neither children nor families even existed, as they were never mentioned among by the world’s thinkers until relatively recently. Similarly, the intellectual and creative lives of children were not considered until after the Industrial Revolution. Before the 1900s it was a popular truth that the education of children and their involvement with adult themes could not be taken seriously until college age. Which is to say, until they were adults (at least physically). Psychologists, too, took no interest in the emotional lives of children until the work of Freud. And even then the outcome was to blame children for the abuses they suffered and the neuroses they developed. I would argue that pyschology did not begin to advocate for children until the 1970s, when the works of Alice Miller began to gain traction.
It was also in the 1970s that John Holt sat down with his classroom partner and decided to put more emphasis on the experience of individual children in his classes, and to seriously examine the effects his methods were having. Ivan Illich published his controversial book Deschooling Society, a call to end compulsory education. Gordon Thomas began the Parent Effectiveness Training program, the first of its kind to side with children and emphasize caring and negotiation over discipline. For the first time in history, we really began to wake up to the lives of children, to appreciate the special hardships they face, and to marvel at the unique way they learn about the world. And how fragile they are, how easily their dreams are derailed not by their own failures (failure rarely bothers children), but by their teachers, parents, priests and guardians.
Centuries of child rearing lay behind this new age of doubters. Centuries of high discipline and neglect, aggressive or disinterested education, a general disregard of the emotional and intellectual depth of children. And these few people, who had never seen the world operate any differently than the rest of us, imagined something different, something better. And they made it so. You are a part of that age, and you are the few (though ever growing) that are recreating the world yet again.
A little over a decade ago I first read the work of Maria Montessori, and caught a glimpse of children raised to pursue their own interests and desires. Who moved at their own pace and in their chosen fields. Who voiced opinions in their youth that would lead children in my home town to be ridiculed, punished or even ostracized. And then later, as I began to read the work of John Holt and others, and to discover unschooled children and the adults they became, I saw that Montessori had only revealed a glimmer of the light that was coming, of the potential that is still being unearthed.
When I consider this, I am partly sad to think of my own youth, and years wasted behind a desk, in the dark. But mostly I am happy to see where we head, and the children that are truly living. And I sometimes cannot wait to have my own children, and let them loose on the world.
There is a site here now! Finally… For now this is the layout, but it won’t last. Working with an awesome designer friend of mine to come up with something more my speed. Below are some of the articles I’ve written on education/unschooling and starting now I’ll be adding regular updates from unschooling/homeschooling in the news to updates from blogging unschoolers to book reviews, etc, etc. My recommendation? Grab the RSS Feed, follow us on Twitter, and then you never have to visit us again, cause we’ll come to you! The concept for this site is still forming in my mind, but generally it will serve to house lots of resources for unschoolers, and those searching for an alternative to compulsory education, as well as lots of stories about what other unschoolers are cooking up and throwing down. I think it’s important to point out that I am not an educator nor a parent. The former was a previous ambition that I turned down once I realized just what “education” is. The latter is something I hope to be someday, but not without first putting a lot of work into knowing how it’s done. I have a real job that isn’t nearly as cool as reading and writing about unschooling, but more than anything I like to think of myself as a philosopher, and a supporter of freedom. It is those things that lead me to unschooling after years of searching for the antidote to compulsory education, and this site is just as much about helping me learn more as it is about me sharing that knowledge with others.
Maria Montessori presents her concept of the absorbent mind - in her book of the same name - as a type of mentality that is particular to children in which they do not attempt to learn, but rather do so with almost no volition, as an act of their nature. This period in a child’s development, while not lasting a predefined amount of time, usually takes place from birth to 6 years old. And it is further evidence to support the argument that children do not need to be taught so much as they need freedom to learn, freedom to do what comes naturally to them. Montessori writes:
Our mind, as it is, would not be able to do what the child’s mind does. To develop a language from nothing needs a different type of mentality. This the child has. His intelligence is not the same kind as ours.
It may be said that we acquire knowledge by using our minds; but the child absorbs knowledge directly into his psychic life. Simply by continuing to live, the child learns to speak his native tongue. A kind of mental chemistry goes on within him. We, by contrast, are recipients. Impressions pour into us and we store them in our minds; but we ourselves remain apart from them, just as a vase keeps separate from the water it contains. Instead, the child undergoes a transformation. Impressions do not merely enter his mind; they form it. They incarnate themselves in him. The child creates his own “mental muscles,” using for this what he finds in the world around him.
This, to me, has two very immediate and very important implications. The first is that currently both parenting and education methods do a great deal to stunt and mar this process. The second is that children who are brought up with this principle in mind will prove that extremely bright, curious, precocious children are not an aberration, but rather the natural, normal state that the child is compelled towards.
Until a handful a decades ago, the most important portion of a student’s development was considered to be university. There he received “higher learning,” there he was prepared for the world. Younger children were all but entirely ignored as curious, learning beings. But now we know better, and vague stabs at applying this knowledge in shown in the form of preschool classes. This, however, is not good enough. A different kind of mind needs a different kind of education. And to Montessori, and myself, this implies a complete abandonment of the educational principles currently supported. Montessori writes of the role of parents and teachers:
The discovery that the child has a mind able to absorb on its own account produces a revolution in education. We can now understand easily why the first period in human development, in which character is formed, is the most important. At no other age has the child greater need of an intelligent help, and any obstacle that impedes his creative work will lessen the chance he has of achieving perfection. We should help the child, therefore, no longer because we think of him as a creature, puny and weak, but because he is endowed with great creative energies, which are of their nature so fragile as to need a loving and intelligent defense. To these energies we want to bring help; not to the child, or to his weakness. When we understand that the energies belong to his unconscious mind, which has to become conscious through work and through an experience of life gained in the world, we realize that the mind of the child in infancy is different from ours, that we cannot reach it by verbal instruction, nor intervene directly in the process of its passion from the unconscious to the conscious - the process of making human faculty - then the whole concept of education changes. It becomes a matter of giving help to the child’s life, to the psychological development of man. No longer is it just as enforced task of retaining our words and ideas.
If that notion doesn’t excite and anger you, then I can only think to blame the French to English translation, because it seems so clear to me that we are missing out on incredible opportunities in the minds of the young, that they are literally being beaten into bored stupidity when they could be raised to such heights of intelligence and freedom that those of us who experienced compulsory school can only imagine.
A little bit about John Holt, the man who began the unschooling movement and penned ten books on the subject of child learning and youth’s rights before dying in 1985. His own education in the minds of children began simply enough: he and colleague Bill Hull, who both taught fifth grade, would take turns teaching while the other observed the class. That is it to say, observe the children, quietly and individually, during the course of the class. Before I say anything else I want to point out what a stroke of simple brilliance this was, as well as, to me, a condemnation of the compulsory system which never does such a thing. He watched kids, one at a time, as they sat in class, and wrote down his observations and thoughts. From this we have the beginnings of what I believe is the first and only true theory of child learning, because a man simply chose to learn about children rather than just teaching them. But on to the point of this post… I wanted to touch on a couple anecdotes that Holt provides in How Children Fail that I think provide some excellent insight into child behavior.
In one class Holt had a beam balanced in the center which could be held in place with a peg. The game was used to teach kids about balance and weight distribution by placing a certain number of weights out a certain distance on one end and having a student place a certain number of weights on the other end at a distance they thought would balance it out. For instance, the teacher places 4 weights at 5” out on one end, and the child is given 2 weights to place on the other end, which in this case would balance at 10” out. To provide incentive for involvement, the students were divided into two teams. Each student would place his weights, then every teammate, one by one, would bet whether or not the beam would balance. Each correct answer counted as one point. Can you guess what happened?
It became all about strategy! Making the best guess to minimize the maximum possible loss, a decision rule in game theory called minimax. Children focused on hedging their bets and covering their bases, not only for the purpose of gaining points but also to be sure a wrong answer didn’t embarrass them. One student, after being asked to confirm her choice of weight placement, said “Yes, but I don’t think it will balance.” The predictions of other students were very similar in their vagueness. In every case the result was clear: the students were no longer interested in balancing the beam, but rather of beating the points and predictions system.
Few students ever figured out the balance beam.
While Holt allowed much more talking and freedom in his class than most teachers, he still needed quiet sometimes. So, rather than simply demanding it like most teachers, he created the Q. The rule was simply this: When he wrote the Q on the board, the class was to be quiet. Holt writes:
And then, slowly, the children invented or developed a delightful custom. When I began to write the Q they would all make some kind of hum or murmur or sound, which would get louder and louder, rising to a shriek as I boxed in the Q with a flourish. But as soon as my chalk hit the edge of the blackboard, completing the box, dead silence.
A year later Holt has his own fifth-grade class in another school, and again used the Q. This class, just like the other, eventually invented the shriek, never knowing that it had been done before.
The lesson drawn from this, I think, is that an educator’s objective in a game or class practice should never be assumed to be shared by the students. In the first case, Holt’s objective was to teach kids about balance and weight. But the children, in their brilliance, created their own objective, and attempted to make the game their own, focusing on the incentive rather than the goal. (Also, it’s important to point out that in future classes, Holt put the balance beam and the weights in the back of class, never mentioning it or attempting to teach it. Without his predefined objective hindering them, almost all the kids in the class, even some very poor ones, figured it out on their own.)
In the second case, Holt’s objective was to get quiet in the class. But the children reminded him that this must be their’s as well, and invented the Q Shriek to make it so. And Holt was smart enough to allow the Q Shriek, where other teachers would have stolen the only personal connection those kids had to a rule they chose to follow.
You see, kid’s do not naturally want to please teachers and parents, they do not naturally want to learn specific facts, but are rather content to follow their own interests and will learn as it becomes necessary to fulfill those interests. When forced to learn (very oxymoronic) or forced to obey, children will immediately substitute their own objectives, never focusing where the teacher assumes they will. We are going to talk about this more in the future, as we discover the fear and danger that surrounds a child in compulsory education, and the many, many ways in which the very nature of schooling pulls a child’s mind away from learning.