My partner and I believe homeschooling is the best education option available to us, so I've been looking into it and having my mind blown wide open by what I've discovered. One of the sites I found had an emphasis on unschooling or natural learning, which I had heard of but didn't really understand. Basically it is home learning, but it is not schooling. The parent doesn't become the teacher in natural learning, they don't set curriculum, or goals or assignments and they don't grade. With natural learning the agent of learning is the student themselves. The student follows her own natural curiosity and interests which leads to her taking up her own assignments (though projects or activities is a far more appropriate word). Learning is understood to be a never ending journey, and the focus is on enjoying the journey rather than reaching goals. It's self motivated and regulated, parents trust their children to learn what they need to and don't worry about the rest. The parent is a guide, rather than a teacher, who enables the child to grow, discover, and get active.
Researching schooling options for my daughter has got me reflecting on my own experiences with institutional learning and has set me on an exciting new journey of self discovery. Initially the thought of learning without a curriculum seemed impossible and absurd to me (particularly given that I am a control freak). How could a child learn without a rigid curriculum? I wondered. But then I asked myself "have curriculum's always served my learning well?" My questioning led me to confront a few myths within my own learning philosophies. Three such myths are: certain activities should only be learned as a child, you can't learn without a certified instructor whom you pay, and you can't learn without a rigid curriculum.
MYTH 1: Certain Activities Should be Learned as a Child.
When I was a child I was one of the key members of a dance company. I left the company when I was eight, it was getting too intense and they were already pressuring us to treat our dancing like a career rather than a hobby. I have missed dancing for many years, but have been reluctant to take it up again because "dance is something you do as a child". Similarly, I nearly talked myself out of pursuing one of my life long dreams because of this myth. I have always wanted to play the clarinet, but at nineteen I told myself it was "too late" for me. Learning a musical instrument is something you start in school.
I believe this myth came to be a part of my philosophy about learning because of the rigid and predictable curriculum's taught in schools. At the schools I attended everyone learned exactly the same topics, from the same people and the same textbooks in the same year level. We all knew that you read book x in year x, and x subject is an elective option in year x. Music was an elective from year 7 to 9 and I skipped it.
MYTH 2: You Can't Learn Without an Instructor.
Thankfully at twenty I realised how ridiculous and limiting it was to tell myself I was too old to learn to play a musical instrument, and at twenty one I got a clarinet and found a teacher whom I adored. After a year of living one of my dreams my teacher moved overseas and has not returned since. My clarinet has collected dust because I haven't found a teacher to replace the one whom I loved so dearly, and because it didn't occur to me that I could learn to play a musical instrument without a teacher telling me how.
Within the institutional setting there is teacher, who is the expert, who plans lessons, who manages and directs lessons. The teacher is the agent of learning. Then there is the student, who is unknowing, who shows up at the specified time and place and does as she's told. The student is dependent on the teacher. Having graduated from twenty years of learning in institutional settings (1 year of kindergarten, 7 years of primary school, 6 years of secondary school, and 7 years of university, which included a couple of postgraduate years) I had become subconsciously convinced that I need a dominant expert in order to learn.
MYTH 3: You Can't Learn Without a Rigid Curriculum.
In year seven I was at the top of my French class, the following year I changed schools and French was not offered at my new school. I still wanted to learn French, so when I got to uni I took it up again but failed miserably! I found that the university classes moved too fast for me, and focused on how to say words and sentences without actually giving students an opportunity to try saying words and sentences for themselves. After giving up on French class at uni I bought myself a set of teach-yourself French books and tapes. I gave myself daily goals and made my way through the tapes and pages with my strict curriculum, which was based on having a certain number of sections completed within a certain number of hours. I ended up getting bored and distracted and made it through only one tape! After that I enrolled myself into an adult education course at night. This class moved too slowly for me and I ended up becoming an unofficial teacher's aid, helping the other students with their French rather than improving upon my own.
Finally, a year later I went to Canada and spent a couple of weeks in Quebec. In those few weeks I understood and spoke French better than ever. There were certain phrases or rules within the language that I thought I hadn't grasped in classes but they just fell into place on holiday. One day I had a conversation with a Frenchman in a hostel and I understood him perfectly even though I'd never formally learned the words or sentences he was using! Of course now I'm home and without opportunities to converse in French. But I know now that if I were to go back to Quebec or go to France I'd be fluent fairly quickly.
I have always felt deep down that I am a dancer, clarinet player and French speaker LOL, but thanks to my own flawed assumptions about how people learn, I have kept myself from actually being any of those things. When I think about the things that I know myself to be already (for example a swimmer, a writer, a card maker, a freebirther, and an attached mother) I realise that I did not become any of those things by learning them just as a child, or by paying a teacher, or with a strict curriculum. In fact, I began each of my journey's to becoming those things outside of an institutional setting. I became those things by following my heart and doing what made her happy. In the case of swimming, writing and card making it was because I enjoyed doing these activities I continued to do them over and over again and consequently honed my skills and ended up becoming a competitive swimmer, and published writer.
Fear, Failure, & an Unfortunate Focus on the Future
When we learn for the love of learning and the joy of an activity that sparks our interest we become fearless in our pursuit for knowledge. As a child I jumped into the water without a care for who was watching me, without any goals or thoughts for my future. I swam purely in the moment. Eventually I became a strong swimmer because I spent so much time in the water enjoying myself, I didn't realise this would lead me to new opportunities such as being part of a team, and meeting new people and seeing new towns every week.
I attribute this fearlessness to the absence of the possibility of failure in natural learning. I never stopped being a strong swimmer despite giving up the competition. Whereas with dance, clarinet and French, skills that I am coming to as an adult, I have a lifetime of baggage about the expectations and judgments of others, and a fear of failing.
When I first wanted to make a card I couldn't get started. I had all the materials and tools for months, but I couldn't bring myself to actually start making a card. I was convincing myself that I couldn't do it, that I would ruin the materials if I began cutting and pasting. Twenty years of institutional learning had left me feeling like I had to take a class, someone had to tell me how to create. Then one day I ignored the voices and made a card without thinking about how it would look when I finished. Just as I had once been in the pool, I focused on doing, and being in the moment. I ignored my fears about the future of the materials and whether my end product would be a success or a failure. And I found that I had always had the power, vision, and talent to make my own cards within myself.
From that moment I made all the cards I gave to people, and I have never been unhappy with one of my finished products. And yet every time I start to make a new card I still have that little voice of fear wondering if I will make something good, trying to scare me away from getting started. Every time I start I tell that voice to be quiet, forget all thoughts about the future, and I throw myself into doing. The difference is now it only takes a few seconds, rather than a few months, to silence the fear mongering voices.
Now that I think about it, if we are truly learning, and learning for the love of learning, and doing for the love of doing, then failing isn't really possible, because the goal is not to succeed, it is to learn. It's about the journey, not the destination. That is the biggest difference between learning in an institutional setting and unschooling. In an institutional setting the journey is made less enjoyable by a focus on the end point and getting there in a set timeframe. Where with natural learning you don't really have an end in mind, so you can't fail to get there. And your timeframe is a lifetime.
Inspired by these new discoveries, I have decided to do the following:
- I will get my clarinet serviced when we've got cash to do so and I will take to playing around on it and learning on my own.
- I will look into local dance schools and when the baby permits I will join one that has an emphasis on being social rather than professional
- And at some stage in the future I will see if I can find a community of French speakers to hang out with and learn in a casual environment rather than a class.