Monday, April 07, 2008

Me and My Big Ideas, part 2

More from the discussion I mentioned in my last post: a description of unschooling, written for a broadly skeptical audience.

The basic premise of unschooling is that children - indeed, all people - are naturally curious, and that if they are allowed to pursue their (often intense) desires to acquire information and master skills, they will, if you like, "arrange" to learn everything they need. Adherents of unschooling believe that learning in the context of an immediate desire - often to do something, i.e. to apply the knowledge acquired - is most likely to be effective and lasting.

The key point of contention here, obviously, is in that phrase "everything they need". Unschooling is a child-centred approach, based on granting intellectual autonomy even to very young people. The idea is to refrain from disrupting the course of a person's curiosity-driven exploration of the world through the imposition of a curriculum, a timetable, and a schedule of academic milestones. Instead, unschooling families facilitate that exploration by providing a stimulating intellectual, social, and cultural environment - and, indeed, by providing or arranging for any formal instruction that the child requests.

That's where I'll have lost a lot of you, I suspect. Most people believe that there are certain things that all children must be taught. But opponents of non-traditional education models, in my (limited) experience, have a tendency to beg the question of whether it is, in fact, possible to define a set of information and skills to which it is desirable that all members of a society be exposed before a given (and ascertainable) age. They further beg the question of whether teaching methods arising from the traditional school model are, in fact, the best way to achieve this aim. [I repeat my plea from my previous post: if you know of any writing addressing these questions from first principles, please point me at it!]

I'm neither a logician nor a trained educator (though my parents are both academics, as are my aunt, my uncle, and many more living relatives, as were three grandparents, a step-grandparent, and at least one great-grandparent, so I'm pretty familiar with the education world, at least in Ireland), but my reading and observation have led me to conclude that there is another way of looking at it. In the first place, if it is indeed essential to know something, can we in fact avoid exposure to it - or at least to its importance? If we could trust children to identify what skills and knowledge are important to them, and facilitate them in acquiring these, would they not necessarily cover all the genuinely essential material?

In the second place, even if we agree that there is such a set of knowledge and skills, how can we be sure that traditionally based teaching methods are the only/best way of making sure that everyone gets it? Let's leave aside the fact that a proportion of children, despite attending school, never acquire basic literacy and numeracy - which I think most people would agree are about as "essential" as it gets. That's a clear social problem, to which some fairly clear remedies can be applied after the fact. But more subtly, I believe that many, many children leave school without in truth having mastered the curriculum. I'm not talking about failing exams - that's the obvious example - I'm contending that a significant proportion of students in a traditional school environment will tend to acquire not the skills and knowledge on the curriculum, but rather a set of more or less effective strategies for passing the various scrutinies and tests and getting out of there. (This applies less to students whose personal interests mesh well with the curriculum on offer, but as one of those students, I can testify that it's a factor.) These students, having passed the tests, are considered to be successfully educated. If you pause to consider your least favourite subject at school, and ask yourself what proportion of what you learnt during those classes has stayed learnt, you may get what I mean.

(A personal example: I was reasonably "good" at maths. I took Honours maths in the Leaving Certificate, which (certainly at the time, and I believe still) is generally considered one of the "hardest" subjects. I did well at it - better than I expected. However, I had only the sketchiest understanding of complex maths, then or now. I rote-learned enough to be able to approach most exam questions and left it at that. Maths, as an intellectual field, wasn't where my interest lay. Meanwhile, I have a very good grasp of the "simpler" subdivisions of maths, most of which I learnt by osmosis while indulging my passion for needlecraft: creating sewing, embroidery, patchwork and knitting patterns from scratch, which I did obsessively from the age of 6 or so, involves a fair bit of tricky calculation, percentages, geometry, as well as spatial awareness, technical drawing, and so on. Point is, if I were into, I don't know, aerodynamics - designing the perfect paper aeroplane, say - I'd probably have absorbed and retained more calculus.)

So, if for the sake of argument we were to propose that neither (a) a pre-ordained curriculum nor (b) curriculum-based, age-segregated, timetabled, scheduled, regularly tested instruction is necessarily the best way of a given child's acquiring an adequate education, well ... what's the alternative?

To which I say, go and read your John Holt and and the essays on the Sudbury Valley School site, and then get back to me if you have any questions :-)

I fully accept that there are people for whom the "guided" curricular experience is a positive one - one poster to [this discussion] spoke of being grateful that she was "forced" to read ... was it Shakespeare? That's not my personal experience: I viscerally resent what school did to me both intellectually and emotionally (there - cards on the table time - but please bear in mind that this is the Irish education system in the 1980s/90s - of which terms like "monolithic", "lockstep", "one size fits all", etc. are, I'd argue, ENTIRELY appropriate!). Further, the unschooling approach clearly works best when parents are educated and committed themselves. As I said in my previous post, there are surely children for whom the traditional school system is the best option available. It seems to me, though, that rather than engaging in holy war over pedagogical principles, we should be striving to ensure that each child has an opportunity to access the optimal educational model for that child.

There's also the question of parental values. Frankly, I can't see my husband and myself being able to be "good", supportive traditional-school parents, given how we feel about traditional school (again, please note, this is the Irish system I'm talking about: your mileage almost definitely varies). Children pick up on these things, and it couldn't but cause tension, which wouldn't be fair. If there were a Sudbury-model school in Dublin, we'd have enrolled our foetuses. As it stands, we'll be unschooling them (um ... not the foetuses ... you know what I mean) unless and until they ask for a different model, and we'll be trusting them to know what works best for them.

So (if anyone's still with me), how does unschooling work in practice?

Well, take reading, for instance - which is usually one of the first topics to come up in discussions of unschooling. It is the case that children frequently learn to read without ever being formally taught. The way it usually works is that either they realise at a certain point that the ability to read would be of enormous benefit to them generally, or they encounter a specific obstacle to their pursuit of another passion that would be solved by knowing how to read. Either way, they become passionate about acquiring the skill. (Supporters of unschooling, as I've said, argue that the point at which that passion strikes the child is the time at which learning will be most effective. Anyone who's watched a very young child really working at a new skill must give at least some credence to the effectiveness of this approach.) Children use several strategies to acquire the skill of reading, ranging from asking someone to teach them to picking up clues from context and working out what a handful of words mean, then building it up from there.

Oisín, our [43]-month-old, has learnt, by himself and by asking questions, to read most letters and numbers up to about [10] or so. (We had a long discussion about zero at the dinner table one evening, which quickly got very complicated.) He can read some words - the Google logo on Niall's T-shirts, for instance, his own name, and the names of some characters from Thomas the Tank Engine. I suspect he can read more than I'm aware of, but as I have no investment in his learning to read at this point (except inasmuch as it'll mean I don't have to read the Reverend W. Awdry's turgid and reactionary oeuvre!), I've no desire to test his skills. I don't know how I'd feel if I had one of those children who don't decide to apply themselves to reading until they're nine or ten. That might be trickier.

Unschooled children - certainly the younger ones - don't generally study traditional subjects, on the grounds that the world is not divided into discrete packages. Instead, an eight-year-old's interest in (say) knights and castles might lead to explorations in social history (how Medieval people lived), archaeology/palaeography (how we know about these things), politics (feudalism vs. democracy), architecture/engineering/military strategy (how they built for optimal defensibility), and so on. Meanwhile, her six-year-old brother might be into gardening - exploring botany, crop rotation, common local insects, and flower arranging (not to mention getting gloriously mucky).

As children mature, of course, their interests and desires for knowledge become more and more complex. In later years, organised learning, classes, curricula, etc. become more appropriate - provided the child can access them freely. Children who want to attend university can arrange to take the necessary tests - there are plenty of correspondence courses available, for instance.

It's noteworthy to me that most of the people who hold that children need guided instruction, timetables, etc. deal virtually exclusively with "schooled" children. Many adherents of unschooling believe that it's possible to "kill", or at least seriously derail, a child's natural curiosity and love of learning, through injudicious application of traditional teaching methods (e.g. the implicit demonisation of mistakes and failure - see John Holt on this). If that's true, then it very possibly follows that the children these people encounter do require such traditional approaches if they are to learn anything useful. But I'm not convinced that they are the only way.

I have no conclusion [...] but I hope I've provided some handle on the subject of unschooling and managed to avoid offence or overweening intellectual arrogance. None of either was intended, I assure you.


Ailbhe said...

O god, I assumed the child studying knights was a boy until you said "her brother."

ms bias said...

The basic premise of unschooling is that children - indeed, all people - are naturally curious, and that if they are allowed to pursue their (often intense) desires to acquire information and master skills, they will, if you like, "arrange" to learn everything they need.

This is the bit that I keep falling down on. I can certainly see how this kind of intuitive following-your-instincts kind of learning can work for things like history, literature and the broader arts and social sciences, to kind of use the shorthand of the disciplines. What I can't see if how it works for something like maths, where it takes someone with extraordinary aptitude to ask the right questions. I remember working out how decimals worked by myself, but I also remember having my mind absolutely blown when certain new concepts or branches of mathematics were introduced, when I hadn't even suspected they existed. I couldn't help but have heard of basic algebra and trigonometry and I would have probably gone looking for them at some stage out of curiosity, but surds? Simultaneous and quadratic equations? Mechanics? Certain awesomely cool parts of geometry?

I supposed because maths tends to work as pure concepts first, applications later, I can't quite see how curiosity about the world or asking questions about how things work could lead you to wonder how to solve 0 = x^2 – x – 6, or what the relationship between the square on the hypotenuse was to the squares on the other two sides. But I was *thrilled* when I was taught that. It was just so beautiful. Ionic and covalent bonding and their relationship to the periodic table was the same thing.

Yet I can't exactly say that I needed to learn these things, because I've never *used* them outside of passing maths and science exams. Or is that the point at which you expect the children would be following a textbook or a Intercert curriculum or something anyway?

Radegund said...

Wow - I haven't looked at this post in a long time - just saw La Bias's comment. I don't have time to respond in detail (though I may do another post soon), but in summary, I'm not talking about, for instance, never using a book, never following a curriculum. When people are passionate about a subject, they'll read everything they can find about it. What they don't understand, they'll find ways to learn. I don't agree that the complexity/counterintuitivity of certain subjects means that they can only be learnt in a school setting.

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