This time last year I was welcoming my students back to school. While excited to see their friends again, most students were clearly unhappy to be back at school. And school staff were for the most part unhappy too. Whether we admit to it or not – and this goes for students and teachers alike – the pressures and frustrations that we experience at school have come to outweigh the rewards. Not only rethinking schooling, but actually reinventing it from scratch seems necessary.
It’s one year later and I just finished reading We Don’t Need No Education – a piece which introduced me to unschooling. Described as “self-directed, adult-facilitated life-learning in the context of kids’ own unique interests”, unschooling is a daily reality for the author’s two sons, and a lifestyle choice for the whole family. I’d thought something like that existed only in my imagination, but it turns out some people are daring enough to bring it to life. And according to Ben Hewitt, their ranks are growing. The news filled me with joy!
Unschooling is a form of education contrary to traditional schooling in fundamental ways. Rather than learning a prescribed curriculum delivered by school teachers, kids learn from their day-to-day interactions with their families, communities and their local environment. Instead of being sent to school every morning, kids have a say in how they wish to spend their days. And adults do not instruct and guide them unless there is a clear need, a meaningful context, and a genuine desire on kids’ part. In other words, unschooling aims to truly personalize education and to preserve and cultivate kids’ innate joy for exploration and learning. And at the same time it allows families and communities to act as the real owners of education.
How does this sound to you? Unrealistic? Irresponsible? Fantastic? To me it sounds like bliss. But I recognize it isn’t easy. This choice demands great shifts in people’s attitudes and everyday lives. It’s an unconventional lifestyle where success means finding your element and having a sense of purpose rather than achieving fame and fortune.
Take Ben and Penny Hewitt. Their life in rural Vermont is very different from mine and probably yours too. They seem independent-minded and bold enough to challenge the status quo. They place high value on freedom and their own right to decide what’s best for themselves and their kids. At the same time they regard their wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of their kids as their own responsibility. Gaining status and affluence doesn’t interest them. Instead they strive for self-realization, wellness and happiness. They live on a farm in a house which they built themselves. Self-sustainability is their mantra. And that includes their kids’ education. From what I gather, formal education has never rhymed with them. Ben dropped out of school as soon as he turned sixteen. But I suspect his lack of formal schooling has made him more perceptive to life’s lessons. Currently Ben supports his family with what he earns from his writing. To me he’s like a modern day philosopher. His principles and ideas are unconventional yet firm and well grounded. And he is confident enough to live by them. To me, this looks like leadership. It also looks like a successful model for education. Not the kind of education pursued out of conformity and for certification and societal validation, but the kind that is self-driven and anchored in first-hand experience and self-reflection. Which is what personalized education must be – a concept frequently discussed these days but which seems illusory in the context of current schooling.
Schooling and education used to agree with each other. But now they are diverging. Traditional schooling is in deep crisis and is becoming increasingly unfulfilling to more and more people. To children and adults alike. Whether it’s the young kids who get dragged to school by their parents, or the young adults who drag themselves to college classes, or the instructors realizing the ever bigger gap between the ideals and the realities of schooling, most of us have become disillusioned. If you read W. Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” you’ll learn of the alienation caused by elite post-secondary schooling. But the alienation is in fact much wider. In his book “Overschooled but Undereducated”, John Abbott makes this argument convincingly and with passion.
So yes, “we don’t need no schooling”, at least not the kind available now. But we do need an education, which I believe Ben Hewitt is saying too. Although alluding to Pink Floyd’s lyrics is catchy, I’m afraid his title misleads. “We don’t need no schooling” would be much more in sync with what he describes in the article. Because his unschooling doesn’t negate education. On the contrary, it promotes a more enlightened kind.
I was unhappy during most of my schooling. Many of the students I taught were unhappy too. And that was due to feeling captive and restricted by its rigidity and the enforced uniformity. The fact that both students and school staff pass their days in expectation of the weekend – and the freedom it brings to them – speaks for itself. So far we conformed because there seemed to be no other choice. But things are changing. Alternative options are starting to emerge. In the future one’s education will not be conditioned on schooling anymore. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we will not have to worry that school will interfere with our education. Unschoolers are giving me hope.