Opinion

Unschooling

Education that unleashes the creative spirit.

By Jeremiah Vandermeer, 16 Dec 2005, The Navigator

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Best of Campus Press

Bashu Naimi-Roy is a smart kid.

"In college, the students are like customers," he says matter-of-factly, "but in high school, they're more like…"

He pauses for just long enough for his mother, Anita Roy, to finish his sentence.

"Prisoners," she says and laughs. "I just had to throw that in. It's true though."

At age 12, Bashu was the youngest student ever to enroll at Malaspina University-College. He's 13 now and still studying there.

"Yeah," he says, agreeing with his mother's comment. "Detention, drills, getting permission to go to the bathroom." He shakes his head. "In high school, the kids have to be there, so you can do anything you want to them. But in university, if students don't like a course for some reason, they can just drop it."

It's not hard to see where Bashu's independent attitude comes from. His mother has never been afraid to think, and act, outside of society's imposed norms. None of her three sons were enrolled in elementary or high school, being educated instead by Roy and her husband.

"I believe in education," she says, "I don't believe in schooling."

They might agree with Mark Twain, when he wrote, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education."

Roy and her sons are part of a growing community of what they call "unschoolers": parents and students who feel that the pedantic structures of the public school system are stifling kids by starving them of creativity and passion.

Scientific creativity

Unschooling, also known as "independent learning" or "experience-based learning," differs from conventional homeschooling, where a student will generally follow a set curriculum, which is often based directly on the public school system's program.

Instead, unschooling students are encouraged to find the path that works best for them, and empowers them to choose their own intellectual destinies. Unschoolers agree with George Bernard Shaw when he said, "We want to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child."

Public school students "are told when to be creative, and when to be excited about something," Roy says. "[Teachers] say, 'Now you have to be excited about the ABCs,' and an hour later, 'now you have to be excited about the color red.' What happens if the kid's not? Or what if at nine o'clock she is excited about the color red, and not what the teacher wants her to be? It's always their agenda, and that kills the creativity. The message the kids get is 'your creativity isn't as important as our schedule.'"

Roy says that creativity, above almost all else, is vital to our growth as humans.

"You need creativity for everything. People think 'oh creativity, that's just artsy-fartsy shit,' and that's not true. You need creativity to be a good philosopher, scientist, anthropologist, or even a cop. Creativity is our lifeforce, and if you don't nurture it, you just walk around like a robot."

One of the loudest voices of the unschooling movement is John Taylor Gatto, a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year and author of Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and other books on public education.

"Have you seen 2001: A Space Odyssey?" Gatto asked in a recent interview with "Do you remember when somebody's removing the brain cores from Hal [the spacecraft's talking computer], pulling them out, and HAL gets more and more childish? Well, that's the job assigned to compulsory schooling."

'Dumbing us down'

Gatto's book, Dumbing us Down, which was originally published in 1992, has just been re-released by Gabriola Island's New Society Publishers to celebrate 100,000 copies of the book in print. Made up of the speeches he gave on receiving his two Teacher of the Year awards from the U.S. Senate, "The Psychopathic School" and "The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher," the book is a scathing indictment of North American public schools and their intended purpose.

Gatto says, since the publication of his book over a decade ago, many more people are aware of the harm caused by public schooling and the mechanisms through which the harm is conducted. There are now over two million homeschoolers in North America, and the number is growing.

"Government schools are considerably worse than they've ever been," Gatto says.

"They cost a good deal more money than they did then, and they've abandoned any pretense, except rhetorically, of actually delivering either intellectual or moral training." In the pages of Dumbing Us Down, referring to his (then) 26 years as a teacher in Manhattan, he writes, "I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior."

High school day care

Bob Lane, founding director of the Institute of Practical Philosophy and former founding director and president of the Vancouver Island Literacy Society, says that "officially" our schools are supposed to "prepare young people to be intelligent participants in our parliamentary democracy - and to train them for work. "Actually," he says, "it doesn't do a very good job of either."

Natalia Gonzalez is a 15-year-old who recently dropped out of high school and enrolled in the Ministry of British Columbia's Distance Education Program, but plans on unschooling after this school year is finished. She has been going to public schools since kindergarten, but became fed up with inflexible standards, lazy teachers and mundane textbooks.

"I just felt like I was wasting my time," she says. "It seemed to me that what I was learning … had no bearing on real life."

Like Bashu, Natalia is a very smart kid. She's a member of the New Democratic Party, has been published in Malaspina's campus newspaper, the Navigator, and is an associate editor and contributor.

"I really enjoyed my classes, like social studies and science," she says, "but I just felt isolated when I was the only one who was asking questions about a subject. It seemed like the other students and the teachers would get annoyed with it, like everyone just wanted to get it over with and go home."

Lane, who was a college and university instructor for over 30 years, says, "The school has become a child care centre -- much needed since families require two wage earners to make a go of it in the global economy. One wonders if it serves the purpose of educating students -- at times it seems merely a place for warehousing them."

For Natalia, the rapid bombardment of trivial information and lack of context made it hard to get interested in school subjects, let alone become passionate about them.

"All you get is little bits and pieces of history, science, and politics," she says, "but nothing that connects them all together … to give a bigger picture of life. Most kids don't learn when you're being fed so much information: names, dates, and so on. And the tests come by so fast that I'll study, and do a good job on the test, but it won't matter because a week later everything I just learned will be out the window, to make way for a bunch of new stuff. The way they teach you, you never really retain, or learn, anything. All of the students are pretty much just regurgitating the same answers, then forgetting them."

'Captains of industry'

"The best schools probably draw on ten to 20 percent of what young people are [intellectually] capable of," Gatto says, "and they're intended to do that. They want to train you to move inside a very narrow compass; it's what they're set up to do. And they want to train you inside the narrowest compass to be a specialist and waste your life mastering an extremely narrow bit of a whole so that you never, never, never will tamper with policy."

Writing in Harper's magazine in 2003, Gatto explained how "mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the United States between 1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of much earlier and pushed for through most of the nineteenth century." He notes that throughout most of American history, children didn't attend public schools, "yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry, like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers like Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead."

Gatto explained that the Canadian public education system, which since 1867 has been under provincial responsibility and control, was developed in tandem with its fundamentally identical American counterpart to "convince the majority of people that their economic lives hang by a thread, and if they don't do what their told to do, they'll be doomed and ostracized."

Chomsky's filter

Gatto is by no means alone in his claims. Noam Chomsky, the great linguist and political activist once called "arguably the most important intellectual alive," by the New York Times, writes in Understanding Power that public education is a "system of imposed ignorance," that was instituted in the United States and elsewhere as "a technique to beat independence out of the heads of farmers and turn them into docile and obedient factory workers."

"In fact," Chomsky writes, "the whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don't know how to be submissive, and so on -- because they're dysfunctional to the institutions."

In his Harper's article, Gatto draws from a number of sources in explaining how the North American school system was adapted from a 19th century Prussian system and was "intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table." The system was to "make sort of a surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant ranking on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever reintegrate into a dangerous whole."

Speechless

One of the ways that the public school system accomplishes its intended purpose, Gatto says, is by focusing disproportionately on reading and almost totally ignoring speaking and writing.

"If you ask 1000 people in Canada what literacy was … they'd probably say reading. Well, that's the third in the order of importance, or at best, tied for number two. Back in the days when Canada was a British colony and so was the United States, literacy identified the division between active literacy and passive literacy. Passive literacy is clearly reading. The active literacy, which is requisite of readership, is speaking and writing."

The focus on passive literacies, Gatto says, leads to passive students.

"If you went to the elite private boarding schools," he says, "you would find an unbelievable stress on the active literacies. But if you went into the best public schools in Canada or the United States, you would not find that. And you would get an explanation that … there's simply not enough time to do that. We can't afford to teach writing, and where would the time come for giving every kid daily practice in speaking before audiences? I'll tell you from experience, if you want to do those things, you can, in fact, find the time and the mechanisms. The idea though, is to put the active literacies to death because, without the active literacies, you don't have a prayer of ever influencing anyone else."

Throughout his interview, it was evident that Gatto's active literacy skills, including his talent for summarizing his subversive concepts with everyday examples, had not been suppressed or squashed by his years within the public school system.

Standardized thinking

"In your entire lifetime of buying and renting services and negotiating contracts," Gatto asked, "have you ever even thought of asking a person what their standardized test score or their grade point average was? Because with the stress and drum beating that you hear across Canada and across the United States and other places, you would assume that you wouldn't go to an auto mechanic without asking him what his score was in mechanic school. Wouldn't you be a fool not to have that information if, in fact, it were information? Wouldn't you want to ask your barber what his grade was in barber school, let alone your lawyer, your physician, your architect?

"The very fact that universally nobody asks for these things is all you need to know that the information is worthless. It's worthless … No, I take that back. It's extremely valuable in showing whether a person is obedient, because the only way you do well on those tests is by memorizing the dots you're told to memorize. You're never asked to connect the dots."

Lane says that by "turning education over to 'professionals,' we have grown away from the learning process and become locked in our old ideas and methods." This system gives us "the illusion that we are passing our values on to the next generation when we have not really thought about what those values are."

He says that a better system would recognize that "one size does not fit all."

"We need to maximize individual choice, encourage creativity, discourage lock-step, make what is studied meaningful and real, involve parents and siblings, grandparents and workers in the process," he says.

Unschooling vs homeschooling

These ideas are the basis for unschooling. But what is unschooling exactly, and how does it differ from regular homeschooling?

Wendy Priesnitz, editor of Life Learning Magazine and author of School Free: The Homeschooling Handbook, writes on her website, "Although 'homeschooling' has become a generic term, it has many uses, which are not always accurate or precise. Its use is appropriate; I believe, to describe a parent-driven, school-at-home style of education. But it is not accurate to describe a learner-driven style of education, which uses life and the world as its resource, and which most certainly doesn't look like school."

Priesnitz writes that there are many different forms of student-directed learning, and many names to call them by: "In many cases, the terms 'homeschooling,' 'deschooling,' 'unschooling,' 'home-based learning,' 'home-based education,' and 'self-directed learning' are used interchangeably.

Unfortunately, there is no standardized terminology that everyone understands as describing the type of learning lifestyle that we're exploring in Life Learning [The International Magazine of Self-Directed Learning]."

Anita Roy stresses that self-directed learning isn't about letting the kids run wild with no direction, but about choices.

"It's not hands off, that's for sure. You must tell your kids, 'I'm going to present you with lots of opportunities, I'm going to give you stimulating environments, but I want you to develop where you want to go with it.'"

Above all, unschooling is about letting students explore their environments for themselves, with guidance, encouragement, and a wide array of resources provided by parents.

'Nutrition of knowledge'

"It is nutrition of knowledge;" Roy says, "it's my job to offer the kids healthy choices. And even more importantly than that, a loving environment."

Many parents recognize that public schools may not be the best environment for intellectual development, but worry that taking their kids out of the system may have dire implications for their futures. Unfortunately, in Canada, unless they are enrolled in a learn-at-home program from a registered school, self-directed students will not receive a Dogwood Diploma.

Without his persistent mother on his side, Bashu, who decided completely on his own to go to university, may never have had his experiences as the youngest student at Malaspina University-College. Getting the school to accept him wasn't that easy.

"At first they were like, 'well he should finish high school first,'" she says. "Nowhere did I see anyone say 'hey, this is an opportunity for Malaspina. Let's do something about this. Here's a kid who is interested and capable.' It was more like, we were an inconvenience pestering them."

"When people choose alternatives, there are implications," says Malaspina's Registrar Fred Jacklin. "If a young person comes to us who is home-schooled, there are rules in place to help them. But when they are that young, we must exercise caution." The university has certain guidelines in place for young students, but Bashu was a unique case.

"We have an admissions policy which is set by the education council, which allows students who are not high school graduates, and who don't qualify for mature student entry, to take one course," Jacklin says.

'Orwellian nonsense'

Roy explained to the university that Bashu wasn't going to high school, and they told her they didn't "have any policy to place him under," she says. "It was like complete Orwellian nonsense." Malaspina bent its policy a little, allowing Bashu to attend one class per semester rather than only one class period. Says Jacklin: "In Bashu's case, we interpreted the policy in a very liberal fashion."

Although the school accepted Bashu, his age may have been a barrier.

"I think with kids that young," Jacklin says, "there are concerns about socialization." Bashu, though only thirteen, says he blends in almost seamlessly with the classmates in his Japanese class, who are of all shapes and sizes.

"I'm not sure if any of them know how young I am," he says.

Bashu regularly takes part in class discussions and holds his own: he graduated from his first university class, Philosophy 100, with an A+.

Less 'squash'

"Obviously not all kids can do what Bashu did," says Roy, "but there are many who could if they were given the chance."

In a press release for her book, Challenging Assumptions in Education, Priesnitz suggests that many of society's problems, such as violence, high levels of unemployment and increasing gaps between rich and poor "are indications of an education system that has outlived its usefulness … they will not be solved with more money, more schools, more teachers or even student codes of conduct." She says that what is required is "to dismantle the one-size-fits-all industrial paradigm that processes and warehouses students, and replace it with a community-based learning society that will accommodate the individuality of learners of all ages, interests, abilities and styles." Gatto sees hope in the future of education. In Harper's, he writes that as parents, we too often underestimate our children and need to recognize their true potential.

"After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt," he writes. "We suppress our genius only because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves."

Roy is also convinced that we can overcome our current problems.

"Nobody's saying that public schooling squashes everybody. It doesn't, but it does squash a lot. And there is a better way."

Jeremiah Vandermeer is a student at Malaspina University College.  [Tyee]

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