I considered myself a home-educating mom when I found out what home-education was really about, when my girls were about 3 and 4 years of age. I read extensively on how children learn and how parents might provide the fertile space for learning to sprout freely and healthily. I realised that children started learning from the time they were in the womb and from the moment they were born. And we become their first teachers in those early years by giving them love and warmth and respect.
My knowledge is derived from the many wonderful writers and child-advocates who are extremely supportive of child-led learning. John Holt is one of them. In fact, he is considered the pioneer of the idea of unschooling – learning and growing without schooling.
The first thing we need to recognise, according to Holt, is that children are by nature smart, energetic, curious, eager to learn, and good at learning; that they do not need to be bribed and bullied to learn; that they learn best when they are happy, active, involved, and interested in what they are doing; that they learn least, or not at all, when they are bored, threatened, humiliated, frightened….
…..therefore….we must look beyond the question of reforming schools and at the larger question of schools and schooling itself: Can they do all the things we ask them to do? Are they the best means of doing it? What might be other or better ways?
Schools put a great deal of structure into the students’ lives – from the breaking up of groups of children into different classes, to the different school subjects to be taught, to recess time and recreation time – everything is scheduled and structured in neat and timely packages. But the question we ought to ask is: do children need all this structure in order to learn?
According to Holt, children are not indifferent to these structures. They sense them, intuit them, want to know about them, how to fit into them, how to make use of them. “We do not need to put structure into children’s lives. It is already there. Indeed, we might well say of many children, including many poor city kids, that there is far too much structure in their lives, too many situations in which they must constantly worry about what is the right thing to do and whether they want or dare do it, or refuse to do it. What they often need, is a chance to get away from it all – more solitude, time, and space.”
In the traditional classroom, there are only 2 elements: the teacher and the students. The children may be all different but in such a class their differences do not make any difference. They all have the same things to do and they are all expected to do them in the same way.
The second thing we can say of this structure is that it is inflexible, rigid and static. It does not change from the first day of school to the last – the teacher gives out information and orders, and the children are passively receiving and obeying or refusing to obey.
The third thing about this structure is that it is arbitrary and external. It does not grow out of and has nothing to do with the life and needs of the class…. It is dropped on them from above like a great glass box. The teacher is as much a prisoner and victim of this structure as the children. He has little more to say than they about what it should be, and can do little more than they to change it.
The way of unschooling is the opposite of all that and works to give flexibility and dynamism in the learning which is very much organic and internal. It grows out of the needs and abilities of the children and teachers (parents) themselves.
“Many children have backs bowed and knees buckling beneath the weight of too much adult concern, even kindly concerns, or perhaps especially kindly concern, too much worry, too much fear, too much hope. Everything the children say and do is a sign – are they going in the right direction? Or the wrong? Are we doing the right thing? Everything becomes too big a deal.
(Chapter 2: The Structure of Freedom” from Freedom and Beyond by John Holt).
What children need and want are more chances to see us adults when we are about our adult business, whatever that may be, and more time in which we leave them strictly alone.”
And that has been very much our approach to unschooling all three of our children – from when they were little, until they are adults. And the result of that, can be seen in how they approach their working adult lives now:
1. They know what they want and learn how to get them.
By immersing themselves in their chosen interests such as music, dancing, skating, and filming. They spend thousands of hours listening to music, watching YouTube videos, practising their art (in piano playing, song writing, guitar playing, skating, dancing, editing…….to be good, one has to commit to being good. There are no short cuts.
2. They know how to learn and where to find resources to help them learn.
The World Wide Web is an amazing place to learn so many things. Why put limitations on them? Because of our fears? That is our problem. Not theirs. Books are invaluable sources for creativity and imagination (fictional stories) as well as factual knowledge and innovative ideas (non fiction). But not every child finds books attractive. We should let them choose how they want to learn.
3. They find their purpose in learning.
This is very important. Learning and working without a purpose is like living without a goal. You just exist and merely go through the motions of living. This will not be enough to drive learning in a meaningful and sustainable way. But purpose can! It may be spending countless hours trying to do a video for YouTube, or to make a short film about something interesting with friends, or writing a song or a story from an idea that came up……they do not have to be big ideas or big purpose. Starting with small projects are good enough to propel them further later. It’s the process that matters.
4. They find recognition and satisfaction from their chosen fields and industry.
Slowly but surely, with hard work and smart learning, they will one day gain recognition and acceptance from the community and the industry they work in, in the forms of competitions, performances or productions their work.
5. They continue to improve their knowledge and skills.
They never rest on their laurels but keep wanting to learn to be better than before. This passion and purpose in self-improvement is unique to those who truly learn for learning sake. Not for popularity or succcess, but for self-satisfaction, knowing that they are contributing positively to others by giving their best.
In the world of cruelty and uncertainty, it makes sense for us to nurture a new generation of peace-loving and purpose-driven individuals, to make the world a little cleaner, better and happier. Hopefully by changing the way we educate our children, together we can make an impact on our world – by learning and growing beyond schooling.
Amrita Soon – singer songwriter (unschooled)
Young entrepreneur Program by KV Soon (unschooling father).
Field trip to the mangroves land near Butterworth led by Yu Ling & Kent Leong (unschooling parents of 6 children) and founders of Beach Schooling.