Children First

Elsie, at Elsie and Joe Deluxe, wrote a post called Keep Those Systems Off My Kids. I enjoyed the topic and it reminded me of a VERY important point about how I homeschool my children. She says this at the very end of the post:

But I am equally sure that there are teachers who slavishly follow the precepts of their chosen philosophies, to the point where they don’t even see the children in front of them. I might even say that there are more slavish followers than there are creative thinkers in these systems. I might even be pushed into saying that it is the very creation of a system of education that gives birth to slavish followers.

This is also very true of homeschooling philosophies, which she touches on throughout this post. But I really like how she summarizes that “the very creation of a system of education” or philosophy of education “gives birth to slavish followers”. This means, to me, that the philosophy becomes the end all to the purpose of learning. Unschooling is a prime example of this potentiality. There are as many ways to define unschooler as there are unschoolers, and plenty to go around of those who will tell you if you are “unschooling enough” to be considered one. To me, this misses the entire point, particularly of my view on unschooling.

First, let me share with you a Growing Without School letter I wrote in (and it was published in the November/December, 1997 Issue 119) to make my initial point:

I am writing in response to the letter from Carolyn Ellis in the Challenges and Concerns section of GWS #117. Carolyn’s struggle over accepting her daughter Mary’s learning style and her subsequent “reassurance” that her “other children are still happy unschoolers” raised my philosophical questioning nature again. It made me wonder what the definition of unschooling is.

My definition (at this moment) is following the lead of my child, whether it be in interests or in learning style, and giving respect thereto. I know that many definitions of unschooling include allowing a child to learn in his natural environment and context (learning fractions from cooking, measuring from building, science in the backyard, etc.) as well as learning out in the real world (volunteering, apprenticing, working, etc.). However, as Carolyn discovered about her daughter Mary and as I have certainly discovered about some of my own children, not every child enjoys learning in that hands-on way — or, as in the case of my son Adam, may be limited by neurological biology (autism) in his ability to learn naturally from his environment. And how about a child who in his elementary school years enjoyed learning in natural contexts but subsequently chooses a substantial increase in structure? Are all of these learners not considered unschoolers now?

I believe we would be doing a grave disservice to the origins of unschooling if we defined it as a particular learning style such as “real-world learning.” Wouldn’t that make us just as guilty as traditional schooling of implying that one style is better than another? With such a belief, the educator or facilitator will always be trying to correct, impose, or direct the learner toward this supposedly optimal style, even if it is not the style to which the child naturally inclines.

I declare myself an unschooler even though my daughter Abbey loves workbooks and my son Adam has to be taught most things in a highly structured manner. I say this because I am respecting their need to learn in the way that works best for them. I would declare an older homeschooler who decides to become much more structured in learning an unschooler because she is respecting her ability to know what she needs and wants at each stage of her life. I would declare Carolyn’s daughter Mary an unschooler because she refused to be forced to abandon her learning nature. Carolyn finally was able to respect Mary’s right to be who she was, thus accepting her learning style as viable. What Carolyn may not have figured out yet is that Mary’s learning preference is not a lesser form compared to her other children’s preference for learning from the activities that fit her definition of unschooling.

Is unschooling an educational philosophy or just another learning style that some kids will be grouped into? If it is the first, then I am an unschooler. If it is the latter, than I must call myself a self-led learner with an interest-based curriculum. This way, I could be any type of learner that my nature or desires incline me to be. What other names would represent this educational philosophy: freedom learner? self-determinator? self-learner? autodidact? (My note: I think people call themselves “eclectic” these days to mean what I’m talking about here.)

To summarize my own point in all this, I take another quote from a comment back at Elsie’s blog from Anthromama that states beautifully:

I recall from my Waldorf teaching foundation year that the recommendation was for the teacher (and this would also apply to homeschool parents, I would think) to prep their hearts out, reading about child development and observation, reading about curriculum development,etc….and then essentially letting it all go in the moment with the children. Letting all of the prep be the invisible and somewhat unconscious foundation for what happens in the moment.

I happen to say this same type of thing ALL the time about the various labels available to describe difficulties or learning styles or temperaments. It is the same for my educational philosophy of unschooling. I would research and read and compare and note and contemplate from all the sources I could find and then, and this is the important part, I would file it all away in my brain for any future moment I might find myself at any given time with a child that I might be able to recall something that might be useful in that moment.

In other words, it’s common for someone to get a label, even a good one like a right-brained, creative learner (which is a positive descriptor), or grasp hold of an educational philosophy, like unschooling, read up all about it, begin to understand it, and then take all that information and apply it on the front end to each situation as it arises. For instance, I have heard someone who has come to understand the creative learner attributes and preferred resources, and then ask, “Is this a creative learner resource? Can I use it?” To me, that is putting up roadblocks to the access of all information and opportunities. Instead, what one can use the information for is something like this:

I observe my child building with Legos for hours. “Should I allow him to play like that for so long and not do something productive?” I access the good information about the creative learner and discover that I found out that this is one of the many creative outlets preferred by this learner and that, in actuality, this process and experience and resource is a foundational element to their gift development of spatial abilities. So, I respond to my own question: “Of course I should allow it. I should even encourage it by bringing in more opportunities and resources of a similar vein. Wow! Look how he’s creating his own contraptions bringing in various parts of others he had previously built. What great visualization abilities which I remember reading is how they learn certain subjects later on.”

The reason this is so important is that it simply begins one’s journey in trusting yourself as the parent/facilitator and trusting the child as a learner. When some of this information challenges one’s conditioned beliefs about what learning is supposed to look like, and one sees how what we observe our children naturally gravitating to matches up to this new and better information, we can truly start allowing the children to come first. No matter how good the information, if we prioritize that in front of, on top of, or over what our children are showing us, we miss the opportunity to create a space for that child to truly unfold into their unique selves.

My job, as a parent facilitator, is to first, observe, trust, and give value to what emanates from my child and feed into more of that. Second, it is to use some of that good information I collect about my child’s learning style or temperament or differences and provide more opportunities and available resources that might be found useful by the child. And, last, to bring in healthy mentoring that my experiences and wisdom garner in any given moment or situation or circumstance that the child might find helpful along their own path.

So, to conclude, gathering good information about learning styles, temperaments, timeframes, educational philosophies, difficulties, is good, but:

Children First.

To me, this develops the trust that we are unique individuals.

6 responses to “Children First

  1. Excellent post! Your perspective on unschooling has always been one of those that makes the most sense to me.

  2. Pingback: Tricotomania and more » another link to thoughts on unschooling

  3. Well said, as usual. Makes too much sense!

  4. This is a great post. I really like that you took the time to walk us through your thinking about this topic, and you have some really solid thinking. It would be a strange irony indeed if unschooling became one particular thing, rather than everyone’s own particular thing. I like your definition better, but I wonder if there’s been so much confusion about it that the term has become meaningless. In some ways, ‘self-led learning with an interest-based curriculum’ is more descriptive, and people are more likely to know what you’re talking about.

  5. I like your “collaborative learning” label, Cindy, because it puts into words the interaction between the child, the parent, and the world of learning out there.

    I think children learn from what their parents do and that includes what they do NOT do. If I am telling my children “how to learn”, they may learn an untruth — that you need to wait for an expert to teach you anything.

    If I am just passively sitting there they may “learn” that it’s not very important what they are curious about…. that learning is not important enough to take much trouble about.

    So there is a balance. I admit I struggle with it day by day. It is easy for me personally to get so wrapped up in the educational philosophy and theory that I forget to see my kids as they are. Very much an ongoing discipline for me.

    Thank you for another great post.

  6. Pingback: Tribe of Autodidacts » Blog Archive » Planning for Next Year for My 9-Year-Old Son