The further down this road my family travels and the more studies I devour, the more confused I get. It is so perplexing to me that people still see unschooling and respectful parenting as a bizarre fringe movement. Unattainable for some? Sure. Physically impossible for others? Ok. Without merit? Now I disagree. How did we get to the point where treating children with respect and empowering them to make choices about themselves defines me as a change-maker? When did nurturing a love of learning become an illegitimate pedagogy?
I’ve sat on this for a while. Rewritten it. Thought about what it is that I really want to share. I guess it boils down to this growing unease inside me. Simmering frustration. I want you to see that this is not just some mommy-blogger with her wack ideas about child led learning and mutual respect. There is so much out there, and it would be impossible to include everything, but this post is heavily hyperlinked to examples of the books, articles and studies I have found useful.
We live in a world with access to extraordinary minds, an incredible amount of research and an ever growing understanding about the human psyche. Over time we have begun to piece together the optimum way that humans learn and the ideal conditions for emotional development.
We know that every individual has interests and strengths unique to them. As education has progressed, particularly in developed countries, there has been a growing body of research calling for a move towards more personalised learning in the classroom. We recognise that students do best when they are met at their level and presented with material that sparks genuine interest. Despite this, we continue to enforce a style of education that is one size fits all, while viewing unschooling, which epitomises personalised learning, with suspicion.
We know that students learn in a more concrete way when experiencing something first hand. We know the optimal conditions for experiential learning. Allowing learning experiences to exist in an environment without limits on thinking and exploration, without expectations or conditions on where that experience can take your mind, is what drives innovation and creative thinking. The modern classroom’s efforts to incorporate experiential learning are mostly thwarted by measuring, grading and the need for a ‘correct answer’. Unschooling provides a model environment for experiential learning to occur, in exactly the way that research tells us is ideal, yet for many people, educators included, it isn’t a legitimate form of ‘education.’
Research shows us that making something compulsory does not lead to enjoyment or intrinsic motivation. Yet mainstream education continues to approach literacy in this manner. We know that spelling tests don’t improve spelling but go a long way to increase anxiety levels and decrease confidence in students who don’t do well. Yet teachers and schools continue to keep them in the teaching repertoire. We know that starting a formal literacy curriculum at an increasingly early age does not correlate with higher reading abilities down the track. Yet much of the developed world supports a system that continues to push in this direction. We know that students who enjoy reading have a more meaningful interaction with literature. Yet most mainstream curriculums refuse to give children the time and space they need for this to happen, often stifling enjoyment through compulsory readers, formal instruction before natural interest can develop and the ever present measuring and grading. Why then do we as a society accept this, while casting a glaring eye at an educational philosophy that empowers children to explore and interact with literature on their own terms?
We know that punishment and rewards are extrinsic motivators that kill intrinsic motivation. Yet we have built our modern education system on these foundations. Intrinsic motivation is the kind we want to see in our kids. We want creative thinkers and self-starters. Employers keep telling us, not enough people are thinking outside the box! We need creative problem solvers! These are the learners who are motivated to engage because they want to and find it naturally rewarding, not because they feel like they have to. Why then do we continue to monitor, grade and test in more and more extreme and nuanced ways? Unschooling removes these barriers and nurtures intrinsic motivation and creativity, which is exactly what research says we should do, yet is viewed as alternative and unconventional.
We know that children grow optimally in an emotional environment surrounded by people who care for them and are invested in their emotional wellbeing. Yet we continue on a path that separates children from their families at an increasingly early age and for increasingly long periods of time. This is done in the face of evidence that shows that any benefit of kindergarten programs have disappeared by third grade and may actually be more harmful than beneficial. We know that life is a multi-age environment, but we continue to segregate based on age for the entirety of the formative years. Unschooling allows children to grow with those who care for them most. Unschooling gives children the confidence to be teachers and learners within their multi-age peer group. Unschooling allows children socialisation in real world settings for real lengths of time, not dictated by bells and narrowly defined peer groups. Yet socialisation and emotional growth are concerns aimed squarely at the unschooling community, not mainstream schooling.
Respect cannot be demanded. We know that the best way to teach true respect, is to treat people with respect. If we want to raise kind children, we should model kindness. If we want to raise children who grow up to be people who feel in control of their bodies, we should give them bodily autonomy. If we want to raise confident decision makers, we need to let children make decisions. All of this makes sense. Yet mainstream parenting continues to favor illogical boundaries and control. Meanwhile, respectful parenting, that empowers children in a very conscious way, is seen as passive or extreme.
I respect that there is a huge amount of privilege that comes with being able to raise a family this way. And obviously, I don’t feel like we have it completely right. We are constantly learning more and adjusting our approach as we learn to deeply trust our children. But still, I am confused. This isn’t some flight of fancy for me. I’m not parenting on a whim which is what I often feel is suggested. I have spent so much time reading, learning, questioning, thinking. Raising humans to go out into this world alone one day isn’t something I wanted to leave to chance. We have chosen this path because we want to optimise the conditions for learning and emotional growth for our children. It doesn’t feel like a crazy, extreme thing to do. So regardless of where you fall on the parenting spectrum, tell me, how am I the radical one?