Monday, May 10, 2010

The Difference Between Natural Learning & Unschooling

For some families the terms natural learning and unschooling are interchangeable. Others see natural learning as the Australian term, unschooling as the USA term and informal learning as the UK term.

Unschooling to me means taking the school out of education - that is, approaching learning from a more learner-centred point of view. Unschoolers don't work try to fit the learner into an arbitrary sequence of learning processes and knowledge to suit someone else's agenda (eg to suit national politics, improve the school's reputation, produce a particular type of employee, or even what mum's short and long term goals!) Unschooling starts from the learner's needs and puts learning into a meaningful context that is both immediate and long term, but makes sense to the learner. Unschoolers typically use a hands-on, integrated unit study approach to covering the typical school subjects with activities that make use of the whole person - head, heart and hands. Recording helps the parent feel confident and more at ease with this approach in the early years.

My definition of natural learning is that everyone learns all the time. It doesn't matter where you are - if you are a school student you are still learning naturally. A lot of what school children learn isn't in the curriculum and I believe they learn this stuff because the other stuff (that is in the curriculum) is either boring, way above their heads, already known, presented in a manner that doesn't suit the individual learner or just doesn't make any sense, sometimes because it isn't accurate or is doled out in such a piecemeal manner it become contradictory. And the learning environment is a desert, almost devoid of anything children tend to use when learning is at a peak for them. In the absence of anything meaningful to learn children still learn - they are keen observers of behaviour, for example. They will use any resources to make sense of the world around them, and if they aren't given the opportunity to pull things apart to see how they go together will end up 'misbehaving'.

I'm wandering off the subject however…

Natural learning is recognising that we are all learners and that no matter what we do or happens there are lessons and abilities that we are learning in each moment of every day, even when we sleep and dream. Instead of adding arbitrary and often unnecessary tasks to our daily lives, we capitalise on the learning that is already happening. Natural learners take their cue from what is happening as a natural consequence of living. There are important lessons to be learned that arise naturally from daily life: nutrition, staying healthy, caring for possessions, pets, family, others, creating an environment that sustains life and feeds the soul. Humans have been living and learning like this for millennia, creating civilizations along the way.

Unschooling is challenging because we don't have timetables and curriculum checklists to mark off as milestones and parade to insecure others to prove our children are actually being educated (and usually to a high standard, though not necessarily at the same rate/pace as schooled kids, or towards the same goals).
Natural learning is very challenging because our lives move to a completely different pace to others. We also seem to speak a different language. Ours is not a rush to learn everything that can or should be learned, or to cover a certain amount by a particular age (adulthood) - it's life learning. We talk more about the processes at work when we learn and we like to reflect on those learning processes. We know that everything in life is interdependent so learning is integrated. It can be exceptionally hard to translate natural learning into educational jargon to help insecure others feel okay about what we're doing (and therefore give us 'permission' to continue!) You can tell by how I'm writing this that natural learning isn't something we do to or for children - it's something we all do, all the time.

I began home education as a school-at-home mum, modelling our learning program on my daughter's experience at pre-school (kindergarten) and my own school life from years before. We then spent many years unschooling as my confidence, knowledge and understand about the nature of learning grew. My youngest child experienced the tail out of my unschooling behaviour and I feel confident to say his education was 'natural'.

That isn't to say natural learners and unschoolers don't do anything 'schooly' from time to time. Both use the best tools in their educational toolboxes to achieve their goals. The difference between school and unschool has often been cited as the motivating force driving the act of learning - who is in charge really? Is it life compelling learning forward, the will of the child, the will of the parent, or the will of the State? Natural learners are compelled to learn because they are allive. Unschoolers blend this with the need to learn particular things deemed important by the learner, parent or tutor. School layers on so much other less personally interesting stuff that the natural learning agenda is hindered, subverted or almost completely squashed.

© Beverley Paine

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