Monday, November 21, 2011

Is There a Difference Between Unschooling and Natural Learning?

by Beverley Paine, Homeschool Australia

I definitely see a difference between unschooling and natural learning - my experience of the recent Unschooling Conference brought this into sharp focus for me. I posted this on my Homeschool Australia Facebook page in response to a question yesterday and once the National Home Ed Week Online Conferences are over and I'm home again, I'll be writing some more about my reflections on the Unschooling Conference - it was awesome and we definitely need events of this calibre happening around Australia at least annually!

My definition of natural learning is based on the nature of the child and the nature of learning rather than something we do or don't do with or to them... It's learning based on needs rather than wants. I see it as completely different to unschooling - unschooling is something we chose to do, natural learning is something we are all already doing. I think John Holt was talking about natural learning in his books How Children Learn and How Children Fail when he began to encourage people to trust in children's ability to learn without being taught.

For me, unschooling is choosing to let go of the need to overtly 'teach', especially for the sake of teaching or because of arbitrary standards or extrinsic goals - abandoning traditional educational approaches/methodologies and values. To get there one has to go through a process of deschooling, unless one has been unschooled since birth. But even then I think we pick up enough societal values (that don't make sense) and that deschooling is a process that is life long!!

John Holt definitely advocated for getting out of the way of the learning process - he saw what we tend to do as parents and teachers is mess up the natural learning that is already occuring, often causing huge problems which we then say belong to or arise from the child!

We're all going to do this anyway - we can't help interfering in our children's natural learning processes, especially if we aren't consciously in touch with our own. Plus we're all 'learner' parents and educators - none of our kids come with a user's manual!! Imagine how wonderful that would be - say if the placenta birthed and magically opened and had all the instructions tailored for this particular child, catering to his or her unique needs, disposition, temperament and personality with 'what to do when and/or if' different situations arise!! That would be nice! But it ain't going to happen so we learn by making a billion brilliant beautiful mistakes for which our children happily forgive us, provided we are attentive aware parents dedicated to consciously learning from those mistakes.

We interfere every day in unconscious and subconscious ways in our children's learning: our values determine what kind of life we lead, what type of house we live in (or not), how much money we have available for whatever purchases we want or need to make - all these things pre-determine what our children will experience and from birth our children have very little input. Our circumstances determine how our children will be educated and nurtured as much as anything else. Of course, we have choice - we can change our circumstances, but if we are to be authentic people, meeting our own needs, that necessarily produces compromise.

I love the way our children immediately compromise our lives from the minute we conceive them! That is a huge learning leap for most of us! Life is full of give and take when we focus on meeting needs - we aim for a win/win outcome as often as possible and gradually learned not to fret too much if that wasn't possible.

So unschooling is letting go of the need to do things that don't make immediate sense to us or the child - if we can find a rationale that satisfies us or the child as to why something must be done (or in a particular way) then let it go - it's not important! Children respond to reason - especially if their brilliant brains and bodies aren't bogged down with unnecessary unhelpful stress, particularly emotional stress. Children love having things explained to them and love contributing to the discussion - it can be really hard with little people but the effort is worth it.

Natural learning happens anyway - children at school often learn things the teachers and system least want them to, usually because schools are learning deserts, devoid of meaning and value and resources. There isn't much for kids to do but learn the stuff we'd rather they didn't! Their brains and bodies are itching to learn, driven by nature to learn. Give a child something constructive to do and value their efforts and they'll naturally be cooperative, friendly, helpful. They totally appreciate being treated as people.

I find it very unhelpful to define unschooling as the same as natural natural learning because I want homeschoolers and schoolers to see that no matter what their children are learning. I come at it from the position of feeling distressed every time I hear someone say that children need to learn how to learn, or learn how to think - they already do these things brilliantly - until we interfere too much and teach them how to shut down these exceptional skills.

Unschooling is choosing not to do certain things with or to our children, but at the same time it is choosing to do things in a certain way with our children. The pre-fix 'un' is often translated as 'hands off' or a 'do nothing' approach to education. What I often see with people new to the idea of unschooling though is the complete opposite, even though they believe they are not intervening at all: children are plied with an incredible and sometimes bewildering array of choices, particularly if the parent is worried they aren't meeting the child's wants or needs. This often provokes unnecessary stress in many children which interferes with their natural learning ability.

Natural learning brings the focus back to the nature of the child, the nature of the situation - from here we can help them determine what is needed, or simply meet those needs without fuss.