Defining natural learning and unschooling and why I think they aren't the same thing

by Beverley Paine
I see a difference between unschooling and natural learning.

Firstly, we are ALL natural learners, learning naturally. Most of this process is subconscious, responses to sensory and other information and input that we don't notice. We learn what we need to learn to thrive and survive. Observation and reflection on this process can help us grow and develop the number and quality of tools in our learning toolboxes. The more we tune into our natural learning abilities the easier it is to tune in and use our natural learning abilities.

Anyone and everyone is learning naturally. Most of the time we are unaware of the process.

I don't care if you go to school or school-at-home or unschool: you and your children are learning naturally. Just because you can't 'recognise' what you are learning (and the many layers and levels of learning) that are happening in this moment in time doesn't mean it isn't happening.

Unlike natural learning, unschooling is a choice. It is a deliberate practice. At its heart is the desire to cast aside an approach to education that has proven that it doesn't work for all children and isn't child or family friendly. The family (however it is defined or described) is the central social unit of society and needs nurturing if we want healthy, cooperative and peaceful societies. Schools don't serve families, schools serve industry and the economy. Unschooling rejects the traditions and practices employed by schools in the name of education.

As unschoolers who have been schooled we are constantly deschooling ourselves. Some unschoolers lucky enough to never have experienced the limiting effects of a narrow, segmented and regimented curriculum imposed upon us for 12+ years never need to deschool (except perhaps from the pervasive effects of school-soaked and influenced media) and simply get on with the business of celebrating life learning naturally. Most of us spend considerable time and thought deschooling. And that's okay. It's a liberating and learning process that has many wonderful 'aha' moments, often tinged with frustration at our lack of noticing the obvious earlier!

I am blessed to know very many natural learners who are unschooling. I am blessed to know very many natural learners who are homeschooling. And I am blessed to know lots more who are either at school, teach school or have children at school. Quite a few of the unschoolers know they are learning naturally and take advantage of this - happily getting on with the business of simply living understanding that learning is a natural result of living. Others are still coming to grips with the idea that they are learning naturally - it's a tricky concept to understand because our society has been brainwashed to believe that children need to be taught how to think and learn!

It doesn't really matter where you are on the continuum. What I've found during the past 3 decades of being a parent and home educator is that simply home educating allows us the time and space to be more attentive to our children's needs and this process develops our awareness of all of our natural learning abilities. Some of us don't recognise it as natural learning or call it that but it is still celebrated.

Dogma is the enemy of learning - in permaculture terms dogma is the still space distant from the edge, where life becomes stagnant. Not a lot happens, nothing changes. It's a comfortable place and feels safe. Learning happens at the edge: it's the place where ideas and concepts and understanding is challenged and transformed. Dogma and learning are both necessary and okay. As a natural learner I have pockets of dogma that I cherish but am happy to have them challenged from time to time, even when the process if painful or causes me grief - even then it is still a time of joy and excitement because I love learning. We move towards and away from the edge all the time responding to our needs. More often than not we can't name those needs - and that's okay too. That's life. That's the 'nature' in natural learning.

Learning is an amazing thing. I see it as unbounded, infinite in capacity. As natural learners we are taught and we are teachers. And that is okay. That's natural. That's life. Even if we are being taught something without our consent we personalise the event: we learn what we need from it - often something considerably different to what the teacher expects! Often we are unaware of the process of what we're learning and what sense or meaning it has in our lives. Many of us remember those moments when we suddenly 'get it'. Or have watched our children do something and wonder how and when they learned to do it. We are not all wise or all knowing so it is impossible to tease out everything we are learning in each moment.

Some people argue that learning stops or is restricted in some way when we are coerced: I personally haven't found that to be true. Some of my most poignant and important lessons are from situations and circumstances where I am being coerced in some way, either by myself or others and sometimes simply by circumstance itself. I have learned to recognise and celebrate the learning that is happening them - this self-awareness and self-knowledge isn't something that is widely encouraged (especially by schools who list as one of their goals but are overwhelmed with meaningless busywork to foster it sufficiently). We needn't fear or shun coercion when enveloped within nurturing respect and dignity as it is a natural part of our social development and socialisation process as well as an important motivator. We all coerce ourselves to learn or do things we need in order to achieve the goals or outcomes we desire or need. And we naturally manipulate others and environment for these purposes too. Instead of labeling coercion (and stress) as either negative (bad) or positive (good) we can simply recognise them as motivating energy and reclaim the power they have over our lives.

Unschoolers are consciously learning about motivation. They are playing with the ideas of coercion and stress and control. They are busy experimenting with different ways of being and doing. Most are very excited about the process - I know I was and still are incredibly excited to be learning about all this stuff! As well as incredibly frustrated that everyone else isn't doing the same and learning what I think are terribly important lessons - especially about the education and parenting of children. Some people have just begun this awesome journey and feel less confident about their experiments and discoveries, others are more at home and feel comfortable. We are, however, all challenged by many of the ideas that confront us as we begin to embrace and fully accept that we are natural learners and that the power and responsibility to learn is ours alone.

On the subject of maths and other schooly things:
We learn how to use the fantastic tool which is maths naturally. Years (and generations of schooling) has cemented the verb maths into the noun maths - we've lost something important in that process, namely the ability to recognise the awesomeness of this tool and how it allows us to access understanding of the natural world in a seamless and non-contrived way. But even so, we ALL still use maths, as defined and taught in school curricula, everyday. And the busier, productive and constructive we are with our thoughts and lives the more often we need to develop this amazing tool to help us do even more with it, especially to help us understand and work with the physical world in which we live.

I prefer to see the things we box into subjects at school as tools. Geography for example: thinking geographically is a bit like thinking scientifically and mathematically - it opens doors because it gets us to ask questions and reflect on what are experiencing, exhorting us to make meaning from the thoughts that arise from what we encounter. I turn a lot of these nouns into verbs (education jargon, like most jargon, likes to do the opposite - turn verbs into nouns!)

We can legitimately separate out any element we want and examine it in detail - that's natural learning too. We can focus on learning how to use a geographical or mathematical tool so that we can use it efficiently and effectively without thinking in the future. (We do that with learning to tie our shoe laces so why not calculating using times tables? We can walk around with loose laces - it may or may not be inconvenient - and we can do calculations without knowing times tables. We may opt for velcro or pull on shoes. We may come up with another way of doing the calculation. Whatever works for us to meet our individual need!)

My point is that we needn't shun potential tools. Let's keep playing with whatever comes our way to see if it meets our needs.
I'm cool with the term unschooling. I just don't believe unschooling or radical schooling are the same thing as natural learning. Yes, the terms have been used interchangeably in the past, even by me. In the UK they use the term 'informal learning' to describe natural learning and unschooling. I've decided to make a stand and define natural learning as something unrelated to unschooling. After all, unschooling is something we do while we're school age. Natural learning is something we do for our entire lives. We don't say we're unworking if we don't have aren't working (we say we're playing or resting).
I am personally interested in teasing out how we learn and why we learn. That's where I see natural learning fitting into life. It's much more than what happens during childhood, much more than education. Unschooling and homeschooling are relevant while our children are young - beyond childhood we don't talk about them being unschooled. We say they are working or at university or exploring life on their terms etc.

I am a natural learner, unschooler, homeschooler, life learner. I'm cool with all the terms. I just like definitions.

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