Counter-Schooling

Dave Humphrey recently sent me a link to a lecture by Astra Taylor called On the Unschooled Life.  Taylor is a documentary filmmaker, a philosopher, and an unschooled child who has directed two films, Zizek and The Examined Life, both of which I enjoyed very much.  Her lecture is a passionate and articulate defense of unschooling that is nevertheless aware of the social questions that this mode of learning raises.  It is well worth watching.

One of the questions that it raised for me, not for the first time, was about how the principles of unschooling, with which I largely agree, confront the necessity of obtaining accreditation in order to enter certain occupations.  It was this concern that eventually caused Taylor to choose public highschool over unschooling in her teens, and it is this question that faces many homeschooled and unschooled learners at some point.  In order to pursue a certain vocation or occupation, they find themselves forced to achieve some form of accreditation through the kinds of institutions that they have spent most of their lives avoiding.

There are also those situations where parents, whatever their ideals, are simply unable to unschool or homeschool their children.  Single parents, for example, are not likely to be able to stay home with their children, and even two-parent families often feel that they need two incomes to survive, though this is untrue in more cases than people think.  There are also those families in which parents are unable to provide good learning environments at home, whether due to psychological, or emotional, or physical difficulties, or due to a lack of access to learning resources, or due to unsafe communities.

Whatever the reasons, there are many cases where children are placed in formal educational institutions even when they or their parents would prefer them to be learning more naturally and organically in their homes and in their communities, and the question becomes, at least for me, how might we enable these children to make the best of necessity and find room for learning in the gaps of institutionalized education.  Rather than unschooling or homeschooling, how can we help children to practice what we might call counter-schooling?

I do not have a definitive set of answers to this question, and I would welcome the ideas and experiences of others on the subject, but here are a few preliminary principles that I think should characterize this kind of counter-schooling:

1) Most obviously, parents need to model self-directed learning in the home, pursuing their own learning interests, making use of community resources like libraries and friends, keeping learning materials like books and films and whatever else in the home.  Both of my children have black hardbound notebooks for their drawing and writing, not because I told them that they needed to do this, but because they saw me writing my own notes in these kinds of books and because children model themselves after their parents.  I merely had to model this way of learning myself and give them the books when they asked.  They did the rest.

2) Parents need to support the learning interests of their children by connecting them to the full resources of their communities, from peers who have similar interests, to other adults with the knowledge to offer help and apprenticeship, to libraries and books and computers, to trips and excursions, and to whatever else.  This is not a matter of scheduling children with activities that are supposed to be good for them.  Nor is it a matter of granting them whatever whim they happen to have at the moment.  It is a matter of providing them with the resources that they need in order to follow the learning that really interests them.  My eldest son, for example, is intrigued by photography, so we have a camera that he can use, and a place where he can upload them to show his friends.  My youngest, on the other hand, spends hours drumming on things and plunking on the piano, so we have a musician friend come over once a week and play musical games with him.  In neither case have we started them on some sort of program that would confine their desire to learn and to do things within the constraints of classes and grades and levels.  Instead, we try to offer them informal and inexpensive  opportunities to follow their interests.

3) Parents need to help their children counter the demands of school by modifying assignments, reducing homework, and pulling their children out of school whenever possible.  If children are going to be in school, they will need their parents to advocate on their behalf in order to mitigate the influence of the institutional environment.  Children need space and time to discover and pursue the learning that interests them, and they will not have space and time if they are always doing homework and always stuck in a classroom.  Children cannot be failed in Ontario for not doing their homework, so parents can help their children to modify some assignments in alignment with their interests and to discard others entirely.  Ontario also allows for children to attend school part time, at least in theory, and we know several families who take advantage of this provision either by having their kids attend on the half days when a parent is working, or by pulling their kids out of school around a shiftwork schedule.

4) Members of the community need to take their roles as learning models seriously, acting as mentors, allowing children to apprentice with them, and including children in their own learning whenever possible.  I have creative writing sessions at my house, for example, for both homeschooled kids and for kids whose parents take them out of school for the afternoon.  These kids are working on a collection of their short stores that they will publish through on online self-publishing site.  They decided on this project themselves, and they spend their time at my place reading their stories to one another and helping each other improve them.

These are some of the ways that I think we might encourage children to learn counter to the institutions that they are sometimes forced to occupy, but I would be interested in any further suggestions that others might have.

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7 comments
  1. Lauren said:

    I don’t really have anything reasonable to add to this discussion, but I do feel the need to say that homeschooling has always kind of sat weirdly with me, and the idea of unschooling gives me a full-on case of the heebie jeebies, partially for the reasons you mention above, namely that life just doesn’t seem set up to support that practice.

    I’m sure my distrust of homeschooling has a lot to do with the fact that I (along with my brother and sister) were labelled as gifted early on and had no trouble adjusting to and succeeding in the classic institutional environment, so my gut reaction is always that homeschooling just seems so … unnecessary, I guess, to me. We were raised to be academically competitive (high grades weren’t so much the holy grail as they were simply a non-negotiable standard in our house) and while I know it’s not the only way, and it’s certainly not the best way, it’s what I am used to and everything else seems really foreign.

    I also sometimes question the motivations of the parents (a lot of parents seem to simply want to protect their children from a variety of things, something that is definitely a noble goal but seems to do more harm than good in a lot of cases) as well as their ability to adequately teach their children (partially because I’m fairly certain I would make an awful teacher).

    I see cases where it is absolutely necessary, or justified, or wise, but I also see other cases where it seems to my untrained eye to also be at least a little damaging to the child. Again, that is probably my personal bias coming through, because in a lot of cases the institutional setting is just as damaging, if not more so.

    I do very much love the idea of counter-schooling, and I love to watch how intentional you are in helping your boys to learn. I think a lot of that went on in my home while I was growing up (although without any of the missing school components – that was a cardinal sin in our house) and I am a much better person for having been encouraged to seek and learn and discover on my own.

    As I’m about to hit the Submit button, I’m worried that I’ve come across as a homeschooling hater, and I want to stress that I’m not. I am, as I said, rather ignorant of the subject as a whole, and I don’t have any kids of my own, so my feelings are likely partially (if not entirely) unjustified.

  2. Lauren,

    I agree with you that the motivations of many homeschooling parents are questionable, and Taylor touches on this as well. I always say that home schooling (or home learning as I prefer to say) should not try to make the world narrower and more protected, but should try to make the world broader and more full.

    As a teacher I have seen both sorts of homeschooled children, and those of the more protected variety do often have tremendous difficulties adjusting to a world that is not as simple as they had been led to believe. On the other hand, I see precisely the same difficulties with many of my privately schooled students, and the publicly schooled students have social issues of their own, I can assure you. What is more, even the worst of the homeschoolers will have a reasonable educational background, which is far more than I can say for the public school students, who have most often read nothing, written nothing, experienced nothing, and thought nothing beyond the very little that they have been assignment.

    I am not arguing that home learning is the best option in every case, and I am not arguing that we can do without public school, but I do believe that a broad and open approach to home learning is the best way for children to learn.

    If you are interested in more information on the subject, I have pile sof it, but you might want to start with Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society and go from there.

  3. I don’t know if Lauren has mentioned this, I will get around to reading her response, but by my own limited experience, I was an extreme escapist in middle school and highschool. By the end of the day, unless it was a good class like lit or religion [separate school kid here] I was completely out of the loop, I was in some cases working out some things that were superior to the content, but ultimately the boredom shun left me ruined for integrating into institution, the hippy and the student of truth sees the righteousness of this, the part of me that is depressed wishes I could have found a happy medium, How exactly is that achieved, especially when the goal of counter schooling is to remove convention and institution on a large scale, where is the balance between freedom of operation, and just enough indoctrination as to give your kids a coping in those environments, especially once they get to places where they can’t on a whim just walk out, like mom and dad would have of them from time to time?

  4. Curtis,

    There is this misconception, I think, that children who are not put in an educational institution will not know how to cope in the other institutions that they will be forced to inhabit later in life, and maybe there is truth to this in some cases. In my experience, however, it is the kids who are abandoned to the educational institution who are least able to cope with it. Many of them either submit to it entirely and begin to internalize its economy of grades and assignments, or they are overwhelmed by it and become bored or depressed. What good unschooling and homeschooling and counter-schooling seeks to do is to provide children with the tools for coping with the broad world that they inhabit, including the institutions that they will be unable to avoid. Throwing children into the educational system without these tools does not allow them to cope with other institutions any better. It only increases the chance that the education institution will deform them more deeply.

  5. John Jantunen said:

    I’d kind of hope that home schooling would allow individuals (children and their parents as well) to come up with some creative ways so that they wouldn’t have to “cope with the other institutions that they will be forced to inhabit later in life.” What else are we talking about here? Do homeschoolers/counterschoolers nuture creative, intelligent and independant children because, not trusting the public systen to do an adequate job, they want their children to have the best shot at getting into the law school of their choice or do they forsake the convenience of a conventional education because they have something else in mind? If it’s the latter then worrying about whether they are properly socialized is hardly the point (which seems to be the number one reason we, the public schoolers, give to counter the threat of alternative methods). While I won’t go so far as to say that a desired end would be to create anti-social children (metasocial perhaps?) I do see a great need for instilling in one’s kids an ability to see beyond the petty greed, prejudice, narcissism and, let’s be honest, outright stupidy which characterises the education that the baby boomer generation saw fit to burden us with.

  6. John,

    I agree. By coping with institutions, I do not mean fitting into institutions, but rather doing what may be necessary in them while also moving counter to them as much as possible. I would hope that counter-schooling would help do this too, showing children not only how to be critical of the educational institution but also the various other institutions which make up our society.

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