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.