This is part of a post that I wrote for an unschooling list. I'm putting it on here as I consider Ron's questions
One insight that unschooling offers to me is that formal education is the merest tip of the iceberg. I suppose that all people, even unschooled ones, sometimes take classes or participate in formal learning experiences. But what a person brings to that experience is more important than the experience itself. Unschooling acknowledges that, while most forms of "schooling" emphasize the power of the teaching and forgets the huge aspect of self-learning. I have seen that over and over.
Say, I sit down with a child to "teach him to read". In essence, I'm not really teaching. I'm seeing where he is now (some kind of formal or informal evaluation) and at best, I'm helping him build on where he is, giving him guidance to progress along a channel called "reading". But at worst, I'm teaching him a lesson that he is inadequate and doesn't measure up, which makes most kids either mad or discouraged. And if I am coercive about keeping them in that experience, it can be very destructive. They have that anger and discouragement and they can't walk away from it. They can't learn anything good from that. They learn tricks and devices and helplessness. John Holt describes it very well in "How Children Fail".
I am also teaching him to "channel" or "focus" his previous knowledge. Hard to explain, but.... say, he has all these skills that lead to reading pre-readiness -- he can visually discriminate, visually track an object, he can listen to and understand complex literary prose. These skills are BIG -- bigger and more important than phonetic decoding. They can spill over into decoding, but they are not only FOR decoding -- they are skills that carry over into all areas of life. So I don't want him to inadvertently learn that these BIG, beautiful, powerful thoroughbreds are just carthorses meant to carry the relatively small cart of beginning literacy. They CAN carry that cart but that is only a tiny part of what they will do naturally if they are not whipped and channeled along that single track. (metaphorically speaking).
I think there can be a "good" kind of learning stress, but that's probably another post. Psychologists call it discrepancy. You see where you are now and where you would like to be, and try to get to where you want to be. This kind of learning stress involves a goal, a path to get there, and support as needed. For instance, it IS important to learn to read and kids can pick up that message in many, many ways aside from putting their personal sense of self on the line in a negative way.
Another insight that unschooling offers to me is that learning is largely about relationship. Trust is the bottom-line of an effective relationship. Not blind, naive trust but commited, optimistic trust. Most "systems" of education think of relationship as a peripheral benefit. But to me it seems central, fundamental. No one can teach anything or learn anything if there is not trust to start with.
My daughter and I were discussing that famous study about the kids given a choice between one marshmallow now and two marshmallows later. That study is usually used to demonstrate the benefits of discipline and delayed gratification. The children who could discipline themselves to wait a little received more, and this reflected itself in their later lives -- the ones who could wait for the second marshmallow were more successful later in life.
But it occured to me that the kids that were able to control themselves and wait for the second marshmallow had a basic TRUST of their environment. The kids that went for the one marshmallow probably hadn't acquired that sense of orderliness and stability -- that promises made are kept, that people are basically reliable and looking out for you. I think this is supportive evidence for a loving, "attached" environment leading to "natural" self-discipline. Those kids expected more -- they felt "safe", they were not "hungry" and grasping. Their emotional needs had been met.