Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Classical Unschooling: Education on an Island

Ever since I started adding a bit more structure to my homeschooling, I have been trying to figure out how this can be reconciled with my commitment to unschooling. Am I still an unschooler? What are the parameters of unschooling? If I support and facilitate my child's interests for 22 hours out of 24, 7 days a week, and 24/7 for about 3 months a year, am I still an unschooler since I still "impose" some structured mom-directed learning for about 10 hours a week? Or does the imposed stucture invalidate the whole thing? If the kids don't mind the structure and in some ways seem to value it, is that denial on my part or does it fit in with an unschooling commitment? I couldn't really figure out a philosophical answer to that, so I just moved it to the back burner. But I struggled with it, because I really do like my philosophy to be a bit coherent.

For the time being, I've decided that education is to do with practical intellect, like prudence or art. In other words, thinking about education can be done purely speculatively, but educating someone will always come down to doing (and in corollary, "not-doing") -- active and passive methods.

Benjamin Franklin said that while one person is standing indecisively between two educational methods and trying to decide which is best, another person will have time to use either or both and actually cause something to happen. Marva Collins said: Anything works if the teacher does. That sort of sums up the active part.

As for the passive part -- passive has a bad rap nowadays of course, but it has a legitimate pedigree. It means the receptive side of activity. For example, the reference to Jesus's "Passion" doesn't refer to how He was feeling when He was crucified, which is what I made of it when I was a small child and heard the term, but to the undergoing of something.

Charlotte Mason talks much about masterly inactivity, and "despising not, offending not, hindering not" the children, which is so often done in the name of "educating" them. There is a season to stand back, to receive, to respond, if you want to be effective in action.

Either way, "active" or "passive" can both be supportive of education. The educator's role is secondary to that of the learner though; almost every effective means of education makes mention of that essential truth. Cicero says:

Natural ability without education has more often attained to glory and virtue than education without natural ability.

That is, I think, why pure unschooling CAN work (ie result in a well educated child who is prepared to live a reflective, reasoned adult life) but pure teacher-directed education almost never works. Indeed, it doesn't exist. There are always corners in the day where the child can be free with his own thoughts and actions. That is to say, there is always an unschooling component, but it is rarely acknowledged by the modern institutional method or considered as the foundation for academic learning that it really is.

Cardinal Newman says (speaking of modern-method schooling):

Nay, self-education in any shape, in the most restricted sense, is preferable to a system of teaching which, professing so much, really does so little for the mind.

So lots of times mechanized schooling, by not acknowledging the primary role of the learner, actually hinders learning. (If you want to read more about that, The Wundter of it All by Richard Mitchell and Against School by John Taylor Gatto are interesting to read, and so is John Newman's Knowledge viewed in Relation to Learning)

Of course, unschooling doesn't work if it is conceived as complete liberty for the child. That too is impossible. No one lives in a vacuum; everyone is influenced by the time and place they live in. But I have never heard a thoughtful unschooler proclaim that she provides a vacuum for her kids or that this would be a good thing. Even (or especially) the most radical unschoolers don't claim that; almost the opposite. See the article Mindful Parenting by Ren Allen and Sandra Dodd, and there are plenty of others.

Real unschooling is about acknowledging the child's primary role in his learning process, and respecting that and supporting that. But it's only part of the picture, because really, unschooling in that form is parenting. ... trying to parent reflectively and lovingly and personally, rather than relying on ingrained reflexes, or rules designed by someone else, or one's own less honorable impulses. The other truth connected with that is that there is so much more to life and learning than "school" or "schooly subjects". If you read The Three Stages of Unschooling, you see that for unschoolers, "schooly" stuff starts taking a back seat. You no longer have to cram little bits and pieces of daily life into boxes that say "math" or "language arts" (something I hate), because you realize that learning is a genuine and inevitable part of living as humans -- as Cicero said:

Our minds possess by nature an insatiable desire to know the truth.

Aristotle says something similar:

ALL men by nature desire to know.

I was going to bring in the island, but if I do this post will go on forever. So that part will have to wait.


Us! said...

Wow Willa, you floor me sometimes. What a great (again) thoughtful post. This marrying the unschooling part of me at my heart, with my classical leanings has been a hard process at times. I think that I so much wanted it to be one clear methodology. But as I carry on on this journey I see that it can't be this way, that our journey of homelearning is organic and changing, but at the same time there is a context and framework it is working within (clear as mud eh!).

Your blogs and thoughts have really helped my to see my framework more clearly and to come to appreciate it. Thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Willa said...

Thank you, Kristie (I hope I'm spelling your name the right way -- if not I apologize -- I couldn't find it on your blog).

I am glad it is helping. I've always felt that "true unschooling" and "true classical" have many of the same values and goals at heart, even though the details are so different sometimes.

This marrying the unschooling part of me at my heart, with my classical leanings has been a hard process at times. I think that I so much wanted it to be one clear methodology.

Ditto! So true for me too.

Tammy Takahashi said...

Thank you for an insightful post Willa. I've gone back and forth around this too. We use a really really really loose interpretation of "work", yet we do ask the kids to do some kind of work each day. It has nothing to do with trying to teach them the value of work, or to try and keep them on track or anything like that. We have a strong belief in balance in our house. Balance work/play, quiet/noise, in/out, feng shui of education I guess.

In some ways, it's very much in synch with unschooling, but it others, it's not. What we end up doing and why doesn't come from the unschooling philosophy, but from inside our family culture based on what we believe to be true and important.

Ultimately, we just dropped trying to figure out where we stand. I created my own name, zen-schooling, which parallels unschooling in many ways. While we aren't trapped in it or at all concerned with whether the decisions we've made keep us in the unschooling box.

Some call it "eclectic" but I don't like that because we're not eclectic. We aren't part unschooler and part whatever else. We're a whole new thing.

Anyway, I've blabbered on far too long in a comment. Thanks for your post - made me think. I like people who say things that make me think. Thank you.

Dana said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I am not an unschooler, or at least wouldn't ever label myself as such, but I agree with much of what you say here.

I think it is difficult because on the one hand, I want to say "this is what we do" but then all the exceptions come in. There are a variety of philosophies of education, but none seem to wholly encompass what I believe to be the best course of education for my children.

It has been difficult for me to let go of that need for some "authority," someone to say "this is how it shall be done" and just be comfortable teaching and learning how I think it is best for our family, whatever that may be called.