In the first part of my two-part reaction to Suzie Andres' The Little Way of Homeschooling: Thirteen Families Discover Catholic Unschooling, I noted the surprising way I found the book - through Stratford Caldecott's manifesto on rethinking Catholic education, Beauty in the Word. And I observed a key theme from the book: that consistent with the unschooling philosophy, these Catholic unschoolers practiced a remarkable level of trust in their children to direct their own learning process.
Which is not to say that it's easy to cede so much control to children, especially when adults have been so thoroughly indoctrinated in the teacher-driven approach. One of the things that impressed me about the essays in The Little Way of Homeschooling was the frank and vulnerable way that the moms described their struggles with the method. Many battled a constant fear that their children were not learning what they should, but tried to hold steady in trusting their kids to lead the way. This often involved a constant dance of moving toward and away from structuring their children's learning.
And this was the second thing that impressed me about The Little Way of Homeschooling - the great flexibility the parents practiced in supporting their kids and the permission they gave themselves to try different approaches at different seasons of their lives, and especially to allow the needs of the individual child dictate their path. Across the thirteen families profiled in the book, some practiced a very "free" style of unschooling, while others regularly directed some portion of the learning in their home, but none were dogmatic in their approach as all seemed to recognize that their children needed different things at different times and flexibly responding to those needs is the real essence of unschooling.
Many of the moms mentioned the notion of "strewing," a term coined (it appears) by unschooling advocate Sandra Dodd, author of The Big Book of Unschooling. The idea is to create an environment filled with good books, art, musical instruments, and other items that will naturally spark a child's interest and prompt them to learn something new (akin to Montessori's idea of the "prepared environment").
The idea is a wonderful example of how unschooling does not mean taking no interest in your child's learning. To the contrary, it requires intimately knowing your child, his or her needs and interests, and knowing a lot about a lot of different things so you can prompt the child toward the material that will ultimately nourish his or her soul and intellect. In this way, unschooling represents the ultimate form of differentiation - something educators know is essential, but is so hard to accomplish when children and their learning are treated as a standardized process.
In the closing chapter of The Little Way, Andres' husband, philosopher Tony Andres, emphasizes that, because the unschooling philosophy is geared so much toward the needs of the individual child, it isn't merely about homeschooling but can have implications for schooling of all sorts:
...[P]arents who unschool might very well have their children take advantage of courses offered at a school. As long as the parents disregard grades and allow their children to focus on learning for the sake of knowing, they are bringing unschooling into the school. The essence of unschooling is not the staying away from school buildings, but making education hinge on the desire for knowledge, rather than on rewards and punishments.
And that's a lesson not just for parents, but for educators who work in actual schools.
Could such a philosophy be adapted to brick-and-mortar schools? Not easily, to be sure. And it would require a total rethinking of how we fund education and ensure accountability in outcomes (for more on this see my two part discussion of Michael Q. McShane's Education and Opportunity here and here).
But there are huge opportunities for schools to begin shifting their pedagogy from standardized, one-size-fits-all, teacher-directed instruction to something far more personalized and built around individual student interest and need. Educators have much to learn from unschooling, and Suzie Andres' book (and especially its recommended resources) has greatly extended my own reading list on the topic.
- Richard Elmore: "I Do Not Believe in the Institutional Structure of Public Schooling Anymore"
- A Journey Into Personalized Learning
- Homeschooling Challenges Schools to Change
- Is Differentiation Really Possible?
- "Education and Opportunity" Makes a Clear, Succinct Case for Rethinking Educational Delivery