Saturday, September 3, 2016

Challenging Our Schooled Minds


Yesterday I met a mom who was curious about homeschooling. We chatted a bit about what it's like, why I do it, and what resources are available. Like me, she has a seven-year-old son. Her little boy is obsessed with the Boston subway system (the "T"), and mass transit in general, and spends most of his free time playing with train sets and reading and talking about trains and subways. He attends public school in a sought-after local district and is just starting second grade. The mom mentioned that there is much she does not like about school--the socialization, the heavy focus on discipline and order--but she indicated that homeschooling could never be an option because she's a full-time surgeon. 

I told her that there are many unschool options popping up to support families who, for a variety of reasons, may not be able to make full-time homeschooling work. I told her about the three self-directed learning centers we have here in the Boston area: Parts & Crafts in Somerville, Bay State Learning Center in Dedham, and the Macomber Center in Framingham (which is now offering shuttle service from Boston/Cambridge). I explained how a self-directed learning center works: there is no coercion, nothing that young people are forced to learn or do. Children are surrounded by a rich environment of resources and materials. They have access to helpful grown-ups who understand their role as facilitators, not teachers. They are given the freedom to cultivate and expand on their passions and interests, and are exposed to new ideas and pathways as they collaborate with others, leverage technology, and learn naturally. Some self-directed learning centers, whose attendees are registered homeschoolers in their home districts, offer classes or workshops on various topics of interest; but all of these are optional. Nothing is forced. It is the opposite of school in every way.

After I explained all of this to the surgeon-mom she stated: "My son is not at all self-disciplined enough for that kind of environment. He would just play trains and stare at subway maps all day and never learn anything."

I replied: "That's great! He would learn so much through that process of play and discovery and pursuing his passion!"

The doctor replied: "Well you know, he won't learn anything important like math, history, science, and so on."

Imagine what this little boy would learn! He would learn all of this--and more--by simply having the freedom and opportunity to play, to explore, to read and be read to, to ask questions and seek answers. There is so much math and history and science in exploring the subway, and this little boy would tackle all of that in an authentic, meaningful, self-directed way that would ensure true, deep, retained learning.

This conversation is so typical and so understandable. We have become such a schooled society that we can only see learning through the lens of "subjects" and "textbooks" and "teaching" and "testing." Most of us cannot imagine that learning could be self-directed, non-coercive. We cannot imagine that children could learn without being taught and assessed in a systematic, schooled way.

But they do learn! And they really learn! Self-directed learners deepen and retain their knowledge in ways that the artificial schooled environment cannot allow. I can tell you with absolute certainty that my son would never have learned to read, or at least read well and with enjoyment, if he had to learn through contrived reading assignments and Dick and Jane. He learned to read by trying to decipher the lyrics on the CD jackets of the rock and roll albums he loves listening to and reading countless Amazon reviews before purchasing the things he wanted to buy (mostly related to music and instruments). Now he loves to read and most of his reading these days revolves around his latest passion, basketball.

In a natural learning environment, whether at home or at a self-directed learning center, that mom's subway-loving boy would thrive. His knowledge would deepen, his reading would explode, his math and science and history boxes would all be checked--but they would be checked in a seamless, authentic way that is not artificially tied to "subjects" or "curriculum." There is so much history and science and math--and much more--in pursuing a passion for the subway and it would all be learned in a most genuine, circuitous, natural way.

We know this, of course. When we really start to challenge our schooled minds, we know it. We know that as grown-ups we learn every day in a natural, self-directed way. If we want to explore a topic, we search for it first on Wikipedia and then maybe get a book on it or watch a YouTube video. If we want to learn a new instrument, we may decide to take some lessons online over Skype or take an in-person lesson with a local musician and then practice to improve our skills. If we want to learn a new recipe, we search, read, and experiment. We try and we fail and we try again. We know this for ourselves, but our schooled minds often prevent us from knowing it for our children. All humans, young and old, learn naturally. As Boston College psychology professor and my colleague at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, Dr. Peter Gray, states:
"Through their own efforts, children learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. They do all of this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything. This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system of schooling is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible."

It's possible, likely even, that this mom's subway-loving boy's curiosity for trains may fade as his school year gets underway next week. After all, there is so much reading, and math, and history, and science to cover.

That doesn't leave much time for learning.

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