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Opinion | ‘When You Get Into Unschooling, It’s Almost Like a Religion’

When Ms. Richards, the Atlanta podcaster, began unschooling with her family, she realized “that human nature is that of a little scientist,” she said. But scientists don’t usually drift along, following their impulses, abandoning experiments when they become boring. How does an unschooled child learn to stick with the hard stuff, the boring stuff? Unschoolers’ faith in free choice can seem like an extreme version of the consumerist impulse that has crept into education, in which the student is no scientist, but a customer who is always right.

“When I came into this world, I thought that when you remove restrictions, the paraphernalia of school and coercion, then kids’ curiosity and self-direction would naturally bloom,” Blake Boles, the author of “Why Are You Still Sending Your Kids to School?,” told me. “That’s not what happens. There are plenty of motivational challenges. They struggle like other kids, and I think that’s OK. I say when you choose to unschool, you’re choosing to take on this heightened sense of freedom and responsibilities that most people don’t choose until they’re 18 or 22. It’s the same struggle, just happening earlier.”

We can’t pretend that mainstream schools have solved the motivation problem, even as many teachers try to combine the advantages of schoolroom structure with respect for children’s urge to explore. This problem is all the more pressing at a time when social isolation forces students to rely on apps and social media.

The same technology that makes learning at home accessible, that seems to make so much education free, also ensnares our brains with its glowing screens, relentless pings, likes and other dopamine hits. We need to have a serious conversation about how children can learn to become technology’s masters and not its servants. Unschoolers can be leaders in this — because, by throwing off social norms and pushing faith in a child’s freedom to an extreme, they nudge the rest of us to confront our own assumptions and blind spots.

Parents don’t have to be utopian revolutionaries to take small cues from unschoolers, tips to turn bare pandemic survival into something closer to flourishing. Covid-19 has forced families to face “the other pandemic that was happening before Covid,” Ms. Richards said. “That’s not understanding how to be in real relationships intergenerationally, adults and children. Now we’re forced to say, if I’m at home with my kids and partner, maybe we don’t always even like each other, but we have to figure out how to be together and be productive.”

Ms. McQueen, the unschooling mom in Florida, pointed out that with no tests or grades, “you have to have a deeper relationship, and observe your children that much more. That’s how you get to know what they’re thinking and learning, that they’re progressing — by having those conversations.”

In this sense, 2020 is not a lost year. It’s a chance for parents and children to watch and listen to one another, to turn the weekday scramble into an occasion to experiment and think about what it takes to make a free human being — one whose freedom comes from truly knowing something about the world, and about herself.

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