Saturday, 5 September 2015

A kind of 'Unschool'?

So, I've been thinking a lot about school as I am surrounded by reminders of it right now.

What if there was a kind of school where it was no longer necessary to use our chosen 'labels'? We define and categorise all children in one way or another all the time. Whether it be by age, gender, ability, religion, special educational needs, levels of potential attainment etc etc.

Surely by using these labels we are reinforcing the very need for these labels because we continue to categorise, and completely unintentionally, stigmatise, our children?

What if we had a school system that was by its very nature all-embracing? Where nobody was stigmatised. Would we not then grow a society that was also, all-embracing and non-stigmatising?

By removing categories that are essentially arbitrary choices of measurement anyway, we would be more open to measuring children (and society) in more meaningful ways.

Do our adopted measurements and categories really tell us what we need to know about our children anyway?

Would it not be nicer to offer our children a far wider choice of how they spend their time? Would it not be far easier to STOP categorising our children in unhelpful ways and START letting them find their own groups and interests?

By letting children choose their activities to a far greater extent, surely we would then see a whole different set of categories emerge? These categories would paint a beautifully intricate and interesting pattern I am certain of it.

My sociology head says it would be fascinating to watch and see what happened to a self-selecting group of children if given free-reign within a larger learning arena. Would they grow up to become dissatisfied adults or wholesome, well-rounded individuals? Would they be in jobs they hate or would they be following their passion?

NB - Whilst 'Lord of the Flies' jumps immediately to mind when seeing lots of children making their own decisions, let's remember that we will actually be there in this example, to participate! 

Imagine, a group of kids (self selected with no restrictions other than total number and geographical location...although, Skype live would be a great idea too), who get told that today they have a range of options, for 8 hours: gaming, gardening, science experiments, treasure-hunting, decorating, reading, astronomy, crafting, free playtime and the list goes on forever depending on what you can provide, and then imagine how the groups form and what we would learn about our children by letting them choose and then simply observing them?

When children are younger we spend a massive proportion of time simply observing them and not intervening all the time. Why does this suddenly stop? Why, at the age of 4 and a bit, do we suddenly feel the need to be directing them, when let's face it, up until this point they have all done (without exception) a pretty amazing job, with just their immediate family and a play-dates!

Woah...craziness, right? Kids learn without being drilled?! They just need to reach a certain level of emotional maturity for that particular skill to emerge?! They love to learn! Remember, a child learns more in the their first two years of life than they will learn in the rest of their life time put together!

All this got me to thinking about an Unschool.

The Unschool I imagine,  would be a little like a nursery school where (some would argue) you meet your most authentic friends (because you are drawn together by common interests), you look forward to going in the morning, you laugh a lot and have fun too! At nursery school, you are not defined by something arbitrary that an adult has chosen for you.

I think nursery school is amazing by the way! I sent my middle son to nursery school. Admittedly, at first it was because I was afraid that something bad would happen between him and my PDA son if I didn't step in, but, in the end it was because I loved, loved, loved their ethos. I loved it so much that I became a parent governor (a big deal for someone like me who is so completely anti-social).

The nursery school environment, when done well, is all about choice and being yourself. I bet you could speak to hundreds of nursery school teachers and they would be far happier when talking about the children they interact with than those teachers you meet who are teaching older children. Why is that?

And, I think, children pretty much love nursery. Well, perhaps not all children and perhaps not all of them love it, but, even our very sensitive special needs children, can navigate nursery fairly competently.

It is when we step in with all our 'categories' and 'definitions' that things begin to go awry.

I imagine no age categories, no ability categories, no special needs categories.

I imagine free play and movement. I imagine respect and compromise and discussion. I imagine natural consequences.

All of the above can only happen in a safe environment too by the way.

One that is without arbitrary 'rules' and 'regulations' and 'targets'. Where learning can move with the free flow of ideas and people. Those arbitrary measures we all cling to (hello Ofsted) are dooming our children and their futures because they refuse to evolve.

In my Unschool I don't see name calling nor bullying. I don't see local government funding issues. I don't see 'special measures'. I don't see homework (unless you want to of course and then yay! We'll help in any way we can!). I don't see 'lunch times' across the group. I don't see punishments. I don't see rewards. I don't see compulsory lessons.

In my Unschool everyone is exactly where they are meant to be. They can be tested if they desire but their level of achievement shall be measured by their own standards for themselves. Adults, of course can give their input and opinion, but the choice of whether or not to be happy about any changes rests solely with the child. If that success means only sitting and reading in the same room as other people, then that is completely fine. If that success is arriving earlier/later, then so be it.

In my Unschool, if a parent chooses to stay, then that is excellent but they must be willing to participate in the activities the children are doing if asked to. THIS IS NOT A COFFEE SHOP.

Perhaps adults would even be willing to share their own areas of expertise and hobbies. Imagine what diversity that would bring to the learning environment? I find that the best teachers are those who know their subject and their audience. Appropriately vetted, self-selecting adults would be so very welcome.

In my Unschool there would be no uniform. There would be no seat (unless you wanted one). There would be no compulsory hair styles nor shoes. There would be as many sensory rooms as classrooms.

In my imagination it would be like an official Unschool.

And, as every unschooler knows, at the very heart of the Unschool would be the children who make it all happen.

I love working with, learning from and being around children and young people.

I think we as adults are very quick to complain that children are becoming 'lazy', 'greedy', 'ungrateful', 'unskilled', 'unhappy' and 'unprepared' etc for their future as adults, but what are we really doing to change that?  

We need to be radical in our thinking. We need to start giving back to our children so they can feel empowered and capable again. This summer has been the most amazing one we have ever had. My four children have just blossomed since I fully embraced the idea that living peacefully and respectfully is the best way to go.

Now that our learning environment is becoming calmer and more joyous, the learning is blooming.

Domink has been to two classes in the past week. Two! That is more than he has EVER achieved before and we haven't even been brave enough to try since 2011. This week he went to make sushi and he had his first parkour lesson. He was STUNNING. He surpassed his own expectations with how well the events went. We talked about it a lot before he went and he was confident that he would perform well under the 'pressure' (his words, not mine) but he would not guarantee that he would manage it all. He had to go outside for a little run towards the end of the first hour of the sushi but that was all. He did it. He did not need any support at all during the parkour class which was 2 HOURS. Just incredible.

This is really thanks to unschooling. It is a miraculous learning style. It proves the adage that all children will do well if given the tools and environment in which to do so. Those who know Domink will understand the magnitude of what he has achieved.

Hannon has been learning how to code his own game in MIT's Scratch Programming Tool. I do not have the words to describe his dedication, his skills, his patience, his determination and his problem solving abilities during these past 10 days. What this has done for his confidence is incredible. If he were an adult who learnt a new skill this fast and applied it for the number of hours he has and with the attention to detail that Hannon has given to this, they would give him a pay rise!
Lily has been the exception. Right now she is not steady at all. I think she is finding it frustrating to not have the skills she needs to accomplish the things she wants to. 'The Sims' for example. She really wants to play it and every time we try to do it together, by the time she has finished designing the characters (again, for the fourth time) she doesn't actually want to play the game any more! This means we are getting nowhere when what she really wants is to start helping them 'live'. When we eventually have a family she is happy with, we will move on and she will have the most amazing variety of social stories made of her choosing. It will be a very useful learning tool for her when she is ready and I'm sure it won't be long given how much we're practising!

Harriet has cut two teeth with two close on their heels as she reaches her 6 and half month. She is sitting up competently and moving from her bum into the crawling position (where she does that baby rock...hahahaha) and she is trying to pull herself up! She has her first cold right now too, bless her little snuffles. She loves any food she tries during our baby led weaning. It is messy and fun!

So, an Unschool for everyone. What a thought.

Thanks as always, for reading.

N x


  1. Where do we sign up?! Awesome concept and great blog! Xxx

  2. Thanks :-)
    I'll be sure to shout it from the roof tops if it ever comes into being! :-)