Education is best without any structure but yours

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Learning. My learning style is to open a book and learn stuff, but only when I want to and only about what I want to learn. That had guided my level of academic mediocrity throughout high school and university.

I guess if what you want to use university for is to answer your questions rather than being guided as to what questions they want you to be asking yourself, then that is the path to acedemic mediocrity. Einstein was seen as mediocre in university and had an office job issuing patents to make ends meet before he offered the world his special and general relativity theories. The same was true for Newton, seen as a mediocre math student in Oxford before the Bubonic plague kept him at home thinking obsessively about optics, gravity, and calculus.

The polite thing to say about me is that I am – ahem – not smart in the same way, but the sameness is just in how other assessors saw us. Frankly, when Covid hit, which is a firecracker next to the dynamite that was the Bubonic Plague, I was gaining weight and struggling to stay motivated and engaged with life. No scientific or math breakthroughs for me. Any assessor who thought me as mediocre back in uni would have had their every observation confirmed during Covid.

I did coach, administer and mark several math contests over the past two decades. That’s something, and it is something better than mediocre. I am now leading math clubs, along with Computer Science clubs as my school’s only full-time computer science teacher. Again, not many people would volunteer for any of that. So yes, I may appear mediocre in some circles, but when the rubber hits the road, I gravitate to what is challenging, and rise to the challenge, while urging my students to do the same.

But what about academic achievement? I had to make up for what I didn’t learn on my own, due to my following my own curiosity in any academic programme rather than follow the curriculum. I never surrendered my natural curiosity to forces from academe, regardless of the carrot of higher academic honors being dangled in front of me. In our culture, it seems that learning, even from grade school, boils down to that kind of a tradeoff. I never get a sense that there was ever room for compromise.

Most people give up their special set of questions to pursue what they are told, and it seems they end up comfortable, but losing their natural curiosity, believing that learning is hard, learning is not natural unless you have a pre-digested curriculum with pre-digested questions to answer. These are questions you are not necessarily asking; questions you are not necessarily curious about.

I was always confused as a child as to why I did so poorly in school. I would ask my counsellor why he thought it was. He said he didn’t know. So, it was unknown to science or something? These days, it seems quite simple. My will to learn was never really tamed or never really broken to conform to other’s expectations. Pursuing learning for its own pleasure was one of the few pleasures I seemed to be able to have in my teens, and the nice thing about this pleasure is that it is perennial. So, as a result, I always favoured the self-indulgence of asking my own questions, doing my own reading, and finding things out for myself.

The energy I devoted to that meant I had less energy for the course material at hand. But on some deep level I also didn’t find the idea of giving up my freedom to learn in exchange for a high mark to be that worthwhile a tradeoff. It seemed that the way the education system was set up was to make you feel less competent to do basic things in life, which ought not to be rocket science. Making easy things seem hard is not the mark of a good educational system.

Nameless, faceless students

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I am curating a list of parent email addresses for this week’s unofficial mailout to parents of their child’s progress reports. I have two — count ’em — two — students who have no parental contact information. I don’t know the kid’s home address, nor their parent’s names, nor anything about them, and certainly not their email addresses.

I am beginning to imagine that some students are taking my fully online course while living in a cardboard box underneath the 403 exit ramp, close enough to Square One Mall and the Central Library to get free wifi and charging outlets on laptops they fished out of a dumpster at Best Buy. At night, they crawl back into their cardboard boxes to sleep with one eye open should there be raccoons or other feral animals about.

To ease their psychological pain and suffering, they set up a moonshine still out of pots shoplifted from Crate and Barrel and discarded polypropylene tubing from the Credit Valley Hospital and cases of whiskey they obtained by breaking into the local LCBO.

Anyway, it actually turns out these kids are from another school disctrict, and so we have minimal information as a result. So there is nothing to worry about. In addition, their attendance and engagement in the online course has been pretty good. Nothing to see here. … Or is there?

Schooling and Unschooling

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It is not clear as to whether Dayna Leigh Martin has the lock on the market of ideas comprising the “Unschooling” movement, however, her meandering explanations, when put together, make it unclear to an onlooker such as myself as to whether this is viable, and if it is, whether it is something every family can do.

Well, Ms Martin is not even close to being the only one advocating unschooling. In fact, there are many in her company that have their own radical ideas.

I like radical ideas. I agree with her sentiments. Personally, I sucked at math until I was out of school and taught it to myself. That included calculus, also. I am also largely self-taught in computer languages, have built my own computers, and also have enough knowledge of my car and my moped to do minor to mid-size repairs. I am living proof that learning is just what humans naturally do, and it might appear that school is unnecessary.

But of course to say so, I misrepresent the facts. If we only look at my numeracy, technical, and trades knowledge, I clearly benefitted from unstructured, independent self-teaching. But without school I still would not have had the facility I have for literature, for Shakespeare, would never have bothered with Chaucer (but was glad someone had exposed me to it), for the importance of keeping up with current events, and for rounding out my literacy generally. Without my teachers in early school, I probably would not have had the confidence I had in adulthood to fill in my own gaps in math.

Self teaching is not for everyone. For one thing, as I understand it, only a teacher can grant credit, leading to graduation and a grade-12 equivalency to proceed to college. But even so, not everyone would have had my patience or persistence in teaching myself the basics of the math I failed to learn in the earlier grades.

Martin has confidence that if learning feels good to a child then that is the learning that should be facilitated. However, a child cannot see the future further than their own nose, and sometimes, if they want to become an oceanographer, for example, then that requries study in a surprising number of fields, many of which may seem unrelated to their topic as a child. Sometimes the learning experience may be unpleasant, since it may require the learning of things the child perceives as boring. There are many kinds of learning which may seem unpleasant at the time, but the rewards were delayed until later. I found this for teaching myself computer languages. You could try compiling a program literally hundreds of times before it would work, but once it did, it was a great feeling. There is a lot of learning that in this way, involves tolerating a great deal of frustration and not giving up. I am unsure if a child would see that on their own.

Children also change their minds, as well. Today’s budding oceanographer becomes tomorrow’s budding astronaut. Is a parent really going to follow the whims of the child around that much, or will there come a time when today’s lesson will be on “focus” and “persistence” (a lesson that the child may not want to hear)? A child in a public system can accomodate the changing of a child’s mind more easily than a parent.

Another problem I have is that for the most part “Unschooling” takes as its basis an assumption (not enitrely untrue) that schools act as enforcers of social norms and of a pecking order in society. Seen from this perspective, schools teach obedience, and there is an overwhelming consciousness that this is the way schools always were.

This is far, far from the case. Schools have been around in its present form for less than 200 years. Unschooling, as I see it, is a return to the days before organised schooling, when parents passed their knowledge and literacy, and skills on to their children. This was a necessity on the farm, as well as at the Blacksmith shop in town.

The family, thus, had an exceedingly important role that nowadays is being invaded by psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, counsellors, test-taking agencies, and even marketers, who have jointly acted to remove that power from the family. This saddens me, and in the past decade, the Internet, cell phones, and other electronic gizmos has further invaded their consciousness, even minimizing further the sphere of influence of parents. It is becoming apparent that nowadays, parents feel they have so little to pass on to their children that they become as disposable as cogs in an assembly line which must make way for next year’s model of car.

Also, children learn better in an environment where they are not judged. In a school they are passed, failed, diagnosed with ADD and the like; they compete for attention with 24 other children, and the teacher is somehow expected to reach all of them. But I don’t think that will even happen in the best classrooms of that size. In a family setting, they are more likely to be understood on their own terms and judged less often. Making mistakes becomes less of a public embarrassment and more a part of the learning process.

But not every parent believes that “not controlling” their children is the way to raise them. I can see many parents having a problem with that mentality. Obviously, you have to know what you are doing, and what is it exactly do you mean by “control”, anyway? Children have a kind of wisdom that is unburdened by later biases and indoctrinations; but at the same time, they do not have the gift of foresight and wisdom that allows parents to pass on worldly knowledge to the young which they could have not learned any other way. Far from merely facilitating learning, adults have something meaningful and worthwhile to pass on to children. Discipline is also something to pass on. It gives you the gift of pursuing bigger and better learning goals. The kind of goals you can’t achieve by digging things out of the dirt or by reading a book with pictures in it.

A child who is unschooled can only be as competent as his or her parents. The parents involved cannot be expected to be competent at all subjects. I don’t think I would be competent in all subjects either.

Judging by the blogs I’ve read on the subject, many which have not been updated for some years, for most parents the passion tends to burn out soon enough, and it becomes a fad. Dayna still practices un-schooling, and preaching the gospel to anyone who will listen. However, for whatever reason, one of her websites, http://unschoolamerica.com, has been taken down and its domain parked.

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