Self-learning: A process of unschooling

by Tatiana Luna

I’ve officially been back in the country for over two months and I’m now settling slowly but surely into Boston, and while there is a lot to say about this transition, I’d much prefer to move on to more salient topics and maybe throw out a tangential comment here and there about my reflections on the difference between life in China and America and the nature of a return.  Much like my general feeling in life right now, the narrative is moving right along, and I’m excited and relieved to start digging into the meat of my plans and aspirations in the rich culture of Boston and cyberspace.

A new beginning in a new city in my homeland feels so natural that I am more relaxed than I have been in years.  And one of the things that I have become increasingly relaxed yet simultaneously excited about in the past couple weeks is the task of homeschooling Isabelle.  A task that had loomed before me like a mountain with unknown crevices and jagged overhangs now looks like a magical land complete with rolling meadows, shady forests, interesting museums, huge libraries, dangerous wooden playgrounds, less dangerous plastic playgrounds, walks by a clean river with ducks and geese in it, and a cozy townhouse where I’ve already spent more time reading in two weeks than I did in six months in China.  Damn, I did it already! I segued into China-America comparisons!

In all seriousness though, the sudden availability of libraries with unlimited English books, a large community of homeschoolers, and a general atmosphere of diversity and freedom has already helped me clarify some of my thoughts and made me feel more excited than daunted.

I was introduced to the term ‘unschooling’ a few months back, and my first reaction from looking at the wikipedia page was that, while I agreed with some of its philosophy, the method was too unstructured and didn’t give the child enough guidance.  I reacted strongly to reading that some unschooled children didn’t learn to read until they’re much older, because the parents wait until they show interest or ask to learn.  While I theoretically supported the idea of giving the child so much freedom, it’s extremely important to me that Isabelle and any other children I have, learn to read early on, because books (and the internet) are such a wonderful experience and resource.

But now if someone asks me to define my method, I will probably answer “unschooling,” even though I don’t like the question, depending how it’s asked, or giving the answer in any short form.  Unschooling is a label that many homeschoolers have applied to themselves if they don’t fit into any other model or if they bring a variety of different methods into their homes.  But the descriptions I have read that I like the most describe it as simply integrating your child/children into your life, creating an environment that they can participate in and that will stimulate them, listening closely to their interests and fostering them by providing new resources, and generally fostering a love of learning.  It doesn’t mean giving so much freedom that they don’t learn things because they don’t have guidance.  It means that there is so much freedom that there is so distinction between home and school, parent and teacher.  Life is learning.

I’ve been reading The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith, and the best part of it is all the excerpts from interviews with unschooling parents.  What I am reading is making so much sense to me.  Rigid schedules and set curricula are not only unnecessary but follow too closely to the school model, which begins to stifle curiosity and learning by giving it specific parameters and orders of operations and disrupting the child’s natural flow of learning.  I’ve observed my daughter very closely almost every day of her almost-three-year old life, and the most valuable observation that came from it very early and has continually been renewed is that children have innate drives to learn about and explore the world, and that drive never has to end.  Some of this is obvious or old news to some or hookey pookey to others.  For me it’s mostly affirming something I was already moving towards, I just didn’t have the resources, time or support to explore such ideas in China.

One of the main reasons the ideas of unschooling have made me relax is that they make it clearer to me that not only can I live my own life and have my own pursuits while homeschooling, it’s extremely important that I do so.  Again, I already knew this theoretically, but I didn’t fit it all together practically.  The best way to be a teacher is to be a model.  I want Isabelle to be excited about learning, to be unafraid to follow anything she is curious about, and to know what to do when she wants to learn something.  So the best way to teach her these things is through lifestyle and by pursuing my own education with a passion, which is what I’ve been increasingly antsy to do for the past year or so, but couldn’t in China for many reasons.

One of my own educational activities starting this week is the Change: Education, Learning, and Technology MOOC (I talked about MOOCs before here).  I’m feeling a little awed by the connection I’m making between my thoughts on homeschooling and the main idea behind a MOOC: self-learning is the best way to learn, perhaps the only way genuine learning takes place.  It seems to me that many of the community forming educational activities that are occurring on the Internet, where people are utilizing the medium and testing the possibilities of cyberspace to radically reform the definition and multiply the styles of learning, are almost the adult form of “unschooling.”  Educational movements on the Internet, and I would argue the Internet itself with its infinitude of resources, are unschooling the people who are adventurous and willing!

I feel I have been slowly and often frustratingly undergoing my own process of unschooling, first from the seeds of Hampshire College and since then on my own.  For a long time I’ve been trying to impose the structures and obligations of “school-like” thinking on myself, and failing to accomplish much each time.  Now from reading about the natural process children will go through to learn if they never go to school but still have the resources, I can see that if I am my own teacher, I need to adopt and practice these unschooling ideas for myself.  Again, a realization long in the making, because the fine-tuned mechanics were unclear. First, I need to recognize what my genuine interests are, then I need to seek out the resources and read and absorb them, focused more on understanding than on creating a product.  A product should be a by-product of understanding or in response to needing help in the learning process.  So much simpler than I’ve been making it, because my process of learning had been ingrained in me from years and years of thorough, methodical, disconnected, uncontextual schooling.

I’m excited to follow along in the MOOC, excited to help Isabelle learn, and excited that I’m finally feeling ready to live a lifestyle where I really don’t need school to learn.

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