Friday, April 20, 2007

On unschooling

Boris says I'm an educational extremist in some aspects. I think it's more accurate to say that I agree with several uncommon philosophies that fall to the edges of typical ideological spectrums on the topic, but it doesn't mean I think they're unilaterally better (the yardsticks you measure by determine the winners as much as the things being measured themselves). However, I do believe unschooling is a good way of looking at education; since it forces the student to treat life itself as their school.

My sentiments on unschooling are similar to my sentiments on improvisation. (I started doing improv comedy in high school.) I believe improvisation is effective because life is improvised. We aren't usually given scripts at the dinner table, at our board meetings - not printed ones, anyway. Being aware of creating your own script in performances and how what we say and do influences the flow of conversations on stage makes you more conscious of the unwritten social scripts you're handed and gives you more control over what to do with them.

Just as improvisation teaches you that you are responsible for shaping your presence and performance throughout your daily life, unschooling teaches you that you are responsible for shaping your learning. It is perhaps unfair for me to say this, since although I consider myself an autodidact, I have always been "schooled" in the conventional sense as well. Unschooling is true life-long learning because you don't try to artificially separate learning from life. You learn exactly what you need to learn in order to get the things you want to do done - just in time learning. Not everyone needs to know calculus. Not everyone needs to know how to run lighting for a Broadway musical. You learn what you need.

Note that I believe people should be exposed to and aware of opportunities for learning as much as possible - I should certainly know there's something called "algebra," what it is and how it might help me, and how I might learn it if I so desired. But I should also know that there are things called accounting, and gymnastics, and auto mechanics, how they might help me, and how I might learn them. Being exposed to and aware of something and having it available for you to choose is very different than being forced to learn it.

If you worry that for the first few months folks would "slack off," you're not alone; the unschooling literature I've read almost always discusses this point at length. The consensus from the unlearning side seems to be that after an initial adjustment period of up to a few months, the pace of learning kicks up to an even faster rate than before (as measured by standard curricular metrics). I've not yet found refutations of this from sources speaking against unschooling - if anyone has seen them, I'd love to read them.

We also need to revise our definition of "slacking," or more accurately our definition of what constitutes a valid activity or pursuit. First, burnout needs time to wear off. Adjusting from a rote world to an unstructured one takes time (I'm reminded of transition programs for ex-prisoners who have just been released from jail). This is time well-spent; it's the reason we take vacations, time off for mourning a spouse's death, sabbaticals, paternity leave; humans need time to restructure their thinking and settle into a new role.

Second, people are smarter than our behavioristic educational system has trained us to think. We're not dumb animals who will never do anything if there's no carrot attached. People naturally have drives and interests of their own; if allowed the freedom, they will find them. If one of those interests is playing video games, well - hey, that's something! You can learn art, computer science, psychology, writing, physics, and many other things from getting interested in video games. You can become fascinated with cooking chemistry after making fudge one afternoon or slide into history after talking with a war veteran over lunch in the park. And you'd be free to chase that interest down as far as you wanted; there would be no dioramas of Jane Eyre due the next day standing as a discouragement for learning about your interests. You become passionate about everything you learn, so you learn how to learn. In the absence of an enforced intellectual currency system (this paper is worth 100 points, your quiz was worth a B), you learn how to assess and create value in your own life and in the lives of others.

Ironically, I believe that a lack of structure in an educational system teaches people better than anything else how to appreciate structure through creating their own. You appreciate most what you have to bring into being yourself, and tend to make sure you get the most out of what you create. Through making their own structures, students learn how to appreciate the reasons behind deadlines, regular meetings, and even the inefficiencies of bureaucracies. Hierarchical structures become things composed of rational thinking people that one can deal with, not illogical idiocy from on-high. As part of unschooling, students may choose to enroll in a formal course, later on even a program of study. But they do it in pursuit of a goal of their own and know they retain full power and responsibility for their own learning; they're not in a course because they're "supposed" to be.

This is the same reason I'm advocating less structure in Olin's curriculum, incidentally. I believe we need structure. I believe we need to learn how to create those structures ourselves, how to design our own education. Yes, it's less "efficient" than the optimized mass-production-factory approach. But education isn't about efficiency as measured in the common sense - or indeed, in any measurable sense at all. (Think about it: it is logically impossible to specify an evaluatory metric for "innovation.") We need to take advantage of this gift more fully.

I'm still learning about unschooling and different paradigms for education, so if you know of good resources (from any perspective at all) or want to talk and think about this, holler. I love thinking about these kinds of things with people.

5 comments:

Boris Dieseldorff said...

All right. Nice post... now I'll attack it for a bit:

"The consensus from the unlearning side seems to be that after an initial adjustment period of up to a few months, the pace of learning kicks up to an even faster rate than before"
What is this consensus based on? have there been controlled experiments? The only time I've seen an experiment of this sort was in a school for the gifted that had a similar paradigm. If the studies you're familiar with have similar set-ups they're very systematically biased. If there's actually good evidence that people adjust well, I'll raise one eyebrow in surprise and ask you for a book recommendation.

"In the absence of an enforced intellectual currency system (this paper is worth 100 points, your quiz was worth a B), you learn how to assess and create value in your own life and in the lives of others."
People learn this anyways. People have to learn to value their own opinions themselves. There will always be some outside power that one can listen to. People will always express their feelings about one's work (at least partially). Value will come from others if one allows it. If 'structured' evaluations are removed things will be valued in some other way (eg smoking is valued as cool). This will be the case as long as one doesn't consciously decide that they will be self-driven towards their own goals.

"Through making their own structures, students learn how to appreciate the reasons behind deadlines, regular meetings, and even the inefficiencies of bureaucracies."
This part I agree with altogether too much. this is what makes spiral learning beautiful. Organizing chaos is easily one of the most valuable processes I know of to learning.

Anyhow, thanks for your post and I'm sure we'll be talking... :-)

Nikki said...

I feel like you're assuming that everyone is as self-motivated as you. I know that I personally do very little, even of what I'm really interested in, without something to push me to do it. Of course, a group of other people is as good a motivator as a class or a professor, but I still need some sort of push, and I know I'm not the only one. Some of us do have a high enough activation energy that left completely to our own devices we would accomplish very little.

Mel said...

Boris - I've got the same question about controlled experiments. Let me do some digging and try to find some unbiased (or at least a range of diversely biased) sources.

As for people learning to value things on their own - I think people do this on their own regardless, but it's possible for them not to learn that's what they're doing for many years.

There's a big difference between being aware of the process of value-assignment and evaluation and knowing that it is a subjective measurement and having The Authority Figure declare an absolute "goodness" to your work.

Nikki - That's actually exactly what Kohn says happens with a behaviorist approach. You develop a Pavlovian response to enforced incentives, and when the incentives disappear, so does interest in the task, since the task and rewards are psychologically tied together.

David Klempner said...

I know that I personally do very little, even of what I'm really interested in, without something to push me to do it.

My experience with this: I'm doing something at any given time.

A simple algorithm that has worked well for me in the past: if I'm spending all of my time doing something that isn't satisfying, quit doing it. Eventually you'll start doing something that you both want to do and is satisfying.

Anonymous said...

This may not be directly pertient to the discussion, but I just met an airline mechanic who had gotten all of his technical training at a hands-on school for airline mechanics, and then with on the job training at his first job. When we think of schooling, we tend to imagine the abstract, science-based curriculum that 'real engineers' are taught. But it would be really interesting to see how the process is different when the subject is much more concrete and hands on.

-matt