Unschooling. Or Learning as You Go.
It’s a truism that one learns by travelling, and a cliche that travel broadens the mind.
From the days when English noblemen embarked on that aristocratic GAP year, the Grand Tour of Europe, to today’s school trips, summer camps, foreign exchanges and volunteer placements, travel has been key to education.
So, when we went to see the nine-year-old’s school before we set out on our long journey around the world, it seemed pretty obvious that he would learn far more travelling on four continents and fifteen or so countries than he would in his (extremely good) London primary.
Although I wouldn’t have expected his headteacher to make that point for me…
One thing I didn’t really know, though, was how the learning would work. So where we’ve ended up, after some vicissitudes, is with an educational philosophy called unschooling.
Like many scarily innovative ideas, unschooling originated in the States in the early days of t’interweb: on AOL listservs, rather than The Well, but, well, you take my point… A lady named Sandra Dodd created the name, taking her inspiration from a Seven-Up ad.
In unschooling, essentially, the child chooses how to learn and what to learn. You look for the learning in what’s around you, find opportunities, then let it happen.
Some central messages of unschooling?
“Let go of learning. It happens anyway.” Yikes!
“Let the child lead.” Blimey!
You can agree between you certain variations on this theme. In our case, this is that he has to write sometimes. (And, yes, err, that is it.)
Now. A year ago, this would all have sounded like crazy hippie shit to me.
Letting junior direct his learning has really worked. (I wrote more about how here.)
When you’re travelling the world, the humanities pretty much teach themselves. You can’t help but learn when you’re meeting survivors of the Pol Pot Regime, visiting the Museum of War Remnants in Saigon, snorkelling World War II gunboats in the Philippines, exploring Angkor Wat or the Purple Palace, meeting young monks in a Cambodian monastery or participating in a Filipino Easter festival.
There are few more beautiful places to appreciate ecosystems in action than coral reef, where you regularly see predators hunting and killing, clownfish protecting their anemone nests, and parrotfish grazing on coral. Geology comes very easily when climbing an active volcano, or kayaking a mature karst landscape. And coconuts sprouting on the beach are germination writ, well, huge…
Actually, even the very simple unschooling strategy of taking the time to find a proper answer to those difficult questions that children ask works in mysterious ways.
Z’s question “What is a positron?” (a positively-charged electron, since you ask…) led us onto anti-matter, quarks, the Big Bang and string theory.
“Who was Kublai Khan?” took us on (via this amazing resource) to Indian, Chinese and Western styles of art and Coleridge. Although I have to say that the fact that Mongol children had to gather animal poo to use as fuel for fires made more of an impression.
Watching The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with its tortuous Vogon poetry, led us onto Jabberwocky and free verse. (Zombieland produced a hilarious guide to Zombie Survival for N0obs.)
Even maths (which bored us both shitless taught traditionally: see here for our nadir) works well. Sir started to speculate about whether computers were moving humans “up or down the evolutionary tree”, which brought up Moore’s Law, arithmetic versus exponential growth and binary numbers. (We even did a graph!)
Roman numerals in chapter headings bring you onto teaching Roman numbers. Money conversions bring you onto market movements, interest rates, exchange rates. Diving theory brings you onto bars, pressures, partial pressures, switching between decimals and percentages. And so on…
Physically, the transformation since we left is astonishing. Since Z was born he’s been long and thin, with the sort of appetite that made my grandmother talk about hollow legs. But he’s much, much stronger and more active than he was. In London a chronic, nay, pathological, dawdler, he now steams ahead of me on hills.
He swims confidently. His balance is good and he climbs well. He’s learning scuba and is teaching himself to meditate. We’ve played a bit of mini golf and I’m hoping to find a good course down south.
When it comes to languages, he’s picking up bits and pieces of the local languages as we travel, and has been teaching himself a little French using Google Translate (when he starts spouting, I start talking back). We’ll be learning Spanish together in Latin America next year.
He draws constantly. And, thanks to all those long train journeys, he’s discovering Dickens (who works amazingly well in transit).
Certainly, compared to ploughing through worksheets or the Year 4 primary syllabus, let alone trying to mimic the type of education homeschoolers provide with a full library, a packed kitchen, ample art supplies and no 36-hour train journeys on the horizon, unschooling works very well. And it takes phenomenally little time.
So…. Crazy hippie shit? Lazy parenting? Or effective educational strategy for some children (especially those at the extreme ends of the ability range)? I’d go with all three of the above, with the emphasis on the third.
But what do you think? Should I be spending more time actually, y’know, teaching him stuff? Or following a syllabus? Did you ever travel longterm with your kids (or did you travel yourself as a child)? And what did you do about education?