Radical Unschooling on Daybreak

I first heard about Maryanne Jacobs when I came across an article about Unschooling in the Mail online. Unfortunately, some negative comments from educators and readers followed which demonstrate a lack of understanding - not only of unschooling and home-schooling, but also of school and, indeed life. Have a read. What do you think?

"The stay-at-home children who are being 'unschooled': Mother lets her kids 'teach' themselves - by playing computer games and having 'life experiences'.
Maryanne Jacobs lets her children Rio, nine, and Bryden, eight, stay home.
With no formal lessons or timetables, she says they learn by themselves.
The family from Gorebridge in Scotland practise new idea of 'unschooling'.
Children can choose what they do, when, and when they go to bed.
Miss Jacobs says children learn numbers by playing Minecraft and baking."

Read more here.

Maryanne and her daughter then appeared on breakfast television - ITV's Daybreak programme - yesterday and, whilst I was really glad to see public discussion of unschooling, I was also concerned for them and wondered what they would be asked and how they would come across. You can watch the programme here for the next 5 days. It is a short feature, found 140 minutes into the programme at 8.10 a.m.

If you missed the feature, I thought I would share here the questions which were put to Maryanne and her daughter and share my own responses. The feature began by briefly describing a typical day in primary school as constituting "typically 5 hours of learning" (including playtimes). This, for start-off, was an interesting statement, as so much time in school is spent on organising and administrating children. A great deal of time in school is wasted. "5 hours of learning" ... Well, what does learning look like, I want to ask? Do they mean "structured lesson time"? Time spent sitting in front of the teacher and board, or writing in an exercise book? When YOU learn something, what does it look like? Do you watch a youtube tutorial? Are you sitting in front of the television, or looking something up on Google? Maybe you're at the gym mastering some new piece of equipment. Where do you go to learn? This is such a big question. What does learning look like? Of course, the answer will be different for each individual person, no matter how old or young they are. The problem with schooling is that it separates learning from the rest of life. Unschooling does not make this distinction. In fact, children are learning all the time.

The programme then described unschooling as "a new philosophy". Although I would say it is a growing movement in this country, unschooling is not a new philosophy. You could say it predates compulsory schooling, which arrived with The Elementary Education Act of 1880 introducing compulsory attendance from 5–10 years. This act was later amended in 1899 to raise the school leaving age to 12. Schooling was a product of industrialisation. Prior to this children grew and worked and learned about life alongside their families and communities. In many parts of the world, children are still raised this way. John Holt, editor of "Growing without Schooling" was writing about unschooling back in the 1960s in America. His first book, "How Children Fail" was published in 1964. Unschooling is not a new idea.

The Daybreak presenters asked Maryanne, "Are you not letting your daughter down by not giving her a proper education? Why did you decide not to send them to school?" I assume by 'a proper education', they mean 'schooling' but schooling and education are not necessarily the same thing. I decided to deregister my eldest son from school when I saw the light in his eyes go out, when he seemed to lose his interest in learning, when he stopped starting anything, never mind finishing anything, when his head dropped and he seemed unable to look anyone in the eye, when my chatterbox stopped talking to people. Maybe to some people this is just seen as 'normal' but my son was 7 before he went to school in this country (during his early years we were working in Turkey where formal education doesn't begin until the age of 7) and to me these behaviours were not normal, or acceptable. He had had a big experience of another country and culture, learning another language, and his world was suddenly reduced to the size of a classroom, where his former life had no place. People often speak of unschooling as though parents are restricting their child's world, for me it was the classroom that did that. I wanted something better.

The Daybreak presenters wanted to know how the day is structured for an unschooler, and Maryanne told them their day follows 'a natural flow'. The beauty of unschooling is its ability to be spontaneous, to respond to the moment and to what is happening right now, to what I am interested in right now. This week saw the death of Nelson Mandela, so let's find out about him, his life, his achievements, his country, Black history, racism ... This learning happens in a context, in response to a real-life event. Today, my boys wanted to finish off their Christmas shopping so we went into town. They had to go to the bank to get out the money they had saved and work out what they could afford to buy for each person on their list. They shop around for the best prices and work out the prices when there are special offers on - 20% off for example. This is real-life maths learned in context, but it is not something that is planned, for which I write out learning objectives. It just happens, and I trust that it will happen, that they are learning, because I can see it happening before my eyes.

The presenters asked Rio if she enjoyed unschooling, if it works for her. I know my boys would answer yes, as Rio did. My boys have been to school and they tell me they prefer to learn at home. I know that people say it is a parents' choice to educate children at home, it is not the child's choosing, but if you speak to home educated young people, you will find they are generally very positive about their experiences. When my eldest son chose to go to school for a while, it was his decision. Most kids in school are not there out of choice.

The presenters' next question was also addressed to Rio, and I'm sure she was expecting it. It is the question home educators get asked most frequently and, interestingly, is not concerned with education. It is the socialisation question. "Do you not miss the interaction you might get with other children at school?" This question always makes me laugh because it seems to presume that home educators don't meet anyone. Of course, this is not the case. And the people we meet are not restricted to the children's peer group. They mix with children of all ages - in the neighbourhood, at home education groups we attend, at community groups and clubs like scouts, at church, out and about in our community. And friendships blossom in any of these places and lead to playdates, invitations, sleepovers. In fact, one of the main reasons my eldest son chose to try school recently was because he hoped to make more friends. He found this did not prove to be the case, although he was certainly surrounded by more people his own age.

The conversation turned next to what Maryanne had against school. "What do you have against sending your children to school when the majority of the British public do?" John Taylor Gatto is an American school teacher with nearly 30 years of experience in the classroom, who devoted much of his energy to his extraordinary teaching career, then, following retirement, authored several books on modern education, criticizing its ideology, history, and consequences. Named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, his most famous book is called "Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling". It is worth a read if you are truly interested in thinking more about compulsory schooling.

I think the most important thing we learn in school is that our learning is dependent on a teacher. I don't believe that is true. I also disagree fundamentally with the institutionalisation of people. I think it is dehumanising. It takes away our autonomy. And I do not agree, either, with the culture of testing which permeates our schools putting pressure on schools, teachers and pupils to perform. For me, it didn't seem right to sit and complain about a system I disagreed with, but rather to strike out for something better in the hope that others might be encouraged and inspired to do likewise. I honestly believe education, especially with the rise of the internet and with so much information now at our fingertips, needs radically overhauling. I am not talking about changing the names of the grades awarded at GCSE, or about testing more during the school years, which seem to be the best ideas coming from Ofsted and the Ministry of Education. I am talking about a radical overhaul which puts the learner firmly in the driving seat, and which gives the learner - rather than the teacher or the institution - responsibility for their own learning.

Rio was asked next how she learns. "Do you learn maths, English, History, geography etc?" She replied, yes, she does, but she learns these things in different ways, for example, maths by counting things or playing Scrabble. She said she likes to read and play computer games. In our house, a lot of learning happens through conversation - not only amongst ourselves, but with Grandma and Grandpa and with others we meet up with in the community. For example, we have a neighbour who is a biochemist and our eldest son loves to go round with my husband to talk to him about scientific matters. I am often amazed at how much is retained from conversation and the way in which our boys put ideas together in a natural way to develop understanding. I notice that my third son, who has spent only a handful of days in school in his seven years, does not differentiate between work and play, or what we might call 'learning' and 'play' ... He just enjoys doing different things. Sometimes he might do some maths, read a book, write a story, research something, build with Lego, look at the encyclopedia, do some baking or run outside but he doesn't have hang-ups and negative associations attached to these activities, for example, "I hate maths!" or "I'm useless at English". I think these measurements of the self come from school, and from being compared to others. And they are not helpful. I am sure there are areas where he would be considered ahead of his schooled peers and areas where he might be behind, but I don't think it matters as long as he believes he is fundamentally OK. I can see progress year on year, by looking at what he is reading, how his writing is developing, how he articulates himself and approaches problems. Do we need to measure these things to know that they are happening?

Maryanne and Rio were joined on Daybreak by John Clark, Vice Principal of Passmores Academy, which featured on the recent television series "Educating Essex". Asked what he thought about unschooling, he talked about what he saw as high quality time with parents, and Maryanne's example of really good parenting. However, he did not think unschooling is a substitute for a good, high-quality school. Ideally, he said, the best education will be a partnership between school and parents. My question is where are these good, high-quality schools? There are not enough of them. What if you do not have one close to you, or you can't afford to move into the 'good' school catchment? How do we define what is 'good' anyway? Do we base our judgement on academic results, good pastoral care, the number of pupils on free school meals? Mr Clark went on to say he felt Rio would miss out on the expertise on offer in schools and he was concerned she might face restrictions later on. My recent interactions with my eldest son's school showed me that there is expertise in schools - It is the knowledge about how a child can move from one level to the next in a subject, and how they can put on the test paper what they need to put to get the right grade. The expertise is how to play the schooling game. But there is plenty of expertise outside of school which we are free to tap in to. Plenty of people willing to share their skills and interests with motivated youngsters. And there is nothing to say unschooled youngsters can't go on to get qualifications if and when they need to. I grew up believing there was no alternative to school, no other path to where we all need to get to, but youngsters educated otherwise are showing that there can be many paths to a destination and, in some instances, that they are exactly the kind of students Universities are looking for, because they are used to independent learning and they know what they want to do, so are highly motivated. And they also exhibit the skills, such as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and working cooperatively, that 21st century employers are looking for.

As the feature with Maryanne and Rio came to an end, the presenter said that, OK, perhaps she could understand unschooling through primary school, but what about secondary school? What about University? "Are you even allowed to do that?" she wondered, incredulously. "Aren't you worried about qualifications? What about later in life when your child is sitting in a job interview? Aren't you restricting her?" Unschooling is such an unfamiliar idea to all of us who have been schooled. It is so difficult to get our heads around the fact that there might be other paths, other possibilities. Why does schooling leave us so determined to defend it, so unable to think outside the box? Was your schooling really so wonderful? Why not dare to dream of a better way, and be part of the movement towards unschooling, towards an education more suited to the 21st century, towards an education which is shaped by us, all of us ... the learners.