Facilitating unschooling: bridging the gap between interests of a child and external expectations

by Lilia Efimova on 29 August 2016

I’m at another iteration of trying to come up with a “theory of unschooling”, or at least articulate the ingredients of facilitating learning of our kids in that way. As I wrote before, my personal choices around it are heavily influenced by my work of looking at learning in various shapes in organisation (see Facilitating informal learning and Performance improvement mindset and taking it for granted). This time, I bumped into an old post summarising research by Center for Workforce Development (1998) on ways to support informal learning in an organisation by focusing on:

  • alignment of organisational and individual goals, so individual motivation to learn is naturally focused on organisational needs for employee competency development,
  • embedding learning opportunities and learning facilitation within working activities,
  • changing contextual factors (e.g. organisational culture and norms).

From an unschooling perspective I’d reformulate those points as the following:

  • bridging the gap between interests of a child and external expectations (practices in a society, formal educational requirements, job-market demands);
  • embedding learning opportunities and facilitation into everyday life, daily routines, family activities and practices outside of the house;
  • making sure that contextual factors (family culture, social environment, space and resources available) support learning.

For a time being I’ll leave along the last two points that are very much about the mindset and the lifestyle. Here, I’d like to elaborate a bit on the first one, since I see two sides of “bridging the gap”.

The first one is about facilitating the alignment of intrinsic motivation and external expectations. Here the main work lays in exposing the child to practices in a society and helping to discover the logic that underlies educational or job requirements. For example, when Alexander had an active interest in space missions and building rockets, we talked about personal qualities needed for a rocket engineer. Those included paying attention to details in order to avoid accidents that ruin lives of people and the work of many months. I also suggested that that was the quality that he could develop further, pointing to his t-shirt that he was wearing inside out. He quickly taught himself to pay attention to it (and the source of my long-term frustration disappeared :)

Here I’m tempted to put a long piece with reference to theory, talking about situated learning and legitimate peripheral participation, but essentially the point is: provide children with a window onto practice (Brown&Duguid, 1992) and what they will pick up from it will be naturally aligned with that practice. In that sense it aligns pretty well with beliefs underlying unschooling, that learning comes natural for children, it is social by nature and children are capable of learning life’s essentials (for more on that see work of Peter Grey and in particularly his Free to learn book). The “gaps” and other challenges come from different views on what are those essentials, as well as when and how they supposed to be learnt.

Which brings me to the second side of “bridging the gap”. It’s about dealing with external demands in order to address personality and developmental trajectory of a specific child. External expectations, laws and practices differ between cultures and change over time. Educational requirements are often addressing “the average” student and is based on the research of practices of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies in the last couple of centuries, when learning became very different from how it happened for thousands of years before that. If we come back to hunter-gatherer societies then the demands were pretty obvious. If you go where wild animals will eat you, you will be eaten. If you deviate too much from the practices of your tribe you will need to learn living alone or find another tribe.

Now there are many demands, they are often conflicting with each other and the implications are often unclear. I see it as a job of the parents to help their child to see the implications, to make choices and to deal with possible gaps by addressing external factors as well: shielding the child from the requirements he is not ready for when legally possible, negotiating alternative educational trajectory or working on changing the demands (with all means: from gently lobbying for alternatives to moving to a location/culture/country where the expectations are more aligned with family values).

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Corrigan 31 August 2016 at 17:21

We always summaraized our theory and practice of unschooling as “strewing and conversation.” We would surround our kids with resources, opportunities, mentors, video games, trips, and so on and then engage them around what they found interesting.

It’s about proximity and enaggement. Learning happens in context so to create great learning conditions, you need be in a context where the knowledge you are learning in useful and engaging. A potential boat building mentor that a kid meets in a cafe may not spark much imagination, but take the kid to a wooden boat festival and suddenly a whole world open up to them.

Strewing and conversation.

2 Lilia Efimova 1 September 2016 at 11:42

“Strewing and conversation” – I like the beauty and the simplicity of it. That’s said I can imagine how much goes into your conversation given your facilitation experience :)

This is something that I still find difficult when talking about unschooling, since what everyone packs, for example, into ‘strewing’ or ‘conversations’ might be very different given their context and experiences and it often stays unarticulated. From other side there are should be some underlying patterns and structures – and those I’m trying to get to. In that sense your explanation about proximity and engagements explains it a bit more about your practice.

3 Chris Corrigan 2 September 2016 at 00:48

It is context dependant for sure, in fact that’s the feature: it’s enacted learning and curiosity stimulated by where you are and what you are doing in any given moment. I think good unschooling requires at least one of the parents or caregivers in a child’s life to be a good auto-didact, motivated by curiosity and a stated love of learning AND actively engaged in learning new things.

Stewing and conversation could also be called “exposure” and “engagement.” Bottom line is that kids need hands on proximity to neat stuff and then need active and interested support in what grabs their attention. A parent’s job is to notice, open doors, support what worls, and join in!

4 Lilia Efimova 5 September 2016 at 22:30

Yes, I keep on thinking of the role of an active adult in the unschooling process. For me its the most challenging part and the one with the least opportunities to learn specifics from the others (because everyone’s context is different). What I guess could be learnt from others are principles, patterns and ways of dealing with own assumptions and personality in the process.

One of the interesting discussions we had with other parents was around the question “Are there things that have to be done by the kids in your family and what is your way to deal with those?” (with a related one “How to you help your kids learning to do difficult or boring things?”) For example, in big families there is a definite “household stuff has to be done”, because it’s a matter of survival. I guess in the cases where exams are obligatory those “have to be done” in one or another form as well… What I find the most interesting are those situations where it’s not immediately obvious how to work with exposure and engagement, those there necessity or even survival might be a factor next to curiosity.

Thanks a lot for helping me articulating those things :)

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