Rethinking Learning
conversations about the future of teaching and learning
Barbara Bray
be creative, innovate, take risks, unlearn to learn

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Is Unschooling for You?
By Barbara Bray    April 29, 2009 -- 07:09 AM

My experience with school in the 1950's and 60's left me questioning myself if I was smart. I didn't have confidence in myself in most of my K-12 life. I was an average student, shy. I grew up outside of Washington D.C. where girls were not allowed to wear pants and patent leather shoes. Really! My high school is still standing and looks like every other high school in the area. I know girls wear pants now but the structure, the teacher-centered classrooms - those are very similar to my experience.

It took going to college to realize that a more open-ended structure worked for me. Yet, it still didn't feel right. I wanted to learn more but was afraid to ask. It was all in the teacher's control. Everything was structured, textbook related. Rarely did I raise my hand. Now, people that know me don't know me as a shy, insecure person. Somewhere along the line I found myself. I found that I could find the answers on my own. I found the library and did research at all hours, any hours. When computers showed up, it was a new me and this is way before the Internet. I wanted to take computers apart to figure out how they worked. Who was this curious person? not, Barbara the shy student sitting in the back. 

Years later, I set up my own consulting business focusing on professional development. I consulted with CTAP (California Technology Assistance Project) in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1993-2000. During that time, I was assigned to help high schools develop their digital high school plans. Most of the plans were the same doing the same thing - just digitally. PowerPoint was the new chalkboard. That is, until I ws assigned to work with an independent study program. These students met once a week, were given opportunities for collaboration, yet were still given assignments and used textbooks. Tweaking independent study where students have laptops, use cell phones, and design what they want to learn could open endless opportunities for a new model, unschooling.

I read Dave Pollard's post on How to Save the World where he talks about unschooling:

If every child was unschooled -- given the chance to explore and discover and learn in the real world what they love to do, what they're uniquely good at doing, and what the world needs that they care about -- then we would have a world of self-confident, creative, informed, empowered, networked entrepreneurs doing work that needs to be done, successfully. We would have armies of people collaborating to solve the problems and crises facing our world, instead of going home exhausted at the end of the day seeking escape, feeling helpless to do anything that is meaningful to thems or to the world. We would have a world of producers instead of consumers, a world of abundance instead of scarcity, a world of diversity instead of what Terry Glavin calls "a dark and gathering sameness". We would have a world of young people choosing their lives instead of taking what they can get, what they can afford, what is offered to them. We would have a world of people who are nobody-but-themselves, and who know who they are, and how to live and make a living for themselves.

Just imagine a system where everyone, no matter what age, develops an individual learning plan, where the teacher is their facilitator heloping them design their own learning, and the world is where you learn. Schools are changing along with business, banking, everything. The Internet came along just when we needed to change. The system is broken. The dropout rate is higher than ever. More children are being left behind and, in California, more teachers have pink slips than ever. We are in the middle of something big.

This is the time to rethink how we learn, where we learn, and who is learning.


Categories: "Unschool" "Change" "Learning" "Independent Study"



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Comments:
By small Cheryl Vitali      April 29, 2009 -- 07:16 PM
Barbara,

So much of what you shared I can so relate to having grown up in the same time frame (a little later though) only the skirts  and dress code finally came tumbling in my high school years.  It is hard to think of you as shy, but I was the same way in school. Normally in the back row, never a child to cause a teacher any trouble.  We moved around quite a bit and I attended 6 schools by my first day of Grade 5. 

I was lucky enough to have some really outstanding teachers at times, the first I recall was in 2nd grade, in Newhall, CA (which was a one street town in the time). Most of the time we lived in large cities, I got a little taste of rural living that year briefly.  Then we were off to Alabama so that was quite a shift.  Before Newhall, I went to school in Claremont. I would not say any of my teachers were outstanding there, but I had a fantastic summer school experience and there were tons of cultural things I recall as a small child.  In addition, my grandparents (who were really ancient compared to all my friends) lived in Escondido and I was able to stay at Idlywild in the summer and attend a fantastic summer day camp with drama, crafts, and so forth.   Only after I visited the Claremont Colleges with my own children did I really realize what opportunities I had as a young child for the unschooled experiences.  We went to botanical gardens, I had favorite art at the Huntington Library and favorite gardens that I still immediatetely recognized decades later. 

The most memorable experiences were the fantastic car trips we took all over the country as my father and mother loved to camp and explore the SouthWest.  I still have vivid memories of these even as young as age 4.  Later I was lucky to have some teachers (5th and 6th grade and later in junior high and high school), that were anything but ordinary. Still I must admit I didn't dare to pursue what I really dreamed of deep down as a girl.  When I dared to share those dreams, they were laughed down. A different time a different generation, and had I to do it again, would I make the same choices? 

Now as a teacher I do see girls gaining some courage that we rarely dared in the past. I actually find myself worrying about the boys a bit more.  They are so easily distracted by other things and I have seen many young men struggling to come into their own as adults. That is not to say the same is not true for young women.  The role models our culture celebrates or idolizes is hardly that inspirational to be quite honest.  What would shy girls like us be in today's society?  I really do not know. I know that I take the time to help the boys and girls that tend to be more timid (as I was) to gather more courage and daring and try to encourage them to take risks and challenge themselves. 

Even so I feel I have a fraction of what I would like to give them to explore.  If I give them the tools to use the natural gifts they have and the ability to think creatively and in open ended possibilities, well I will have done a lot.  Just the other day I was dealing with the lack of manipulatives for teaching a concept in geometry (our supplemental materials finally arrived later this week). So I found a tea box in my class cupboard and showed the children how to transform it into a pyramid so I could pass it around for the them to explore faces and corners.  In some ways, the struggle to find a good resource wound up teaching them something else as well.

My first graders are exploring some secrets of longevity right now with snippets of the Blue Zone Quests tucked in for a few minutes here and there.  We are discussing having goat cheese, salads, and olive oil for a special meal later on.  They are learning the importance of some values that span thousands of years via the Internet that I am sure many of them relate to their grandparents.  Somehow in all that is mandated day to day, teachers need to find time to weave in the elements that trigger students dreaming big of what is possible.  "Dream Big" is an idea I planted back in September (from Peter Reynolds & Sue Pandini's  North Star Curriculum).  I hope they carry that idea forward for life.

Cheryl Vitali
Silas Bartsch School


Reply to Cheryl Vitali

By Dennis Imoto      April 29, 2009 -- 10:42 PM
If we did away with grade levels there would be no retentions since all teachers will be applying interventions and accomodations to suit each student's needs. We need to restructure from top down and rethink standardized testing.
I hope I will see you at NECC in DC this summer!


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