a photo of my high school, c. 1969
In Grade 11, my second last year of high school, I was an average student, with marks in English in the mid 60% range, and in mathematics, my best subject, around 80%. Aptitude tests suggested I should be doing better, and this was a consistent message on my report cards. I hated school. As my blog bio explains, I was shy, socially inept, uncoordinated and self-conscious. My idea of fun was playing strategy games (Diplomacy and Acquire, for fellow geeks of that era — this was long before computer games or the Internet) and hanging around the drive-in restaurant.
Then in Grade 12, something remarkable happened: My school decided to pilot a program called “independent study”, that allowed any student maintaining at least an 80% average on term tests in any subject (that was an achievement in those days, when a C — 60% — really was the average grade given) to skip classes in that subject until/unless their grades fell below that threshold. There was a core group of ‘brainy’ students who enrolled immediately. Half of them were the usual boring group (the ‘keeners’) who did nothing but study to maintain high grades (usually at their parents’ behest); but the other half were creative, curious, independent thinkers with a natural talent for learning. The chance to spend my days with this latter group, unrestricted by school walls and school schedules, was what I dreamed of, so I poured my energies into self-study.
To the astonishment of everyone, including myself, I did very well at this. By the end of the first month of school my average was almost 90%, and I was exempted from attending classes in all my subjects. I’d become friends with some members of the ‘clique’ I had aspired to join, and discovered that, together, we could easily cover the curriculum in less than an hour a day, leaving the rest of the day to discuss philosophy, politics, anthropology, history and geography of the third world, contemporary European literature, art, the philosophy of science, and other subjects not on the school curriculum at all. We went to museums, attended seminars, wrote stories and poetry together (and critiqued each others’ work).
As the year progressed, the ‘keeners’, to my amazement, found they were struggling with this independence and opted back into the regular structured classroom program. Now our independent study group was a remarkable group of non-conformists, whose marks — on tests we didn’t attend classes for or study for — were so high that some wondered aloud if we were somehow cheating. My grades had climbed into the low 90% range, and this included English where such marks were rare — especially for someone whose grades had soared almost 30 points in a few months of ‘independent’ study. The fact is that my peers had done what no English teacher had been able to do — inspire me to read and write voraciously, and show me how my writing could be improved. My writing, at best marginal six months earlier, was being published in the school literary journal. On one occasion, a poem of mine I read aloud in class (one of the few occasions I actually attended a class that year) produced a spontaneous ovation from my classmates.
The Grade 12 final examinations in those days were set and marked by a province-wide board, so universities could judge who the best students were without having to consider differences between schools. Our independent study group, a handful of students from just one high school, won most of the province-wide scholarships that year. I received the award for the highest combined score in English and Mathematics in the province — an almost unheard-of 94%.
The experience spoiled me for university — I graduated in two years, which was all I could bear, by taking extra courses and summer courses, just to get through it. And the independent study program, despite its extraordinary success, was not repeated in subsequent years. Part of the justification for the pilot program had been to free up teachers’ time to spend with students who needed more individual attention; yet the dubious reason we were given for its cancellation was that “it was unfair to deprive the average students of the presence and example of the more outstanding students”.
All this is by way of introduction to my thoughts on PS Pirro’s excellent new book on Unschooling, which is in effect what my belated “independent study” experience was an example of. Here’s an excerpt to give you a flavour of the book:
The world of the classroom is so unlike anything the real world has to offer – with the exception of other classrooms – that kids can excel at school only to find themselves utterly lost in the real world. Some people think this is the result of failed schooling, but a few of us suspect otherwise. We suspect that this sense of displacement and confusion is actually the result of schooling that succeeds in its most basic unwritten objective: to keep you dependent, timid, worried, nervous, compliant, and afraid of the World. To keep you waiting. To keep you manageable. To keep you helpless. To keep you small.
Educated, confident, creative people are dangerous to the status quo, dangerous to a centralized economy, dangerous to a centralized system of command and control. Those in power don’t want you educated. They want you schooled.
PS presents 50 reasons why schooling is, in every imaginable way, bad for us and our society, and then 50 reasons why unschooling, which she defines as “learning without formal curriculum, timelines, grades or coercion; learning in freedom” is the natural way to learn. She argues that we are indoctrinated from the age of five to cede our time, our freedoms, and what we pay attention to, to the will of the State, so that we are ‘prepared’ for a work world of wage slavery and obedience to authority. We are deliberately not taught anything that would allow us to be self-sufficient in society. And in the factory environment of the school, where teachers need to ‘manage’ thirty students or more, ethics and the politics of power is left up, from our earliest and most vulnerable years, to the bullies and other young damaged psychopaths among our peers, to teach us in their grotesquely warped way. As PS explains, it is in every way a prison system.
Unschooling, by contrast, starts with the realization that you ‘own’ your time, and have the opportunity and responsibility to use it in ways that are meaningful and stimulating for you. When you have this opportunity, you just naturally learn a great deal, about things you care about, things that will inevitably be useful to you in making a life and a living. Your learning environment is the whole world, and you learn what and when you want, undirected by curricula, textbooks, alarm clocks and school bells. You develop deep peer relationships around areas of common interest, once you’re allowed to explore and discover what those areas of interest are. And the Internet and online gaming allow you to make those relationships anywhere in the world, to draw on the brightest experts on the planet, and to communicate powerfully with like-minded, curious people of every age, culture and ideology.
Many people argue that unschooling will only work for the very brightest and most self-disciplined children. On the contrary, I think we are all perfectly suited to unschooling until the school system begins to beat the love of learning, the ability to self-manage, curiosity, imagination and critical thinking out of us. By the time we have reached the third grade it becomes much more difficult, and my success in unschooling in twelfth grade was, I will agree, due to my above-average intelligence and initiative — most of my intellectually-crippled peers just couldn’t manage by that time without the strictures they’d become accustomed to. They had long ago lost the desire to learn, and to think for themselves.
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.
In the final part of her book, PS encourages us to check out unschooling gatherings in our own area, and find out more, find out what we can do to grow this important movement. She describes some of the groups that are organizing travel adventures to enrich unschoolers’ experiences even further, and provides a host of resources for further reading and exploration of the unschooling movement.
I’m growing increasingly convinced that if we have any hope of coping with the crises that we face in this century, it lies in the generations now in the “school system”.
More precisely, it lies in getting them out of that system, and making this the last generation of “schooled children”.
Given the damage we’ve done to the world — due in no small part to the “education system” that has molded us — damage that future generations must reverse, it’s the least we can do for them, and, at last, for ourselves.
Category: The Education System