Guest post by Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko | Writer and blogger at Radio Free School.
The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them. —Henry David Thoreau
There is a whole world of learning that unfolds, starting with the spark of an interest. For unschool educators, it is a matter of following the lead of the learner.
The learner focuses on what he wants to know about. From this node of knowledge, like an octopus sending out its many arms to the environs around, the learner links to ever more nodes—making connections and expanding his knowledge.
It’s the job of an educator to shine a light on the nodes so that the child can choose to look closer at or not.
Putting a spin on some familiar platitudes that are regularly associated with school, I offer six thoughts on how the unschooling method can inform and help us improve educational practices everywhere:
Imagine you are holding a newborn baby—fragile and utterly helpless. But then you see the light in the baby’s eyes—the way she searches the room, the way she tries to focus on her immediate surroundings: the patterns on the blanket, the shaking rattle, her mother’s face.
You notice the length of time she stares at her waving fingers and you begin to understand that she is taking it all in, working it out—as much as she is capable of, a little at the time.
The newborn infant has power—however limited it may be. She is already a great communicator. She lets us know her needs (belting it out for all to hear and we’d better hop to it quickly!) and we have the power to meet or ignore those needs.
We begin to understand that education is not being ‘done’ to the learner. Rather it’s a partnership we enter into together with our young learner—herself, a self-educator—who is sharing her educational path with us.
We commit to the child, meeting her half way in her effort to learn. We do not begrudge the baby nor do we mark her ‘wrong’ for not being interested in what we might be offering.
yourself. You’re so excited that your learner is excited! As unschool educators I can’t tell you how many times we want to rush in—uninvited. But what can happen is that the interest cools because, in our enthusiasm, we’ve unintentionally taken over the project. Slap your hand and remind yourself, “Not yours.”
Ever noticed on birthdays how everyone gets the kid something around a theme or subject they like? She loves horses? People bring horse books, horse sweaters, posters of horses, mugs with horse images on them. “I love horses but I like other things too!” my daughter once said.
At times, we might be more invested in the thing than they are. Months and even years later, we might still be assuming the passion or interest is current when in reality it has long since morphed into something else. No child should be beholden to an interest.
Be respectful. It is as simple as considering how we interact with an adult. We assume that the adult is competent and will ask for our input/help/suggestions when they need/want to.
But when it comes to children, we go by the assumption that they are incompetent and so we don’t have to treat them with the respect afforded to an adult.
I once did an interview (Radio Free School) with professor of Psychology, Dr. Ellen Langer (Harvard University) who made the comment that we often don't take the time to be present to the child and give her our full attention. She suggested that this attitude might stem from our not realizing the child has something to offer us as well.
“If when talking to a child, we maintain a limited view of what the child has to offer us not recognizing that the child has something to teach us, it's exhausting when it could be enlivening,” Langer said. “To really understand you have to take the perspective of the other and people don't always do that with children." One of the most critical skills we can have is the ability to really listen to the child’s ideas and build education on the understanding we get.
When my oldest was little, she would often get fired up at around 11pm and want to do math, or discuss a big world issue (at 17, she still does this) and I would just want to go to bed, but I made myself a cup of strong tea and soldiered on.
Why? Because I knew that this was not only a real opportunity for both of us to learn something new, but also to nourish our relationship.
The time we have them in our care is short. All too soon they will are gone—like my daughter who is off to University this fall.
6. Promote excellence
Kids are fiercely seeking to be competent people in the world. And the way they do this is by modeling and trying out and experimenting.
The best model for any sort of education is being supported by people doing interesting things and willing to stop and share with the learner.
Be the best model you can be.
Trust that the child will learn. In the meantime, just simply watching their progress with genuine interest –rather than adding your two cents—and being appreciative of the child’s efforts goes a long way in inspiring the confidence they need to grow up trusting their own selves.
Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is the author of Natural Born Learners: Unschooling and Autonomy in Education in partnership with Dr. Carlo Ricci (Nipissing University). Beatrice lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her husband and three children.