The decision to home educate has always been first and foremost a parenting decision to me.
There are countless educational advantages to homeschooling, but it all started with parenting. We chose respectful parenting. From the beginning, we rejected the idea of punishment and rewards. Of shame and guilt. Of being the ‘boss’ of our children. Instead, we treated them like people. We respected them.
So when my oldest daughter approached school age the thought of sending her to spend most of her waking hours in an environment that seemed very opposed to what I believed children needed was unsettling.
What was the point of everything I had done up until now if I was then going to just send her off to an institution that seemed to harbour the exact opposite beliefs about children and their place in life? We’d nurtured her intrinsic motivation, we respected her thoughts, we empathised instead of punished, we protected her autonomy. And what for? Only to send her somewhere where all of that could be undone? It felt like my main job now would be damage control. It didn’t sit right with me. I don’t believe that’s what our children deserve. What I wanted for them was respectful learning.
What is Respectful Learning?
I believe children are people, just like everyone else. No less deserving, no less important. Though they are still developing and need guidance, what they don’t need is control and force. In school children are in a position of less power from the start. They are forced to be there, whether they like it or not, and other people make the choices about how they spend their days. We didn’t want any part in that, so we opted out. But, choosing to homeschool doesn’t automatically mean that respectful learning is going on. You can’t just change the location of the ‘schooling’, you need to ditch the idea altogether. We have chosen to unschool our children because this seems like the most respectful approach to getting ‘educated‘. To me, respectful learning involves the following things…
“The idea of painless, nonthreatening coercion is an illusion. Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion, and its inescapable consequence. If you think it your duty to make children do what you want, whether they will or not, then it follows inexorably that you must make them afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t do what you want. You can do this in the old-fashioned way, openly and avowedly, with the threat of harsh words, infringement of liberty, or physical punishment. Or you can do it in the modern way, subtly, smoothly, quietly, by withholding the acceptance and approval which you and others have trained the children to depend on; or by making them feel that some retribution awaits them in the future, too vague to imagine but too implacable to escape.” – John Holt,
I don’t believe coercion has any place in learning. It is not my job to dictate to my children what they must learn, what they must devote their time to, how they must think. They are their own people and their minds belong to them. We have forgotten how children learn naturally without interference because we routinely interrupt this process by age five. If we didn’t, we would see that children are capable and well designed to learn naturally from life everything they need to in order to flourish in the community they were born into. If we refuse to allow them to develop as they were meant to, instead using punishment and rewards to force them to learn in ways we think are superior, then we destroy their love of, and motivation for, natural learning. This is not ok with me. This is not a respectful way to treat our children’s minds: punishing them for resisting learning that is the polar opposite of their biological needs. Respectful learning is non-coercive.
“It is absurd and anti-life to be a part of a system that compels you to listen to a stranger reading poetry when you want to learn to construct buildings, or to sit with a stranger discussing the construction of buildings when you want to read poetry.” – John Taylor Gatto
Just as adults are able to do, children should be free to decide on their own interests. And to spend time learning and perfecting them. They have precious little time to do that when their waking hours are mostly dictated by curriculum. To say to a person that what they want to learn about is not important and they must put it aside and instead learn these facts that we’ve deemed necessary, well that seems highly disrespectful. No one would do that to an adult. Oh but adults are supposed to ‘know better’, I know. Except that they don’t in this case.
No one knows what a person will need to know in order to have a ‘successful’ life. We are schooling children with knowledge that will be outdated by the time they graduate anyway. The world and technology is changing so rapidly that we can’t even imagine the jobs we’re preparing them for. It makes more sense to protect their love of learning so that they are confident and capable of learning anything they need to in the future, rather than destroy it with a dreary standardised ‘education’.
Trust based learning
“Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges. In such an environment, children ask for any help they may need from adults. There is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling. All of these, in fact, interfere with children’s natural ways of learning.” -Peter Gray, Free to Learn
Leaving your children’s education in their hands requires enormous amounts of trust. We no longer know what that looks like, and so it feels like an unknown risk. But children learned this way for many years before schools came along to disrupt the process. They learned the skills needed for life by being a part of that life. They were included in things adults were doing and trusted to play a meaningful part. They observed closely, had great amounts of time to play and experiment, and were guided by the adults around them when needed. When you see a child learn naturally, you realise there is nothing to worry about, it is as easy and natural as breathing for them. I think we owe it to them to step back and allow them to develop as they are meant to.
In school children are told when and what to learn, and for how long. Life is divided into subjects, and subjects are divided into lists of content to be ticked off. Days are divided into lessons, where this content is taught in a step by step process. This is supposed to prepare us for life, and yet funnily enough it bares no resemblance to life. This is not how people learn.
A child not forced into this schedule will often learn in a non-linear manner. Sometimes focusing for days or weeks on one thing with great excitement and enthusiasm. Making great leaps in understanding before having a rest period, or turning to another interest. They learn passionately and easily whenever inspiration strikes (often!). They learn for as little or as long as they need to. They go into as much depth as they are ready for. They fully direct their own learning because who better to know what they are capable of and what they need than them? It seems absurd to attempt to force our children to learn according to our schedules when they do a much better job themselves.
The idea of a one-size fits all curriculum is madness. Children are all individuals and their education should be also. Ignoring their wonderful uniqueness and instead aiming for conformity and standardisation is quite frankly insulting.
Equally insulting is the current push for kids to meet ‘standards’. This is talked about so much that it seems like the most important thing about education. I want my children to do well, of course. But the only standards I want them to meet are their own. They don’t need to be compared to others to see if they measure up. They don’t need to outperform their peers to be deemed worthy. I am much more concerned with raising passionate, motivated, lifelong learners, than competing with others.
“I’m not interested in competing with anyone, I hope we all make it” – Erica Cook.
I don’t believe testing has any place in a respectful learning environment. No one tests me when I learn something new, but I’m still satisfied that I have learned it. I don’t need to prove it to anyone except myself. Likewise, when my children have learned enough about a subject, they choose to move on, satisfied that they have all the information they need for now. No testing necessary. If I need to know some details of what they have learned to satisfy the homeschool reporting requirements, then some careful attention and observation usually gives me my answer.
This is a very important one to me. I want my children to always know that their bodies belong to them, and that they are the ones that make the decisions regarding their bodies. I think this is an extremely important lesson to learn early. Our children decide what they wear, if/when they cut their hair, when they eat, when they sleep and wake, when they go to the toilet. I don’t believe they should need to ask permission to do these things. It is also one of the reasons why I do not believe in compulsory schooling.
With so much emphasis on MORE for kids (more classes, more testing, more everything!), I think it’s our job to protect childhood. What children need is not more adult directed time. They need more freedom and autonomy and play. They need time outside every day. Unstructured time that belongs to them to do with whatever they like. We are taking over childhood because we ‘know better’, but we don’t. Children need what they always needed, freedom and trust and play. It’s our job to give them that.
Allowing Independence to Develop Naturally
Whether ready or not, by about age 5 children are separated from their parents 5 days a week. This often involves a lot of crying and anxiety. I have always listened to my children and just as I didn’t leave them to cry as babies, I also wasn’t prepared to leave them to cry until they ‘got used to it’ when it came to school. I don’t believe in forcing independence. Or that independence is even something that can be forced. Children will develop independence in their own time, whether that’s earlier or later than 5 years of age. I think a respectful learning environment allows for that and doesn’t force separation and ‘independence’. An environment conducive to learning is one where children feel safe and loved.
When asked why we choose to forgo school, it’s hard to give a specific answer. It’s not teachers, or curriculum, or a bad school experience. It’s the whole idea of compulsory schooling and the nature of mass education. It’s the fact that I believe children deserve freedom, trust, and respect.
Respectful learning, just like respectful parenting, means treating my children how I want to be treated. I am trusted to take charge of my own learning and ask for help and guidance when I need it. My children do the same. If the ‘normal’ or common path to ‘education’ does not provide the respectful learning environment I think my children deserve, then we just have to pave our own way.