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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

Unschooling The School System. 103

“A child does not have to be motivated to learn; in fact, learning cannot be stopped. A child will focus on the world around him and long to understand it. He will want to know why things are the way they are. He won’t have to be told to be curious; he will just be curious. He has no desire to be ignorant; rather he wants to know everything. “ – Valerie Fitzenreiter, in The Unprocessed Child: Living Without School

When I started working as a teacher, I made a decision that would come to shape my work and my life in ways I could not have imagined.

I decided that I would become the best teacher that I could possibly

In striving to become the best teacher I can possibly be, my focus is to provide children with the best possible education, to be a sparring partner who respects them and listens to them and who values their insights and unique expressions. I am constantly reevaluating my teaching principles and methods and I keep developing myself as a teacher through the direct feedback from the children. I strive to see life from their perspective and to be a champion on their behalf, however I am also acutely aware of the humbleness required from me as an adult to take a step back and see the potential for greatness in my students and let them develop their own voices and become champions of their own sovereignty.

Why I unschool in the school system

Throughout my work I have found it particularly challenging to motivate children, especially as they get older, to do homework and assignments. They would generally do it the night before deadline and in some cases, the parents would sit down and do it for them, just to have something to show – as though the entire purpose of their education was to get a ‘pass’ from the teacher or to make the teacher happy and not to actually learn and develop themselves.

So I have been looking for ways to engage students, to make the work authentic for them as something they would actually want to do and find purpose in. Through this process I have found that a distinct problem with formal schooling is that it is set up as a simulation process where children are taught ‘about life’ from abstract textbooks that doesn’t have anything to do with real life. The entire purpose of formal schooling is to weigh, measure and categorize students, to apparently prepare them for ‘real life’ – completely disregarding the fact that they’ve been a part of real life since the day they were born. Children  learn something about the world and about life every minute of every day, especially in those formative years where they integrate knowledge at a quantum level.

I have therefore been working towards making the subjects and projects that we do in our classes relevant to their real lives and to give the students assignments that does not just have the purpose of measuring them or proving themselves to me, but that would actually matter to them.

As I started to develop more of such projects I saw a distinct difference, especially with the younger students interest in learning, however with the older students and especially the teenagers, I was at my wits end. Nothing I did seem to spark an interest in them. They seemed distant and demotivated and saw me as yet another adult who wanted to put them into a simulated learning environment that had nothing to do with them or their real life. I struggled to get any form of authentic connection established with them.

Then about six months ago I discovered unschooling as an educational principle and strategy and since implementing unschooling principles into my work, it has completely transformed not only the way I teach, but also my relationship with the students.

I have taken an educational quantum leap that has opened doors and potential I had no idea existed.

Since I started working actively with unschooling I have come to realize that I have been ’intuitively unschooling’ all this time, and that I have basically been a proponent for unschooling my entire life – I simply wasn’t aware that there was a word for it.

So from a certain perspective it has not been that big of a leap to go from what I was already working with to now actively start unschooling. What has however supported me a lot has been to realize that what I naturally saw as common sense and that I struggled against because I thought I had to teach in a more formal way, had already been working for a lot of people for many years. So it has supported me to trust myself more and to throw myself more into progressive forms of education rather than deliberately holding myself back because I wasn’t sure if what I was doing was okay or not.

Results of introducing unschooling in the school system

When I started introducing unschooling into my classes, I was initially quite worried about how parents and other teachers would react and I can only say that the responses and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I get emails and phone calls from parents saying that there children come home elated with big smiles on their faces and that they can’t wait to go to our classes.

The older sister of one of my 5th grade students recently told me that he never does homework and that he hates writing. She was utterly surprised to hear that not only did he do the assignments for our class, but he kept writing so much that I had to tell him to cut it back because it otherwise wouldn’t fit to the project we were doing. He even send me edited and corrected versions of his assignment several times – without me instructing him to – before it was submitted for final publication.

After I have started to change who I am as a teacher to be (even more) relaxed, more myself and less fearful of not getting results, entirely new dimensions have opened up in my relationships with the kids. They are more considerate and gentler. I suddenly get more hugs and invites to come home for dinner or hear them play piano. They have started to tell me about their life and the things they struggle with or are passionate about.

How I unschool in the school system

The first thing I did, as I actively let go of the fear of what parents and other teachers would think was to stop trying to control the lesson. If the children want to go, I let them go. If they want to do something else than what I’ve prepared, we do that. I don’t force them to do anything anymore. I might encourage them to push themselves, especially if I see that they are resistant or reluctant because of lack of confidence.

I listen to the students, I’m interested in what they have to say, and I am engaged with them, meaning: I am not preoccupied with getting results or accomplishing things. Instead I am here with them and let the moment naturally unfold, (while having somewhat of a plan of what we’re doing/where we’re going). But I am letting go of the ‘need’ to control the situation – which I’ve realized mostly came from fear.

Because I’m letting go of that fear and that need to control and make sure they get results, I can also be more present and listen more to their individual needs. So if someone doesn’t want to do something, I don’t make them. (Which I used to do reluctantly out of fear).

Instead I talk to them about it and make sure that they really don’t want to do it and find out why. Then we do something else, no big deal. If I see that they resist because its something they find difficult, I encourage them to push through – and they do.

An example of that is from a preschool I recently visited. A little girl aged 3 wanted me to draw her a drawing. She started whimpering and talking to me in a manipulative baby voice. Her body language changed and she started becoming emotional. I actually found the situation quite funny and looked within myself at how I could best direct it, what would be best for her and for me in the moment.

So then I calmly said to her: “Okay, but then you got to talk in your normal voice”. What she did next was very sweet and moving. She tried changing her voice back to her normal voice. She struggled at first because I’m not sure anyone has ever asked her to do this before. So she wasn’t used to directing herself to move out of the ‘cry baby personality’. But she definitely understood exactly what I meant. As she tried a couple of times and reverted back and tried again, I could see how her body language changed and she started straightening herself up. She knew exactly what she was doing. She tried a couple of times more and finally got it, back to her normal voice – and I drew the drawing, not because she manipulated me to by being emotional, but because she had asked in self-respect and I wanted to honor that.

I focus more on getting to know the students individual needs and do things that they want to do/that suit them and where they are at in their process of learning. This doesn’t change the effectiveness of my teaching, because they still learn what they need to learn, but it happens naturally without any force. Instead it comes more and more from their own interest to grow and learn. And fascinatingly enough, the work they have produced since we started working with unschooling principles have been lengthier and so much more substantial. Several students have told me that they have been working all night on some of the projects that we do and the most amazing drawings and writings have come out of that process, so much so that it has even surprised me to discover the abundance of potential within the students that I had no idea existed.

Contrary to what critics of unschooling may believe, I also don’t let the children do what ever they want at any cost. If they are too noisy and it is potentially disturbing for another class I ask them to tone it down. If I have a headache or if I am exhausted I explain it to them and ask that we do a more quiet activity. Because the relationships are becoming more equal, because they see that I respect their choices and their needs, they respect mine equally.

The basic principle of unschooling is therefore not to just let children do whatever they want at the expense of everyone else. It is about empowering children to be equals in a partnership where I stand as a point of support and guidance based on a principle of doing what is best for all.

The relationships are becoming more real and more equal which means that I am also allowing myself to learn from the kids and how they see the world. If more teachers would do this, we could compare notes and perhaps together we could steer towards a paradigm change when it comes to how we see and educate children.

Working as a teacher with progressive principles I’ve come to realize how important it is that there’s a real life purpose with what the students work with. Most of what is being taught in school is either abstract or simulated to resemble real life. The students know that and they know that what they do only matters as to measure their performance. Every person wants to contribute to society, wants to do something that matters. When children are encouraged to work with something that has an impact on real life, they give it their all.

“The reality is that the modern school is no silver bullet, but an extremely problematic institution which has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform. No system that discards millions of normal, healthy kids as failures – many of them extremely smart, by the way – will ever provide a lasting or universal solution to anything.” – Carol Black, filmmaker and educational activist

The potential is there that we, within the next fifty years will see a total transformation of the process of education and of educational environments – and that as a result, the world will be forever changed because of it. To manifest this potential, from vision to reality, we have to as adults push ourselves to go further than we’ve ever gone before, further than those who came before us, so that we can provide the future generations with a clean slate to learn and grow and explore from – a platform of learning that is unlimited and empowering in every way.

For more information I invite you to watch this recent interview I gave on the Living Income Guaranteed channel:

Links and more info on unschooling

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