Unschooling: Crazy or Cool?

Before the first school term starts, you’ll likely find school teachers spend the final moments of their holiday creating a Pinterest-worthy classroom. Filled with a range of furniture and technologies, their rooms should look fun, imaginative and colourful. After all, their students will be in there all day, momentarily leaving only for education breaks.

But when 15-year-old Sarah Otto goes to school, she doesn’t spend each day stuck in a single highly-decorated classroom. For her and her family, learning spaces are not separate from other spaces. They believe that learning is not something that happens separately from the rest of their lives. Since early 2012, they have practiced ‘unschooling’ – which is something that sounds pretty crazy to the rest of us!

‘Unschooling’ is a home education method focused on the idea of natural, interest-driven learning: that is, the child is free to lead the direction of their learning. The parents act as facilitators, sourcing and providing access to resources, then allowing their child to make their own educational choices. It is estimated that up to 20% of home educated children in Australia are experiencing unschooling.

Not everyone is happy with this rejection of the traditional education philosophy. In 2014, John Kaye said that “letting children skate across whatever topic takes at their momentary fancy will leave many with debilitating deficits in essential skills and poorly developed self-control.” David Zyngier would agree, as he stated: “If the child wants to play all day, then I guess that’s what they do.” But for the Otto’s, unschooling is an education method that’s not tied up in a neat “one-space” philosophy.

Sarah’s “facilitator” is her mother, 33-year-old Joan Concilio. She’s a full-time web development and design specialist, a black belt in tae kwon do, and a lover of Facebook games. Seeing someone think differently is awe-inspiring to her. She says, “I cried watching Moneyball. Moneyball! I just get overwhelmed at the idea of big, sweeping new ways of looking at something and am so impressed by them,” so it’s no wonder that she chose an education method that’s a little bit eccentric.

Beverley Paine has been a prolific home education writer and supporter since 1989 and now runs a popular website called ‘The Educating Parent’. She describes those who follow unschooling as educators who “make full use of the amenity of the whole house, garden and community,” and she believes that the kitchen “makes an excellent science laboratory.”

On her website, Paine says that unschoolers are “learning every moment of every day.” So, whilst school students may view education as something they receive only when they’re seated at a desk listening to a teacher, it seems that children who experience unschooling are essentially taught that learning can happen anywhere and everywhere – not just when in a classroom.

Still, Joan says, “The intentionality of space is super-important to me. The main spaces in our home are full of things intentionally chosen to be interesting to the people who use that location and to spark conversation. I think that’s true in any home, right? Imagine having guests over for dinner; isn’t it great when they see a neat piece of art on your dining-room wall, or a family photo, and it starts a conversation? For us, unschooling is all about that ‘conversation-starter’ dynamic. It’s about following along with the current interests and passions of Sarah and introducing her to new things that might catch her eye.”

Clearly, people who practice unschooling hold to the concept of creating an environment full of interesting opportunities. The obvious thing people think of here is books and magazines. And according to Joan, Sarah does have ‘National Geographic History’ and ‘Birds and Blooms’ to flick through whilst enjoying a snack by the coffee table. But Sarah’s mum will also send Sarah links to cool websites and YouTube videos, take her to interesting places like antique stores, out-of-the-way used bookstores and tiny art galleries, and watch movies and play video games with her whilst discussing how what they see connects to their lives.

Gee – if that’s what ‘learning’ is then I’ll happily go back to school!

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