When we discuss schooling, deschooling and of course unschooling, a lot of people I think are limited in what they view schooling as. Schooling runs far deeper through our society than the institutions themselves.
‘Schooling’ is about all the things we have been taught about learning, about children themselves, what it means to be ‘educated’, what it means to be successful and how we view our own autonomy and freedoms (and those of others).
What this has lead to is so many beliefs – especially surrounding learning – in our society that are at best false, and at worst devastatingly disempowering. It’s so important to ask why.
I’ve come to think of it as schooled culture.
Schooled culture stretches far beyond the walls of the schools. It’s part of media, religion, parenting, politics and beyond.
While I think that you can’t simplify what schools offer down to simply the negatives, I think that the fact that the majority of schools work within a system of obedience, conformity and removing autonomy is still a valid judgement and worthy of being taken seriously.
Schooled culture feeds the false ideas that learning is not a natural process, authority is necessary, force is necessary (not autonomy) and conformity is necessary.
Learning is a natural process
In particular, one of the saddest notions I think is robbed by schooled culture is our trust in children’s (indeed all humans) innate ability to learn. I love the quote and writings from John Holt, who was a teacher who coined the term unschooling and a pioneer who said “By nature people are learning animals. Birds fly, fish swim, humans think and learn.”
The natural learning process is so incredible to watch unfold. I think many people, having not experienced it themselves, think that unschooled children must be gifted or that there must be secret force used. I know I myself had doubts before it was my reality.
Schooled culture has really capitalised on the fears and doubts of parents and made schooling synonymous with learning.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who wasn’t motivated to figure things out, to find the answers to personally relevant questions. However, I’ve met (and taught) plenty of kids who aren’t motivated to sit quietly and listen to someone else talk or to memorize the definitions of a list of words. That lack of interest doesn’t suggest an absence of motivation (to be remedied with carrots and sticks) but a problem with the model of instruction and curriculum.” – Alfie Kohn.
In our society, our learning in particular often isn’t our own, it’s open to judgement (including testing, assessment, expectations, force, manipulation, and control). Or if it is indeed our own, it is belittled and ridiculed. ‘Self-taught’ learning is too often seen as inferior learning.
Many can’t separate the process of teaching and learning. But children don’t need teaching, they need to have the freedom to teach themselves! Life itself is enough, our children’s incredible curiosity and innate drive to understand and participate in the world is enough.
Authority isn’t necessary
It seems as though learning is not valid or valued unless it is controlled by some authority. And I think this notion has to be formed early in schools in order to be accepted.
In my experience, unschooled children, teens and adults really reject these ideas and simply aren’t confined by their limitations. They know their worth, they are empowered learners and they feel capable.
I know the unschooled children I know wouldn’t allow anyone to force them to learn things or be controlled. In a society that tends to prize obedience and conformity in children, this is often frowned upon! These free children rejecting schooled culture and living autonomously goes against all the ways we have been conditioned!
“One of the weirdest characteristics of education in our (western) society… is that our approach to education is extraordinarily authoritarian. It is obsessed with compulsion and control. So the child in the modern classroom may not move, speak, sing, laugh, eat, drink, read, write, think their own thoughts, look out the window, or even use the toilet without explicit permission from an authority figure.”
“In WEIRD (western educated industrialised rich democratic) societies we are so habituated to this appalling lack of personal freedom that it has become functionally invisible to us and in a truly Orwellian twist, many people now consider it a ‘fundamental human right’ to be legally compelled to learn what somebody in authority says they have to learn.” – Carol Black.
Schooling is authoritarian. That much is obvious. There is a clear hierarchy and the student is at the bottom.
I know I don’t want my children being blindly obedient to authority, to the academic hierarchy and curriculum, to the system as a whole and being happy to have no autonomy (bodily, educationally, personally and leisurely).
The only authority that is needed is self-authority.
Force is not necessary
It’s not uncommon to see schooled children with a lack of responsibility for their own learning because the what/where/when/why/how is all dictated to them. They don’t know what it feels to have their autonomy respected in learning. That freedom is foreign to them – but because of this phenomena society boasts that children cannot learn without force. It’s such an underhanded robbery.
Furthermore, quite crucially, they typically don’t know the ways the learning relates to them. Why am I learning this? What does it mean to me? The way it’s forced and controlled and dictated really promotes a shallow understanding of whatever they are learning.
Too much of school is about artificially learning. Two dimensional. Context-less. Written for assessment, to tick that criteria off and to meet an end – not for interests sake or personal intrinsic motives. Is this what we want? Is this conducive to meaningful lasting learning? Or to passion? To success?
Whether people want to admit it or not, most schools are very rewards driven – with grades and awards and charts. The underlying belief that is being sold by this rewards and punishment paradigm in education is that force is necessary.
Indeed, force is necessary if you’re making people learn things they don’t want to. But when you remove the expectations to all learn the same thing, in the same way, at the same time (which is a fallacy to begin with), force becomes superfluous. I enjoyed this talk on rewards and drive which really ties into this.
“The forcible subjugation of children by adults forms the psychological underpinning of every other model of political and economic subjugation. This is not a metaphor; it’s a structuring principle of political reality.” – Carol Black.
Schooling and schooled culture disempowers people of all ages. It doesn’t take long to indoctrinate a generation to believe they need force and coercion to learn. Start young enough and it can systematically belittle children and convince people (including the children themselves!) that it’s normal to remove freedoms and autonomy from children.
“A person’s learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech.
If we take from someone the right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought.” – John Holt.
Many people don’t even know they can question these things. The system itself seemingly removes our belief that we are powerful and our questions valid.
A lot of people fall to the trump of “that’s what parents are for” but what about if you have parents who are schooled to not trust this process? What if you have parents who don’t believe in autonomous learning? What if your parents try to instil other values beyond the academic but it falls short because of the conditioning of society and the narrative we are constantly sold
Conformity is not necessary
Schooled culture conveys the very strong idea in our society that in order to succeed, you must conform. Individuality isn’t as prized as many would like to think it is. It’s very much a matter of that common quote I see shared on social media – “be yourself… not like that”.
Success seems to be defined by so many subconsciously as your ability to follow the path. Pass school, get a degree, get a career, get married, have children, get a house, etc.
“You will not reap the fruit of individuality in your children if you clone their education” – Marilyn Howshall.
School obviously sells the idea that we all need to know the same things. That there even is a universal set of ‘basic knowledge’ is pretty funny when you get talking to passionate successful people. Most of us will attest to how little we remember from schooling – which in my opinion is a result of forcing children to learn that which doesn’t interest them. Even if a curriculum is followed, the truth still remains that children don’t learn uniformly and (like all of humanity) aren’t made to conform.
Education should make you more yourself; it should both be incredibly individual and allow the child to be their unique selves. The world needs all different kinds of passionate, creative, empowered people. Schooled culture doesn’t embrace this fact.
I really could go on about the ways in which schooled culture grossly disempowers us as learners and people but I think it comes down to what children deserve – which goes against all the things schooled culture indoctrinates.
That is, they deserve to learn naturally, to be the authority of their own learning, to have autonomy over their learning, and to be wholly individual – especially in their learning.
Imagine how different you would be if you were afforded these rights? Imagine how different the world would be if we all were?
One of the best ways we can counter this culture is to continue to speak out and live our truth loudly and show that life beyond these limitations is both possible and incredible! Join me?
- Free to Learn by Peter Gray (I read this one after making the decision to unschool and spent the entire book enthusiastically nodding along!)
- Learning All The Time by John Holt (and indeed ALL of John Holt’s works)
- Home Grown by Ben Hewitt.
Thank you for reading!
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Evonne Rogers says
Excellent article, well written and so important. I wrote a book called Learning Unleashed in an attempt to address the schooling world issues that you present here. Still hoping that school folks would read it. There is such a fear, ignorance and willful dismissal of anything other than the current way we do school. I remain hopeful and articles like yours are so encouraging. I’ll be retweeting and sharing it on my Facebook page and website. Thank you!
Nicole Reeder says
Love this! I was public schooled, and most of my life I thought that I hated learning. It wasn’t until I became an adult and started learning things I was passionate about that I realized I LOVE learning! What I hated was being made to “learn” things I didn’t care about, and because I didn’t care I really didn’t learn them. I memorized facts to pass tests and then promptly forgot them! When I started learning about unschooling it rang so true to me and was like learning about something I already knew was right. I’ve still had deschooling to do and it’s been a process, but I think all of this is spot on. I’ve been loving your blog, by the way!!
Hello, great post. Where are the Carol Black quotes from?
Oh man the link didn’t add in! They’re from a talk of hers on YouTube! Hugely recommend watching it! https://youtu.be/UyoBBROgUsQ