Wilderness Kids- Thoughts on Teaching, Learning and Unschooling

I typically use my blog and website to discuss my interaction with the wilderness, to explain and share where I have been, what I have learned, and my personal experiences. I try to stick to topics related to backpacking, floating, biking and hiking. Since I have a four year old and I am passing on my skills to him, I include my thoughts on teaching and some of our experiences in my posts. I have been asked again and again about how my plans for my son’s education are going to work, why I have decided against sending him to school, and what is unschooling. This post addresses those questions and expands on my previous posts, covering my thoughts on teaching and learning in general.

My “Teaching Philosophy”

In other posts I have talked about the things my son and I do together, how we go about being in nature together.  I have briefly touched on my “teaching philosophy” on the Wilderness Kids pages of my website.  The basic concept behind my philosophy is unschooling, that is, letting Nicolai learn what he wants to learn when and how he chooses. This differs form homeschooling in that we have no set schedules or curriculum. That does not mean I sit idly by. I have a very active part in the process. When he expresses an interest in a topic it is my job to help him along on that path of discovery, wherever it might take him.  For example, he is interested in pirates- we might choose to explore such topics as the history of the Spanish and British Empires, colonialism and manifest destiny, the exploration of the new world, the people of the new world, mapping and navigation, early medicine and surgery, the history and use of coinage, gold and silver, underwater archeology, scuba diving, not to mention sailing ships and their history- the list could go on endlessly. One topic can lead to another, and a lifetime of study. This is how the process of unschooling works for us.

A Modern Education

A post on teaching cannot be complete without at least touching on the “modern” educational system. As I am trained as an anthropologist, this gives me some license to critically analyse the creations of humans. I think it is important to remember that the “modern” system of education has only been around a hundred years or so. Our education, our “modern” educational system and the way we are taught, are products of the Industrial Revolution. We are learning based on a system that is about one hundred years old. With that fact in mind, my question is- what about the teaching “systems” of the other 40,000 years of our evolution as modern humans? What about the process of elders and peers telling stories and relating knowledge and experiences to the younger members of the family? What about children watching and helping and learning as they do? How can we ignore this and what are the implications of denying our children the process of learning naturally? I feel this can leave a void in the person, inhibiting their full development for countless reasons, not the least of which is lack of relationship to family.

Common Questions I am Asked- Socialisation

I have been asked endless questions about the impacts of choosing to not send my son to school.  The most common question is: “Aren’t you worried about socialisation, about Nicolai making friends?” The answer to this question is addressed by Neufeld and Mate in their book Hold On To Your Kids. In it they discuss the importance of the parent-child relationship, and how it is being replaced by the peer-child relationship. The conclusion is that healthy peer relationships are developed by the child through the bond, the attachment relationship he has developed with his parents.

The relationship between child and parent is the most important relationship to be made, and the stronger it is, the healthier the child will be in the relationships he chooses to develop with others. Without a strong and healthy parent-child relationship, socialisation, and  healthy relationships with adults and peers, cannot occur.  Sending children off to school and other engagements every day of the week is not building that relationship, it is allowing the parent-child bond to be broken, and for children to raise children.

As regards options for learning and socialisation, our process is not limited to our learning together. A common misconception is that unschooled or homeschooled kids study their lesson and are then secreted away in dark rooms and kept from all outside interaction.  This couldn’t be further from the truth. Nicolai attends music class, soccer, and swimming lessons, and as he gets older we have discussed joining a chess club and attending weekly science and language classes at our local homeschooling center. We attend concerts and lectures and community events.  We have plans to volunteer at  the natural history museum, there are lectures and classes there, and we can sit in on lectures at the university.  The possibilities are endless and only limited by us.

My Son as  a Leader

Another argument for public schooling is that since my son shows such great aptitude for learning, such passion and intelligence, don’t I feel obligated to send him to public school, to pass his passion and knowledge on to other kids? My answer: the best thing I can do for the world is to “raise” my son and “teach” him how to live right- to give him the love and care and understanding he needs so he can develop into a full human being.  For me this means helping him along on his learning journey by being an active part of the process, not by letting  a flawed system that teaches children to pass state exams, compliance to clocks, schedules, and presumed authority take over for me.

I know this may sound a bit harsh at first, but introducing children to a 9 to 5 schedule (in their case 8 to3) has foremost as it’s goal the preparation of children to be “productive” adults- to work their 9 to 5 job and fit in with the rest. Learning does not occur from 8 to 3, for 9 months a year. It is a lifelong, every day process. I absolutely do not accept the concept of 9 to 5 and would never dream of imposing it on my son.  In the end, he may choose to wander the wilderness for the rest of his life (my dream).  Or he may choose to lead the world- but the choice will be his, and he will make it based on his own desires and the knowledge he has chosen to develop.

Doing the Right Thing

I have also been asked, “How do you know what to do, that you are doing the right thing?”  How? This is part of the lesson in it for all of us: we all know what is right, we all have it in our genetic makeup to make the right decisions. Today we make informed decisions, based on collection and interpretation of data.  We too often forget to look inside, to trust our intuition, the knowledge we were born with.  I feel that modern education  stifles that intuition, even crushes it.  I owe it to my son to allow him to experience life to its fullest, to learn to trust himself, and develop the confidence to make decisions and know they are right. When he sees me confidently making decisions and living my life the way I feel is right, he learns to do the same.

What About College?

The final common question I will address regards higher education.  Many have asked me if my son will be able to go on to college, and how unschooling will affect his chances of acceptance into universities.  All that is required for college entrance is a piece of paper stating he has learned for 12 years, and a set of scores for the SAT.  So the simple answer is to take the GED and SAT tests.  It will be easy enough for him to pass the GED, probably around age 12 or 13 at the rate he is going.  And then he will just take the SAT, submit the applications like everyone else, if he chooses to do so.  He will enter college based on his knowledge and his merits, and will have no problems doing so.

Final Thoughts

I understand it is not possible or even desirable for every family to homeschool or unschool their children. If children go to public schools it does not mean they will be ruined for life. Every parent must take and active role in the rearing of their children, and take responsibility for making the parent-child bond.  Parents must be part of their kid’s learning process every day to insure that their children learn and live and grow into healthy adults. All parents must be leaders in their children’s lives, showing the confidence, passion, and courage that their children need to see in their primary role models. Unschooling parents must posses these traits as well as the motivation and resolve to be their child’s guide through learning.

It was my intention with this post to convey my thoughts as inoffensively as possible and without ranting too much.  I hope I have not alienated anyone who finds, or found, my posts informative. I apologise if I have. As regards this topic, my inspiration and background comes from the work of Maria Montessori, John Holt, and Gordon Neufeld.  Find books by them and read them if you have any interest in learning more.  I will post some titles on the Desert Explorer website, on the Recommended Books page soon. For an answer to the question, “what is unschooling?”, see the John Holt website. For background on unschooling, see the article on Unschooling Journal blog. And finally I’ll share a favorite quote,by Mark Twain, that started me thinking about the educational system: “Don’t let the university get in the way of your education.”

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