Unschooling: What If Students Directed Their Own Learning?

Dec 14, 2020 by Lacrecia Terrance

What if students directed their own learning? What a question to ask, when our educational system has transitioned to remote learning, a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis. As data emerges, politicians and community leaders are sounding the alarm over what they see as a disturbing, disproportionate impact on communities of color. According to the Center of Disease Control, the death rate from COVID-19 appears to be considerably high among African Americans. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards announced that 70% of deaths were among African Americans, despite making up only 33% of the state’s population. Research has long pointed us in the inequitable conditions in medicine and even more in education. Disparities and significant gaps between the poorest and wealthiest schools, access to basic technology, and the inability to effectively provide accommodations based on needs and on-going monitoring are of great concern. The opportunity gap (disguised as the achievement gap) between children from poorer and richer families will continue to rise as long as the school closures continue.  We must take advantage of this time by maximizing our children's existing knowledge, empowering them to connect to who they are as learners and where they stand as global citizens. The benefits of this new knowledge of personalized learning will impact the new design for future learning.
Starting at an early age, my adopted way of learning was rote memorization. I vividly remember a teacher telling me, “Just memorize it and you’ll be okay.''  For years I adjusted to memorization to make the grade necessary for passing. Later in life, I had to unlearn some structures and strategies and re-teach myself better educational strategies. Because of my personal K-12 public school experience, I wanted so desperately for all of my children’s experiences to be different, so I moved to better neighborhoods where I had a choice of better schools. I know many parents who think this is the answer, but unfortunately I was wrong at the expense of my children’s early years of education. It is easy to dismiss the importance of "knowing your students," when some educators, not purposefully have been exposed to certain systems and structures that have taught them if a child is not performing at a certain level, at a certain time, he or she is not capable of mastering certain skills. My younger child was diagnosed in second grade with dyslexia and learning was challenging due to strategies not being in place to help her initially. I provided those missing strategies at home to close the gaps. My daughter hated school, felt bullied by adults and students, was told so many times that she was a low reader, and believed that she wasn’t capable of learning. The systems and structures in place did not work for her.

To maximize learning for every child, we need to dig deeper than this superficial acquaintance. I had to recognize my own daughter's needs and strengths from false and/or outdated ideologies. She was programmed with the thinking and analysis of many of her teachers. Once diagnosed, I made the decision to homeschool her, as well as all of my girls. I began a journey of “unschooling” my children by giving them a child-focused learning environment with an informal structure.
Unschooling is a style of learning that allows students’ interest and curiosities to drive the path of learning, organically. With new realities of schooling as a result of Covid-19, adjusting to learning from home, while parents are transitioning into front line teachers, could be a stressful time. I encourage all to take advantage of this time with your child(ren) to learn who they are and how they learn. Prior to Covid-19, as well as presently,  it is important for me to take advantage of our time together, and  allow my children to experience learning in such a way that addresses their learning modality. When my youngest daughter's teacher informed her that she was a slow learner, those barriers were hard to break. Unfortunately, because of inequitable experiences, some students internalize the image of being worthless and perpetuating negative self images, while this is not every parent’s and child’s experience.  Well respected educational leader, Linda Darling-Hammond stated in her article Unequal Opportunity, “The U.S. educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world, and students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities. Educational experiences for minority students have continued to be substantially separate and unequal.” Unfortunately, this was an experience that my daughter had to overcome.

These suggestions aren’t just from my experiences, but also from the countless hours of communication with other families about the aspirations they have for their children and communities. Anyone who touches the education of a child, either directly or indirectly, should be immersed in these efforts towards equal access for children.

High Expectations with Support and Love 
As I reflect upon this experience, I had to adjust to a new norm. Balancing work and home looked different. My husband and I traded off subjects based on the ones we enjoyed most, to bring in the excitement of learning. We created a schedule with the children including the second grader, and each of them made goals and shared at least one thing they always wanted to do. Those things included, dance, gymnastics, saxophone, trumpet, and basketball. We also developed high expectations with mangable support that encouraged the self-discipline necessary to be productive learners.

When learning from home, time constraints are different from the normal school day. During the school day, students are stressed to complete lessons before the bell rings and follow a rigid schedule developed by the teacher. At home, providing the flexibility with time and giving the students ownership of the sequence for accomplishing the assigned tasks, could lessen the anxieties and rekindle a love for learning. Taking advantage of more hands-on activities and designing projects that allow students to construct their own learning, will be of great benefit, however this takes patience. Children are naturally curious and putting these type strategies in place cultivates a sense of pride in who they are, which  helps them appreciate the process of how they learn. Taking it upon ourselves to unschool our children was more personal, more engaging, and more anchored in self-discovery. This took a lot of patience of re-learning and understanding the needs of each of them.

Build New Learning Experiences
Building a relationship, setting expectations, and keeping your child engaged, should be priorities in this transformational change. To help increase literacy, read books and articles relevant to their interest, and not in a way that was prescribed. It was selections that mirrored themselves; like characters with African American children as scientists, doctors, leaders, and more. Our girls became fully immersed in childhood, exploring a variety of places and things and learning to manage relationships among their family and their peers. They developed their own unique understanding of the world and their place within it. Yes, we have typical preteens that were loving, curious, magical, moody, and filled with bold opinions on just about everything.

Our family embraced an alternative to the traditional learning and living environment of schedules, structures, and school through unschooling. We prioritized flow over structure and biological clocks over buzzing alarms. Yes, our children were exposed to standards, but in a way that worked for them and at their own pace. Unschooling is essentially a curiosity led approach to learning that leads to exploration and implementation of knowledge to children, instead of relying on rote memorization or the passing of information from adults and outdated and colognized textbooks. This approach has been an invaluable resource for our family. My oldest daughter has transitioned back into public school in high school. Her academic average is a 4.2 gpa, She is confident in who she is and knows how to apply her way of learning to any subject. She has taken her foundation to build her future as a bio-med student. Student directed learning allowed her access to information and served as a guide through everyday living and  the life skills to navigate adulthood. I understand this is a trying time, these suggestions can help in developing a plan or pathway to get started.
What If, the components described in our journey of unschooling or student directed learning were integrated into the best practices and curriculums of school districts across America?  THAT’S the unschooling that gives me great hope for life After-COVID.

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