Patrick Farenga worked closely with the author and teacher John Holt until Holt’s death in 1985. He is the President of Holt Associates Inc. and was the Publisher of Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) from 1985 until it stopped publishing in Nov. 2001. GWS was the nation’s first periodical about homeschooling, started by Holt in 1977.
David Loitz invited me to write for the Catalyst a “pragmatic suggestion on how to encourage parents/teachers to use some of the wisdom of unschooling to help subvert the traditional mindset of a lot of schools.”
First, to both parents and teachers, I advise you to focus on childrens’ strengths rather than their weaknesses. We spend too much time worrying about what our children and students don’t know and not enough time figuring out how to engage them with what interests them in their lives and then build upon their existing curiosity.
The reality of learning is that the learner must want to learn, and no amount of requirements and expectations can create this interest. Requirements and expectations can create fear and compliance, but the chances of them creating learning that is remembered and used once the class ends depends totally upon the learner and how they perceive their learning experience. Illich defined education as “learning under the assumption of scarcity,” but, as anyone watching an infant or a preschool-age child can see, learning is abundant. This is why education is not the same as learning.
Questions from young children abound; in fact, many people complain about kids asking too many questions. Encourage children to ask questions and talk with you, make them active participants in their search for answers rather than passive recipients of your knowledge. In short, work with children and not on them.
I also suggest that parents and teachers consider that learning is not the result of teaching, but the result of the activities of learners. Unschooling is not antithetical to asked-for teaching at all; but education appears to be antithetical to free will.
However, most of you who read this blog probably work in schools and must make children learn what the curriculum says they need to know in any week. Here are some ideas you might want to try to help you create bonds of trust and human connection with students so they may ask for your help and teaching.
- Grade as little and as lightly as possible. Focus more on providing feedback about their work rather than evaluation. Emphasize how important the process of learning is to your students, and show it by your demonstrated concern for the process and not the test.
- Involve yourself in activities you enjoy doing with children outside of school. This way you can appreciate the other strengths and ways of learning that children cannot display easily in class. Indeed, once you connect with a child this way they may open up to you and reveal a great many other hobbies, interests, and concerns they have that, for any number of reasons, they shield from others in their lives.
- Publicize the unusual or non-curricular activities that you do with children in and out of school. This is not just self-promotion—it is a school survival skill for non-conformists. John Gatto told me that the reason he wrote his essays that earned him his teacher-of-the-year awards was so his school couldn’t fire him easily. He knew the things he wrote about were important and inspiring to others, but he also knew that he was rocking the school boat by helping one of his students learn to draw comics (by providing the student with “cover” so he could go to the NY Public Library during school hours to read and draw), and another to make and sell homemade sweaters during school, and so on. These are treasonable offenses to school officials but, because John covered himself with awards and publications, he could withstand the attacks (and they were attacks—just ask John about his school’s efforts to fire him and you’ll be amazed at the lengths people will go to quell new efforts and ideas). Don’t overlook outside activities, awards, and publications to build support for your unconventional work in school. They may also help you attract others who share your passion for helping others learn in ways school doesn’t permit.
None of this easy, I know. John Holt got fired from some of his teaching positions because many teachers and parents felt his students were having too much fun, even though he could prove his students’ grades improved in his classes. Ironically, as Holt notes in Instead of Education, while some of his fellow teachers complained how their students wanted their classes to be more like Holt’s, it was ultimately the parents who demanded that Holt stop making his classes so engaging and be “more like school.”
It isn’t educational techniques that will ultimately help children learn, but rather sincere relationships with other people. As my friend Aaron Falbel said in an interview several years ago, “Indeed, it is a great joy and privilege to help someone do something that he or she wants to do, if you are asked to help. It’s when that help or teaching is not wanted that the ambiguities and unequal aspects of our relationships come into play . . . We don’t leave young people in a vacuum; rather, we put within their reach those activities, those ways of life that we believe in ourselves, and then we wait for them to take advantage of those opportunities. And mostly they will. Remember those babies, dying to get into everything. There are no guarantees, of course. When we try to guarantee an outcome, no matter how good our intention, that’s when we get into trouble.
As my friend John Holt knew so well, and exemplified so well in his life, it all boils down to trust. That he (and Illich) believed in: trust, not education.”