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Learning at its Best

Pragmatic suggestions for schoolers from unschoolers (Guest Post by Patrick Farenga)

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.

    1. 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.
    2.  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.
    3. 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.”


13 thoughts on “Pragmatic suggestions for schoolers from unschoolers (Guest Post by Patrick Farenga)

  1. I really like the idea of learning being something that can’t be forced. It reminds me of an article I read from the Big Picture schools that basically said you shouldn’t make a child learn how to read, but instead help them find their interest so they’ll ask you to teach them to read. Such a simple idea, but I think it makes a big difference. And really, it’s something that, surprisingly, we have such a hard time understanding in our society.

    Posted by aliciarice | July 7, 2011, 2:10 am
  2. thank you Patrick. what a great post.

    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.

    Unschooling is not antithetical to asked-for teaching at all; but education appears to be antithetical to free will.

    key: choice given because of trust – which comes from a good relationship, but also strengthens it

    Posted by monika hardy | July 7, 2011, 8:22 am
  3. This is what I’m trying to get at – thank you for joining in the conversation here and saying this so well, Patrick.

    I’d encourage everyone able to do so to start a school based on learning, fun, and relationships.

    What’s your take on start-up schools, Patrick, and what they need to do to survive?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 7, 2011, 2:15 pm
    • Chad, I think a start-up school is a very difficult thing to pull off, but in my experience it can be done. Keeping the original vision of the school or learning center seems to be the tricky part, as once new people join, there is a tendency for pressure to increase on the school to be more like, or more competitive with, existing schools or learning centers. Chris Mercogliano, a founder of the Albany Free School, has written a book, How to Grow a A School, that might answer some of your concerns: Also, John Holt wrote about the pros and cons of starting a school or learning center in Teach Your Own, FYI.

      In order to survive, if the school is independent, not a state charter, then having the support of the local community is vital. My friends at North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens ( have become experts at this, as has Shikshantar, a local Indian initiative:, and The Purple Thistle Center in Vancouver ( I think Matt gets some funding from the government for his center, but I’m not sure). I just realized that none of these examples are exactly schools, so Chris’ book could be your best place for a more precise answer.

      Posted by Patrick Farenga | July 18, 2011, 3:35 pm
  4. All of my children have been unschooled. The first tests they ever had were in university. I remember attending a homeschooling conference in Maryland 25 years ago to listen to John Holt. He was such a realist and warned us all how difficult the decision to unschool is. It has been one of the defining moments of my life to be an unschooler. I can attest t like Gatto to the glories of providing cover for my students and to the continuous attempts to scuttle unschooled learning.

    Let me tell you a story. My car failed near my home the other day. When the wrecker came out popped a former student. It had been ten years since we had seen each other yet his smile told me that this was no barrier to re-acquaintence. He pulled my car onto this trailer and we spoke for awhile. One of my cardinal rules in teaching has been to always be able to hold my head high when I meet former students. I don’t have a perfect batting average, but I have always tried to hold to that standard. Just before he got in his wrecker he turned to me and said, “Thanks.” I was mystified. “What for?”. “Well, I always had fun in your class and I always knew you cared.”

    That’s why Patrick’s piece means so much to me. It re-connects me with a very live circuit that I have lost these last few years of teaching at the university. And that is why my classes will be more unschooled than ever this fall. And that is why I will renew my vow to hold my head high again and to show that I care. Thanks for this grand post. I can attest to its truth through continuous experience. That is a rare thing.

    Posted by tellio | July 9, 2011, 8:19 am
  5. Pat! SO GREAT TO HAVE YOU HERE MAN! I’m really delighted David coaxed you into writing here, and as someone firmly committed to barrier-crossing and other transgressive acts against education sector balkanization, this is very good.

    Thanks for your practical suggestions, and of course, loving up two greats who are at the center of all I think about and and do: Holt and Illich. (On an ironic note, after living with me for 10 years, my husband is assigning Deschooling Society to his graduate students at Harvard this fall–I nearly got kicked out of Harvard for doing my dissertation on him and found Deschooling Society in the library’s discard pile.)

    Anyway, a lot of the folks who come here to the COOP already try assiduously to do many of the things you suggest in your post: grade lightly, center instruction around relationship, introduce as much unschoolish activity as possible. Maybe in another post you might describe your intellectual and spiritual journey away from school, to feeling that working outside school was essentially the best way for you to serve learners and your life purpose?

    Because as Tellio describes above, the state of consciousness required to conceptualize education “unschooled” is very complex, and sometimes difficult to achieve for folks who work inside the institution. Yet it seems to me there is great value in being able to consider what learning looks like, and what may be valuable, from many points of view. Your description of how you got to the place you are (a little like Jamie Steckart’s post here would be another important contribution to the conversation.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 10, 2011, 11:05 am
  6. Kirsten, it’s a pleasure for me to be here. I’m glad your husband is assigning Deschooling Society to a class at Harvard, but not surprised to learn Illich is pretty much ignored there. I’m so glad you rescued that copy of Deschooling Society in the discard pile!

    Though I talk about my journey away from school in my introduction to Teach Your Own, I’ll think about and write a more focused description for the Catalyst when I can.


    Posted by Patrick Farenga | July 18, 2011, 3:50 pm
  7. Pat, thanks so much for your post. I’m new to the Catalyst and delighted to find this unschooling-themed discussion. My husband has been teaching about six years, and during that time his perspective on schooling has changed dramatically (thanks to his own experience and, more recently, a stack of books by Holt, Gatto, Illich, and others). He and I plan on unschooling (or more accurately, continuing our unschooling-ish ways with) our two daughters, who aren’t yet “school age,” and he is leaning more heavily than ever toward trying to find a new line of work. What advice would you have for teachers who might be trying to find a way to chip away at some of the atrocities of the public school system, and positively affect the lives of school-age kids, while no longer being teachers? What kind of work is there for former teachers wanting to help “deschool” society and encourage more natural, community-based learning? (I’d also like to add a quick thank-you for the important work you do on behalf of children. Many, many thanks for helping to light the way!)

    Posted by Mindy | August 19, 2011, 3:29 am
  8. Mindy,

    Providing a safe place for kids to talk, play, and do things in your community and your home (if you’re willing to open your home this way) is something I’ve seen unschoolers/homeschoolers do many times. They create clubs and invite interested kids to join. Some personal examples include The Detective Club my wife ran for several years. It started meeting during school-hours since all the members were homeschooled, but as word got around our neighborhood a schoolchild wanted to join, so we made the meetings for after school. I ran The Stage and Parlor Magic Club in our home for three years; once a month, for three hours, about 20 kids came to join me and my youngest daughter to learn and perform magic (a long-term hobby of mine that my youngest also shares). We did shows at local senior facilities and homeschooling events.

    One of our friends (a pediatrician who gave up her practice to homeschool) and her kids loved theater, so she created the Puddlejump Players for her children. This got to be so popular that others wanted to join, and soon the Players turned into a huge troupe, needing to rent theater space for their original shows, often performing 4 shows in a weekend.

    Former teachers I know also offer their services to homeschoolers for a fee for tutoring, classes, or evaluations. They also create their own clubs and groups. One friend, a former school principal, has been running a Literature Group for at least fifteen years now. Her homeschooled kids are all adults, but she loves reading and discussing literature with kids and her group remains popular with homeschoolers. Others prefer to work with more established, schoolish organizations in their communities, such as Odyssey of the Mind, and they are able to personalize these groups, too.

    There are many ways to encourage community-based, natural learning that will occur to you as your children get more involved with the world. Indeed, it was our girls who suggested creating the clubs to us, not the other way around!

    Best wishes,

    Posted by Patrick Farenga | August 19, 2011, 12:51 pm


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