Thursday, July 31, 2014

Breaking Down Hierarchies in Learning: Re-Imagining the Student-Teacher Relationship Through Unschooling

One of the most fundamental, and I believe revolutionary aspects of unschooling, is how it challenges one of the most deeply rooted beliefs about education and how it works in our society. The belief is that teachers are the holders of knowledge, wisdom, and other educational things, and students are the receivers, empty vessels to be filled. As Ivan Illich said:
Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.
I had a short conversation recently with someone on Twitter, where they said that they'd talked recently with someone about unschooling, and that person said he just couldn't see how someone could get interested in something without an inspiring teacher. As an unschooler, this attitude seems mind-blowing to me. I can't quite get my head around how it could possibly make sense to someone to think that way. Yet, when I consider that of all the concerns people have about unschooling, a huge portion of them boil down to "but how can you learn without a teacher?," it doesn't necessarily make any more sense, but it does seem to show a pattern. There are a whole lot of people who literally don't understand how children could learn without a teacher. There are a lot of people who think that teachers are depositors and students are depositories.

This is a sad state of affairs for everyone involved.

I started writing this article months ago. But after just a scribbled paragraph, it got put aside in favour of something else. I have a long list of post and article ideas, not to mention the ebook I'm working on, so it's easy to jump around between thoughts and ideas and writing projects. But when I re-discovered that little snippet, I liked it. And it's really what I'd consider the heart of this post, what I'm really trying to get at, so I wanted to share it here:
By challenging the idea of one person as the learner and another as the teacher, you start breaking down a lot of ingrained ideas about hierarchies of knowledge, and who belongs where on that hierarchy. Realizing that everyone, no matter their age, has things to both learn and share, strengthens individual and community bonds, as well as opening up access to a whole lot of knowledge and skills you wouldn't really have access to if you were only looking at professional teachers. Thus unschooling parents aren't seeking to become teachers, but to learn alongside their children, to both share knowledge and gain it themselves.

By living an unschooling life, we have the opportunity to challenge a lot of hierarchies that many people take for granted. We get to re-imagine what it can be to live together as a family, with respect for children and teens, good communication, and working partnerships, instead of a top-down, authoritarian, parents give directives and children don't question them set-up. It also gives us the chance to re-imagine what learning can look like without the teacher-student hierarchies of the schooling system.

What if children don't have to be forced to learn? What if children don't have to be taught? What if "education" can look like meaningful partnerships where learning is recognized as a collaborative process?

Both older and younger people can share and gain knowledge from each other. This means that mixed age friendships, mixed age groups and classes, friendships with age peers, and groups of age peers can all benefit from relationships of shared learning, and have relationships based on mutual respect and liking, no matter their age. One person doesn't have to take on a Teacher role and the other that of a Student. They can just share and learn and discuss...

Yes, age makes a difference. It often changes the way people relate to each other, older people have had more life experience, and more time to develop mastery in their chosen fields or areas of passion. Thus a mentor and mentored relationship might develop when there's a large age gap between two people, which is perfectly natural. But within that framework, both parties can still recognize that they both have valuable things to contribute: one is not the filler of the pail and the other, well, a bucket.

Free choice can radically change the relationship between a teacher and a student. In a school type setting, teachers are there because it's a job, and while hopefully many care about what they're doing, their livelihood likely depends on keeping their student's test scores up, and not being overly controversial in the material they teach. Students are there because they have to be. Neither part has all that many options.

Outside of a school, even formal teacher-student relationships can change dramatically. As unschoolers, children and teens are choosing to enter into such a relationship, which means they're doing it because they want to, because they're learning about something that matters to them, because they care. And the teachers, instead of having to focus on tests, have the job of best sharing their knowledge in a way that's interesting, enjoyable, and challenging. They're trying to create a good experience for their student(s), and if they don't succeed at that, an unschooled student can choose to simply end that relationship. It becomes about a good rapport between teacher and students, and about actually learning something meaningful, not about standardized results.

It's not all clear cut. The lines between teacher and mentor, teacher and student, friend and teacher quickly start to blur when you take school out of the equation and add in a big dose of free choice. Sometimes monetary exchanges will be involved, and sometimes they won't. Sometimes there will be a class, sometimes a one-on-one lesson, and sometimes a casual meeting. Sometimes a teacher will turn into a friend, or a friend become a mentor as well.

What remains a constant with unschooling is that learning and teaching--how it works, who does it, and when it happens--is being re-imagined, and approached with an attitude of openness. This challenging of existing knowledge hierarchies--who is thought to have "authority" and who not--is to me one of the most radical and important elements of life learning. We're not just re-imagining learning, we're changing how people relate to each other.

This more egalitarian way of looking at learning and at relationships between learners (because really, everyone is a learner) is also empowering for children. If we value what children and teenagers have to share, their ideas, their experiences, and their knowledge, we're showing them that they're valuable, and worthy of respect. They're not depositories, they're people capable of learning from others and making contributions themselves.

What do I hope people will take away from this article? Mainly just that, outside of schools and schooling, there can be a wonderfully diverse amount of learning relationships, and that the role of "teachers" and "students" is much more flexible, has much more fluidity, and is a lot less authoritarian. It even starts to look a lot less like Teachers and Students, and a lot more like just a bunch of people learning from and with each other: a collection of mutually agreeable learning relationships and learning communities.

There is so much richness to be gained when you stop looking at some people as depositors and others as depositories, and instead see that we're all learners, and we're all in it together.

A big thanks to Sarah and Lauren for looking over this post and helping me to fix a few problems. My regular editor (also known as my sister) is away this week, so the help was much appreciated!

1 comment:

  1. I hear you, Idzie! Thank you for so beautifully articulating what sits on the minds and hearts of so many of us who choose curiosity-led learning. This notion of simply exploring our environments and connecting with what feels good has been deliberately complicated for the sake of "structure" and "civilization." It's refreshing to be in spaces where folks are okay with questioning things, and this seems like one of those spaces. My daughters (10 and 8) are unschoolers, and their dad and I are so grateful to have come across a way of life that honors our daughters as they are, and not as whatever society or even we as their parents, think they should be. They are so much happier now, and we intend to continue to chip away at all of the ways they've been confined and convinced about who or what they should be. Deschooling is an ongoing practice, and an eye-opening process; we're knee-deep in exploration and loving it. Thanks for your voice in this space.