Over the past year or so I have been introduced to several alternative education models which I previously had no idea existed.
I went to public schools growing up and never had much more problem with it than I think most other people do. I knew about homeschooling, but like most kids who go to school I thought that homeschooling was a strange, impractical idea and that the kids who were home schooled were strange and awkward. Honestly, I can’t say that I have changed my opinion very much about kids who are home schooled since all those that I have met to date have been socially awkward and seem like they could have benefited a great deal in that area from having more of the social interaction that a school type environment provides, but I digress. Back to the point, I went to public school and knew that home schooling existed but did not have a very favorable opinion of it. I also knew that there was such a thing as private school, though I didn’t really imagine it to be much different than public school until I started hearing public school teachers complaining about how standardized testing was interfering with their ability to effectively teach their subjects.
It was at about that point that I really started to develop some sort of opinion on education. Given the options I was aware of, I had mostly concluded that it was unlikely I would be able to afford private school for any offspring I might produce, but given the choice I would probably choose a private school over public and either kind of school over home schooling. However, I also decided that homeschooling did have the advantage of being able to teach a broader range of subjects and in more detail than school were likely to be able to do, so I also decided that in either case there would also be some form of guided learning at home in order to round things out a little.
Then I found out about Sudbury Schools, where instead of a curriculum the students direct the learning and there are teachers there to help and guide them. Soon after learning of the existence of such places I also discovered Unschooling, which is basically a somewhat less structured home school version of a Sudbury School. I haven’t done much in depth research into either of these alternative forms of education, but from what I’ve learned so far through Wikipedia and anecdotal evidence, my perspective on education has shifted somewhat.
On the one hand, I am of the opinion that while the little games society demands people to play are stupid and annoying they do exist and therefore it is in people’s best interests to learn how to play those games. That means that even though testing and grades and competition might not necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea, I think it is in everyone’s best interests to find a way to deal with those things unless they are truly passionate about some profession or career which does not require any kind of formal qualifications. In other words, I think people should be prepared to deal with reality as it is even if I think that that reality might and probably should eventually change. That means learning to deal with anything from tests and grading to bullies and tough social situations, because no matter how you decide to act there will always be people in opposition to you because that is the way humans work.
On the other hand, I believe that while a school environment might be very good for preparing people for some of those social realities, I do not think that they are necessarily the best way to produce an educated adult who possesses the capacity for abstract thought (to steal a phrase from the Cajun Boy). It’s definitely possible to come out of public schools and not be a sheep, but it seems less likely to me that someone who learns by actively seeking out the information and questioning things for themselves would grow up to be someone who doesn’t really question anything and who just takes the information they’re fed and believes it.
So, taking both of those viewpoints into consideration, I have recently formed the opinion that the best way to go about dealing with the hypothetical situation of educating a child of my own is this: unschooling until the child is roughly 5th or 6th grade age, then a Sudbury type school for about 5th through 8th grades and then a transition into either public or private high school.
I think that unschooling during those first years could have many, many advantages. From what I’ve read, mostly on the Organic Sister‘s blog, it seems like unschooling helps to foster a better parent/child relationship, though that might just be because of the time spent together and not necessarily the educational model. I also think that unschooling early on is likely to foster more of an interest in learning, more curiosity, more passion for knowledge than a traditional elementary school environment, which would also lead to better reasoning skills and more free thinking. So I think it’s a good foundation.
Then, with the transition into a Sudbury school the child would be put into a slightly more structured learning environment (if I understand the differences between unschooling and Sudbury schools correctly). It would also end up putting them into more social situations more frequently, because while I wouldn’t isolate the child before that time I doubt they would be interacting with other kids for 8 hours or so five days a week almost every week for nine months out of the year. And by getting them into that environment around age 9-11, they’ll be able to have some stability in their surroundings and the people they interact with while they go through puberty.
After the Sudbury school the social transition into a more traditional high school will hopefully be a little easier, though I imagine there will still be some issues with the change from free, self directed, non-competitive learning to the curriculum based system in traditional schools. However, my hope is that by that time the child/young adult would be able to understand the differences and my reasons for wanting them to learn how to deal with that kind of learning environment.
Throughout all of this, I believe there would have to be a lot of flexibility and room for change. For example, if the child has friends who go to school and tell them stories which make them interested in going to school when they’re 6 or 7, I’m not going to completely dismiss the idea of the child going to school. I think the best way to handle it would probably be to go to the local elementary school and talk to the administration about sort of a trial period to make sure this is what would work well for the child, then maybe have the child go to school for a couple of weeks without actually enrolling them to let them try it out. If they want to stay, enroll them. If not, go back to the way things were, no harm no foul.