Q. How do you know if an unschooled child is learning?
A. He’s alive.

The point being that children are hard-wired to learn. You can’t stop them. Give them a reasonably rich environment, loving support and relative freedom and you really can’t go wrong.

However….

We’re part of a Distributed Learning program, which means that at least according to the government’s rules, a teacher is supposed to assess Fiona’s learning. Recently I had opportunity to talk with the teacher and principal of our program about what I believe an assessment of unschooled DL students should look like. At first I had a hard time articulating my thoughts in a cogent way. I wanted to ask why kids have to be assessed at all. Why couldn’t DL teachers just trust that if the parent says things are going well, the child is learning well? Shouldn’t the teacher just develop a relationship with the family so that the understanding and trust is there? Forget the assessment part of things.

But if I’d just said that I wouldn’t have been talking their language and I wouldn’t have helped them feel like they were honestly fulfilling their responsibility to the government. They’re bound by pretty clear responsibilities. They’re supposed to assess. So I wanted to make it clear that if a teacher developed an understanding of the richness of a child’s life in an unschooling environment, that was an assessment.

As I tried to articulate my reasoning I harkened back to some phrases of education-ese I’d encountered years before from an unschooling-sympathetic pedagogue: assessment strategies can include “behavioural and affective indicators of competency.” These are indicators like: a child making connections between disparate interests, sharing enthusiasms conversationally, demonstrating curiosity, being highly engaged in an activity, exhibiting persistence and diligence, expressing delight and pleasure in the subject matter, making learning choices, setting goals, following through on ideas and plans.

If I see my unschooler exhibiting these things, I know she is learning well, because without top-down structure or coercion, the only reason for her to engage in educational activities is because she’s learning and gaining satisfaction from her growing competence and understanding. That makes these sorts of indicators extremely useful in a fully self-directed learning environment.

In school there are multiple reasons why students might engage in educational activities, thus exhibiting behavioural indicators. Sure they might do so because they perceive that they are gaining knowledge and competence. But they also might take part in learning-related activities to avoid getting in trouble, to fit in with peers, to earn approval from those in a position of authority over them, or to earn the reward of good grades. Because these other motivations can muddy the waters, engaging in an educational activity isn’t in and of itself sufficient evidence of learning in a school environment.

A school student assigned to learn about the invention of currency may or may not learn much at all from the assignment. Perhaps he sits on the computer and only pretends to research, or is given articles to read but doesn’t bother reading them. Or reads them because he’s told he has to, but doesn’t care that he doesn’t understand much of it. He goes through the motions for secondary gain (avoiding trouble, fitting in), not for the primary intended purpose of becoming educated. Thus it makes sense to ask for a report or have him write a test to look for evidence that some sort of learning went on.

However if Fiona starts asking questions about what currency is and how it came into being, and what existed before it, and decides to listen to a Planet Money podcasts about the topic, and muses aloud about bartering and the problems of divisibility and durability and how currency provides solutions, and babbles away about various ideas she’s had about this in the past and how her thinking has changed, she has provided copious evidence of learning. We don’t need a written report, a quiz score or a PowerPoint presentation to assure us that she’s learned something, because we’ve got self-motivation, excitement, curiosity, persistence, engagement, and so on. That is her evidence of learning.

This is what I want our DL teacher to do: to build enough of a relationship with me and with Fiona to be able to see that affective and behavioural indicators of competence are there in spades.

How to know if your unschooler is learning

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