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Unschooled adolescents

Fiona’s primary enrolment this year is with SelfDesign, an independent umbrella program that supports home-based learners from Kindergarten through Grade 9 and their families, including loads of unschoolers. The support is primarily moral support, though there’s a little money available that can be used to fund things like sports and music lessons. I love the organization; the people are good-hearted and well-intentioned, and they really do understand unschooling. For the most part they sit back and act as cheerleaders as kids learn in whatever wild and wooly ways they want.

SelfDesign also runs a high school program for learners in Grades 10-12. Because of governmental constraints, this program actually delivers content to the students on a course-by-course basis. Assessments are required. Students interact directly with and are accountable to their teachers. Credits are awarded. Graduation with a provincial diploma is the presumed — though not required — goal. They are as sympathetic and accommodating as possible to self-directed learning, and allow some pretty outside-the-box options for meeting course requirements, but the format and expectations are still a world apart from the K-9 program. It’s not a bad thing. I think this is actually what most teens are looking for: some outside accountability and feedback and guidance as they forge outwards beyond home and family towards more independence and responsibility.

The problem is that there is nothing in between these two extremely different models, and no way to combine them. It’s as if there is a tall stone wall between them. If you’re on the K-9 side, you can’t even peek over to see what is happening on the other side; you’re just expected to keep playing in the garden with the younger kids.

The people at SelfDesign have recognized that the learners in Fiona’s age/grade group would benefit from something that spans this transition a little more proactively. But I have found myself frustrated over and over again this year by how their efforts have been wrong-headed, fallen short or been stymied by technical or organizational constraints. I’m trying not to gripe or complain; I’ve expended too much energy already being exasperated over some of the stupid things that have happened. Instead I’ve spent much of my energy over the past couple of weeks trying to nudge along some positive changes by thinking, writing, chatting, Skypeing and otherwise advocating for what I see as the needs of this group of kids. Here are excerpts from a long piece I wrote to the administrators:

Around adolescence I’ve seen my four homeschooled children develop a desire for a change in learning approaches. I know not all children are the same; some Grade 7-9 self-directed learners are happy to keep learning organically on their own in the context of home and family. But I know that there are many — my own four among them — who have begun looking for something new. They have pretty mature levels of self-awareness, understand where their interests and affinities lie and want to dig into more advanced learning with mentors and communities beyond home to help them get accountability, validation, challenge and feedback.

I think this normal adolescent tendency towards expanding one’s orientation outward is compounded by another factor in unschoolers. What I’ve noticed about learners who grow up entirely in charge of their own learning is that wanting less choice and less flexibility is a common, understandable and entirely valid choice as they grow through adolescence. They are beginning to come fully to grips with the enormity of the possibilities before them, and want to set up some constraints to at least temporarily narrow things down a bit. I don’t see this as a failure of imagination and courage in the face of self-direction; instead I think it’s an organizational strategy, one that mature life-long learners often use. They want to give themselves the clarity of some structure and extrinsic expectations so that they can move forward towards new knowledge and skills with a sense of direction and purpose.

It seems likely to me that a significant portion of your young adolescent learners are experiencing similar shifts in their needs. In a year or two they’ll probably be taking courses where they’ll be required to submit work for assessment and feedback and will be subject to external expectations. They’ll either have deadlines or they’ll have to self-structure to ensure completion of coursework. I think that they should be able to get a taste of this sort of learning if they feel ready for it during Grades 8 and 9. SelfDesign with its large enrolment and robust online interface is ideally suited to offer students the option of familiarizing themselves with structured expectations like “writing to task,” completing readings on a schedule, the expectation of contributing to a group discussion, submitting work by a deadline…

I don’t think you can get the momentum, critical mass and coherence you need for a real “community of learning” without some semblance of structure and leadership, not amongst a diverse group that has only virtual contact with each other…

I understand the desire to be inclusive and to avoid over-emphasizing a narrow academic orientation. But I see what I am proposing as broadening the range of learning approaches that are directly supported and thus having ways to meaningfully include more learners. I believe this is a crucial component of the offerings available to learners on the cusp of the transition to a course-based diploma program and something that fits well with the developmental shift that many adolescents experience in their learning orientation.

As I wrote this out, and edited it over and over again, I came to a new realization. When mainstream children are young, their learning is pretty much plotted out for them by their schooling. As they reach adolescence we encourage them to start moving towards greater autonomy, self-direction and ownership of their learning. We reduce the level of control: we stop daily homework checks and workbook corrections. We let kids fly on their own wings a little more.

But I don’t think it’s necessarily the ideal shift for a child whose entire educational life has been defined by full-on autonomy and self-direction, for a kid who has been joyfully flying about on his own wings for years. I think that many unschooled kids tend to become more focused and goal-oriented around adolescence. Yes, they’re capable of immense amounts of self-direction and autonomy, but they often recognize that in moving towards goals they have for themselves it is helpful to create some structure and accountability around their learning.

So I think that unschooled learners mature through adolescence we need to look at things differently. We need to view their desire for structure as a healthy organizational strategy rather than as a failure of self-direction. We need to view their desire for accountability to a mentor or teacher as a self-chosen commitment device, not a failure of motivation or passion.

The good news is that I think we’ve managed to give Fiona enough of a slice of life on the other side of the stone wall this year to serve her needs. We just haven’t been able to do so within SelfDesign. We’ve paid for online courses, she’s moved into a more challenging program in ballet, she’s with a much more demanding violin teacher, and with the co-operation of our open-minded local bricks-and-mortar school we’ve been able to cross-enrol her in a handful of Grade 10 courses. She’s smart, and has some disciplined artistic interests, so she’s doing okay. It just seems a shame that it should be this complicated. I feel like SelfDesign could easily offer some opportunities like this in-house.




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