Guest Post: Unschooling

Jerry Obney is a high school Science teacher and a former colleague of mine. He does tremendous work in the classroom and connects with his students in ways that so align with my vision for teaching and learning. If you like his piece, please check Jerry out at his blog, or on the Twitter @jerryobney.


I fear the industrialized model of school has drained the creativity and innovation from our children.  When our children are young they have creativity, innate curiosity and the desire to learn.  It is not my belief that these qualities disappear throughout life but they become muted, softened and concealed by years of schooling.  The common practice of a reading passage, distribution of worksheets and a find and copy technique gets passed on from day to day in the doldrums of the classroom.  I see science teachers distributing a step by step procedure to a lab, while history teachers stand in front of a whiteboard passing off information of events that students have difficulty relating to.  I have spent a good portion of my career unschooling myself and I spend a good portion of my school year unschooling my students, getting past the idea of concrete timelines, letter grades and step by step directions.  It takes growing pains and frustration on the part of the students and the teacher.  “What do I do?”  “Where are the instructions?”  “Where do I find the answer?”  “Can I Google it?”  As a teacher of students I seek to tap into the childhood curiosity that exists in every student.  As William Butler Yeats once said, “education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.”

How do we light a fire?

Make the lesson relevant, create a community atmosphere that is safe and respectful, allow for self-discovery to take place, reinforce the discoveries with feedback, and allow the students to provide you with feedback. This type of lesson requires the instructor to do some unschooling of their own.  This idea inevitably leads to questions like, “how do I assess progress?”  “How do I assign a grade?”  “What if a student refuses to participate?”  When I hear these questions in my mind I try to stop myself and evaluate the core of my own questioning.  Am I falling into the industrialized trap?  Do I fear what my colleagues or administration may think if I do things differently?  If I believe in preparing students for real problems and real problem solving skills then why am I wavering when faced with these questions?  I felt discomfort at first, just as the students did, but these moments of discomfort lead to the most authentic types of growth.

What does the research say?

While the research does not specifically identify inquiry and problem-based learning as the most effective, it does suggest that it is a strategy that helps to close the achievement gap.   Nothing can produce better results than a positive relationship with students that takes care of Maslow’s Hierarchy, fosters a feeling of community and taps into the student’s natural curiosity.  According to John Hattie’s research there are two pieces that are imperative to make this style most effective.  Providing timely feedback and building positive relationships with each student will provide more positive learning outcomes.  The feedback piece for this style is very flexible and can be approached in a number of ways.  While students are working in their groups I spend every moment sitting with, discussing and listening to students as they exchange ideas and brainstorm ways to solve the problem.  The second piece, building positive relationships will build as you have these interactions in class, but must be backed with an authentic love for each of the students that are in your classroom.  Without love as the backdrop, the classroom cannot function to its fullest potential.

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