Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part II: Deschooling in the Classroom

Given that unschooling is really about following the child’s interests, the child’s rhythms, the child’s schedule and letting learning happen in a natural, play-based way, calling what I do in my courses “unschooling” is admittedly a bit problematic. And it is not what I set out to do in my teaching, at least not on a conscious level. What happened between the day I began this blog and the day I returned to it nearly two years later was that I realized that my pedagogy, as a professor, is really about trying to unschool in college. It took me far too long to realize that what I was trying to do in school was actually consistent with my unschooling philosophy. Impossible as it might be, I believe in the idea of higher education (a topic for another post!) and I am, doggedly, trying to make it happen.

I’ve spent the last week or so thinking in detail about the specifics of my teaching – my syllabi, my assignments, class discussions, my grading structure – and the ways that they have changed over the past ten years (since Monkey was born and unschooling in our house commenced). I’ve been trying to answer the question I posed in my last post: where do I get off calling what I do in the classroom “unschooling?” Here’s what I’ve got so far.

In the first place, to some extent, there is “deschooling” happening in my classes. In fact, I’d argue that 75% of most of my classes are more deschooling than unschooling, and it is only in courses full of students who have had me before that unschooling happens.

Deschooling, in a nutshell, is a transitional period for former school kids, during which parents either help, or simply provide the necessary space for, their kids to “heal” from the structure and authoritarianism and emphasis on conformity of school. For some (many?) kids, this can look a lot like video games all day long for a few days (weeks?), and for others this looks like a lot of physical activity or sleeping or playing with their toys. Like the rest of unschooling, everyone does it differently, but the idea is to help kids break out of and try to “unlearn” the values learned in school. In most cases, the children are fairly young, and the lessons to be unlearned are primarily emotional and psychological.

Since I am being paid to “teach” my students my subject matter, and since they are paying for this education, my efforts to help them “unlearn” what they have learned up until my course does not leave room for them to heal and play video games instead of “working.” My students are adults – and I am not their parent – and thus my deschooling does not is not focused on their emotional, psychological and social well-being. But still I need them to unlearn the lessons about how learning happens. My deschooling is intended, often jarringly, to break them away from the content-based, authority-based, mindless distillation of “information” into unhelpful sound bytes that appears to me to be the major contribution of 21st century schooling in the U.S. This underlies my focus on “process” learning instead of “content” learning. I am, I now think, attempting to deschool by shifting them away (coercively, of course, so there’s where my unschooler membership card may be confiscated) from learning “stuff” into learning how to learn.

The nuts and bolts of my deschooling are:

1. No textbooks. Ever. Textbooks are the enemy of thought. Textbooks stand for everything that I am fighting so very hard to defeat. The entire point of a textbook, however “good” it is, is that someone else has combed through the complex and complicated material, distilled it down to what someone else thinks is most important, and presented it in a clear and easy-to-understand format so that the important content can be readily accessed, remembered and regurgitated. This is a travesty. Learning should not be clear and easy (another post to come on that soon too). Education is not – or should not be – tantamount to memorizing the outcomes of other people’s intellectual processes. It should be the experience, culmination and outcome of your own intellectual process.

2. No PowerPoints. Also ever. For all of the reasons textbooks are anti-intellectual, the PowerPoint craze is worse. (Check out others’ arguments about this, here and here and here.) While I am aware that it is possible for the technology to be used differently, and I would be happy to consider examples, the overwhelmingly common practice – and explicit goal, for Pete’s sake – is, as with textbooks, to distill and reduce nuance, to uncomplicate the complicated, to feed students “information” as if that is what is relevant – as if we are reporting the facts of the world to them. And students are asked to create PowerPoints also – to scan their textbooks for the bold-typed words and their articles for the subject headings, insert them onto screens, make everything look pretty, and call that thinking. On my campus, increasingly, the would-be wonderful programs to help facilitate student research and scholarship are requiring PowerPoint presentations. I now refuse to work with these programs, and I am glad to explain my reasons to anyone who will listen. PowerPoints are, at least in practice, quite blatantly about conformity and an authoritarian model of education and intellectual reductionism.

3. I strongly discourage – and, in classes full of particularly strongly “schooled” students (for example, those with a high number of education majors – again, a post for another time!), I have been known to outright forbid – their use. Highlighters, at least the way my students use them, reinforce the exact opposite of my pedagogical goal. It facilitates scanning for the most pertinent “information.” Highlighting avoids generating thoughts oneself (unlike, for example, jotting notes in the margin), instead contenting oneself with the words already written on the page, as they are. Finally, it virtually guarantees that every re-read will result in the same conclusions, since the point of highlighting is to direct the reader’s attention back to the same passages each and every time. I do not want my students to keep coming back to the same reading. I want them to find different interpretations, notice different words, find new frames, every time they re-read. Highlighting ensures that reading will never be an adventure. It is a plodding, banal, deductive exercise. It functions, with along textbooks and PowerPoints, to emphasize the retention of content rather than the engagement in a creative or generative process.  (So do tests; I think it probably goes without saying, but I don’t use exams either.)

4. I don’t have an attendance policy. If students don’t want to be there, I don’t want them there. Students who don’t want to be in class drag down the collective energy of the group, negatively impact the discussion and drain my spirit. Learning should be voluntary. The students at my institution don’t appear to think so; they have been beaten down by the system thus far, and they resent having to be in my classroom in order to get a job. I try to excite and inspire – but at the end of the day, if my efforts have failed and they just don’t want to be there, I really just don’t want them there. I can’t un-register them – but I *can* strive to create dynamics and processes that make my classes welcoming to people who want to engage, and unwelcoming to people who do not. So I do nothing for the students who want (or need) to play video games (metaphorically) all semester; they will have to stay home and fail the course. But for those whose deschooling can involve doing things in a much more self-directed and open way, I do what I can to provide them a space in which they can play and learn and enjoy the process.

5. Grading. Sigh. The bane of my professional existence.

During my junior year of high school, I was accepted into Hampshire College. They used narrative evaluations of student success in lieu of grades. Like any well-schooled student, I was skeptical that this could result in anything positive. When I visited the campus, I was floored by what these students did. On the tour, I walked across an elevated tunnel of sorts, connecting one building to another. The tour guide told me that the tunnel design had been someone’s senior thesis. I was stunned by the scope and quality of art projects, published literature, theater productions, machines used on campus – all of them had been senior projects. Not only had students produced these ideas, but the campus clearly supported student works. Narrative evaluations were obviously not in the way of liberal arts education at Hampshire College.

I did not choose to attend Hampshire. Partly, I now suspect, I was intimidated by the level of accomplishment of the students. At the time, of course, I was unconcerned about the direction of liberal arts education – about the demise of intellectualism. I attended another artsy liberal-arts school, much less intense and therefore much more comfortable for a student who had succeeded in the conventional grading system.

I have yet to face a semester’s grading work without fervently wishing we had a system like Hampshire College did then. (I don’t know whether they do now; I keep meaning to check on that…) I have yet to calculate a grade without being angrily aware of its inadequacy, its uselessness, its limitations.

The very worst part of it – the part that makes all of it so tragic – is how much grades mean to my students. They have so much riding on them. The emphasis on these grades – which many, many professors will admit to you, if only after a scotch or two or three, are all but utterly meaningless – is built into their financial aid, their participation in sports, their membership in Honors societies, their ability to land internships and to study abroad. On practical and significant ways, their grades matter.
The problem is that on ideological and pedagogical ways, at least for process-based learning, their grades are, in a word, silly. Nonsense. Jibber-jabber. Not. The. Point.

But their grade anxiety is directly, squarely, forcefully, angrily, obstinately in the way of their learning.

I cannot get rid of grades and still keep my job, but I can make them mean something else. I can shift their representation to that of having read closely and thought thoughts and nurtured and developed those thoughts. After years of tweaking and experimenting, I am close, I think, in most of my classes, to a grading system that values what I value, and devalues what I want them to unlearn. It varies by course, but in general, I assure my students that those who engage in the process – who read closely, who think about the material and try to take it in other, new directions, and who talk and write about the material and these new directions – will do well. Students who do not do these things will not. Grading the process is difficult, but if I can get them fully engaged in this process, their product (term project) is immeasurably stronger – and then their grades mean as close to something as they can.

After some thought this week, I see these aspects of my teaching as my efforts to deschool in the classroom – to help them to move away from a system of “education” that prioritizes information-collecting, rubrics, memorization of “facts,” and a conformist trust in the “authority” on the page rather than one’s own thoughts.

Most of what I now see as deschooling is really about what I avoid in the classroom: the aspects of school that I explicitly reject, and push (if not force) my students to reject. The next post in this series – Part III – will explore what I actually *do* in my courses – the part that I am considering at least something akin to actual unschooling in the classroom. Thanks for staying tuned!

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2 comments on “Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part II: Deschooling in the Classroom

  1. mstmompj says:

    If you haven’t yet read it, I’d recommend the book *Uptaught* by Ken Macrorie. I can’t say that I’ve had much luck integrating unschooling principles into my academic work, partly because as contingent faculty I have limited flexibility, but also because the students tend to have a hard time managing without the restrictions they’ve grown accustomed to after 13 years or more of compulsory schooling. Good luck!

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