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Natural Learning: Seeing the Forest Despite the Trees

Natural Learning: Seeing the Forest Despite the Trees
By Jennifer Head

“What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.” ~Henry David Thoreau

A mature forest ecosystem, one that has long since been annihilated by fire or at the hands of humans, is complex and high in biodiversity, each species with its own specific needs, interacting with one another, finding the niche that works for them. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, the big picture, the whole nine. I know; I’ve been there.

At the height (and end) of my academic career, what was originally an immense love of the natural world gave way to an extreme narrowing of my vision, purpose, and passion as I hyper-focused on a few amino acids of one domain of one subunit of one protein in one critter. It’s hard to see the entire forest when your eyeballs are smashed up against one tree.

This is the current predicament in which we find ourselves with the standards-based, test-obsessed, public education system. Although homogenization and federalization of education are relatively recent phenomena, corporate educational entities and the educational experts they attract have made quick work of bulldozing forward into the proverbial forest, over mycelium, past herbaceous ground cover, beside woody shrubs, under the canopy, and up to one singular tree. They have chosen one narrow niche in which all children must now thrive, completely blind to the myriad possible ways to flourish.

One of the rationalizations I often hear cited as just reason to perpetuate the decidedly narrow view of mass education is that educators have spent countless hours in workshops developing ways to make linear, lock-step, standards-based education more interesting.

“If a desired outcome of good schooling is truly the social and mental health of each student, education would be interest-driven, schools would resemble villages (i.e., would be more diverse in every way), and students would have much more freedom.”

Expecting all children to thrive in an educational system where the desired outcome is homogeneity because so many hours have been invested in developing the plan is analogous to saying that a given plant should thrive in the wrong habitat because so many hours were invested in digging the hole. The logic is completely flawed and the end does not come close to justifying the means.

This time of year, there is a familiar resurgence of back-to-school mania, and with it, concomitant criticism of alternative learning lifestyles. Normally, they don’t get under my skin. Why would they? I love my decisions enough to not need everyone else to love them.

However, a letter published very recently in the Montreal Gazette struck a chord in the unschooling community. The author, an educational consultant, asserts that young children need educational experts to tell them what to know; that unschooled students don’t have access to athletic, musical, or artistic opportunities; that unschoolers only interact with people just like themselves; that unschoolers are ill-equipped to deal with life’s challenges as a result of not having attended school; and that they are lacking in experiences that are unfamiliar to them. To be more specific, according to the author, unschooled children “unparticipate.” To this I have to say:

If a desired outcome of “good schooling” is truly the social and mental health of each student, education would be interest-driven, schools would resemble villages (i.e., would be more diverse in every way), and students would have much more freedom. For unschoolers, nothing is “designed” for them. The enticing and carefully-scripted enrichment activities of which the author speaks are all still available to unschoolers. Why on Earth wouldn’t they be? One doesn’t have to sit at a desk all day to be able to take an art class, play an instrument, or participate in sports. Get out of that box!

As far as exposure to diverse people and ideas, how does one arrive at the silly notion that unschoolers only hang out with people exactly like themselves? On our travels and during the workshops that we attend, we interact and work with folks from toddlers to octogenarians, with people from all walks of life, with people from every corner of the planet. Still think we’re sheltered? My six-year-old has played games unique to the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, spoken French with a Belgian, had a tickle fight with a Kiwi, cracked codes with a Canadian, made armor out of Doug fir bark with an Israeli, befriended a man from Iran, played with a boy from Slovakia, tasted honey from a Transylvanian. Still think we’re sheltered? He has slept outside more than most North Americans would in six lifetimes. He’s looked down on Half Dome. He’s handed out ice cold drinks to long-distance hikers in the desert. He learned to catch lizards with a noose made of grass. He has explored an ice cave and stood on a mountain made of volcanic glass. He knows how to build a rocket mass heater and a house out of earth.

Still think we’re sheltered? He plays basketball and soccer with a local school district but has no interest in piano or flute. However, he can play the didgeridoo. Does that count? He doesn’t know all of his multiplication tables but he knows the ones that have been relevant to his life thus far. However, he can gather wood sorrel for breakfast and plantain to heal a wound, talk to owls, chop his own wood and start a fire, find Betelgeuse in the winter sky, and he knows that the song of the Swainson’s Thrush in spring signifies the coming of summer. Is any of that on the test? He’s also interested in algebra, the lifecycles of stars, chemistry, geology, dinosaurs, and evolution. But none of that will be on the test until high school, if ever. It’s amazing where the human mind goes when it’s not being led.

As the school year approaches and millions of children around the world will once again sit in a room with dozens of children their own age (and likely social class), while they sit still and hear information over which they have no control, while they choose from a heartbreakingly short list of electives that a select few deem worthy, while their eyes oscillate from clock to window and back, I’ll be watching my child grow and thrive while participating in LIFE.

Don’t take my word for it, skeptics. Come participate in reality with natural learners. Experience the world through the eyes of a free-range child. See the light in their eyes that still burns brightly. Seek out life learning children and see for yourselves that they are confident, articulate, self-motivated, diverse, rarely bored (if at all), adaptable, self-entertaining, collaborative, well-traveled, and naturally inquisitive about world around them. Most of all, remember that life learning is not just for children. If you should ever find your view of the world to be a bit myopic, your views on education too top-down or one-size-fits-all, don’t forget to take a few (or many) steps back to the edge of the forest, back to where you were when you were a bright-eyed child, eager to explore the world, so you can once again see the big picture.

Jenn Head lives on the beautiful Southern Oregon Coast and is a recovering academic who has since embarked on a magnificent life learning adventure with her seven-year-old son. She loves motherhood, natural building, backpacking, felting, quilting, cooking, reading, gardening, traveling, living off the grid, and so much more. She hopes to inspire and empower families to live more sustainably and simply by requiring less and forming deeper connections with the Earth. She is currently learning to build beautiful and sustainable houses from earth alongside her son and will soon be further exploring her interests in Permaculture design and practice.

Here is another article in reaction to the same newspaper commentary.

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