Unschool

Like so many parents across the world, I’ve been watching, and occasionally helping, my 9-year old navigate online learning. I have it pretty easy, with all of the resources one needs, a fourth grade curriculum that isn’t too demanding, a spouse that is doing a greater share of the work than me, and a wonderful, progressive teacher. I’m also observing a child who is confident, self-motivated, eager to learn, and willing to go with the flow. 

So I’ve got it really easy.

I also had the unique chance to watch her move from face to face school, to an online version of that school, and into a two-week spring break. What an opportunity amidst all the uncertainty and suffering. A bit of a silver lining.

What I’ve noticed is that there is no clear difference in Chloé’s learning behaviors when school is in session and when it’s not. With online school, she is busy for perhaps an hour per day, on average. We print some materials, lend our phones for her to make videos, sometimes sit next to her. And when spring break came and there were no longer any school assignments, not too much really changed. 

One of those days during spring break went like this.

Chloé woke up late. She joined me in the living room and read Harry Potter for a good stretch of time. Then I made breakfast.

Because I was working from home, after breakfast she was able to join me at the table. She had recently started a touch typing tutorial (typingclub.com). Together we typed, side by side. In hindsight I was modeling by doing email and the usual sort of writing tasks one does. I didn’t give any instruction, but every now and then she told me of a success with a new letter or a new fastest speed. This went on well over an hour.

We took a break to play our newest sport: hacky sack. No soccer clubs will be calling, there are no YouTube videos in our future. But we laugh and celebrate small successes. 

She tinkers afterwards with a combination of hobbies, playing the piano and using a composition tool I’ve been experimenting with (noteflight.com). She doesn’t have regular piano lessons, but now and again my sister, a professional music teacher, listens to her play over Skype. Because I was writing some piano pieces, Chloé wrote one, too. A question about different keys had become a full on music theory lesson a few nights before. Now she wanted to use Noteflight to write down her original song. I gave her my computer. Chloé began writing and moving back and forth from the table to the piano. Together we learned more about how Noteflight works. (It’s pretty slick.) 

That evening she helped make dinner and set the table. We ate as a family (all too rare when life was “normal,” a sobering thought), and then we played a board game, as a family. The offline activities are a welcome balance to the various online options. Chloé has learned Settlers of Catan, adopting a preference for the ore and development card strategy, if you are familiar with the game. We cannot cut her any slack, she wins now a fair amount of time.

To fall asleep we read together, she more of Harry Potter, me something else. She filled me in on the latest plot twists. She shared a passage that she found funny. 

That day was not atypical. It was like all of them during that two-week break, though her focus moved between different activities. (Currently she’s been drawing with Art for Kids Hub, on YouTube). I didn’t homeschool. I didn’t monitor learning. There were no assessments, at least not in the way we think of school assessments. There wasn’t vertical or horizontal alignment of curriculum, classroom hours, balanced subjects, test preparation, none of that. There wasn’t teaching, at least how we commonly think of it with school. 

But there was learning. Not learning I could predict, at least not exactly. She reads. I figure she’ll read. When she wants to. She’s curious about the piano. Whether she plays or not is up to her. Learning about music composition – well that’s neat. We’ll share that interest as I prepare for a class I agreed to teach next school year. Touch typing? Great skill, why not!

And hacky sack? Not really part of the school curriculum. One could make it so by talking about physical coordination and number of required kicks and how to use the knee and top of the foot and then an assessment… no, let’s not go there.

This was Chloé’s Unschool. Yes, I recognize again all the affordances in her favor. But still … Weaned from several hours of school a day to just one hour, and then to none during spring break, did not stop learning. It opened learning up. What it stopped was school. Learning became more individual, more self-regulated, more pertinent, more enjoyable, more relaxed, more exploratory. 

Now just as I finish writing this, Chloé has completed a project for online school, which started again this week. She has prepared the traditional Swiss Birchermuesli, by herself. Compliments to her teacher for the assignment – and for Chloé for doing this activity just like all the others during her “break” – independently, joyfully.

There are lessons here for us that we don’t want to forget post-pandemic. I’m going to think about that – after I try the Birchermuesli. 

About Paul Magnuson

Several years ago, Paul Magnuson founded a research center at the high school level in collaboration with colleagues at Leysin American School. The center supports professional learning through a variety of programs, including year-long action research projects by faculty who receive competitive resident scholarships. In addition, the center works with schools and universities around the world, hosting 10 to 15 visiting scholars annually, and consulting and presenting at schools and other organizations. Paul has created a number of tools and programs, including classroom observation schemes, language immersion summer camps, the middle school at LAS, and most recently, edge, a high school program which offers an alternative to traditional school through greatly increased student agency. His current interests are the documentation of edge, pulling agile into education, and self-regulation for both students and teachers.
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