Modern compulsory public education originated in 19th-century Prussia—yes, with the folks who brought you spiked helmets and Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.
For Dr. Carlo Ricci, an expert in “unschooling” and an education professor at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., that pretty much says it all. “The concept of schools was imported from Prussia to the U.S. by Horace Mann and to Canada by Egerton Ryerson,” he says.
Far from leading people into intellectual enlightenment and liberation, “schools were a tool by which people could be controlled from an early age in body, mind and spirit. There was a lot of resistance to them here,” says Ricci, who teaches in the graduate studies division of Nipissing’s Schulich School of Education. “Even today, mainstream schools are undemocratic.”
As a proponent of progressive, democratic, learner-centred education, Ricci has just completed a draft of a book whose working title is The Willed Curriculum, Unschooling, and Self-direction. He believes that enlightened education—unschooling, as he calls it—is self-directed and learner-dictated and gives learners an equal voice in learning. “It’s important that we allow people to explore their interests—not have them follow an externally imposed curriculum but follow their passions,” he says.
The working subtitle of his book, What do love, trust, respect, care and compassion have to do with learning? may sound more appropriate to religious education than to a secular curriculum, but Ricci is adamant that learners have to love what they are learning and educators have to “trust that they are right in their passions, and respect and trust them enough to let them explore their true interests.”
In unschooling or free schooling, learners get to decide when, what, how, how long and where they learn. In Ricci’s view, all students will thrive given the opportunity to be autonomous and engaged. “If you look at kids who struggle in mainstream schools, there are areas in their lives where they do not struggle, so this is about giving them the opportunity to pursue those interests.”
Paradoxically, self-directed learning is not isolating, navel-contemplating or overprotective. “The most powerful thing about it is that it connects learners to the world as they learn,” Ricci says. It revolves around acquiring real-life math and real-life literacy in actual contexts and environments. “Learners are not sheltered in institutions for 25 years and then dropped into the workplace. Kids pick up the skills they need by living in the world,” says Ricci, who has two daughters, ages six and eight, both of whom were homeschooled until recently but opted to go to public school. “I disagree with the girls’ choices, but I support their decisions to go. It’s their lives,” he says.
Ricci’s daughters are at least as literate and numerate as their public school peers. They learned numbers from using the remote control and the microwave and by cooking and doing the banking with their parents. As the pupils of homeschoolers (there are 100,000 homeschooling parents in Canada), they participated in communal learning beyond the home every day—in parks, community centres and libraries. “They went swimming, horseback riding, did karate—you name it,” says Ricci. “And they interacted not just with their own age group in a classroom but with older and younger kids as well.” Most important, they got to choose their activities and usually engage in them for longer periods than typical school schedules allow. They learned by doing in actual situations, not in the context of an artificial curriculum.
Now that she’s in school, Ricci’s once boundlessly enthusiastic younger daughter is already finding reasons not to do things. “From the first day, she’s been resisting directives from an external authority,” he says. A typical comment: “I love gymnastics. I just hate gymnastics class.”
But what about testing? Don’t kids need to prove what that they have mastered certain skills? “That’s a myth. Testing and grading are not the same as learning,” says Ricci. “There are more natural and authentic ways to gauge how you are doing—mostly by doing it and seeing whether it works out or not.” So in the unschooling environment, pupils assess their own progress.
So will self-directed and self-evaluated learning eventually reduce the number of formal schools and teachers? Not necessarily, says Ricci, since some could be replaced by free schools and teachers operating on autonomous-learning principles. Examples are the Summerhill School founded in Suffolk, England, in 1921, with the motto “Freedom not licence.” Then there’s the Sudbury Valley School, established in Framingham, Mass., in 1968; and Windsor House School, operating in North Vancouver since 1971. Toronto has Alpha Elementary School, established in 1972, and Alpha II Senior and Secondary School, which opened its doors in 2006. Next year the city will be home to the Reach Sudbury School.
But are there some children who need more structure and would not benefit from a free learning environment? “Autonomy, engagement, self-direction and democratic learning work for anybody,” says Ricci. “Children are society’s last acceptably oppressed group. Everyone will thrive given the opportunity to be autonomous and engaged,” Ricci says.
The new learning
Here is part of the mission statement of Alpha II Alternative School, a grades 7 to 12 free school in Toronto:
There are no tests, no grades, and no report cards. Students, in consultation with teachers and other community members, define their personal goals for education in creating portfolios of work that is meaningful to them. These portfolios become the body of work that defines student growth and exploration of ideas, revealing clearly each student’s individual passions for learning.