“Unschooling” may sound like a radical idea, but it’s really just a cheeky word to describe a movement that has existed in parallel with mass standardized education. As long as the “factory batch” model of education has existed, individualized, emergent approaches have held forth another way, centered on respect for the development of the whole child–social, emotional, cognitive, and physical.
“Emergent curriculum” is rooted in a belief that children are born learning as humans always have–through relationships, observation, experience, and time. Modern educational institutions may set expectations about when people should read multi-syllable words or multiply three digits or explain Newton’s third law, but in reality, all such abilities are mitigated by a child’s temperament, opportunity, social interactions, motivation, etc. Child-centered approaches are different because they celebrate this diversity.
To follow an emergent curriculum or, put more simply, to allow children to learn what they want to learn on their own terms (and all children do want to learn), means laying forth what nineteenth century educator Charlotte Mason called “a feast of experiences.” This is accomplished by careful, informed observation which leads to timely provision of resources and responsive support for children’s interests and explorations. In fact, across emergent models, the main role of the adult is to watch, wait, trust, and to build out possibilities for children’s inclinations and interests to flow deeper, wider, and richer.
Teachers facilitate access to nature, information, and others. In practice, this means educators will give children living books, provide plenty of time for play–both alone and with others, create opportunities for small and large movement, offer materials and inspiration for arts and crafts, and more, depending on each child’s interests and their current developmental moment.
As a teacher with a long career in traditional schools, I’ve experienced a learning curve over the years as I’ve transitioned from “all-powerful classroom leader” to “knowledgeable and observant facilitator.” In effort to make learning–and the “facilitating” behind it–visible, I’ll share a story that reveals my thinking as a teacher and a student’s process of development.
As a teacher at a nature-school, it seemed obvious to me that children might enjoy keeping a “nature journal” each day that would provide another daily practice in writing, reading, classifying, gathering information, drawing, etc. However, a student was still in the process of acquiring the habits of writing and developing the emotional endurance to complete handwriting practice (just one required sentence of writing per day). I knew that this student was unlikely to welcome the idea of creating this “nature journal” in spite of their keen interest in nature. Therefore, I held off, remembering my mantra: “Wait, watch, and trust.”
A few months passed, the student’s fear of writing and their emotional struggle around it dissipated. After writing just one sentence per day for several weeks, greater portions of handwriting became automatic as development of fine motor skills progressed through climbing, mud and clay play, building, sewing, etc. I still thought about the nature journal, sometimes mentioning how naturalists, poets, and artists often kept journals just to offer the possibility into the learning environment.
Then one day, when the wildflowers started blooming, this student asked to start a notebook to keep track of flowers and record what we could learn about them–something like keeping a nature journal! I provided the notebook, pencils, flower reference books and apps, and support in the form of spelling and writing, and offered a few questions here and there (“Do you think it would help to make a little drawing of the flower for your reference?” “Did you notice the way the leaves are different on this one?"). The student never complained about the handwriting-heavy task and learned about Latin names, common names, the flowers themselves–in other words, behaved in the way naturalists do, making a nature journal without tears because an authentic need for one arose.
This story is one of many on the same theme. Charlotte Mason told us, “We need not labor to get children to learn their lessons; nature takes care of the lessons if they be of the right sort, and the children will learn them with delight.” But here’s the rub: We are not hunter-gathers, but rather live in society where we’re expected to master skills like reading and arithmetic at relatively early ages in order to accomplish certain tasks the modern world makes necessary–like taking SATs, reading our insurance policies, and understanding compounding interest. It is doubtful that time among the trees and flowers will prepare us completely for those.
The paradox of how young humans actually learn and what we currently need to know in our specific society is more a question of balance than a problem for executing what is best for children’s healthy, happy development. First, we must resolve that a child’s future need for calculus does not merit more weight than that child’s current need for play. What is required here is patience and respect from adults to understand that all things have their time. Besides, learning to read and learning to solve problems with numbers does not have to derail a child’s happiness unless we, as adults, impose a timeline on these skills and/or determine that we will teach these skills without respect for developmental and neurological reality.
When we allow children to initiate most of their exploration and to express themselves in their own ways, in their own time, on their own schedule, we find that children do not resist respectful guidance toward a set of skills imposed from outside in gentle, playful, developmentally appropriate instruction. This is how we can balance our ideals as progressive educators with the demands of a very traditional world: we carefully curate and skillfully teach what kids need to know to more fully direct their own learning. We make sure they have or can get the resources and experiences they need to light up and propel their curiosity and discovery. Then, we watch the miracle of joyful self-directed learning unfold.