In a school situation, learning is mostly top-down. That means, there’s a teacher who knows stuff, and is going to teach this stuff to the student(s). The student then proves that he learned satisfactorily to the teacher. The student is rarely given the choice on what to learn. And when they do have the choice, it’s still up to the teacher to decide whether they have learned enough and correctly.
The stark opposite of that is an auto-didactic, who decides completely on his own what to learn and based on this, he seeks out answers to his questions. He is the sole decider of whether he has learned and has complete control over content. He also can decide not to learn anything new if he so chooses, and to study the same content over and over again. This is a path that most adults take after leaving school. Some also mistake unschooling as being nothing but this, imagining children deciding what they want to learn and the parents just sitting around waiting for the kids to tell them what to do. This can be seen as a bottom-up approach.
There is a third position, and that is a multidimensional approach to learning. This is any point on the spectrum between Top-down and Bottom-up, that incorporates both teacher evaluation and learner self-evaluation. It incorporates both teacher inspired learning and student inspired learning. Where the learner steers the path sometimes, and the teacher steers the path others. It is on this spectrum that homeschooling lies.
Where does family learning without school fall on the spectrum? It starts somewhere in the middle, then slowly works its way towards being on the far end right next to auto-didactic. Teacher inspiration (notice I didn’t say “control”) is moderately high in the early years, mostly because it’s the teachers who have access to the material and have a large knowledge base of what is even available. But as children get older, they are able to be more and more independent in their learning decisions based on their own experiences and understanding of available resources.
A hybrid, multidimensional approach to learning changes the way that evaluation happens as well. Top-down and bottom-up learning styles differ from each other in who is doing the evaluating; they also differ in how the evalution is done. Top-down evaluation looks at external criteria, and bottom-up evaluation looks at internal criteria. With a hybrid, the teacher might be very involved with evaluating learning, but instead of looking only at external criteria, he will use the learner’s own internally-based criteria to do the evaluation. In other words, the teacher and the learner evaluate together what is being learned.
The need for external evaluation diminishes even further when the learner and the teacher work together to decide which learning paths to take in the first place. If the teacher and student are there during the entire process of deciding what to learn and how to learn it, from the very beginning, the student has ownership of his learning. Whether the idea came from the student or came from the teacher is irrelevant, so long as the teacher and student are in agreement that the thing to be learned is worthwhile.
When you have a habit of working together on what is to be learned, the process becomes casual and a part of the everyday experience. There is no longer a need to sit down and say, “Ok, what do you want to learn?” or to say, “I think this is interesting and important, what’s your take on it?” A teacher can simply make suggestions, bring the students along with them on outings, bring out the books – whatever it is – and the student automatically goes into evaluation mode and decides whether it’s something they want to learn. At the same time, the student can select activities and projects without having to ask permission or wait to be told what to do. The amount of teacher-inspired activity and learner-inspired activity is in constant flux, with no hard and fast rules on how much of each will happen during a given time period.
Even if the teacher is the one to instigate or inspire activities, the student still has a lot of control in their learning. In fact, they do have ultimate control. But this process of co-operative learning evaluation and creation gives the student so much more opportunity and options than they could do alone. It allows the teacher to have a lot of input and influence, and to share their knowledge, without placing external expectations or evaluations on the student. It creates a multi-dimensional learning experience that is satisfying for the student and the teacher.
This kind of learning takes a very close relationship between student and teacher. It also demands an enormous amount of respect in both directions. And most importantly – trust. The teacher absolutely has to trust the student is his own person, and the student has to trust the teacher is indeed looking through the lenses of what he needs in his life. You put this all together, and you have a life without school; low stress, satisfying, low busywork and high rates of involvement from all directions.
Life without school (or unschooling, as some might call it), is not child-led learning. It’s not bottom-up. It’s multi-dimensional life-learning. The teacher (mom and dad) are deeply involved with learning and they have an enormous impact on what their children learn. But they do it together with their children, as a group effort, where everyone is a part of the decision -making process on what to learn and how to learn it.
How that ends up looking in your family will be completely different than how it looks in mine. But it will still be the same thing – person-inspired learning without school.