Principles of Unschooling

Frank Smith, on page 62 of his book, Insult to Intelligence, offers a “Learner’s Manifesto,” intended to tell schools what they should be doing to support learning. I noticed that it bore a strong resemblance to a list of unschooling principles and I rewrote it into that form. The following is my list of “Unschooling Principles,” and following that is the original “Learner’s Manifesto” by Frank Smith.

Principles of Unschooling by Pam Sorooshian

Learning happens all the time. The brain never stops working and it is not possible to divide time up into “learning periods” versus “non-learning periods.” Everything that goes on around a person, everything they hear, see, touch, smell, and taste, results in learning of some kind.

Learning does not require coercion. In fact, learning cannot really be forced against someone’s will. Coercion feels bad and creates resistance.

Learning feels good. It is satisfying and intrinsically rewarding. Irrelevant rewards can have unintended side effects that do not support learning.

Learning stops when a person is confused. All learning must build on what is already known.

Learning becomes difficult when a person is convinced that learning is difficult. Unfortunately, most teaching methods assume learning is difficult and that lesson is the one that is really “taught” to the students.

Learning must be meaningful. When a person doesn’t see the point, when they don’t know how the information relates or is useful in “the real world,” then the learning is superficial and temporary – not “real” learning.

Learning is often incidental. This means that we learn while engaged in activities that we enjoy for their own sakes and the learning happens as a sort of “side benefit.”

Learning is often a social activity, not something that happens in isolation from others. We learn from other people who have the skills and knowledge we’re interested in and who let us learn from them in a variety of ways.

We don’t have to be tested to find out what we’ve learned. The learning will be demonstrated as we use new skills and talk knowledgeably about a topic.

Feelings and intellect are not in opposition and not even separate things. All learning involves the emotions, as well as the intellect.

Learning requires a sense of safety. Fear blocks learning. Shame and embarrassment, stress and anxiety—these block learning.

Learner’s Manifesto by Frank Smith

  1. The brain is always learning. We learn exactly what is demonstrated by people around us. Schools must stop trying to teach through pointless drills, activities, and tests.
  2. Learning does not require coercion or irrelevant reward. We fail to learn only if we are bored, or confused, of if we have been persuaded that learning will be difficult. Schools must be places were learning can take place naturally.
  3. Learning must be meaningful. If we understand, then we learn. Schools must change themselves, not try to change us, to ensure we understand what we are expected to learn.
  4. Learning is incidental. We learn while doing things that we find useful and interesting. Schools must stop creating environments where we cannot engage in sensible activities.
  5. Learning is collaborative. We learn by apprenticing ourselves to people who practice what they teach. Schools must stop trying to deliver instruction mechanically. If teachers cannot teach, there must be better teachers, not more tests and programmatic instruction.
  6. The consequences of worthwhile learning are obvious. We demonstrate the worthwhile things we learn by engaging in those activities. Schools, teachers, and parents should not have to rely on marks, scores, or tests to discover if we have learned.
  7. Learning always involves feelings. We remember how we feel when we learn and when we fail to learn. Schools must not treat learners like battery hens or like machines.
  8. Learning must be free of risk If we are threatened by learning, then the learning will always threaten. Schools must recognize that continual testing is intellectual harassment.


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