By Mary Shafer
Mary Shafer is a member of the BANR movement, and a professional writer, editor and book publisher. She served as book shepherd to Ken Danford, in bringing his ideas from his head to the page for his new book, Learning is Natural, School is Optional: The North Star approach to offering teens a head start on life. She currently lives and works full time out of her 20-foot RV, as she travels around the United States.
I was first introduced to this idea of “unschooling” in one of my first discussions with Building A New Reality founder and editor, Ted Wachtel, more than a decade ago. As someone who thrived in school and mostly enjoyed it, I admit that the whole notion of school being unnecessary seemed preposterous.
What? Kids don’t need to go to school to learn what they need to know to navigate the modern world? What are we supposed to do, just throw them out there and say, “Good luck?” What kind of irresponsible parents would do such a thing?
Reflecting on Experience
I immediately thought back to all the troublemaking boys I knew from grade school on, who clearly did not enjoy being in school. Though they seemed to me the very ones who most needed the structure and formal guidance of teachers and classrooms, it was so obvious they were miserable there. And they delighted in disrupting class so those of us who wanted to learn really couldn’t. And of course, their antics drove our teachers to distraction. It was just a bad scene, all around.
But then I reflected on how, as we all grew older together, I got to know some of these boys as friends. And to my naïve surprise, not only were these guys not stupid, as I had just assumed; they were actually quite intelligent. More so, in some cases, than some of our other classmates who were considered “brainiacs.” (I’m sure there were plenty of girls who also fit this bill, but the ones I remember are the guys, so that’s who I’m using in this example.)
I’ve always been a fairly direct person, so at one time or another, I managed to ask these guys—in as least offensive a way as possible—why they were so rowdy and disruptive in class. Didn’t they know they were making it difficult for the rest of us to learn, and making the teachers mad at everyone? Didn’t they care that their bad behavior had unpleasant consequences for all of us?
Some hadn’t really thought that through, and a few just didn’t care. And I got that.
Who Wouldn’t Rebel?
They were bored and unhappy and unchallenged by lessons and ideas they weren’t the least bit interested in. They were discouraged from the tactile, interactive types of experiences they enjoyed and learned the most from. They had been made to feel like failures from a very young age. Who wouldn’t rebel against that?
Who wouldn’t hate going to a place—day after day, and year after year—that made them feel stupid, inadequate…like losers? Where they were sometimes actually called those names?
And then I thought about how those guys had ended up. None of them became rocket scientists or doctors, no. But most of them did wind up having very satisfying, well-paying jobs in the trades. They worked with their hands and their brains in positions such as machinist, auto mechanic, welder. Some went on to pursue these interests even further by becoming involved in such leisure pursuits as auto, boat and snowmobile racing.
All these vocations required not only a great deal of deep understanding of technical data—such as close manufacturing tolerances and piston timing and the difference between acetylene welding and plasma arc joining—but also mastery of the tools and equipment it took to make those things happen.
At the end of the day, these guys could point to a new product, or what had been a broken vehicle and say, “I made that,” or “I fixed that,” all with their own minds and hands. How fulfilling that must feel!
I had then, and still do now, a lot of respect for that kind of work. White collar service jobs may pay more at the upper levels, but manufacturing, building and repair are the jobs that make all our lives more efficient, easier and more enjoyable. Doctors and lawyers can’t get to work without operational cars or mass transit vehicles.
Different Learning Styles…It’s Really A Thing.
When I was in my mid-20s, I had occasion to work on a book project by a childhood educator, about the 22 different learning modes that had then been identified. It was early in the research into learning differentiation, and the number and names of varied learning modalities has changed; but even then, it was fascinating and eye-opening.
It made complete sense to me that—given all the different types of personalities and experiences in the world—there would be many different ways a person might take in, process and use information. And yet, I never once extended that to the possibility that perhaps it wasn’t just the way people took in information that mattered, but also the environment in which that learning took place, and how the information was delivered. It never occurred to me that maybe school is optional.
I think about this now, and just go, “Well…DUH!”
Yet when Ted first floated his theory to me, I immediately and skeptically thought, “Oh, right.” But because he was very well informed, highly experienced, and could cite example after example to support his point, I resisted rolling my eyes and instead listened with an open mind.
And you know what? It started to really make sense.
Later, I worked with Ted to help bring to life his long-dormant manuscript—about his early teaching experiences and how they resulted in his leaving school out of frustration with the entrenched attitudes and methods of traditional classrooms—as his book, Beyond the Schoolhouse.
It was then I realized I could never again accept the narrow and unnecessary limitations of traditional schooling as the way things ought to be. I could see that this type of default assumption had become so obviously outmoded that it would have been laughable, if not so sad. And, in fact, I came to think of it as just plain lazy thinking.
Our kids deserve so much better.
So, when Ted urged Ken Danford to capture in his own book what he had learned and proven in his decades as an “unschooler” with North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens, he recommended me to help Ken turn his thoughts into a book. Ted knew that the book would be controversial and challenging for some folks, and so would need the advantage of an editor who embraced the concepts contained in Ken’s manuscript. I had done a 180° turn from how I’d originally thought about this issue, so I fit the bill.
These ideas would benefit most from an editor who could help put those challenging ideas in their best light. This would be required for the greatest chance of acceptance by some who would, inevitably, be predisposed to pooh-pooh their validity. Since I had held both opinions, I was a good candidate.
I am both honored and challenged to have been chosen for this project. My efforts in helping shape these two books have been some of what I feel is the most important work I’ve ever done. These ideas, given time and space to catch on, stand to change so many young people’s lives—and the lives of those who love them—for the better, for the rest of those lives.
Legitimate and Important
Having been exposed to Ted’s and Ken’s groundbreaking works, I now believe wholly in the legitimacy and importance of the unschooling movement. If I had children of my own, I have no doubt that I would now likely choose a combination of traditional and unschooling for their education, based on what kind of learners they turned out to be.
So if you’re feeling challenged by the concept of children having a natural bent for learning that can be (and is) fulfilled by several different modes of information transference—including experiences largely outside the traditional classroom—you’re not alone.
But I dare say that if you choose to hold on to that view after Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional hits bookshelves, you may well find yourself in the minority at some point.
Take it from one who was as resistant to these ideas as anyone: Read this book.
It will change the way you think about how we educate our children. And it’s long past time.
Learning is Natural, School is Optional, from which this post is excerpted, is now available at Amazon.com. You may also order an autographed copy direct from author Kenneth Danford at his website. These direct purchases mean that Ken gets to keep far more of the proceeds from his sales. This money ultimately helps fund further development of the unschooling movement through North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens.