Shen Loke
Shen Loke


  • education
  • life
  • schools

Education is what others do to you while learning is what you do to yourself.

As education evolves along with our ever changing and dynamic economy, learning any specific subject has become less important than learning how to learn. With the exponential growth of new technologies, we may not know what knowledge will be most needed in the future and thus to inculcate the love for learning and the ability to learn well is vital. Some people believe that schools, or classrooms ironically, are not the best way to achieve this mastery of learning how to learn and learning well and have sought to promote the idea of ‘unschooling’.

The term ‘unschooling’ is an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, having responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and through social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful it becomes and the more easily it will be well understood by the child.

As stated in its namesake, unschooling believes that the ‘one size fits all’ or ‘factory model’ school is an inefficient use of children’s time because it requires each child to learn a specific subject matter in a particular manner, at a particular pace, and at a specific time regardless of the individual’s present capability, interests or goals. Developmental psychologists have also noted that just as children reach growth milestones at different ages from each other, children are also prepared to learn different things at different ages. Just as toddlers learn to walk and talk at different ages, unschoolers assert that being ready and able to read or learn math, among other more complex skills, occur at different ages as every child is unique. Traditional education requires all children to begin reading at the same time and do multiplication at the same time. Some children cannot help but be bored because this might be something that they had been ready to learn earlier, being able to gasp effortlessly and not piquing their interest now while even worse, some children cannot help but fail, as they are not yet ready for this new information being taught.

Unschoolers decry the school culture of children subjected to being constantly tested, their fear of failure and punishment, along with the emphasis on smarter children and the shaming of failing children. Being in such an environment, they argue, will also severely reduce a child’s ability both to perceive and to remember. It might even drive children away from studying the material to coming up with ingenious strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know. This can be vividly seen in the blatant copying of homework among many students. Proponents of unschooling assert that individualized, child-led learning is more efficient and respectful of children’s time, takes advantage of their interests, and allows deeper exploration of subjects than what is possible in conventional education.

Critics on the other hand, state that a child might not encounter people of other cultures, worldviews and socioeconomic groups if they are not enrolled in a school. Of course, a school is not necessarily a place that is guaranteed to provide such a range of experiences, either, as can be seen in segregated schools based on race or religion. As for the argument that unschooling inhibits social development, where unschooled children will lack the social skills, structure, and motivation of their schooled peers, unschoolers say exactly the opposite is true, that self-directed education in a natural environment better equips a child to handle the ‘real world’.

Even as the educational choices for students in schools continue to increase, the process of learning freely, without formalized classrooms or school work must not be forgotten as well. There should be as much freedom as possible for a child to learn what he or she wants, to break the shackles of a prescribed curriculum and to fulfil his or her unique potential and talent. As Joi Ito, the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Labs, summaries it beautifully, education is what others do to you while learning is what you do to yourself.