Sunday, August 14, 2022

Consent-Based Learning

When our daughter Josephine was young, she always wanted to go to school. She never feigned sick. She was always dressed, fed, and ready. She was disappointed when she awoke to find it was the weekend.

It was awesome for her, of course. I mean, who wouldn't want to wake up every morning looking forward to your day, knowing that you were going to a place where there were people with whom you craved connection? But as an educator, I've seen that most kids some of the time and some kids all of the time, simply don't want to go to school. They dig in their heels, they cry, they go limp, they dawdle and avoid and bargain. Parents often arrived at Woodland Park, virtually dragging their poor kids through the door.

This didn't necessarily translate into the kids having a bad day at school. In fact, most of them, once they were across the threshold, would launch themselves into the day with joy and curiosity, then quite often object at the end of the day when it was time to go home. This told me that their resistance wasn't about school as much as it was about transitions, or if I'm being philosophical, about autonomy -- they were simply reacting to being told what to do. They hadn't given their consent.

I've been thinking about this ever since Tiersa McQueen, mother of four children and presenter at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, told me that her definition of unschooling is "consent-based learning." She tells us about her eight-year-old son who returned from school one day, offended when his teacher collectively punished the class for the behavior of a few had done. He declared he didn't want to go back. Instead of taking him by the hand and dragging him, Tiersa respected him enough to take his concerns to heart. We tend to simply assume that it's natural for kids to resist going to school, says Tiersa, but maybe we ought to be listening to them instead.

That's what she did with her son who is now 16. "We think of parenting as something we do to kids. I'm doing this with my children, not to them."

One could say the same thing about education in general, especially as we conceive of it happening in schools: the adults determine the schedule, the subject matter, the activities, the rules, and the measures of success. We do it to them and it's exceedingly difficult to get anyone to do anything without their consent, whatever their age. We even in some cases dictate what the children will wear, with whom they will socialize, and even when they can use the toilet. There is very little consent in our current approach. No wonder educators in standard schools waste much of their time on "classroom management" and controlling "challenging behaviors" whereas unschooled children spend virtually all of their time engaged, willingly, in learning.

Our daughter attended a play-based preschool, which is to say that she was trusted, from the very start with, as Tiersa says, "the freedom to determine (her) own education." This is what play-based preschools share with unschooling: learning is consent-based. Children are free to engage the world by asking and answering their own questions, without schedules, classroom management, or collective punishments.

Tiersa concedes that unschooling is not for everyone. Not everyone has a supportive spouse like she does. Not everyone has a job that frees them up to be with their children as they learn. But everyone can listen to he children in their life, with respect, especially when they are telling us they want the freedom to learn. 

What if we could conceive of education as something we do with children, with their consent? What a world we could create from that!


By the time you read this, you may have already missed watching my session with Tiersa for free, but you're not too late/ There are still three free days to to go, featuring 12 interviews with early childhood and parenting experts and thought-leaders from around the world. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all of our incredible sessions. And it's not too late to catch up with the sessions you've missed. Once you've registered, you can upgrade for full lifetime access to all the sessions, 20 hours for $97. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available!

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