But how will they learn to read?

When my son was less than 6 months old, we were given a cloth bag full of books by the health visitor. Bookstart had a parent guide explaining how important it was to read to your baby and so we diligently started – even though he couldn’t sit up yet and we had to hold the books away from him so he didn’t take a chunk out of a tasty corner. Everywhere we went we were surrounded with books and told how important reading was.  The local Surestart centre hosted playgroups where they went to great effort to recreate books like Dear Zoo and the Hungry Caterpillar with puppets and toys, and of course every session ended with a story, read from a book.  Princess Charlotte (aged 2) had just started an exclusive nursery who boast that with them ‘children embark on the first stages of learning to read, write and to understand simple numbers with the minimum of pressure’.

The message couldn’t be clearer. It’s never too young to start introducing literacy. Fun, tactile and chewable though the books may be, reading them rather than eating them or ripping them up is an adult agenda which it’s unlikely many pre-verbal babies would seek out for themselves. We are obsessed with getting children to decode text – you can buy flash cards for your baby and books on how to teach them to read before they can use the potty. When I looked around schools for my son (who was three at the time), a focus for all of them was their reading strategy, they had phonics groups in reception, parent volunteers listening to reading every day and colour coded books to bring home each night. We were given lists of key words which the children should have learnt to read in the summer before they started reception (when my son was still 3), and told how crucially important our eager participation in this great project of learning to read would be. It is as if, as a society, we are all terrified of the prospect of a child who does not learn to read – and in order to avoid this we resort to intensive coaching in literacy, right from the start. No one appears to question the mantra that earlier is better, both for reading to a child, and a child learning to read themselves.

So when we decided to turn down the place in the excellent local primary school where my son would have started ‘a gentle phonics’ group at the age of 4 years 7 weeks, in favour of self-directed learning and home education, it was hard not to feel worried about reading. So much so, in fact, that I recently found a book buried at the back of our bookcase, ordered in a frenzy of anxiety as we turned down the school place – Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

I never did teach him.

The year when he was four instead passed playing in the bath, visiting Legoland, doing drama and storytelling, running round the park, playing Plants vs Zombies, learning to swim (also without lessons) and doing whatever else we felt like doing. The year when he was five passed in much the same way. And six. And seven. And there was still no sign of any interest at all in learning to read. In fact he didn’t even want me to read to him. I worried a bit, that he would never see the point in learning to read. By this point the majority of schooled children we knew were reading. A few had already moved onto Harry Potter and chapter books. Other parents raised an eyebrow when they realised he couldn’t read at all. They seemed to be in a different world to us, we were still playing with Duplo and play dough if the fancy took us, and our days meandered and flowed, filled with play,  more play, and long baths which soaked the bathroom. Sometimes it seemed that he couldn’t even read his name, he didn’t recognise those pre-reception key words like ‘and’ or ‘the’. He started playing Minecraft, where every block is labelled with its type, but he didn’t read any of the words.

Then one day we were in the car and he looked out the window. ‘Does that say Zombie?’, he asked? It was a sign and it said Zone. From that moment on he started reading words around him. Stop. No. Tesco. Car Park. Way Out. Exit. M&S. Way In. Go. I got quite excited. I ordered some Dr Seuss books and he was able to read Hop on Pop, almost entirely by himself. He got quite excited.

Then he seemed to get tired of all this reading and certainly of the excitement and backed off. He didn’t want to read any more books and he stopped reading words when we were out. I backed off too. A few months passed. Then he saw some books in a charity shop and asked to buy them – they were level 1 of a Ladybird Reading Scheme. They had level 2 and 3 as well, and one level 4. We went home and he read all the levels 1 and 2 and 3, and then 4. We had finished the reading scheme. He seems to work out the words from the start and end and a bit of guessing, rather than using phonics. I downloaded some Learn to Read apps, he played them about twice.

What happened next? We didn’t read every day or buy more progressively difficult books. We had lots of books around. We sometimes pointed things out, like that ‘ph’ makes a sound like ‘f’. He started reading more complicated signs when we were out. ‘Please don’t walk on the Grass’, ‘Children under 8 must be supervised at all times’, ‘Emergency Door release’, ‘A different kind of January blue ”,‘First Train from Platform 2’. I pointed out words to him sometimes, and sometimes he pointed them out to me. The world was suddenly full of things he could read.

Advances came in leaps, suddenly he seemed to be able to read longer words. He picked up picture books at home and read them aloud to all of us. He read the instructions on packages of food. One day he could read enough to cook brownies from a packet, following the recipe on the back and measuring out the oil and water. He got interested in the Beano comic and found he could read it himself. He read trivia questions and board game instructions. He would read words by dividing them into pieces and identifying the parts he knew, ‘that’s like the start of ‘bread’’ he would say when trying to decipher ‘breakable’, ‘and then the end of ‘table’.

The whole process so far has taken about a year. He’s still learning to read. Last week he said to me that he could work out new words from the others around them and that he knew an unfamiliar word must say ‘daughter’ because of the sentence it was in. He reads silently now. He can read paragraphs, sentences and instructions.

It wasn’t magic and it didn’t happen overnight. The process was him piecing together information that he had and making new connections, then pulling in new information and resources from the world around him when he needed it. He has never read for the sake of learning to read, or because someone has set him a task of reading – he reads because he wants to, or because he needs to find out what information is in the text. So for him, reading has always had purpose and meaning. He has always read with expression and vigour,  even when he could only read a very few words. He has no experience of the monotonous drone of the child completing their required pages of reading homework.

It has been a magical process to watch, however, and for me the most important part of it is that he has felt good about his reading ability throughout. He was 8 before he learnt to read at all and 9 before he had any degree of reading fluency, but he had no concept of himself as a ‘late reader’ because in his world there is no such thing. We said that children read earlier, some read later, just as some learn to swim or ride a bike earlier and some later. Learning to read has been truly joyous and self directed process of exploration and figuring things out, as he wanted to and needed to.

Visiting Paris Schools

Schools with no lessons? No adult imposed curriculum or rules? Schools where children have an equal voice to the staff and make real decisions about how the school is run – including hiring and firing the staff, and how the budget is spent? It’s hard not to have visions of breaking windows and Lord of the Flies, no matter how many books and articles you see saying this isn’t the case. In order to see what they are really like our whole family (me, my husband and our two always unschooled children) went to visit two schools in Paris. France is experiencing somewhat of an explosion in democratic schooling right now, there are already three democratic schools in Paris alone and at least 31 over the whole country.

Paris is just a train ride from London where we currently live and I speak French, so it was the obvious place for us to investigate schools. Our visits were brief  – just a few hours at each school – and so these are just my first impressions.

Sudbury School Paris was our first call – a bilingual school. The only English language Sudbury model school in Europe that I know of and it’s in France. Their school meetings and judicial committee are in English, but the students mostly speak both English and French.

We were late to arrive due to everyone sleeping in after a very long day travelling from London the day before – however this wasn’t a problem as they have a relaxed start to their day and students do not have to arrive at a set time.  When we did get there we entered immediately into the main room of the school  It’s a small school in a space which has been thoughtfully divided so that in one (very) large room there is a sofa area, a dining table, a kitchen, bookshelves, a play area with blocks and games and even a bunk bed for naps.  Space is not divided into ‘adult’ and ‘student’ spaces, school polices are on bookshelves in the main room and children were playing video games in the only room which could be described as an office. We noticed immediately how calm it felt.  Each student was getting on with their life and learning, two little boys were playing board games and building roads with Kapla blocks, another student was playing Magic the Gathering with a staff member, whilst others were playing Roblox and someone was working through a curriculum. Students cooked food when they wanted to, or ate ready prepared food from home. There are no set meal times. One boy left to go and buy himself food – students can leave if their parents have given permission, the older ones alone, the younger ones with an adult or an older student. By the door there was a list of possible outings with bus times, and a list of who can go out alone and who needs to be accompanied. The staff were interested and engaged and available and really friendly and welcoming. They talked us through how the JC worked and showed us their recorded outcomes which really helped us to envision the process, although that day there were no cases so we didn’t get to see one.

Before we knew it we had been there for over two hours, had downloaded a new coding game and played a board game with frogs and logs. We’d built a bridge and watched Finding Nemo. When we left to get lunch, we could see everyone carrying on towards the afternoon. The sense of well being and contentment stayed with us as we caught the bus to the Jardin de Luxembourg and spent the afternoon on the circular zip wire in the crisp cold park.

L’Ecole Dynamique was another pleasant surprise in a different way. We almost missed it at first, an unobtrusive door in a large building. Inside the atmosphere was quite different because rather than one big room there are several smaller ones. However it still felt calm and focused, with children, adults and one baby spread across several rooms, some playing video games, some watching TV, some eating, some playing and some chatting. Each room has the equipment for something different – a music room has a keyboard and drum kit, the movement room has exercise equipment and crash mats, the cinema room a projector, the quiet room had books and places to relax. There’s a mezzanine with a dolls house and more Kapla blocks. Over the road was the new art and crafts room, with carpentry equipment and pottery. In the common room the children were chatting or playing on tablets which they bring in themselves. One boy cooked himself steak and spaghetti, and then cleared up after himself. Soon after we arrived one of the staff members left with several of the younger children for an all day nature walk which happens every Tuesday. There’s no outdoor space but they can go to the nearby park every day if they want to. In the short time we were there my daughter announced that this was her school and she wasn’t leaving, and my son downloaded a new app which one of the boys was playing.

I’ll leave it to my husband to sum up how we felt on leaving Paris. Those are how schools should be, he said. We’ll be going back.

Find out more about Sudbury School Paris here: www.sudburyschoolparis.org and Ecole Dynamique here: www.ecole-dynamique.org

Democratic education: unschooling at school?

August 2017, and my unschooled daughter and I arrived in a scruffy hall of residence in the outskirts of Paris for EUDEC. The European Democratic Education Community conference. Eight days of talks, workshops and discussions over green mint tea gave me the chance to really think about the difference between democratic education and unschooling, and a few of my reflections are here. At this point I know more about unschooling than democratic education – but most people who write about the comparison seem to know one better than the other. Perhaps it goes with the territory.

I’ve noticed that most discussions which contrast unschooling and democratic education focus on two key differences, depending on who you ask.

Many unschoolers will talk about attendance,  saying that in a democratic school children are not free to leave at any time and are obliged to attend each day and therefore it can’t be anything like unschooling.

Democratic educators concentrate on another aspect. They describe unschooling parents as always present, constantly looking for resources and experiences which they think might interest their child. They say that this is very different to democratic education because the parents, rather than the children, have responsibility for the learning process.

What I hadn’t properly appreciated before and what Eudec 2017 really brought home to me is that democratic education is about living in a community. It’s about conflict resolution, about how you balance the needs of the individual with those of the community and how to effectively make decisions in a group. In many ways this is the ‘curriculum’ in democratic schools. It’s essential learning – in most democratic schools you can’t be suspended for poor academic performance or not attending classes (if they exist at all) but you can if you refuse or are not able to comply with the democratic structures of the school. It doesn’t make sense to talk about democratic education without acknowledging the community as the context.

Whenever a community comes together, conflicts emerge. Different people want different things. So very quickly the question arises; how can we balance the needs of the individual to live their life as they choose with the needs of the community for its members to peacefully coexist and not infringe upon each other?

Various democratic schools attempt to resolve this tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community in a variety of ways – some have school meetings, others school circles. Some have judicial committees, others mediation groups and ombudsmen. Some have all of those things. Some have extensive rule books, others function with no rules at all. Some use voting whilst others make decisions by consensus. Myriad solutions to the fundamental question of how to set up systems and structures which enable children and adults to manage their own communities.

Contrast this with unschooling, where the tension is resolved rather differently. Commitment to any community is generally valued somewhat lower by unschoolers than the preferences of their individual child. If a unschooling family is experiencing conflict within a group, frequently they will leave the group. If a child is behaving in a way which harms other members of a group but wants to remain in the group, the unschooling answer is more parental presence and partnering. This means that individual unschooling parents are the authority who decides what behaviour the community can manage and when intervention is required; rather than a collective meeting of children and adults. They also decide how the child should be stopped, or at least how they will try to stop them.

School meetings are where students and staff make decisions about how a democratic school should work and what the community expects from its members. There is no equivalent structure in the loose groups which comprise unschooling communities and typically nowhere for concerns to be openly discussed. Children are not involved in a process of managing conflict in the group because ultimately that responsibility is in the hands of their parents. It’s a very different way of managing the needs of the individual and the wider community.

Learning and pedagogy, you might have thought, would be where unschoolers and democratic educators agree without question. No forced curriculums, no standardised testing, learning through living and meaningful activities chosen by the child. But no, there is a subtle difference in how unschoolers and democratic educators view learning and the ideal environment for learning. In many forms of democratic education, the motivation and autonomy of the child is extremely important and they need to demonstrate that they really want to learn something before others will invest time or money into helping them do so. They may have to fundraise to buy equipment that they need. Dan Greenberg writes about children asking him repeatedly if he would teach them maths (and him finally agreeing to teach them using a highly traditional approach with an old fashioned textbook and homework). In contrast an unschooling parent will provide abundant resources for the child to learn from and will not expect the child to either contribute to those or stick to the interest for longer because of the expense. A rich unschooling environment means one with a lot of options available, free of any opportunity cost to the child.

In many forms of unschooling there is also a favouring of incidental learning over intentional learning, for example parents whose children want to improve their reading are typically advised to focus on other things and dissuade them from focusing directly on learning how to read. Some unschoolers reject the term ‘self-directed learning’, arguing that their children do not direct their learning but rather learn as a by-product doing things they find enjoyable.

It is true that in many democratic schools there is no curriculum, and advocates for democratic education like Peter Gray argue that children learn best when they are engaged in activities which are meaningful for them and of their choosing, whether this is sand play, astronomy or Minecraft. But intentional, self-directed learning is valued alongside incidental learning, and the very intentionality is nurtured and encouraged.

Relationships between children and adults are central to both unschooling and democratic education. Unschooling parents often talk about the close relationship they have with their children and how fundamental this is to unschooling. However, some democratic educators would argue that it’s possible that this very closeness means that a child cannot be free to make their decisions. An adult who is interested in and engaged with the child but is not their parent relates to them in a different way. Democratic educators see this as freeing for the child who no longer has to factor their parent’s emotions into their choices – and in fact early pioneers such as AS Neill thought that children needed to be removed from their family for terms at a time in order to be able to learn freely. Unschoolers try hard not to pressure their children but the very nature of the parent-child relationship means that the child is highly attuned to their parents’ preferences and emotions – and when unschooling, children spend a lot more time with their parents than without them.

Another aspect of this emotional involvement is that unschooling parents often want to avoid their children feeling distress or difficult emotions, partly because they feel it so intensely when their child is hurt. There’s a focus in unschooling on keeping children comfortable and safe, which is of course important – but in order to experience life fully, children need to learn that they can venture outside their comfort zone without disaster occurring. An ideal learning environment feels safe and also contains challenge and novelty, even if this causes discomfort at first. For when parents consistently try to avoid a child feeling upset, anxious or angry, the child can learn that these emotions are frightening and to be avoided, which leads to restricted life choices. The sense of safety ultimately needs to come from within the child, born of self confidence in their ability to cope, rather than from the environment around them being carefully constructed in order to remove any possible stressors.

As we left Eudec 2017 (with my daughter saying she’d like to come back for her holidays next year) and caught the train back to London, what really stayed with me was how passionate democratic educators are about spreading their ideas to wider society, talking about increasing democracy in government schools, how we truly create a community of equals, whether democratic education is a social justice movement or whether it simply creates a new class of privileged young people. The focus on looking outwards, on improving accessibility for children whose parents have little money, for children designated as having special educational needs, for those who are let down by society gives it a dimension which I have not seen in unschooling. It’s about educating children beyond our own, about changing paradigms of education and challenging preconceptions about what ‘an education’ actually means.

And that’s what would make me say that no, democratic education is not unschooling at school. To say so misses much of what is unique and important in both. Unschooling as it is currently most often described is about parents trying to meet the needs of their individual children and it isn’t possible to transfer that to a school setting. Whereas democratic education is a child engaging in self-directed learning in a mixed-age democratic community, and it isn’t possible to do that at home.