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.