Unschooling for Adults

(note: this was written by my husband Ron, currently an instructor at a community college. He’s taking course to get certified as an Adult Educator)

This paper was prepared as part of my participation in Audio Conference ED3024, Understanding the Adult Learner (ED3024), conducted during spring intercession of 2003. I entered this course after 1-½ years of instructing Learning Technology courses at NBCC Miramichi. To NBCC Miramichi, I brought more than eight years of homeschooling experience and numerous experiences of training clients. As a homeschooling parent, I have questioned traditional educational methods used to educate children and have researched various alternative methods of education. There are many parents that have chosen homeschooling as an alternative to traditional schooling. There is a great diversity in the style of the alternative educational methods.

In ED3024, we discussed various principles and theories of adult education. Most of the material I have read regarding education focused on either the education of adults or children. There seems to be a consensus among the authors that the differences between adults and children are significant enough that they represent two different subjects. In the early classes and readings of ED3024, I felt that many of the theories, principles and challenges facing educators were similar to those encountered in a homeschooling environment. Despite a number of fundamental differences between young and adult learners, are the problems and challenges facing educators of these two groups as different as we might assume?

In this paper, I examine homeschooling and adult education. First, I examine a method of homeschooling called Unschooling and to what extent the theory of unschooling has been applied in my homeschool. Next, I outline the major differences that affect the learning of young and adult learners. Third, I discuss the motivators and characteristics of adult learners. Finally, I will address the applicability of unschooling to adult education.

The Random House Dictionary (1978) defines unschooled as “not schooled, taught or trained”. (p.952) As a method of homeschooling, unschooling “generally refers to a specific style … where learning is not separated from living, and children learn mainly by following their own interests.” (Griffith, 1999. p. 53) The website www.unschooling.com has a list of over 15 different definitions and descriptions of unschooling. For the purpose of this paper, I define unschooling as child-led learning in the home where the material and schedule are determined primarily by the interest of the child.

There are a number of homeschooling groups both on and off the Internet that we have participated in over the last ten years. Among these groups we have found a significant number of parents who only teach material that interests the child. There have been unschooled children in this group who did not express an interest in reading until adolescence. I will refer to this group of unschoolers as ardent unschoolers. I agree with the ardent unschoolers that children will learn material, in which they are interested, easiest and best. In most instances, it would deal with Gardner’s (1995) concerns over rote learning. The ability to reproduce rote learning does not clearly demonstrate full understanding of the material.

As a parent of four children, I can attest to the fact that not every child is ready to learn a particular skill or fact at a specific age. However, our methodology diverges from ardent unschoolers in the area core learning. We teach our children core subjects. We do not necessarily do it at the traditional age or in the traditional way. For example, our son wanted to study the Roman Empire. He started by extensively playing a computer game based in the Roman Era. The game gave him a good base knowledge of the era in the sense of modes of transportation, living conditions, and social structure. When nearing the point where he was to demonstrate his knowledge of this era, he researched via both the Internet and encyclopedia for a period of 2-3 weeks. At the end of that time, he was able to demonstrate a better understanding of the era than either my wife and I had.

There are three main reasons we have chosen to maintain a core of material that our children are required to learn. First, it would be great to live in a world where we could always do things that interested us. The reality is that adults have to do things that do not interest them. I have not had a job in my entire career that did not have some aspects that were very uninteresting. Second, until children enter formal school they learn from the world around them.(Gardner, 1995) That form of learning is limited by the surroundings. By teaching our children core subjects, we greatly increase the learning material available to them. Finally, I would like my children to have, as adults, the most fulfilling, rewarding and satisfying life possible. In giving them these basic skills, we open a world of possibilities to them. They are set free of our limitations and are much less dependent on adults to go on learning.

Children and Adults
Brundage and Mackeracker (1980) identify the general differences between adult and children learners. “Children have few pragmatic life experiences” (p.11) while “adults have extensive pragmatic life experiences which tend to structure and limit new learnings.” (p.11) For children, “learning focuses largely on forming basic meanings, values, skills, and strategies.” (p.11) Adult learning primarily focuses on transforming childhood learning. They also differentiate between the child’s and the adult’s motivation to learn. Children are pressured to learn by the fact that they are biologically, mentally and emotionally changing much faster than the world around them. Generally adults change much slower than the world around them. Therefore, they are pressured to learn to keep pace with the changing world.

Gardner (1995) describes three characters: the intuitive learner, the traditional student, and the disciplinary expert. By intuitive learner, Gardner means the child who learns one or more languages, symbolic systems, rudimentary social skills and develops motor skills and practical theories about the physical world they live in. He also asserts, “that in nearly every student there is a five year old ‘unschooled’ mind struggling to get out and express itself.” (p.5) Before becoming a traditional student, the intuitive learner has already mastered various methods of learning. The intuitive learner is able to learn independently. Learning independently does not mean learning in a void. Consider the child learning to speak. A child learns the language by interacting with and observing other people. At the same time, the other people cannot develop the vocal coordination for the child.

Gardner (1995) describes traditional students or scholastic learners as students from school age to early adulthood. Their goal is to master the knowledge being delivered in school. The scholastic learner learns in an environment where the structure and goals are determined externally. In traditional students, the scholastic learner co-exists with the independent learner. Therefore, in addition to the independent learner, the scholastic learner is a dependent learner whose learning relies on the externally imposed structure, motivation, direction and leadership.

Finally, “the disciplinary expert is an individual of any age who has mastered the concepts and skills of a discipline or domain”. (Gardner, 1995, p.7) The disciplinary expert applies the mastered material to new material. This is consistent with what Brundage and Mackeracher (1980) describe as transformation in the adult learner. Given that the majority of adult learners are products of the traditional education system, we can conclude that adult learners consist of, in varying degrees, all three learning characters.

Adult Learners
Adults learn outside of educational institutions. They learn for a variety of personal interests. Adults also learn work related material in informal settings such as on the job training. Since I am an instructor at an educational institution, I am limiting the remainder of this discussion to formal adult learning that takes place in an educational institution.

Our civilization institutionally educated children on a mass scale long before the technological revolution brought about the need for adult education on a mass scale. “From the beginning, the American colonies set great store by education for all the people.” (Gillett, 1966, p. 209) Our public educational system is based on a system developed in the early 19th century that was funded out of meager tax dollars. This required that the system be economical. Likewise, any paradigm offered for adult education must be designed with this restriction in mind because if it is not economical it will not be readily available to the mass of adults who need it.

During the course, the ED3024 participants in Miramichi gave a presentation on Barriers and Motivators in Adult Education. A source used in that presentation was the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). The DIT website classified motivators into four categories: Second Chance Students, Career-Related Reasons, Work-Related Reasons, and Personal Fulfillment. Second Chance Students are those adults who were not afforded the opportunity for secondary or post-secondary education as children, adolescents or young adults. Career and work related reasons are differentiated because those related to work are intended to keep the current job while those related to career are intended to assist in attaining promotions and/or new jobs. They are the same in the sense that the education being sought is for professional development. The final category of personal fulfillment sets itself apart from the other three by not being the pursuit of a professional goal.

The society in which we live imposes an additional consideration on adult education. Most adult education is pursued for professional reasons, and most professions require credentials. Therefore, most adults pursuing education will only pursue education where certification or recognition is one of the results of the education. A determining factor in the development of a program or course will be whether or not it provides professional accreditation.

Brundage and Mackeracker (1980) have identified nine characteristics of adult learners: physiological; self-concept; emotions, stress & anxiety; past experience; time; motivation; paradox; learning styles and abilities; and developmental stages. Physiological characteristics are those related to the health and well being of the learner. The learner’s self-concept is how the learner perceives and feels about him/herself. The learner’s emotional state and level of stress and anxiety directly affect an adult’s ability to learn. Past experience is relevant because the past experience is transformed in the process of learning. An adult’s perception of time, which changes as they age, affects the learning process. When adults enter a learning process, they already have sufficient motivation to learn. The process of transformation occurs when the learner makes the transition through the paradox presented by past experience and new learning. Any group of adult learners will consist of a diverse set of individual learning styles. Finally, adults transition through developmental stages that follow basic patterns.

Unschooling and Adults
In the preceding paragraphs, I discussed two important considerations in the application of the theories of unschooling to adult education. First, whatever paradigm is developed, it must be economical. Second, to meet the needs of the majority of adult learners, most adult education must provide accreditation. I am going to call these considerations institutional factors. If adult education required a single student to financially support themselves, a teacher and their portion of the educational infrastructure, adult education would be prohibitively expensive. Therefore, there must be a one-to-many relationship between the teacher and students. This would make it extremely difficult to entirely tailor the education to each student’s individual interests.

Accreditation requires that the educator provide confirmation that the student has successfully learned one or more skills or disciplines. Therefore, an adult education program must contain, at a minimum, a baseline of goals and objectives to which it can attest. If the program is going to certify learning to a set of goals and objectives, then it must have a system of measuring and evaluating the learning of the student. Having these constraints in mind, let’s consider the principles derived from the nine characteristics of adult learners.

Most of the physiological factors have the same effect on the learner in any learning environment. For example, they do not learn well under stress. (Brundage and Mackeracker, 1980) The learning environment should be as physiologically accommodating as possible. Physiologically, adults “learn best when they can set their own pace”. (p. 23) In terms of self-concept, an adult is concerned with the direction that the learning is taking them. Time is a factor in the sense that the adult wants learning to focus on present problems and tend to need to learn quickly. Unschooling would positively affect adult education in this area because it would allow adult learners to learn the material at as quick a pace as they could sustain. Unschooling would alleviate the concern for the direction of the material because the adult learner would have some control over that direction.

The unstructured nature of unschooling was initially recommended by John Holt (1983) to accommodate the diversity of learning styles and variation of learning ability in children and to allow the learner to chose its own method of learning. Also, children developmentally change much faster than adults. Unschooling was designed to accommodate developmental differences. The characteristics of past experience and paradox provide principles that are related to past experience being transformed by new learning. The flexible pace of unschooling should maximize the learner’s ability to transform past experience while minimizing the instability brought on by paradox.

This issue of motivation for adult learners and unschooling child learners is in many ways the same. The source of motivation may be different. With unschooling, the child is motivated to learn because the material is something that interests it. The adult is motivated through a set of felt needs. (Brundage and Mackeracker, 1980) Motivation is associated to emotions, stress and anxiety. Negative motivation will produce stress, anxiety and negative emotions in the learner. Unschooling would provide the adult learner with positive motivation by increasing the learner’s sense of control. It would promote success in the learner by providing the opportunity for the learner to effectively use his/her individual learning style. For an adult learner to proceed with an unschooled learning project, the learner must continually evaluate and clarify the goals and objectives of the experience.

Finally, unschooling poses a potential solution to a problem that I have encountered in my limited experience as an instructor. Almost all of the courses that I have taught at NBCC Miramichi have been core courses. A course is core if the advisory group from the industry, which would hire the student, deems the material as a required skill to enter that field. All of the students in these courses are taking them because they must pass them to achieve their certificate or diploma. I have had many students barely pass who I felt was capable of doing well. The quality of some students work noticeably declined when they had received enough feedback to reasonably know they would pass. It would appear that some students motivated to acquire the accreditation while learning as little as possible. Institutional factors dictate that I must provide a set of prescribed learning objectives. However, using the unschooling approach I would give the student an opportunity to set goals and a method of demonstrating that they have learned the material. In this way, the students could be assessed based on their own objectives.

In terms of adult education as a whole, I have limited exposure. In participating in ED3024, I focused on this aspect of the course because it was directly related to an immediate problem. I have had students who I felt were unmotivated to learn and were heavily dependent on the structure and direction I provided. I acknowledge that there are fundamental differences in children and adult learners. However, unschooling’s flexibility would make those differences less significant. My personal experience with the success of unschooling my children leads me to believe that given the institutional factors that exist in my institution, unschooling could be incorporated into the adult education that I am involved in. References

Bugg, L., Ed. (2000). What is Unschooling? Retrieved May 20, 2003, from http://www.unschooling.com/library/faq/definitions.shtml

Brundage, D. and Mackeracher, D. (1980). Adult Learning Principles and Their Application to Program Planning. Ministry of Education, Ontario, Canada.

Gardner, H. (1995). The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think & How Schools Should Teach. New York: Basic Books.

Gillett, M., Ed.D (1966). A History of Education: thought and practice. Canada: McGraw-Hill.

Griffith, M (1999). The Homeschooling Handbook (2nd ed.). Canada: Prima Publishing.
Holt, J (1983). How Children Learn (Revised ed.). New York: Dell Publishing.

Kelly, D. Ph.D. Adult Learners: Characteristics, Theories, Motivations, Learning Environment. Retrieved June 26, 2003, from http://www.dit.ie/DIT/lifelong/adult/adlearn_chars.pdf

Random House Dictionary, The: Concise Edition (1978). New York: Random House.

2 replies on “Unschooling for Adults”

  1. what does this actually mean?well first off all im trying to find a place that will send me books because i havent graduated highs school and i want those books to study at home then take the test and get my diploma.is there any way yous can help me do this?if so please write back as soon as possible ill be waiting for your email theank you for listening…..

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