A national survey conducted by Unschooling School in January 2021 has provided deeper insight into how Canadian parents view what and how their children are learning.
Unschooling School, a non-profit organization which provides information, resources and support for parents, students and teacher on alternatives to public education, surveyed more than 850 Canadian parents of children 18 years of age and under. Its findings were published in February 2021.
“They [the survey results] were actually even more exciting than we anticipated,” says Heather MacTaggart, Director of Unschooling School and mother of four. She has been an advocate of ‘unschooling’ — a student-driven learning versus teacher and curriculum-imposed education approach — for more than 15 years.
“73% of parents felt kids at school should be able to learn the subjects they’re interested in, to be able to follow their passions and learn about those things,” says MacTaggart, referring to key results from the survey.
“67% felt that we need a school reset, as in it’s time, you know, during the pandemic, and after the pandemic, to really rethink how we structure school. And the other one that I thought was kind of interesting was 57% of parents would have liked to have been able to follow their own passions when they were at school.”
(Note: Survey results have an accuracy rating of within +/- 3.8 percentage points.)
With her own children now in their 20’s and 30’s, MacTaggart, who has a background in psychology admits, “I would have done everything differently. Not in terms of how I loved them and supported them encouraged them and was there for them, but in terms of how I schooled them.”
Watch the video interview:
Click for video transcription
LC: Welcome to Where Parents Talk TV. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest is Heather MacTaggart. She is a mother of four, Director of Unschooling School, a nonprofit. She’s also the founder and executive director of classroom connections, and co-author of a book called ‘Overschooled, but Undereducated. Thanks for joining us, Heather.
HM: Very nice to be here.
LC: Now your organization unschooling school conducted a national survey in Canada in January of 2021. More than 860 parents of children under 18 were surveyed. Before we get into the results of the survey, could you tell us what was the impetus for this survey?
HM: We wanted to find out whether our feeling as this group that has been has come together and worked on unschooling school, that our feeling that parents are dissatisfied about certain aspects of education were true. That we felt that a lot of people understand that interests comes or that learning comes by interest.
And that if you let kids learn what they’re interested in, they’re, of course going to learn more. So we knew that as a group, but we thought we should make sure that, you know, people out there generally believe that and that’s why we did the survey.
LC: Tell us what the top three key findings were?
HM: Well, they were actually even more exciting than we anticipated. 73% of parents felt kids at school should be able to learn the subjects they’re interested in, to be able to follow their passions and learn about those things.
67% felt that we need a school reset, as in it’s time, you know, during the pandemic, and after the pandemic, to really rethink how we structure school.
And the other one that I thought was kind of interesting was 57% of parents would have liked to have been able to follow their own passions when they were at school.
LC: There’s so much to dig into there. And I can see how you know, conducting a survey like that, and getting those results is exciting, because those are all really meaty topics. Let me ask you this, though, as a mother of four who presumably has experienced some of these feelings over time, what was your take on what surprised you the most among these findings?
HM: What I find as, as somebody who you know, was considered brilliant in kindergarten, they told my parents oh, she should be skipping to grade two. Then a grade two, they found out nope, this child is stupid. There’s something really wrong with her. And she’s not doing anything she’s supposed to be doing. And that kind of persisted through most of my K to 12 life until university where I got straight A’s. My take on it is because I was interested. And that’s and I was more in control of it. And then when I had kids, my first daughter just failed along learn to read magically by yourself at the age of three or four. And I thought, okay, well, maybe I was wrong, maybe the school system is fine. And it was just me. And then my next arcane one. And whole different story. None of that made sense to her. She just, it was like oil and water. And what I found when I talked to parents about it, is if they’ve had one of those two experiences, they get it. So if school is either some degree of horrific for them, they understand why we really need to change what we’re doing. Or if they fell through and did really well or you know, we’re fine. And then they suddenly have a child. That is they think geez this a great kid, it’s smart in so many ways. They’re either hating school or failing school, or so bored,
because they already know it all. And yet, they’re forced to do the same thing of everybody else. So it’s those people that we we find are saying, Yeah, let’s do something. So I was pleased to see that it’s even a broader range of people.
LC: Let me ask you, did the pandemic, in your opinion impact these findings? And if so, in what specific ways would you say that happened?
HM: I would say that definitely, yes. We hold opens our resumes on Tuesday. On unschooling school.com, there’s a link to our resumes and on our Facebook group, and we often have subjects with parents can and you know, educators can just join, and we are hearing so many things, particularly about distance education. And parents shocked that a six-year-old is suspended is expected to sit for six hours or five hours in front of a screen and just listen to a teacher. Parents of older kids who are now seeing on very, very close range, what the kids are doing this. Why are they memorizing this, but all they need to do is take out their phone and speak to it and the answer is right there. You know, why are they doing other things? And there’s a there’s a lot of that going on.
LC: You talk about one of the survey findings, which is 67% of parents surveyed saying that a school reset is in order. In an ideal world, having been in this space for 20 odd years as you have, what is a school reset look like to you?
HM: Thank you so much for asking that question. It is a great question. What it looks like is almost a time reset. School as we know, it is only about 150 years old. Before that, we trusted biology. We are naturally born to learn. We are the pre-eminent species, not because we are the greatest teaching species, but because we are the greatest learning species. So we have things that are in us, but we don’t teach babies to talk. All babies need to talk is to be around people talking — doesn’t matter what ethnicity that baby is, it will learn the language of whoever’s around. And we know for example, you know, for example, kids in Africa generally speak three, four or five, sometimes six languages, because they’re always around those languages. But if you don’t hear language before the age of seven, you may never speak. And that’s why learning learning a new language after seven, you actually have to learn it, whereas babies are absorbing it almost by osmosis. So, we have so many of those things built into us as human beings. And what we need as a perfect learning environment is as a rich, supportive environment with loving, caring people and all the tools of the culture that kids need to play with. So computers and art equipment and science equipment and phys ed stuff and all the things you normally find in school. But instead of the adults being in control, and making this predetermined decision about what kids need to know, despite the fact that we have no idea what the future will really look like. Instead of going by that preset curriculum, let kids just explore and do and figure it out, mostly, especially when they’re little through play. And then as they get older, through playing with ideas. So it would look more like a community center, then a school or a library, or maybe a combination school, community center and library.
LC: So it’s I find it so interesting, because I mean, we live in the knowledge economy, right, so the technology that kids are exposed to, you know, social media, AI, it’s a long list of things now that are contributing to knowledge being everywhere and not necessarily residing in a school. In your opinion, is unschooling an idea whose time has now come?
HM: Yes. I think the things that you’re pointing out about technology and information being everywhere, can make the whole idea much easier for people to grasp. Because before, there were a few people with lots of information. And so those unique people needed to pass it to the masses who didn’t have it. And it’s not the case. We also know so much more about how the brain works. Because we can look inside brains and watch them learn through things like functional MRIs. So, the brain science would absolutely say, the brain looks like a jungle. And it makes connections, you know, out of interest and out of repetition. And there’s a guy named Gerald Edelman who’s a scientist who coined the term Neural Darwinism. And he would say that, you know, the brain is jungle-like, and perhaps the best learning environment is jungle-like. So there’s all kinds of input and people can go and latch on to the things that spark them, that interest them. And since we now know that information is readily available and out there, we don’t need the same kind of rope or rigid structure to allow kids to be exposed to everything they will naturally just get exposed by hanging around with people of different ages, for example, and friends and watching somebody do something say that’s cool. I wonder how I do that? Well, they can they can watch a YouTube first before they go in and join it if they feel.
LC: So what do you say then to parents who may listen to this and say, you know, rigor, schedule, routine regimen, all of these things are cornerstones of the way the current education system is set up. And as you point out, has been the case for 150 years. The idea of not having that anymore, would just spark fear in all kinds of parents and all kinds of teachers. How do you respond to that?
HM: First thing I’d say is trust biology. Trust that we were created to learn, that we have continued to create ourselves and to create future generations to learn. That is you inborn in kids, that, of course, to become a doctor, become a lawyer, to become an electrician, there’s a huge amount of rigor and learning very specific things that have right and wrong answers. And, and there’s a time for teaching and classes on those things. So, we’re not saying that that should all disappear. But what we are saying is that that needs to be at the child’s choice, there needs to be consent.
What we know about the brain is that it can absorb something and spit it back on a test without any interest, but it’ll not be there next month. Because for those neural connections to really happen, there needs to be interest. So, we have this false idea that a system full of structure and rigor and I think testing and all of the things that you know, age-segregation, I think about age-segregation, like, what, what is that for– convenience of the system, it’s certainly not natural to kids, and it’s certainly not the best way for them to grow up, you know, to go about their lives.
When was the last time you were in a group, and there were only 32 year olds in that group, and you could only hang out with them. And it just, it doesn’t really make sense.
So the, the data, and the research is really far more on the side of this idea that we should be in school, or schools, or we should promote, and create places for what’s called self-directed education. And if that seems like crazy to you, then my idea is go to unschoolingschool.com, look under the resource tab, and scroll down a bit, and you’ll see this crash course. And it’s a crash course of really short videos on the power of self- directed education, which includes some of the science behind it. And I think, I would, it would be pretty hard for somebody to watch, you know, spend maybe, overall, two hours watching those videos, and not come away going on okay, yeah, there’s a lot of structures in the system that we really don’t need.
LC: So, on that note, let me ask you this, you know, student driven learning versus teacher impose learning, and parent enforced learning, those are just completely diametrically opposed concepts. And in the time you’ve been in this space, what kind of feedback in general have you gotten from people who you’ve presented this idea to, in this approach, and concept to, who were firmly on the other side, in other words, you know, holding the status quo, as it as it were. What kind of feedback have you gotten from those individuals?
HM: You know, it varies, there are people that will just shut right down, they’re like you’re out of your noggin. And, you know, the way it is the way it needs to stay. I’ll tell you, there are plenty of teachers who say, we know. And we would really love to be doing things a different way. But this is the way the system is structured. And that is very true. And the teachers, we sometimes refer to the as responsible subversives, who keep the lights on and do the things, but also behind the classroom door, you know, help them help their students to explore on their own, and investigate things that they’re truly passionate about. And would love a system that is less rigid, less structured, more, or entirely self-directed, because they can see, this is what, you know, this is where it gets sparked. So, you know, I would still invite and I still get into, you know, deep discussions with parents and it’s, it’s not spirits, but it’s normally people that say the system works for me. And, that’s great. And I’m glad it did. And even if the structure hadn’t been there, and you’re a person that really likes structure, and likes things to proceed in a certain way, if you’re in a self-directed environment, you can create that for yourself. You can make your own timetable, you can do it your own way. And you can set up that structure. And you can search out places or even let’s say, you know, in a school where some of the kids were self-directed, we call it being a free learner. And part of what we’re advocating for is that kids and parents and families should be able to choose, my child is a designated free learner. And they are going to select things at their school environment that they’re going to participate in, and they’re going to opt out of other things. So, having classes running and still being there, kids can still go and do those classes. They can still have that structure when they want to. And school environments where this has been happening. And this were the main one in North America is called the Sudbury Valley School, just outside Boston, Massachusetts and it’s over 50 years old.
and this is how it runs. Kids from four to 19 go there, and they do what they want every
day all day long.
And a higher number than the average over 80% go on to higher education. And some kids come there and they create their own timetable. And they say to their friends, hey, this is this is time for this, this and this, you want to join in some of the kids join and some of them don’t. So it doesn’t mean you can’t have structure. It just means, you know, we really think it’s incredibly counter-intuitive. And we know for sure damaging to force kids to do things that they really don’t want to do.
LC: On that note, what advice could you offer for parents who may be are now exposed to how their kids are learning in ways that they never were prior, as a result of the pandemic as a result of distance learning, virtual learning, etc, about how they can support their child’s learning. And I’m thinking specifically about parents who have children within the ages of 15 to sort of 19, 20 you know, when post secondary considerations are on the table, and career options are being considered, what advice could you offer, in terms of strategies for those parents in that in that grouping?
HM: Well, the first thing is to get your get yourself educated, to understand learn something about learning, learn something about the brain. As I said, we’ve got tons of resources on the unschoolingschool.com. website. And those resources lead to other places. So this is a huge world. And after you kind of put your toe in, you’ll think to yourself, how did I not know this? I don’t know, there are probably 500 self-directed schools around the world. And I’ve never even heard of one. So, I think that’s the first step. The second –and if you already know some of these things, then maybe you don’t need to do that one first. But the second is to is to particularly this year, if you can you can get your head around, give your kids a gap year for the rest of this year. I mean, this is not a good use of time, most of what’s going on, if your kids are loving it. Fine. If they are miserable, say to them, what else would you rather be doing, you didn’t have to do and have a conversation about what that might be. You know, and you might be surprised that they want to take go to Khan Academy and learn physics, because that’s what they’re really passionate about. Or maybe they’d like to do an art project, maybe they’d like to build your garage over again. Or maybe they’d like to spend all day gaming, and you know what we now know about the brain, that’s actually okay. And believe me, I was not one of those mothers. when my kids were little, I tried to keep them far away from video games, but we now know it actually makes neural really good neural connections, and is good for hand eye coordination, is actually very social. And yeah, the odd person becomes addicted. But it’s not very common, or it’s not that common. So if they want to spend all day long creating games in great gaming communities, let them do that. You know, the, the most you know, for most of civilized and I use that word very cautiously. For most of civilized time, when we’ve had trades and very specific jobs, the way people learn them through apprenticeship. And that’s a lot about what John Abbott and I talked about in Overschooled but Undereducated, which is that the real model of education is play for little kids and apprenticeship, as kids need to start being interested in doing something specific, is trying it out, is learning through a math or master so we could say volunteering, you know, a part time job, starting your own business. I mean, so many of those things you can now do online. And so I would say, you know, let kids use their time more usefully right now, because this idea of behind, it’s a very false idea, there is no such thing as behind, our kids are going to live likely over 100 behind what? The other mistake is thinking, learning loss, there is no such thing. If you’re breathing, you’re learning. That’s just how it works. So my advice is, learn yourself and try to let go.
LC: Always easier said than done. The second part of that advice, but you started by talking about you know, two of your children and sort of their very different journeys and wondering, you know, knowing what you know, now educated as you are in this topic, is there anything you would have done differently or were they you know, younger now, what would you be looking out for them?
HM: I would have done everything differently. Not in terms of how I loved them and supported them encouraged them and was there for them and but in terms of how I schooled them. So you know, my line, particularly to my second daughter who was miserable was, look, it’s not you, it’s them school stinks. But it’s the game. And it’s the only game in town. I’m trying to change it. So, from that, for right now just play the game and do the best she can. And, you know, I remember this one conversation when she was about nine years old, and she broke out crying, and she said, but it makes me feel so bad. And I said, well, that’s why mommy’s trying to change it. And she looked at me, she goes, hurry up — it was heartbreaking. So I’d known what I knoow now. If I, for example, had visited the Sudbury Valley School, the way I got to do, you know, two years ago, I would have unschooled at home, you know, I would have tried to find other parents who understood this, and let kids hang out and play all day long. Because way play is child’s work. That is what they are supposed to be doing. And I would have, you know, said, let’s dip in and out of school, when it makes sense, you know, stay registered, do the classes you want, don’t do the classes you don’t want. And that’s, that’s really what we’re saying with unschooling school is we’ve got these great resources, let’s just use them differently. It should all get to be free. You know, we in 89, we decided that children were human and the Charter of Rights and the Charter of Rights applies to kids, I’m not sure what they were before 1989, we did decide they were human, then. So one of the most basic human rights is to make choices about what you do. So you know, it’s more than time that we let that apply to kids. And, and, you know, so I think I, but if I had thought of this idea, I would have just let my kids do it. now, even if they were the only one. And I’ll tell you, my middle daughter, she would have done. And I would have done. If I thought of this when I was eight man, I would have just said no, I’m doing this, but I don’t like any of that. So I’m going home. And it’s, you know, you have to be done nicely of course. We’ve got a lot of kind of handouts and templates and structure on the website, they could help parents and to help educators, you know, do this in a in a respectful way, because we don’t want to, you know, turn the school upside down. Although, you know, eventually it may get quite turned around. But in the meantime, as people say it, I’m going to be a free learner, here’s my form, here’s what I’m going how I’m going to spend my time here’s how I like to use the resources of the school, let’s have a sit down and figure that out. You don’t want to go back into regular school after the pandemic. You know, that’s what I want to
LC: Last question for you. The survey results are going to be analyzed by all kinds of people in different ways, certainly, what is your hope of for this survey moving forward? What do you hope it will yield?
HM: Well, I think what I hope is that it has people say, wow, okay, I’m not the only one that thinks that way. We need to be doing things differently. If most of us agree that kids should get to follow their passions and learn things that they are interested in about. why are they spending so much time going through drudgery that they can’t stand? Are they really getting out of it? And I defy anybody who’s 40 years old to look at something they hate it at school, and that they still remember?
For example, the dewdrop periodic table? No, I could not for sure. I could not remember the first thing about nor do I need to. But now I want to find out I can. I can do it pretty quickly.
LC: Just a lot of food for thought for parents who watch this interview. Thank you so much.
HM: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
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