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October 2017
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Freelearner generation – why children learn more without going to school

It’s a clear and sunny late autumn afternoon. I am watching my three-year-old sister joyfully chasing my dog, running wildly through the fallen leaves marked by autumn. Although Leona doesn’t speak yet, I’m continuously amazed by her sharp mind, driven by an insatiable desire of gaining knowledge and curiosity whilst being more than successful in communicating her wishes nonvocally. I imagine her to soon begin talking and going to school – the common path of children nowadays in our countries – which makes me wonder how this remarkable free mind will continue to develop.

Have you ever wondered where the honey on your bread comes from? The fascination of the sweet gold brings the unschooled child in touch with beekeepers, offering them the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the practices of beekeeping. Juri Wolf (22) is unschooled himself, and imagines unschooling a lifestyle. He and his mother, founder of the German unschooling community BVNL are known to be the pioneers of German unschoolers. Festivals, events and a growing network of connections bind the community together – and envision a legally restricted practice in Germany.

What is unschooling actually?
Representing the inherent trust in children’s natural and self-determined ability to learn, unschooling aims to nurture an unrestricted method of learning which contributes to children’s individual character development. Parents encourage and support a deepening of interests in particular topics, whilst children maintain individual freedom(s) – a practice schools cannot provide for.

Forever holidays: Immanuel, Semyon & Juri in young years (Photo: C. Wolf)

Education as a right
In many countries home- and unschooling are technically allowed. Yet, Germany is known to be restrictive and constitutes an exceptional case that obliges school-education, and literally renders home- and unschooling illegal. Juri and his family have experienced the legal consequences of heavy fines, threatened child-custodies, and police-escorted school-attendance – just for practicing this form of alternate education. With the law strictly enforced, the only known exception is the case of the popular boy-band Tokio Hotel in their starting career in 2006, since their daily school-life could not be maintained anymore due to the massive fan-base. An unlikely case for the average citizen.

Despite their alternative upbringing, Juri and his brothers are well-integrated members of society and successfully hold down regular jobs. Juri studies, works as a web- and graphic designer, and is also in the process of creating a houseproject in Berlin. His older brother Semyon is employed at the renowned Babelsberg Filmstudios, and the oldest brother Immanuel travels the world, when not involved in activities related to politics or his self-employed status.

It is seen a social privilege to have the right of free education – and yet, there are people seemingly unable to value the efforts of school education. “It is important to differentiate between ‘unschooling’ and ‘homeschooling’”. As Juri points out, classical homeschoolers’ motivations originate in regard to parental wealth or means ‘to educate their children better’. Legitimately, homeschooling often serves to path the children a way the parents intend them to walk, and may in certain cases be linked to religious motivations. In contrast, unschooling takes another approach entirely, focusing on giving children the chance to decide and direct their learning, based on their passions and interests. The key difference is the lack of a prescribed curriculum for individual progress in depth and pace.

Die Bude: houseproject Juri and his friends are involved in (Photo: Die Bude)

How can they possibly keep up with other children? It is a common misconception of society to perceive unschoolers as dropouts. When my sister Leona eventually joins the education system, she will undoubtedly be caught up in a predetermined curriculum that functions as a ‘system of coercion and control’. This makes it impossible to explore personal strengths and preferences. The core value that proponents of unschooling celebrate is that their approach essentially preserves motivation.

“Most freelearners know exactly where they stand and where they wanna go, and it is for that reason that they often prove to become successful entrepreneurs due to their independent upbringing”

Marie Vijendran, a young mother of two based in the Netherlands educated her children by her personal inspiration of the unschooling movement. She feels that traditional education is no longer able to keep up wit the fast-paced world of today, and says “People will learn regardless of what age they are and it is important to give our children the opportunity of learning by following their own instincts”.

Unschooling is a self-organizing system where structure appears without explicit intervention from the outside. Nowadays the situation in schools often reflects students asking what they need to know in order to pass the exam, instead of understanding and applying knowledge. We all might agree that it is not real knowledge if all you do is learning and forgetting. As Marie puts it, “learning comes from a wonderful network of connections which embed within the individual – nobody can measure true learning.” In this regard, unschooled students stand out by not learning to regurgitate information, but rather their research-based approach and motivations to challenge themselves independently.

“If children have interest, then education happens.” Arthur C. Clarke, author and futurist.

Ideas of unschooling are not new. In commenting, Clarke refers to Sugata Mitra’s renowned ‘The hole in the wall”-experiments in 1999 that reflect if children are given access to information they can teach themselves to do their own research.

Unschoolers too face challenging situations like sitting frustrated in front of a seemingly unsolvable (math-)task or topics they simply don’t enjoy. However, with a goal in mind unschooled are quicker in achieving certain goals. If unschooling holds so many benefits though, why is it still so uncommon? Marie points out how she is struggling with the increasing political pressure and challenge to homeschool, not to say unschool.

“I found it important to me to make sure the children could have a smooth transition into school, in case they would ever need to, or request to. Every family has their way of putting their children first and to balance this alongside other pressures (financial, or whatever).”

We can consider unschooling a valuable alternative to the general schoolsystem that proves to be rewarding. We should acknowledge unschooling to a higher regard. And we need to decide for ourselves where we stand. Being aware of the fact that unschooling involves specific means of caring and spending time with the children makes not everyone eligible for unschooling. Education is our highest privilege that we shouldn’t take for granted!

Strong bonds: BVNL youth community (Photo: Immanuel Wolf)



By Shirin Engel

S. Engel

S. Engel

Passionate photographer and traveler. Media and Communications student.

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