Growing Without Schooling:
Voices of Experience
From Pat Farenga's blog, February 2012:
Peter Bergson founded and operates one of the oldest learning centers for homeschoolers/unschoolers in the US, Open Connections in Newtown Square, PA. Peter also worked as a management and creativity consultant for many years, as well as being the author of books about children, learning, and parenting, so he brings a unique perspective to discussions of how education can change. He was interviewed recently about how and why he and his wife unschooled their kids (who are now adults), the history and context of how Open Connections started, and the influence of John Holt on his work.
Peter also wrote about the US education establishment’s current fascination with Finland’s education system and I thought his ideas are worth sharing.
“I well remember when, in the early ‘70s, I joined the boatloads of Americans who flocked to the midlands of England to observe firsthand the Leicestershire method in action. The “integrated day school” model featured a basically hands-on pedagogy (learning by doing, including lots of “play”), multiple-aged classrooms (at least three years’ difference in ages), a high student to teacher ratio (often 40 to one) made possible by the high level of engagement of the young people (and thus little need for supervision). A number of American school reformers touted it as the solution to the boredom and lack of initiative in America’s schools, while the British were warning us that it was not directly transferable to the US because our society did not reflect the same level of respect for teachers. The result of our adopting such “open classrooms,” they warned, would be chaos and then backlash—and they were absolutely right.
“Then we fell in love with the Japanese model (although we never adopted it).
“Then, for some, Reggio Emilia.
“Now, the Finnish.
“Some other thoughts: International test score comparisons, such as PISA, reflect the selectivity of the test-takers more than anything else. On a similar note, I have read that, if you eliminate the bottom 10% (as I recall) of the US’s test scores, which are almost all from the “disadvantaged” school population, America’s average test scores put us near the top in the world! In other words, the reason that we are around 23 or 24 out of 26 is because, unlike every other country in the pool, we include our “worst” students. Other countries don’t include the bottom of their heaps because that part of their population isn’t even in school, let alone taking the same test.
“Now, all of this is merely to debunk the implications drawn from the reported test scores that suggest that America’s schools are getting worse each year. At the same time, I really couldn’t care less about our test scores, or anyone else’s for that matter. I am much more concerned with the degree of self-direction in the Finnish system, for the teachers as well as students. I don’t see that much value in any system that is dedicated to producing people who are merely better at regurgitation, which is generally what standardized tests measure. As has been said many times by many others, we need to support the growth of logical and creative thinking, the kind that comes so naturally to toddlers. As John Holt wrote, "The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do but how we behave when we don’t know what to do."
“What I like about the attention being paid to the Finnish model is that there is no real way to ignore the bigger picture component, which is a belief in (financial) equity, or at least a truer sense of equality of opportunity than what we have in the US. They make the same point as the Occupiers of Wall Street—that the school system reinforces the philosophy of the culture at large with regard to economic justice. The US system reinforces the status quo (or worse, is widening the gap), whereas the Finnish seem to be trying to reduce the variation between rich and poor—not by lowering the bar but by giving more people the resources needed to get up and over it. Only when we Americans truly recognize how our system, with or without standardized testing, keeps the poor in their place will we ever be willing to give any type of genuine reform a real chance at succeeding—whether it’s democratic education, integrated day, or anything else.”
Since I launched the revised HoltGWS.com site I've received a lot of mail and good wishes from old friends and former subscribers. I thought newcomers to unschooling, as well as experienced folks wondering how things turned out for others, would be heartened by these stories. These writers have all consented to have me publish their emails and I hope they generate others to write in with their stories! —PF
I just had a phone conversation this evening with my son, Dan Rubin now 34, in which he talked about reading an article someone had written about John Holt. Daniel said "It's funny how often things come back to home schooling".
Both our sons were home educated—we never home schooled so I suppose we unschooled but preferred to say they were "educated at home by their parents".
Only Daniel endured one year (pre-first grade at age 6) at public school, our other son Alexander is now 30—he never went to school.
I remarked to Daniel this evening that Growing Without Schooling was such a great support to me; I bought all the back issues and read every one cover to cover. I even had a letter published in one issue!
I am so excited to know that you have a website up and running.
Our home education years also gave me my education. My sons continue to learn, as do I, and are very busy people in their work and their hobby of singing barbershop harmony. Barbershop gave them their music education.
Now I'm reliving the great days when we learned together!
We are still a close family, which I attribute to home education. We have had the capacity to battle challenging times because of our positive approach to learning and interacting with all sorts of people, from all walks of life and of all ages.
So for now—congratulations!
Once I have the opportunity to thoroughly read the contents of the website I hope there will be an opportunity to make a written contribution.
Many thanks for all your work over the years and to the other souls at GWS who made our lives so much better and helped us believe that what we were doing would allow at least a handful of children to go out into the world and make it a better place.
I truly believe that Daniel and Alexander make a difference at work and at play.
Yours very sincerely,
I remember reading John Holt's first book How Children Fail. I was 21 at the time, (I'm a little older—68—now), but I found the book so real and so moving. I was in the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan at the time. I graduated but never applied for a teaching job—instead worked with troubled children in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and later got my degree in social work. I think I read all of John Holt's books. When our youngest son (who is now 33) was in kindergarten and had a very critical teacher, we opted to homeschool. That was the spring of 1984. One of our friendly neighbours said—"I don't agree with children being out of school, but I have to tell you Benjamin can once again look me in the eye and give me a big smile.” Another family with a child in that kindergarten class talked with us and took their child out of the class. Also, immediately after our son quit school, his friends wanted to play with him again. They had been afraid to be around him, I guess, in case the teacher got angry at them. The next fall our two older sons, then 10 and 13 quit school. The school board sent a social worker to our home. After an hour or so of talking, he said "I'm going to terminate this discussion—I'm becoming converted!" Once when I phoned to order books from Holt Associates, it happened that John Holt answered the phone. I remember being surprised and saying "You are John Holt ? You changed our lives! One was our older son’s, before homeschooling; he got in trouble at school for drawing on his math sheets in grade 4. His grade 3 teacher had allowed him to draw on his math sheets, and he got very good marks in math. Anyway, after quitting school , he eventually wrote a general exam— the G.E.D—and went to Emily Carr, the art college here, and is curator of an art gallery in Vancouver. When we moved from Alberta to British Columbia, we got together with other people here who were homeschooling, (or "unschooling"). We heard about a school Windsor House, which was started by parents in 1971. It was always a very respecting school, and we were at the meeting when they were voting on the issue of self-directed learning as opposed to following the curriculum. The vote was in favour of self-directed learning. Our youngest son did go there for his teen years. All the best to you all and thanks for your help to so many families!
All the best,
When I mentioned my familiarity with Windsor House Lynn wrote back:
Our youngest child, our daughter, was only 3 when her brothers stopped going to school. As a child she, of course, was involved with her brothers, went on field trips with the homeschooling community, and took classes that she wanted to: piano, art, and others. She learned to read because it was handy, but had not done any math. When she was 11 years old, she wanted to go to our neighbourhood school. I suggested that she might go the next year, but first catch up in mathematics. She said she wanted to go then, not later. I spoke to her grade 6 teacher and asked if she could go at her own pace, so she wouldn't feel embarrassed. He was very nice and agreed to that. She went to Windsor House School, after her school hours, and Helen Hughes (who started Windsor House) tutored her in math once or twice a week. At the end of her grade 6 year, her teacher said that she was caught up in everything (getting good marks) except her attitude. I was confused, and asked him what he meant. He said "She is still enthusiastic!"
Dear Mr. Pat Farenga and all at Holt Associates,
I am one of the early unschoolers/homescholers from India. I have communicated with you earlier. I have received a lot of help from Holt Associates and from Mr. Farenga personally also. I am really grateful to you and your organization.
I am so glad to see that all issues of GWS are avaiable online. We homeschooled our children at a time when there was no internet and I didn't know if there were any other homeschoolers in India. At that time, Growing without Schooling was our valuable and only support system. It gave us a lot of courage and support to follow our conviction. And the results are really encouraging. I am extremely thankful to you all for making this difference in our lives.
Now my children are grown up. They are wonderful human beings. Both of them joined mainstream schools after writing their X grade exams which are equivalent to 'O' level exams. Nitye (21years) is in his final year of engineering. He is an enthusiastic trekker, loves adventure sports, makes films and wants to take up film making as his passionate livelihood. Nikhil (17 years) is in class XII (equivalent to 'A' level) doing basic sciences. He wants to take up Basic sciences for his college and then move to environmental sciences. He loves reading, trekking and music and plays guitar.
I wanted to share this with you and others at Holt Associates as you all through GWS played a major role in supporting our journey. I wanted to thank you and congratulate you for the difference you all have made and continue to make in the lives of so many people.
Thanking you all.
With best wishes,
Rebecca Atlee wrote:
Thank you!! My dad was friends with John way back, and all 4 of us (my siblings and I) were unschooled. We even appeared in 2 of John's books and in many issues of GWS because back then we were outlaws! No, none of us ever did time—we all turned out to be creative, entrepreneurial, productive adults. I am now unschooling my kids, what a blast we are having!