Do children need school at all?

Having defined how learning is a natural and continuous process for all children, and how the capacities they need to develop in order to thrive in the twenty first century are already latent in them (they just need to be practiced), there is a fairly strong argument in favour of children actually not needing school at all.

There is an education movement called the Unschooling movement (this is also called Life Learning) which is premised on the theory that learning will naturally emerge for children if we take all of our man-made constructions away and allow them to function according to their inherent capacities.

Unschoolers (Life learners) argue that ‘It is natural for children to read, write, play with numbers, learn about society, find out about the past, think, wonder and do all those things that society so unsuccessfully attempts to force upon them in the context of schooling’. They believe that ‘children pursue life, and in doing so, pursue knowledge. They need adults to trust in the inevitability of this very natural process, and to offer what assistance they can’(from The conclusion that the unschooling movement has reached is that, because it is part of their DNA for children to learn organically and it is therefore inevitable that children will develop their inherent capacities even without formal education, there is therefore no need for a formal education system at all.

When I first contemplated how to educate my own children, I found that the definition of how children learn that is offered up by the ‘unschooling’ movement really resonated with me. I truly agreed that, as natural organisms, the most appropriate way for children to learn is personalised, non-coercive, self-organised, active, interest-led learning from life. However, whilst I love the unschooling definition of how children learn, I found that I disagreed with the unschooling movement’s resultant hypothesis that the fact that children are naturally hard-wired to want to learn and grow, and the fact that they learn so well and so effectively on their own, makes school obsolete. I agree that it makes our current version of school obsolete (as Sir Ken Robinson describes so well), but I do not believe that children learning at home in whatever way makes sense to them is the perfect solution for every child on planet Earth at this time.

This is because learning potential is enhanced by the quality of the learning environment and not all children have access to quality learning environments at home.

To put this another way, whilst all organisms in nature have an in-built DNA (potential), how that DNA (potential) manifests itself depends on the living environment in which that organism finds itself. For example, all acorns have the DNA (blueprint) to turn into oak trees, but whether the oak tree grows tall and strong or whether it is small and weak depends on the quality of the environment in which it is planted (is it getting enough water, sunlight, nutrients, etcetera in order to flourish?). All living organisms need a supportive environment for their inherent DNA to unfold in a way that most benefits the organism itself as well as the ecosystem of which it is a part. What this suggests is that, depending on the environment in which a child lives and learns, that child will either be supported to develop and use its capacities and abilities (DNA) to the full, or it will not.

Just as an acorn requires high quality water, sunlight and soil in which to flourish, so too do children require a high quality learning environment in order to reach their full inherent potential (unfold their natural learning patterns most effectively).

Unschooling (Life learning) at home as an education model would not be suitable for families where both parents work, or single parent families where the parent has to work, or families who live in confined spaces and with limited access to learning resources without the income, knowledge or ability to travel beyond their home to access a richer learning environment. It would also not be suitable for children who do not have a wide social network outside of school. Finally, it would not be the ideal solution for families who are very extreme in their views and not open to other perspectives. The risk is that these children grow up to believe that there is only one world view and that everyone else is wrong – this would not support a thriving society.

If we decide to take the laissez-faire approach that says learning is a natural process for children so just leave them on their own to learn from life, the outcome would be a Machiavellian survival of the fittest scenario. In this case the fittest would not be those with the greatest in-built learning capabilities (we have already concluded that all children have in-built capabilities, or to use the acorn metaphor, they all have the potential to be oak trees), but rather those who are born into the most favourable learning circumstances (those with access to the best learning environment, or to use the acorn metaphor, with access to the best quality soil, water and sunlight to develop their in-built capacities).

Whilst some children will thrive without any form of school, a large portion of the population would be left without access to quality learning resources or the support and guidance that would enhance their life learning considerably. As much as children are capable of learning from birth, learning does not happen in a vacuum, it needs to be catalysed by the desire to know something and access to the resources required to be able to find out.

The difference between humans and other natural organisms is that we have the capacity to choose how we respond to given situations. If it is clear that unschooling (or life learning) is the approach that is most aligned with the essential nature of children, but that many children will need support in order to maximise their life learning potential, then I think the answer lies in creating a support structure for those children who need support (and I think most children would benefit from this support).

This makes me think of the analogy of a gardener growing a garden in a desert – this gardener is not someone who sits back and watches nature take its course without any input from himself, this gardener is someone who intentionally plants and waters seeds that would not grow in the desert if they did not have the gardener taking extra care of them. All of those seeds have the inherent (nature given) capacity to be beautiful plants, but the course of nature alone would be insufficient to make them thrive in the desert because they are not in their ideal growing environment. The gardener cannot create his garden in the desert without nature doing its part, and nature cannot create a garden in the desert without the gardener doing his part, but together they can co-create a magnificent garden.

I believe it is possible for schools to be the gardeners that work in harmony with the inherent capacities of children, but that nurture children (creates an enabling environment for them to learn) so that they can grow and thrive even if their current life situation is not ideally suited to growth. As long as the school environment is premised on working in harmony with children’s inherent natural capacities and not against them, school could be the gardener that supports all children (even the fragile plants), and not just the privileged few (the hardy plants), to reach their full inherent potential. This is the first reason why I believe some sort of schooling is necessary – so that all children, and not just the privileged few, have access to an enabling learning environment (including mentors, peers, elders (experts), information, technology, learning materials, space, etcetera) that will support them to reach their full potential as life learners.

The second reason I believe that some sort of schooling is necessary has to do with the fact that humans are social beings and we need interconnections with other humans in order to thrive. We cannot thrive in a vacuum on our own because it is through our relationships with each other people that we learn the most. This is not just important at the one-to-one and community level, but also at the global level.

When I first explored how we should educate our own children I was attracted to the idea of unschooling them at home. The life learning philosophy made a lot of sense to me, and we live in a fantastically rich environment for life learning - on a beautiful, spacious farm surrounded by nature and with our extended family nearby. Our children have lots of social interaction with our community, including different races, different social classes, different education levels and different ages. I joke that our farm totally embodies the African saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ – my children are being raised by a multi-cultural village. I also believe that my husband and I are fairly self-aware and open-minded and would be able to support our children on their own learning journeys in ways that would be right for them. Thus, on paper we are an ideal unschooling family. And yet, as a holistic thinker I realise that life is about more than living in idyllic isolation from the (messy and complicated) rest of humanity. I realise that it is vital for me that my children grow up feeling like they are an integral part of our global community and therefore as personally responsible as everyone else for the state of our planet and its people. This made me ponder whether school might actually serve a useful purpose – not as it functions right now, but as a potential ‘space’ for children to share, learn from and collaborate with one another to solve some of the big problems our society faces.

In the process of conducting this research I found the website of an NPO called Rethinking Schools in the USA (from which states: ‘ Rethinking schools is committed to equity, and to the vision that public education is central to the creation of a humane, caring, multi-racial democracy… At a time when racial and class inequalities are growing in the USA, we believe that any vision of schooling must be grounded in “the common school”. Schools are about more than producing efficient workers or future winners of the Nobel Prize for science. They are the place in society where children from a variety of backgrounds come together and (at least in theory) learn to talk, play and work together’.

This may be an as yet unrealised ideal in most instances, but for me this sums up a major reason why I believe that most children need to participate in some sort of collective learning or “school” at some stage in their lives. As a systems thinker I strongly value the interconnectedness of all the people on our planet – one of the key characteristics of being human is that we are ‘in relationship’ with other humans. We need to learn to talk, play and work together with other people. This is epitomised by the famous African concept of ‘Ubuntu’ (I am a person because of other people).

John Dewey the famous American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer wrote several books in which he continually argued that education and learning are social and interactive processes. Dewey makes a strong case for the importance of education not only as a place to gain content knowledge, but also as a place to learn how to live. In his eyes, ‘the purpose of education should not revolve around the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of one's full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good’. He notes that ‘to prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities’ (My pedagogic creed, Dewey, 1897). In addition to helping students realise their full potential, Dewey goes on to acknowledge that education and schooling are instrumental in creating social change and reform. He notes that ‘education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction’.

This is a complex and wordy way of describing that school is an opportunity for children to come together with others to share in a collective vision for their society, and that working collectively towards a common vision is the best way to reconstruct (recreate) society. Whilst I am not someone who wants to see society being engineered by indoctrinating children to think in certain ways rather than others, I AM someone who likes the idea of our society working collectively towards a common vision to reconstruct or recreate our world.

Few people could argue that our world does not need reconstructing or creating anew. If we look at other organisms there are so many examples of collective intelligence being far superior to individual intelligence – look at the swarm intelligence of bees and the school intelligence of fish for example, it is likely that collectively humans will be exponentially more creative than individually at coming up with solutions to some of the problems our world currently faces. Look at the global brain (the Internet) in action – what makes the Internet so creative and what makes it evolve so quickly is that it is a coherent intelligence composed of many individuals with rapid feedback loops creating rapid evolution. I would love my children to be engaged with others in a collective re-design of their world, and I do think school has the potential to offer as good an opportunity as any other for this sort of collaboration - as long as it is not stuck replicating outmoded approaches to learning and can instead learn from models like the Internet in its design.

Linked to this perspective, I read an article titled ‘Do children need friends?’ (From the Child Study Centre: which explains that human beings are social beings who come into the world programmed to respond and relate to others. It explains: ‘Even infants turn their heads in response to the sound of a human voice. The friendships children develop with other children are different from those they have with parents and relatives. Family relationships provide an ease, a closeness, a deep sense of intimacy. But they don’t substitute for other relationships. Starting young and continuing into adulthood, friendships are among the most important activities of life. They provide a training ground for trying out different ways of relating to others. Through interacting with friends, children learn to give and take. They learn how to set up rules, how to weigh alternatives, and to make decisions when faced with dilemmas. They experience fear, anger, aggression and rejection. They learn how to win, to lose, what’s appropriate, what’s not. They learn about social standing and power – how to lead and how to follow, what’s in and what’s out. They learn that different people and different situations call for different behaviours and they come to understand the viewpoints of other people. Friends provide companionship and stimulation. They find out who they are by comparing themselves to others – who is bigger, faster, who can add better, who can catch better. They learn that they are both similar to and different from others. Through friendship and belonging to a group they can improve their self-esteem. The solace and support of friends can help children cope with troubling times and through transition times. Friends are not just a luxury, they are a necessity for healthy psychological development’. This article does go on to say that the quality of friendship is important and that peer pressure can have negative consequences. However, it suggests that ‘Learning to deal with peer pressure, competition and difference is a necessary part of development. Helping children to deal with pressure from friends is more important than protecting them from it’.

Ivan Illich, an Austrian philosopher who wrote about education in the 1970s, talks in his writing about children needing peers who compete and cooperate with them in order for them to reach their full potential. I know that a lot of homeschooling and unschooling families do seek out socialisation and collaboration opportunities for their children and that socialisation and collaboration does not have to occur in a formal school environment, nor is the socialisation that occurs in formal schooling always empowering, but once again these families are the elite in terms of consciously creating learning experiences for their children and not all children would have access to quality socialisation and collaboration with other children if they did not go to school.

For all of these reasons I do not believe that children learning at home in ways that make sense to them is the best solution for all children everywhere. This is not to say that “school” the way that it exists now is even vaguely suitable, but somehow the solution lies in children working together rather than working alone.

I strongly believe that there is a role in human society for an education support system for most (if not all) children. Clearly our current schools are not providing the sort of support that children actually need in order to flourish because they are designed as standardised, one-size-fits-all, authoritarian environments that treat children like machines and not organisms. So, if we agree that some sort of school is necessary for children to reach their full potential in the twenty first century, then how should these schools function so that they truly do enable all children to thrive?

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