So I had this whole blog post spun up about MOOCs and the longitudinal demographics of MOOC courses and how interesting it is that we tend to view course dropouts as a negative, when it should be a positive in the new 21st-century philosophy of higher ed. And then, two things happened.
This blog post is a case study in how two very unlike things can sometimes, somehow, come together into a single thought.
I had a good laugh reading Sashimi’s uninformed attack on homeschooling, but it churned into fatigued disgust over the course of an afternoon1, and thence into outright frustration. What the hell did he know about homeschooling? Qualifications? I’d do better than that; I’d give him results. I wanted to drag him into E’s room and shove his nose into the framed plaque on her wall that holds her first-place EXPLORE medal from 2012, when she finished first in the state of Colorado for her age. I wanted to show him A’s design for a Lego Mindstorm-powered leprechaun trap. I wanted him to watch H’s impassioned, interactive 50-slide PowerPoint plea for slow loris conservation. And then I wanted him to tell me I was not qualified to teach.
But the more I thought about it2, I realized – in gradual fashion – that Sashimi wasn’t talking to me at all. Because I am not a teacher.
I’m not trying to go all Basho on you here. I don’t say this in any sort of ironic sense. I’m really not a teacher. Even when I was called by that title, during my college-professor years, I really wasn’t. That was, in part, due to my own educational upbringing. My favorite teachers have never been teachers. Not in the traditional sense. They’ve been storytellers, collaborators, mad hatters with ping-pong ball guns. My favorite professor in college wasn’t even in my major; he was a law professor, and he loved theatrics. One day, he wrote the definition of assault on the chalkboard: an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. Then he took hands for volunteers and invited a young woman up to one end of the auditorium stage. “I want you to walk from this end to the far end,” he told her, “without ever looking back.”
Once she was underway, eyes dutifully fixed in front of her, he produced an enormous and very sharp-looking chef’s knife from his suit jacket pocket and proceeded to follow closely behind her, waving the knife in an undulating arc and making a boogedy-boogedy face. Just before she reached the end of the stage, he pocketed the knife, stood up straight, and ran a hand through his hair.
“Assault?” he asked the class. Turning to the young woman,he asked, “did you feel an apprehension in me of an imminent harmful or offensive contact?” She had not. Point made in the interpretation of law.3
Unschooling, I suppose, makes me an unteacher. Schools have teachers, after all, so if we’re unschooling, I need some other sort of title, and unteacher seems to fit. What I do isn’t so much teaching as it is functioning as an educational co-pilot; I provide resources, frame projects, lend assistance, watch presentations, and, in many cases, learn right alongside them. They like that; there’s something about the traditional teacher-student dynamic that tends to rile my kids up. So, when I’m confronted with a question I can’t answer offhand – Dad, do all cultures have a trickster god? – I’m happy to shrug and give them my stock response for many questions: I’m not Google. I haven’t been in a long time, actually. Not since why-is-the-sky-blue and do-whales-poop were the questions of the day. These days, I get questions like which has greater biomass, Dad – insects or mammals?
I’m not Google, I remind them. But what a Google-worthy question! And while you mention it, I wonder if K-selected species or r-selected species have greater biomass! What’s that? You’ve never heard of either? Let’s pull up a concise Internet explanation – care to run with that as a project? Awesome. Let’s frame it up.
Teachers don’t get to do that. They have curricula and lesson plans and defined units and quizzes, and everything is sorted out neatly by subject. They don’t get to make the large leaps, the hopscotch learning that we do. What we do evolves from collecting roly-polys on a sunny morning walk, to a discussion of the fact that roly-polys are more closely related to lobsters and crabs than to other insects, to the fact that they’re essentially diminutive trilobites, to a discussion of where trilobites went and how extinctions work and the fact that the Jurassic dinosaur Stegosaurus already had been extinct for approximately 80 million years before the appearance of the Cretaceous dinosaur Tyrannosaurus. (In fact, the time separating Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus is greater than the time separating Tyrannosaurus and you. Fact!)
This is what unteachers do in unschool. We get out of the way of passion and excitement. That empty desk up at the top of this post? That’s us. We vacate and evade the didactic role, circling around over and over again to come up beside our kids, as their educational companions. When necessary, we’ll jump out in front to beat down obstacles in the path of our charging unstudents, but we’re right back beside them as quickly as we possible, to fill their backpacks – while running alongside! – with tools and technology. We’re silent sentinels of well-roundedness, reminding them that it’d be a sweet addition to a project to add an Excel model of trilobite population demise, or a creative-writing piece from the standpoint of a time traveler in the Cretaceous. We let them fill their own minds, and their own days, with learning of their own design.
Unteachers can do that; teachers can’t. Not in the setting they’re in. I could probably import school structure into our home, but why bother? Note, for Sashimi’s sake, that this does not mean I am arguing that I’d be a good teacher, in the strictly-defined sense, in my home – or in a school. I’d probably make a ghastly elementary school teacher, despite having taught college courses for three years. In fact, I’d wager that teachers would make far better unteachers than unteachers would make teachers.
But that’s not the real question, is it? I’m not arguing that I should be allowed to try and bring unschooling into a traditional school environment; that would be a mass extinction of intellect, I’m sure, and not just that of the kids. I’m also not running around with a TEACHER pin affixed to my lapel while I discuss the origin of the Bardic tradition as I make grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Teachers don’t do what I do, and I don’t do what they do.
Could we, maybe, just leave it there?
1 Kind of like I’d been involved in a competitive sushi-eating contest earlier in the day.
2 By which I mean, “drank beer and watched hockey”
3I don’t think you could pull this off today without getting about 500 complaints from parents, making me glad I went to college in the 80s.
More posts scheduled to appear on this subject today, March 18 (time of publication may vary by site):