In my last post, I mentioned, just at the very end, that Elena’s book ‘Io Imparo da solo‘ (translates to: ‘I learn on my own’) got out in print. A big box of books arrived and we were all excited to see the content: 40 nicely stacked books with an inviting looking cover. There are some energetic spots of colour splashing from a child’s paint brush on a white background. Proudly, the name: Elena Piffero, is written in small block letters at the top left corner. It reminded me the ending scene in Back to the future I, when Marty McFly finally comes back to a different home in 1985 – his father (George), now equipped with a modern (80s!) hairstyle and sun glasses is all confident and happy. He is so chuffed at seeing his first Science Fiction book being printed. I even enjoyed playing with the thought, that it could have been me (just like Marty McFly) that got to change Elena’s fate; maybe it was me that got the best out of Elena and made her write the book. Ah well, I like the thought anyhow.

Since I didn’t get the chance to read the book while it was written (especially because I wanted to prevent myself from giving any excessive criticism, as I usually do, which is always counter productive, especially in the phase of writing) I was very eager to read it myself and see how she presents her side of the story (I think I know it, but it’s still different when reading it and seeing what one decides to emphasize). Snatching one family copy to the bedroom, I surpassed my ability to read in Italian and finished it in nearly two days. I love the introduction, I like its modest tone and the subtle shifting between private life and academic citations. It touches nearly all of the aspects that we discussed together throughout our way to unschooling: from the practical to the philosophical and all without pretense and heaviness. It made me very proud. I truly recommend it. I think it’s a great essay and would be an important contribution even if translated to English (a language in which so much has already been written on the topic) as it sums up a lot of works in the field as well as gives a personal touch.

As for me, I wouldn’t have thought of writing about our experiences as unschoolers nor be able to back it with so much scientific rigor. When it comes to our path into informally educating our children Elena was the one who did all the research and I mainly followed. Obviously, I have my side to the story, I have a slightly different upbringing and path that led me to reach the same conclusions. My approach is not always similar to that of Elena’s and she writes it nicely in her book too. We always had (and still have) discussions around education and how we can enhance learning opportunities as well as social encounters for every member of the family (children and parents alike). However, I never felt the necessity to voice my thoughts on education or on my educational choices, to the wide public. I voice them loud (sometimes, too loud) and clear in my inner circles of friends, among colleagues and obviously within the family. I don’t voice them in the wide public because, most of the time, I just think that greater people have already said it all, written about it and did a fantastic job too – how can I contribute more?
As you might guess, this is going to change. Since it’s all about the school and I just love the film (the film that shaped my future as a scientist too) I’ll put it in the words of Marty McFly answering the patronizing headteacher, Mr. Strickland who tells him: ‘No McFly has ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley … ‘ – ‘Well History is going to change!’

History is going to change because of how some members of the public reacted (on social media, of course, where all the smart stuff are said) to Elena’s courage to write about a non conformist choice we took and for sharing our experience in public. They didn’t react to the content of the book, they haven’t read it, that’s too difficult. They don’t even know what the ideas in it are. Like Marty, that ignorant headbutting just made me angry. And that’s why I don’t mind writing my way into alternative education in public.

Thankfully, many have defended us and have answered respectfully while putting the aggressors in their place. I didn’t give much attention to the feeds on social media as I know it just brings on a lot of frustration. This, with my inability to write coherently and effectively in Italian, kept my keyboard silent for a while. However, since people were fighting for us and showing immense support I just thought that I have to give a contribution. For the sake of supporting Elena, I think it will be good to show her that she is not alone in this. It’s her book but I can still support her by shedding a little more light on our decision.

It is not the ignorant ranting people that I’d like to respond to but to the so called defenders of ‘free public education’ or ‘free public schools’ as they use the terms interchangeably (but they are not actually the same). There are those (even among friends and generally-think-a-like colleagues) that believe that it’s causing more harm than good trying to promote and find alternatives to what we know as the formal schooling institutes. Many of my critics claim they’d rather focus on trying to improve the existing schooling system from within. It’s an ‘equality issue’, as they see it: a ‘socialist view of education’. I also heard many times before: “You can’t leave a sinking ship”, when speaking out loud about abandoning the schooling system (in three different languages, btw).
Understanding that public does not necessarily mean formal (schooling – i.e. classroom based) and that informal doesn’t necessarily mean private or inferior quality were pivotal revelations in my transition from an idealistic socialist teacher to a somewhat rebel become unschooling father. If I was still working in the public sector I’d be striving for free public informal education for all. The latter, just to be clear, is my own notion, not something Elena wrote in her book or vaguely suggests. The transformations in thoughts as a trained teacher are not talked about in Elena’s book as they are solely mine. Maybe introducing a little on my upbringing as an educator can help.

From informal teaching to formal and back

To shed some light on how I got to adopt unschooling not just as a family choice but as an educational experiment to push for a better public education system I’d like to present (hopefully, in brief) my formation as an educator-scientist and teacher. I will highlight experiences from both sides of the education system: as a student and then as a teacher.

Early experiences in learning and teaching – informal

Since I was 15 I found myself working as a teacher/tutor. I just loved sharing my knowledge and passions with others. At the time, I was an enthusiastic aero-modelling hobbyist and a member of the local aero-club (just for keeping note – this is: informal, private education- my parents paid a lot of money for this exclusive club). That period in, hindsight, was also one of the most influential informal learning experiences I encountered as a child. I learnt a lot and out of my own interest. After gaining some experience as a model builder myself, I was given small groups of 9 year-olds to instruct how to build planes out of balsa wood and then go fly them in the fields during the weekend. I used to skip classes in school to go and build models and to prepare for my kids classes. I just loved the hands-on approach to learning, something I didn’t really experience in school, but also everyone in the workshop/class advanced in his own pace without being rushed or judged.

Something that stuck out to me years later on that period in the aeroclub: Although there was lots of physics, math and material science involved in planning and building our models, (for example I learnt all about the properties of carbon fibers, Kevlar and fiberglass and how to calculate their strength in building) I was considered academically weak in math, physics and chemistry in highschool.
My parents weren’t unschoolers but they had expressed freely their discontent from the education system and allowed us to slack as we wished, school results never mattered to them although they insisted we obtain an academic degree in something. They spent a lot of time and money to compensate for what they thought was a failing system. School was an evil necessity – at least it’s free and inclusive– and that’s for a good cause and an educational point by itself. But is it?

Working in the informal public education sector

In university I studied Chemistry but found myself spending more than half the time in the National Science Museum in Haifa, working as a science guide and demonstrator. This was actually my longest experience in an informal education institution which is also a public institution. Entry to the museum was heavily subsidized by the Ministry of Education and the museum was run by academic volunteers and poor students like me that earned a very small scholarship for sharing their passion for science. The museum collaborated not only with public schools but offered services to old people’s homes, hospitals, prisons as well as to the general public. Without noticing it, I worked with the museum, on and off, for nearly 8 years. I had particular interest in working with the curators and the workshops that built new exhibits. Their efforts to create the finest learning experiences for the general public was advanced science and pedagogy put together. Looking back, it was the epitome of what I wanted science education to look like: Learning was free, self directed (or assisted on request), it was hands-on and socially inclusive: we had Arabs, Jews, old and young, families, individuals and even soldiers roaming all together in the big halls of the museum. They participated in group activities that we ran throughout the day. To include the poorer communities that could not afford travelling to our museum I worked in a small team of tutors that traveled by van to small villages around the country. From Bedouin villages in the south to remote towns in the north.

My best experiences in teaching science. Our mobile museum van in an educational centre in Baqa al Gharbia, Israel

These images of immense diversity have never occurred again once I left the museum and moved into the formal schooling system. Later on when I became a qualified teacher, I thought I’d be able to incorporate my experiences in the classroom. It took me a lot of time and struggle to realize that it is just not possible. The learning styles are just not compatible. Informal learning is used by schools to patch up their weaknesses but by definition they cannot embrace them as their own. At the time, I wanted to become a qualified teacher because one thing was lacking for me in the museum: continuity. Visitors came for short visits. I could see how they enjoyed and got inspired but I thought I couldn’t see them grow and show them more. I wanted to have longer sessions and feel like I was developing some long-term science skills. Becoming a teacher seemed the best thing to do.

On a personal note and to tie the story to ours as a family, it’s also my experiences in the museum that led me to meet Elena in Cairo. It was there in the museum that I realized that I, as a Hebrew speaking Jewish museum tutor, could not communicate with the Arab population as well as I wished to. School never offered me the opportunity to mingle with Arabs nor really learn Arabic for the same reason (I did take Arabic in school but the way it was taught didn’t prove much useful). I then decided to travel to Cairo to learn Arabic so that I could come back to my troubled home-country and practice all my idealistic-socialistic-peace-and-love-education ideas. There in the language school I met Elena which made my Arabic learning experience more complete as I was bound to stay there for nearly six months the first time and come back for another long period. During those periods, I had time to reflect on my ideas and, by chance, indulge for the first time in a professional setting of education.

Professionalism – becoming a qualified English teacher

In Cairo, I took, in the first two months, a full time course in spoken and written Arabic. It was the first time that I enjoyed a language course (something which never happened when I attended public school). There was something very professional about it. We got a lot of opportunity to speak and I immediately found myself getting interested in the teaching methods. I was also staying longer than I initially intended in Cairo and had to find a job. It was a fellow Arabic student that happened to be a qualified English teacher that got me interested in taking a CELTA course in Cairo. The course was mind blowing, I thought I knew something about teaching before I started the course but this was something extraordinary. From student centred activities to non verbal communication, teaching grammar concepts by examples rather than by rules and so on. “Wow”, I thought to myself, I never got the chance to delve in such professional discussions. Then, I was sure that a teaching degree will open immense new opportunities. What I never dared asking myself is why my own experiences as a high school student never matched this newly acquired idealistic view on what will lead me to becoming a better science educator.

Teaching for EF in China, a private school in a public setting

Before I would materialize my plan I wanted to gain some international experience as an English teacher and traveled to Harbin, China where I worked for the private Swedish franchise company – EF (English First). The education culture in China was very far from the idealism I developed before my arrival. I quickly felt guilty for working for a private company that served mainly the super rich. Even when we had collaborations with public schools, it was evident that these were not inclusive schools. They consisted mainly of the wealthy. Most of all, I felt horrible when I realized that my weekend classes for children were full of poor kids (with very rich parents) that never got the chance to play – I mean it: never. They were there because their parents wanted them to be ‘successful’ at the cost of ruining their childhood. However, I enjoyed learning from excellent English teachers and improve my teaching skills and worked with a wide range of age groups and abilities. I also learnt more about the local customs and got a chance to stay for a longer period than that of an average backpacker. I even learnt some Chinese. I thought to myself that If I came back to Israel to teach science, the education system would be different. It would be less competitive, more inclusive. Israel is not like China. What I didn’t know is that a school is always a school.

Into formal teaching – free public schools

Here finally comes the part where I can say: been there, done that.. (and thus, eventually, I am granted the professional credibility when I say that I think that unschooling is a sound pedagogical alternative.. better still: trust me, I’m a teacher!). But I really understand that it’s not trivial to many and I can confess that it took me a very long time and not without struggle as I had to surrender to the fact that, for a very long time, I’ve held on to ideals that can’t coexist with the traditional schooling system (as we know it).

Back in Israel I returned to university and enrolled in a second first degree: Education in Science. It was a special programme for science graduates to complete in two years. By the end of it you were awarded an additional degree in science education and a national teaching license for middle schools and high schools. When I look back, I can’t believe how naive I was. I really thought that I’d come out with a bunch more tools, more pedagogical knowledge and teaching skills to do what I really wanted. As I also had Arabic in my sleeve, I thought I could then do wonderful things, maybe even help bridge between the Arabic and Jewish communities through work in public schools.

In teacher training I had a particular interesting and thought provoking course. It was Philosophy of Education and we got to discuss different educational ideas. For most of the trainees, it was just another course and many did not develop any criticism or doubt. However, I know of one Engineering trainee that decided to leave the programme altogether after he suggested discussing the works of Ivan Ilich as well and the course coordinator, kindly refused. I only understood which book it was he wanted to discuss, after Elena mentioned it years later when we already started unschooling. Prior to his departure, I briefly talked to him and listened to his arguments and found them interesting but too harsh on the public school. After all, I thought to myself, am I not here to improve the system? I was convinced, at the time, that’s we should just focus on providing the highest quality tuition to the public for free. When we got to interview a teacher from a democratic school, for example, (later she became my mentor in the public school in which I taught a year later), most of the class, including myself, just attacked her for working for a private school which was elitist and exclusive. We weren’t open enough to listen to what a democratic school, in terms of pedagogy and psychological development has to offer. I also wasn’t ready to confront the idea that maybe it’s not those who run away from the formal public schooling to be blamed but the something within the public school . Not that I think that democratic schools are the solution.

Like a warning LED that blips in increasing frequencies, doubts and contradictions to my beliefs kept appearing. At first, they appeared less frequently but by the time I got to the end of my second year of teaching in a high school, they were constantly flashing in my face that I felt like hitting the abort button and so I did. Here are some ideas that gradually changed my mind:

Before the time TED talks became a McDonalds of cool ideas there were a few mind blowing talks which started making me wonder. If you have never listened to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about creativity in schools watch it now. It is one of the most viewed talks on TED and there is a good reason why. This among other ideas were the first warning LEDs that started flashing in my head. The lack of creativity in public schools. I started reflecting on my own upbringing and why I never followed my artist heart. Something that still dominates my thoughts at the age of 40.

If you liked that talk (go on, it’s 19 minutes of your time, but I can guarantee you’ll be inspired) and still believe in the old fashion schooling system can be mended by increasing funds or changing syllabus you might want to listen to another one by Ken Robinson – changing education paradigms

So to sum up other warning LEDs firing up and , like many enthusiastic young teachers you’d talk to you’ll find plenty of episodes in which I tried to introduce something new or change something for the better and got rejected, marginalized, and opposed by teachers, students and parents. However, I’ll give you a bullet-point list of the major issues I struggled with:

  • I had no control over the syllabus of my teaching: the government wanted to teach a bunch of facts, I thought it would be better to work on practical skills, basic concepts and scientific reasoning. Lack of flexibility in syllabus planning to match the necessities of your students seems nearly a fundamental pillar in schooling and will never be able to be changed.
  • I could not change any assessment method. I tried cutting down the number of tests and exams, but they are fixed by the school. I tried converting exams into creative projects but parents and students complained it was too much work. Other teachers didn’t like the idea either because they couldn’t compare ‘performances’ between classes. Even if they did agree, it’s the state exam that everybody set their eyes to.
  • I couldn’t change teaching methods (e.g. flipping the classroom or project based learning) because that would mean changing assessment methods and extending learning time. Head teachers complained I could not cover the syllabus in time (come back to point one, I’d rather leave my students learn less in a natural pace than ask them to choke on lots of facts I stuff on their plates).
  • Some kids really didn’t want to be in class, and I suddenly realized that if they don’t want to, nobody should really force them.
  • Social integration? That’s not really part of the curriculum… there goes all the Arab-Jewish initiatives I wanted to take part in. However, I did manage, through the museum again – informal education.

Back to university – research as informal learning and teaching

So I aborted the public school and went back to university. I never thought I would since I never really enjoyed the stress of studying for exams in university either. Learning at university level was still very schooled, though I knew I could quit if I wanted and that nobody really forced me to stay. I was in a crisis on many levels, freshly married to Elena we discovered that living in Israel is not going to be easy. I came out of teaching confused, still idealistic and maybe even disappointed with myself for giving up so early. If you look at the statistics I was just another one of the 50% that leave a teaching career within the first 3 years. During my time as a formal teacher, I tried to be as enthusiastic as I could towards chemistry and convince my students that research is so exciting. I never done any of it myself before. So I found a taught masters course in Warwick, UK which led me to undertaking a PhD.

When I started my PhD I entered a new world in the academic universe. I was also lucky to enter a successful, highly equipped and vibrant research group which was also very international. It seemed like a new world because there were no exams and no lectures but then again so much to learn: from working effectively on a computer to the actual lab work. There was a lot of theory to catch up with and every project was multidisciplinary. There was no way you’d be prepared for everything. I had to learn on the go and I loved it. There were no right and wrong answers. You had to discuss your ideas and find scientific reasoning. Sometimes it was because no one actually knew what the ‘right’ answer is and sometimes it was purely because this is the culture of scientific research. It was also not really a new world, as I found myself enjoying going to uni as much as I did going to the aeroclub back at the age of 15. The hands-on approach, the learning on your own pace. Being able to learn directly from your supervisor, a postdoc or a peer. Mostly, I didn’t feel examined and constantly evaluated by some teacher.

Soon I started helping in supervising project students and flashbacks from teaching in the museum started coming back to me. This time with a huge difference: I had a long term coaching experience, which I always longed for when working in the museum. Each student came with different strengths and weaknesses and it was interesting to see how they developed their independence (and what made them work on it). It took me a lot of time before I could point my finger at this. It’s probably just that effective learning is informal by nature (read Elena’s book) and that sometimes formal education just backfires. Reforming the traditional school needs a big shift in thinking.

Embracing unschooling as an alternative

All these thoughts boiling in my head came at the time that Elena started her own research about home education. Our eldest was not even 2 years old and we had endless discussions. I admit sounding a lot like the critics that I’m trying to answer now. I wanted to adopt my parents approach: School is an evil necessity and as long as you support your children against the evils of school, they’ll get out of it unharmed.
I did… didn’t I?!

Slowly, and by actually trying it out first, I came to realize that embracing informal education is a valid alternative. It worked when I was as a child, I found it again working in the museum and finally it came back to me in research. Why shouldn’t it be the best for my child too?

Going back to the socialistic point of view. Why shouldn’t the education system be public and informal? It sounds like something unreachable. But in fact, I believe that unschooling our children maybe a good way forward. Private alternative schools were out of the question as they are mostly elitist and, in a way, still suffer from the same problems that formal public schools have. But, what about shifting more responsibilities and funds to actual public spaces where informal learning happens? like libraries, museums, cinemas… etc. What if instead of training teachers we’d prepare coaches that followed families in their unschooling adventures, providing free-public informal education?

I actually find more people within the formal education sector that understand the ideas above than those that just think of holding socialist views. Public education does not have to mean formal. Informal is not anti institutional. In Lilliput school is the shrine.

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