Most of the homeschooling news that comes out of Germany is grim. However, this week I’ve heard encouraging stories that illustrate how natural learning/unschooling is possible and thriving in Germany!

Sitting on the Berlin Wall (1989)
A different kind of Berlin Wall in the education system keeps Germans from being free to pursue homeschooling.

The photo featured comes from here.

Homeschooling is illegal in Germany, and there have been documented cases where children have been taken into state custody because their parents chose to keep them at home instead of enrolling them in traditional schools. In January 2010, a Germany family was granted political asylum in the United States in light of the fact that they faced persecution in their native country for their homeschooling convictions!

Nadine, a German national who has been living and working at La Hacienda for eight months, told me about her friend who subscribes to the principles of natural learning throughout the traditional schooling years. As Nadine explains it, her friend’s children go to a designated school building and spend the length of a traditional school day playing, pursuing their own projects, reading, researching, and learning in ways that happen naturally. Teachers and aides are there to supervise and assist when necessary. They provide formal lessons when required but the children are not coerced to attend, and nor are they divided into groups based on age.

Over 5700 German students are enrolled in alternative free schools which adhere to the following principles (mostly plagiarised from a translation of the BFAS website):

  1. far-reaching rights of co-determination for pupils — learning activities are available, but participation is not mandatory. (Each child engages according to their own inclination.)
  2. courses that take into account various styles of learning
  3. mixed-age classes and/or groups
  4. a variety of teaching methods and forms of learning (courses, project weeks, weekly curriculum plans, self-determined activities, free play, pupil-run companies, internships, etc.)
  5. systemic learning through interdisciplinary projects (such as unit studies)
  6. flexible forms of time management in the classroom.

Pupils can learn in an atmosphere of freedom in which every child can find their own personal pathway to learning and express his needs and interests. People who have only experienced traditional institutionalised education and its philosophies may imagine that children would run riot when when restrictions and compulsions are completely removed. However, these schools have been demonstrating for over thirty-five years that children who are set free from restrictions and compulsions quickly develop an appetite for learning that sees them fully engaged with their teachers and study materials.

Most of the classes/learning groups within the free alternative schools are small with reasonable pupil-teacher ratios that give teachers time for each child. The school grounds offer many opportunities for play and adventure, and the teachers are committed to and familiar with alternative methods of teaching. The alternative schools intrinsically support individual development instead of promoting advancement within age-based groups.

Interestingly for me, the free alternative schools are autonomous. No two are alike. A lot of their individual character comes from the parents, children and educators who founded and developed them. Each school has its own priorities, it own rules and its own traditions. One school may focus on environmental education and another on the integration of children with special needs or learning through manual projects and crafts.

In Germany, free alternative schools are set up under the umbrella of the National Association of Free Alternative Schools. The BFAS provides accreditation to the free alternative schools across Germany, also spending a lot of time, effort and money on legal affairs to ensure that the alternative schools can continue to exist.

In other parts of the world, small alternative schools operate similarly to the ones in Germany. They provide a viable unschooling option to those for whom homeschooling may not be possible. The UK-based Human Scale Education and the US-based Alternative Education Resource provides lists of such schools in their countries.

It’s encouraging to discover that the philosophy of natural learning can extend to and encompass traditional schooling methods through secondary school/high school. While we’re thrilled to unschool our own brood, we’re pleased to learn that others who can’t homeschool — especially in Germany — may have an unschooling option through which they can foster their children’s natural learning inclinations!