One of the advantages that homeschooling has over age-segregated learning groups is the constant opportunity for collaborative learning. This can happen between members of the same family, children of different ages in a homeschooling co-op or between child and parent — the opportunities for all parties to learn at the same time are rich and varied.

Learning new computer skills, September 2011
On their own, this group of children located a game on the computer (that I must have downloaded at some point) and taught each other how to play the game. Although 6yo Aisha was the one driving the cursor, the older children provided instructions on where to look for the game and what to do with it.

When children come together with different levels of knowledge, a natural consequence is that they share information freely. In collaborative learning, this can happen across the age spectrum with children of different ages learning together and even teaching their caregivers.

Sugata Mita has shared on Ted Talks about how his experiments in collaborative learning have brought computer skills to disadvantaged, “uneducated” children living in the slums of India. In 1999, he first installed a computer into the wall of a slum building in Kalkaji, New Delhi. From their website:

Through this hole, a freely accessible computer was put up for use. This computer proved to be an instant hit among the slum dwellers, especially the children. With no prior experience, the children learnt to use the computer on their own. This prompted Dr. Mitra to propose the following hypothesis: “The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.”

With absolutely no prior introduction to computing, children soon learned how to navigate the menus and play the educational games. In turn, these children taught others — freely, without coercion — until the skills spread throughout the shanty town.

This sort of equip-them-for-learning-and-then-leave-them approach is precisely how we as unschoolers facilitate learning opportunities. Although it may seem absurd to those who hold the view that children should be carefully guided down a set path of study, Mitra’s research has shown unschooling to be an effective method of education.

So Mitra’s experiment (which has been continued in over one hundred locations in India and other countries) has demonstrated the value of a combination of curiosity, motivation, interactive content and fun in an unstructured setting. Moreover, it has led Mitra to conclude that small learning groups work best in facilitating collaborative learning:

“My work with self-organised learning by children shows that groups of children can learn to use computers and the Internet to answer almost any question. This happens everywhere and is independent of what language they speak, where they live and how rich or poor they are. All they need is free access and the liberty to work in unsupervised groups. The most effective group size seems to be 4-5 children.”

Mitra is very careful to explain that his work is not an attack on the institutional schooling system. He seeks to work alongside the school systems already in place. But his research into how children learn collaboratively within small groups in an unstructured setting is something that we can all benefit from.

In experiencing yesterday’s example of collaborative learning with Aisha on the computer, I’m reminded of how often I still try to control the learning opportunities. Usually it’s because I’m motivated by selfishness — my thought is: “a bit of intervention now will prevent inconvenience to me later on.” However, this attitude should always be tempered in our children’s favour — in the belief that they will do the right thing and the outcome will be the right one for them at the time.

If we leave our small tribe of children alone in the kitchen when they’re self-motivated to cook something — what will they learn? They may make more of a mess than if an adult was supervising, but they certainly will learn more in problem-solving as a group.

Unschooling is a challenge — not to the student, but to the parent. We have so many wrong attitudes, fears, disbeliefs and selfish desires that we must let go of — one by one — in order to properly facilitate free learning for our children. As we become more free, so do our children — and living within a free family is the greatest benefits of walking this unschooling path.