The other day I got thinking again about some ideas I'd picked up reading the Gordon Institute for Musical Learning website. Gordon talks about different types of instruction and how they're appropriate for children at different ages. I think the distinctions he makes get at something very fundamental. Here's how I interpret his ideas.
First comes the stage of readiness for informal unstructured learning. The adult presents things (or "creates a rich environment") in an unstructured fashion and expects no particular response from the child. This is the closest to unschooling, and it is all that most children are ready for prior to the age of 3 or 4, regardless of their IQ or academic level or whatever. You might liken this to a fallow field that is scattered with wildflower seed and then carefully watered and protected from wind. Amazing things may very well grow, but it's pretty serendipitous.
Next comes the stage of readiness for informal structured learning. Here the adult presents things in a structured fashion -- sequentially or in a way that is contrived to hopefully produce certain types of learning. But again, no particular response is expected from the child. Some examples of this type of learning might be offering to play math games, presenting opportunities for playful literacy learning, or demonstrating for a child as he tries to learn to tie his shoes. Some children will be ready for this type of learning by age 3 or 4, others not until 5 or 6. You might liken this to a fallow plot in a garden into which the adult has planted specific varieties of flowers in carefully designed rows or beds. The important thing is that no particular response is expected from the child. All you can do is create opportunities. At most you give guidance -- a metaphorical gentle touch at the elbow. Whether the child learns or performs or participates is entirely up to him and as the adult you need to be okay with that. I think that the beauty of the Suzuki method of music education, when properly applied, is that it capitalizes on this stage of readiness.
The final stage is that of readiness for structured formal learning. Children will be ready for this between ages 8 and 12. Learning is presented in a structured fashion and particular responses are expected from the child. One might liken this to a commercial market garden, where specific crops are planted, with thinning and pruning and fertilizing taking place in order to maximize yield.
Now, Gordon believes structured formal instruction ought to start at age five. I think that's far too young for most kids, especially boys. But even more fundamentally I disagree with Gorden in the "should." He believes that chronological / developmental readiness for a particular instructional approach obligates its use. I believe that autonomous motivation is also required. The child should be requesting (whether with words or actions) a shift into formal learning before that shift should take place.
The difference between informal and formal structured learning is chiefly in the expectations of the instructor. The instruction is given in a structured format in either case, but in the latter case certain responses are expected. It's all in the adult's attitude and expectations!
We're back in a phase of fairly enthusiastic math bookwork in our family (that's Erin in the photo above enthusiastically doing extra algebra). Sometimes I sit back and think "How can this be? How can I have children who are perfectionistic, private, highly autonomous learners with strong aversions to anything that smells of school-like expectations, and yet who actually like sitting down with their mom to do math bookwork?" I wonder if the secret is that I am not really attached to outcome. What we do at the kitchen table looks a lot like what school-at-homers do, but my quirky, anti-schoolwork, oppositional kids actually enjoy math bookwork because I don't expect it of them. If they decided not to do any (as most of them have, for long periods lasting up to two or three years at a stretch) they know that's okay.
Music instruction has been structured in our family from a young age, but I think that in some sense there's a suspension of specific expectations there as well. I believe they have the ability to do very well, and that ultimately, if they want, they'll be very fine musicians. But I don't expect mastery of anything in particular on any particular timetable. I only expect that if they want lessons, they will make a reasonable effort to use the teaching they've been given at their previous lessons, because to me that's a matter of respect. But specific mastery, specific types of practicing, specific amounts of work, no, I provide guidance but if they aren't interested in following it, that's okay.