Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Role of Boredom and Dabbling in Pursuit of Passionate Learning

One of the greatest benefits of unschooling, it's frequently said, is that it gives children the time and encouragement to truly find and embrace their passions. I agree with this, for sure, yet I've noticed that many people new to unschooling or self directed learning, whether they're parents or young adults newly risen out of college, panic when they don't see a passion immediately manifesting itself in their life or the lives of their children. We're supposed to be driven by passion and digging deep into real learning, they think, so what's with all this boredom and flitting from one thing to another?

I'd say that both of those things, instead of being signs of failure, are just part of the process.

Deschooling
"For me, it was probably about a year before I felt like we were truly unschooling, not deschooling. There was no announcement, no graduation ceremony, but one day I realized I no longer felt like I was emulating the lifestyle—we were living it. I was no longer trying to wrap my mind around the principles, instead I was spending my time supporting how those principles were playing out in my unique family." Pam Laricchia, Why Deschooling?
If you're new to life learning, I think the first thing to realize is that it's going to take time. Time to adjust, to move past school ideas about what learning looks like, time to figure out how your new learning path is going to work in your own life. I feel like people tend to rush things, or feel like the change is going to be immediate, when in reality we're all taking things step by step, no matter where we are in our life learning journey. As I regularly tell myself in a variety of circumstances, slow down, breathe, and try not to panic if things don't look the way you'd imagined right off!

Boredom
"What if, I wondered, as I enjoyed the sights and smells of the early morning, more people paid attention to the journey of life, not just the destination? What if they paid more attention to their experiences moment by moment? I suspect they would find that boredom is, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, a filter through which emotions, experiences and, yes, solitude can pass, resulting in a soaring of creativity and imagination." Wendy Priesnitz, The Benefits of Boredom
"Out of boredom, interests spring like mushrooms in moist soil. In the autonomous zone we have created, students have the time and support to explore each of these interests as fully as they choose. If that interest pays dividends, if it engages the student in a compelling way, sufficiently meeting her intellectual, emotional, kinesthetic, or other needs, she will stay with it, dig deeper, until she achieves what feels like mastery to her. Then she can apply those lessons of perseverance, effort, and excellence to any other topic, well into adulthood. If it does not meet these needs, if its hooks do not catch, she will let it go and return to the difficult but rich soil of boredom, until the next mushroom appears." Michelle Loucas, Bored? Explore It!
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” Sir John Lubbock, Lord Avebury
Before I sat down to write this post, I frustrated my sister by chattering, singing deliberately off-key, being melodramatic about everything, begging her to let me have coffee, and otherwise being difficult. In short, I was bored, and showing it by being very exuberantly annoying. Complaining is part of my writing process, I recently said on Facebook, and while I wrote it with a smile, I believe it to be true, because boredom is part of my writing process. It's in the restlessness and frustration of a mind that has nothing else interesting to focus on that a post starts to take shape. It's while I'm lying awake in bed, unable to sleep (which must be the ultimate in boredom), that I start to build a narrative for an article I've wanted to write for ages, or start putting together a menu full of interesting new dishes to experiment with.

Without boredom, I wouldn't be able to create, to be creative. I'd say that's true of most if not all of us.

Not only does boredom lead to creativity in the areas we're already proficient in, but it also leads to new discoveries. Whether you're new to unschooling or not, I think boredom is just a part of life, and while boredom that becomes a continuous and ongoing companion might definitely be an indicator that changes that need to be made, in general, boredom is just the space that allows us to discover new things we wouldn't otherwise discover. It's boredom that leads me to pick up a guitar for the first time in many months and try to learn a new song, or read about a new subject online.

Boredom is an essential element in both creativity and discovery, and should be recognized as the restless stage that proceeds a new project, passion, or breakthrough.

Dabbling
"This is not to say that, when the student finally decides to engage in an activity, it will always be immensely satisfying or long lasting. She may flit from activity to activity for quite some time. She may embrace art for weeks, with devotion and drive, only to drop it unceremoniously one day and lapse back into a painful bout of boredom. Or, she might trade in art for kick boxing, a passion that she adopts fiercely and exclusively for a day or a month, only to abandon it as well." Michelle Loucas, Bored? Explore It!
"It might appear that some children are more prone to 'quitting things' and less able to 'commit' to activities and stick with them – but what if you flip that around and view those children as dabblers, experimenters – open to the world and curious about everything? Those are the children who, if their trust is not eroded by parental control, will try anything once (or more than once). And yes, they will quit more things than those children who dive deep and stick around longer with one activity. But that’s due to the sheer volume of things they try! If you have a child who decides she wants to put everything she has into martial arts and music, and then decides later that she actually prefers martial arts and is tired of music for now, she has a fifty percent quit rate. If you have a child who tries sixteen different things in one year, and ends up liking four of them a lot, that child might have a seventy-five percent quit rate, but he now has four activities he loves, not just one." Lyla Wolffenstein, Dabbling, Digging Deep, and Quitting: The Real Costs of Parental Pressure
 I've gotten more than one message from a parent concerned that their child can't settle on anything, each day drawn to a new interest or subject, forever flitting from one thing to another. As the above quotes point out, this "dabbling" is likely either due to the personality of the individual, or is simply part of the process of finding a passion.

One of the things I've always appreciated about unschooling is that I never had to spend more time than I wanted on any specific subject or interest. There were hundreds--thousands--of questions answered by Google or a quick look at a book from our home or community library. Just because something is interesting, doesn't mean that interest has to last longer than it takes to find the answer to a question, and if it doesn't end there, it may take just an hour or a day's exploration to feel satisfied. Because really, that's what you're looking for: satisfaction, or the discovery that something really isn't for you, which is a satisfying sense of closure in itself.

The way you decide if you want to do something is by trying it. And if you look around and feel yourself excited by the vast plethora of options available to you, then you're probably going to try a whole lot of things. Most of them won't stick, won't be as interesting as you thought or will take up more time than you're prepared to commit, or perhaps just won't feel quite right.

That desire to explore, try new things, and take risks is a very childlike attitude, and one that shows strong curiosity and a joy in learning and discovery that too many people lose as they grow into teenage and adult years. Instead of seeing dabbling as a failure to stick with things, it should be valued, and those who practice it should be recognized as the curious individuals they are.

Dabbling, the same as boredom, is an integral part of exploration. For some, this dabbling style of learning will remain lifelong, and for others it will simply be what happens in between periods of more intense focus on a specific activity or topic. Either way, exploring a wider range of topics and activities is certainly a positive thing.

Play
"For a small child, there is no division between playing and learning, between the things he or she does 'just for fun' and things that are 'educational.' The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play." Penelope Leach
"When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives." Fred Rogers
"The central problem is that we undervalue pleasure. We live in a culture that is consumed with the Protestant work ethic. Work as work, not work as play, is a powerful pressure against play. In that ethos, pleasure for itself is frivolous. So play is not widely seen as a value in itself for adults. I have learned, to the contrary, that play is, in short, excellent for my health — for brain, mind, and emotions, all of which promote well-being in my life, economically, emotionally, and spiritually. For health, everyone should choose and pursue activities that are playful and truly pleasurable." Bernard De Koven, Reshaping The Brain Through Play
This guy brings a lot of playfulness into my life.
Dabbling in learning, that free flowing exploration without a strict timetable or set goals or an authority figure looking over our shoulders, is learning that's playful. Increasingly, play is being recognized for the important role it plays in learning and health, for children especially but also for adults. I recognize that playful, free flowing feeling when I'm reading a funny piece of history aloud to my sister while we both laugh, or when I'm so deeply immersed in a cooking project, simultaneously focused and relaxed, a bright joyfulness burning in me while I fiddle and create. I feel it when I'm playing with my oversize shaggy puppy, both of us focused intently on each others' body language and vocalizations, completely engaged in communicating and playing together.

All of these activities feel deeply engaging for my brain, as well as being undeniably fun. Yet despite the growing recognition that play isn't just helpful, but an essential part of growing and learning for countless species, humans included, it's still often not seen as "real" learning. Educational things are supposed to look like work, not play, and too few people realize that you can be engaged in both at once.

Passionate Learning
“We learn because we want to learn, because it’s important to us, because it’s natural, and because it’s impossible to live in the world and not learn." Peggy Pirro
When my sister Emilie was young, she was fascinated by Egyptian mythology. Sparked by a love of Yu-Gi-Oh, which takes inspiration from that mythology, Emilie spent lots of time reading about and researching the subject. She'd talk about how different gods changed over time and by region, she made a presentation for a homeschool expo, and when touring the Smithsonian Museum of History in Washington DC, she indignantly pointed out that one of the items in the Egyptian exhibit was mis-labelled. A middle-aged man, acting as a tour guide for his companions, and talking about the exhibits in Cairo that he'd seen previously, looked down at this small child in shock, and said "you're right."

Finding passions to focus deeply on will be an integral part of unschooling for almost all of us. I do think it's an immensely positive and important part of learning for people, at least sometimes and with some things. However, I'd stress that I think that it's an important part of learning, not the be all and end all of unschooling. We need to recognize the important roles of boredom and dabbling, of free play and exploration. Some things will turn into passions that stay with us for years, but many other interests will be dropped after the briefest of perusing. Countless hours will be spent in exploration, yet that exploration will likely be precipitated by boredom. It's all learning, it's all part of the process, and it's all important.

When we embrace learning as a lifestyle, and as a lifelong passionate pursuit, we learn to value the whole package, boredom and all. We learn that the restlessness comes with rewards, that no time spent in exploring is ever wasted, that idleness breeds creativity, and that play is essential. I'm still re-learning these things over and over again, despite how little schooling I've had in my life, and I'm being reminded daily of how important it is to take my own advice on learning to heart. But what I'm striving for, always, is to live a life filled with joyful learning, with all its inherent struggles and rewards.

I hope you'll join me in this passionate pursuit.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Unschooling My Way to a Love of Classic Poetry

I’ve long held that I don’t think “classic” literature is any better than newer literature. I think stories and reading are wonderful things, but I also believe strongly that which of these are good or not is a subjective matter, to be decided by individuals not experts.

I wanted to like the classics when I was young. I had visions of myself curled up in a comfy chair, reading Jane Eyre, and being able to tell people, modestly of course, what my latest reading material was. Amongst the much more traditional homeschoolers I was surrounded by, learning Latin and reading only books older than 50 years was a big trend, and I kind of wanted to include myself in that. I tried, but I just couldn’t do it. I picked up various classics at various times, hoping that this one would finally be the not-boring one, but I never found one that I didn’t have to struggle through.

Finally I gave up, deciding that the classics obviously weren’t for me, and furthermore that the snobbery surrounding reading choices was counterproductive and harmful to readers of all ages. I moved on, and enjoyed years of reading modern historical novels and fantasy fiction.

There was one area, though, where I did find myself enjoying old writing.

My mother, sister, and I developed a ritual of sorts, not one we practiced every day, but a frequent
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees. 
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas...
occurrence: we’d curl up together on my bed in the evening, along with a stack of poetry books, and take turns reading aloud to each other. My mother’s favourite was The Owl-Critic by James Thomas Fields; Emilie liked The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear; and I was a big fan of The Lady of Shalott and The Eagle by Tennyson, the Introduction to the Songs of Innocence by William Blake, and Walking Through Woods On a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. Though we all had favourites, together we read countless classic poems by dozens of different writers. We all enjoyed poetry, but it became a special passion of mine.

For a homeschool talent show, I once recited The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. I loved the melodrama of it and, inspired by the rendition of that poem in one of the Anne of Green Gables movies, I decided to memorize it myself. The audience was impressed, and although I was somewhat pleased by that, the real joy I took in the process were the hours spent alone, quietly reading and practicing. It was relaxing and joyful, an activity that filled me with contentment.

I still believe strongly that there’s nothing inherently better about classic writing, whether it’s in the form of fiction or poetry, but I did eventually find some classics that I was happy to make part of my own life. I’m not sure if children outside of school are more likely to be drawn to classics or not, but I do think that not having to read them means that learners won’t be turned off from them en masse.

When everything is treated as valuable, no matter when or by whom it was written, then classic works become just another potentially interesting option. I could never get into anything by Jane Austen, but I sure did enjoy exploring the works of countless famous poets from the last few centuries. Had I been forced to read those works, to analyse and tear them apart, my experience would probably have been a lot less joyful. Instead, my exploration was done freely and enthusiastically, guided by my interests and whims and determination. In short, it was fun.

That’s the way learning should be in childhood, whether it includes anything classic or not!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Unschooling Isn't Just Self Directed Schooling

I read a nice response recently from Home Education Magazine (a magazine that has a new article of mine in the upcoming November/December issue), answering a question from a prospective unschooling parent who wonders "do you teach them spelling, vocab or math if they’re not really interested in those subjects?"

Her question was answered well by HEM, so I don't want to address that question specifically. What I do want to do is use this particular question as an example of how a lot of people are missing an important point about how unschooling works.

Sometimes it seems to me as if those new to the philosophy only hear the "self directed" bit and then

jump to the assumption that unschooling means you essentially learn the same things in the same ways as you would in school, except that the students miraculously choose to do so themselves. As if which boxed curriculum to use is just chosen by the student instead of a teacher.

Some unschooling kids and teens might learn some school things in a way that looks school-y, but to assume that most unschoolers will first break learning down into all the same subjects taught in school, and then apply themselves to each one, is wildly inaccurate.

This false idea comes from the ingrained belief that schools hold the monopoly on education, and thus that anything "educational," anything from which children are learning, must look like school. It should involve textbooks, workbooks, or at the very least educational games. So if a child isn't going through a vocabulary list or using a math textbook, then they must not be developing their vocabulary or math skills.

This idea is as false as the one I recently saw in an article about unschooling (by someone who knew very little about it), where it was stated that unschooling meant “learning from experiences instead of books or teachers.”

In reality, unschooling is both structured and unstructured, learning is practiced with others and alone, you learn from experiences and the internet, apprenticeships and classes.

If the self directedness of unschooling meant that children would just choose to recreate school at home, then I was definitely doing it wrong in my formative years. My writing (and vocabulary and spelling) was learned because I liked reading, memorizing poetry, and communicating with others through the written word. My math skills developed because I had to handle my own money and because I got really into cooking. Much was learned through doing myself, through watching and learning from others, through asking questions and Googling questions and, sometimes, through playing spelling games with my sisters or looking in a textbook.

The point is to utilize whatever resources the learner finds most helpful in their own life, whether those resources end up looking “educational” or not.

Because of this, there isn't any one way that unschooling should look. Every family and individual is different, so how unschooling develops in each person’s life will be unique and special. The trick is just in letting go of pre-conceived ideas about what learning is supposed to look like, and embracing whatever unschooling becomes for you or your children.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Unschooling and Trust in the Adolescent Years: Teenage Rebellion Revisited

Over three years ago, at age 20, I wrote a post about unschooling and teen rebellion. It remains one of the most popular and most controversial posts I've ever written, yet when I read it now, I wince a bit. Not because I no longer believe much of what I wrote in it, because that isn't the case, but because I would approach the topic so differently now. In that post, I sound so much more, well, rebellious and confrontational than I want to now, I sound like I'm trying to shock people. I don't think I was, for the most part, and because I'm in a different place now doesn't mean that there was anything wrong with where my head was at at age 20. But what it does mean is that I find myself wanting to revisit the topic now, with the perspective I have currently in my life.

I look back on my teenage years now with such a deep gratitude to my parents. As I said on Facebook recently:
My mother has always been the one most into unschooling and respectful parenting, but even if my father had periods of doubt about the whole unschooling thing, both of my parents have always, without fail, trusted me and my sister's judgement. Teen rebellion has long been something we joke about in my family, because it just didn't exist, and both my parents never had a problem with me or Emilie staying out late or going over to the houses of friends my parents didn't know, or going to parties, or anything really. They trusted us. It just wasn't an issue. And looking back I just appreciate that so much.
Probably in large part because we were trusted, we were also trustworthy. Sure, we made mistakes sometimes, but we never did anything horribly reckless or dangerous. We made good choices.

Trust goes both ways. We didn't have a curfew, but we did tell my parents where we were going and when we planned to be back, and if my sister or I were going to be home later than planned, we called. Similarly, my parents also told us where they were going and when they planned to be back, and would call with any changes of plans. I've shared this many times, because to me it perfectly illustrates how parenting in the teen years can work without top-down rules being enforced. This way we were all in touch, my parents were looking out for me and my sister, and they were doing so without placing strict limits. It was just a matter of mutual respect between family members.

Things didn't always go perfectly. Sometimes the "I'm going to be late" calls were forgotten, leading to stress and arguments. But what they didn't lead to was "grounding" or punishments, just discussions once the initial argument had passed, recognition that people make mistakes, and moving on with things. There were problems in the teen years, for sure. It's hard to be a teenager. But the problems were struggling with how to help friends who were suicidal or using dangerous drugs or being abused by their parents; personal struggles with anxiety and depression; friendships falling apart; figuring out personal identities and other things. The difficulties weren't between me and my parents, or caused by us doing things my parents disapproved of. For the most part we got along well, with only the usual arguments and tension found in a house where four very different people are trying to co-exist, two of whom are going through a difficult life stage. Communication channels remained open, and there was always a lot of honest conversations happening in our house.

I developed my own political and social views in my teens. Discovering and developing your beliefs, values, and identity is a big part of being a teen, yet is also sadly often a point of contention when teenagers' beliefs differ from those of their parents. I argued with my father sometimes about politics--real arguments where I was genuinely upset--yet neither he nor my mother ever tried to forbid or stifle my explorations. My father certainly wasn't (and isn't) an anarchist, but he never tried to stop me from going to the anarchist bookfair, or reading anarchist literature. In my teens there were a lot of people who were very condescending towards my views, who were convinced it was just a rebellious phase, and I'd get over it and find more sensible opinions soon enough. This was pretty insulting and upsetting to me at the time, and has certainly not proven true so far. Though I've shifted approaches and views quite a bit in some ways, the core values and politics I discovered in my teens are still the ones I hold today. This is because I didn't decide to be an anarchist because I wanted to rebel, but because I found value in ideals of social equality, cooperative and collective decision making, breaking down hierarchies and re-imaging how to organize and live in this world. None of that has changed, because it was always based on what resonated with me on a deep level, not an attempt to horrify the adults around me.

"Resistance of the heart against business as usual." Prints from Bread and Puppet
in Glover, VT.

Alcohol and drugs were never a big deal, or a big part of my life. I'd like to first mention, because the majority of my readers are from the USA, that here in Quebec (where I grew up and still live) the culture around alcohol is quite different. The legal drinking age is 18, but parents frequently start offering their children a sip of their wine at dinner when children are as young as 10. Yes, teens still sometimes steal alcohol from their parents' liquor cabinet, or drink without their parents' permission, but overall teens drinking isn't considered nearly as big a deal as it is in the US. In my own family, I could taste anything I wanted, and I think my parents were happy that I was discovering what alcohol was like and how it made me feel in the safety of my own house and with my family, so I was better equipped to make choices about what and how much I drank when outside the house in situations which were less safe. Different families will handle things differently, and for people with alcohol or other substance abuse in the immediate family, they'll probably have a very different approach. I don't want to hold up my family's experience as the only good idea, but I do think it worked well for us. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times in my life I've been drunk (and even then never very drunk), and now enjoy alcohol very much in my life, but always in moderation. Drugs being used by friends caused some problems when I was in my teens, as there were times I feared for friends using scarier drugs, and some friends social lives came to revolve way too much around drug use for me to want to spend as much time with them. At this point in my life, I have friends who don't use any substances, and friends who will hand around a joint sometimes, but drugs aren't a large or defining part of my life in any way (and the same holds true for my sister).

I share all of this about my personal experience with mind altering substances because so many people seem convinced that teenagers, without rigid control, will quickly become addicted to every substance imaginable and party constantly, and I want to put that idea to rest. Developing addictions can have many contributing factors, from genetics and family history to unhappiness and rebellion, and there is no magical fix or set of steps that can guarantee someone will never abuse alcohol or drugs. What I can say though is that in general, the vast majority of unschoolers I know are far less likely to be very into drinking or drug use than the schooled young adults I know, and are also more likely to be responsible when they do use alcohol or drugs. This leads me to believe that raising teens with respect and open communication helps teens to make healthy choices about what substances they use and how they use them.

To rebel you have to have something to rebel against. Teenage rebellion and "bad" behaviour became a running joke in my family. When me and my sister were left alone in the house for a few days, my father would mock sternly tell us not to have any wild parties, with the full realization that having a friend over for a tea party was a much more likely scenario. Even now when I'm going out to a party my father, with all the gravity he can muster, will tell me not to do anything he wouldn't do. Similarly, I remember a story told told to me by a friend and unschooling mother, who was relating a conversation she'd had with her young teenage daughter, where her daughter kept suggesting increasingly outrageous things she could do to rebel, only to have her mother shrug at each suggestion (until the daughter got to "well, what if I date a corporate lawyer?" at which point her mother finally reacted with horror "no, not that!").

When life isn't filled with strict rules and lists of things you're forbidden to do, when for the most part you actually like and get along with your parents, there isn't really much to push back against. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion often involves a lot of really unsafe teenage behavior, and a lot of adults have come to think of teens as being somehow naturally irresponsible and risky. Though taking risks and pushing the envelope are to some extent a natural part of being a teen, many truly unsafe behaviours are not born purely out of a desire to take risks, but as a direct reaction to control. Basically? Many teens with poor parental relationships deliberately do things to piss them off or that they know would cause disapproval. Rebellion in direct opposition to the controlling forces in their lives. Many unschoolers I know, myself included, never experienced that, simply because the relationships we had, how respected we felt, caused us not to feel a need to do unsafe things merely for the sake of doing them.

For many teenagers, their parents are a large source of stress in their lives. When you remove rigid control and replace it with communication and mutually respectful parent-teen relationships, parents are no longer likely to be a major source of stress. Instead, parents can become the people that a teen feels safe going to when they need help or advice, teens can feel comfortable sharing the big things going on in their life without fear of parental reprisal. This also means that parents have a lot more influence in the lives of their teens, and are in a much better position to help their children make good choices than the parents who rely on a rigid set of rules that their teens may or may not follow once their parents are out of sight.

Control doesn't equal caring. I've heard it argued on more than one occasion that teens having strict rules enforced by punishments makes teenagers feel loved. I'm not sure the people who say this actually know any teens. But I do realize that it comes from the mistaken idea that control is the only way to be involved and show concern as a parent. As the call-if-you're-going-to-be-late rule in my house shows, parents can show that they care about their children, that they're concerned about them, by knowing where their children are and when they'll be home, by picking them up if plans to get home go wrong, by listening when they need someone to talk to, and a thousand other ways. Teens feel loved if their parents show caring, but it's even better if teens can feel both loved and respected, treated as if they're capable of making good choices. People having faith in your abilities makes you feel, and thus be more capable.

There are no guarantees in life. Following steps X, Y, and Z won't absolutely assure that "teen rebellion" will be non-existent. However, respect and trust between parents and teens can make a really big difference in the lives of respectfully parented unschooling teens and their families. It's thanks to the relationships we had and the way my parents treated me and my sister that, while we may have "rebelled" against certain aspects of the world we live in (rebellion that we're both still engaged in), there was never anything to rebel against in our family. We were all busy trying to figure out the messy, emotional, difficult, and change-filled teen years together as a family, not fighting about curfews or grades. One of the best arguments I can think of for treating teens like they can make important decisions in their lives is the relative ease it can bring to the teen years.

It's thanks to the relationships we had that I look back on my teen years with such gratitude for my parents and the way they raised me and my sister. Being a teenager might have been hard, but being treated like I was a capable and trustworthy person made all the difference to me. I've spent my whole life feeling like I was trustworthy, so I didn't have to learn to trust my judgement as an adult: I already knew how to do that. This is one of the reasons I feel strongly that trusting teens is such a positive and important thing not just in the teen years, but in helping young people transition to adulthood. Spending your whole life being treated as if you weren't capable or trustworthy, as if you needed constant supervision, rules, and curriculum to keep you in line and guide you in the right directions, then suddenly being told "you're an adult now, take care of yourself and make sure you make good decisions!" seems ludicrous. If teens are instead given the freedom and opportunity to make important choices and take on real responsibilities while they're still in a supportive family environment, then they'll have been practicing the art of being a capable person for years before they're on their own. That doesn't mean there won't be any floundering in adulthood (my own experience certainly says otherwise), but having that confidence in your own abilities has to be a good start.

I just hope more people can extend a bit (or a lot) more trust to teens, and watch how wonderfully it all unfolds.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Language That We Use Matters: Why Schooled People Aren't Sheep

This article was originally published in the July/August issue of Life Learning Magazine, a really lovely magazine filled with unschooling goodness, and it pleases me greatly that I've somehow become a somewhat regular contributor. You can check out another Life Learning original article of mine, When You Unschool You Don't "Unparticipate:" Community Engagement and the Value of Different Ideas, here in PDF form.

I find myself thinking more lately about the language we use when we talk about unschooling, and the way in which we talk about people who are not unschooling.

Often in my reading of unschooling and alternative education posts online (and sometimes in print as well), I’ve found myself wincing in discomfort at some of the language being used.

Drones. Zombies. Sheep. The masses.

I remember, in my teens as well, finding myself feeling uncomfortable at a comment or joke a fellow homeschooler or unschooler would make at the expense of school kids. I remember very vividly thinking one time it’s not their fault.

When we reduce the level of conversation to slinging about words like “sheep,” we’re both being hurtful and obscuring the points we’re actually trying to make. When we use language like that, I think we’re doing a couple of different things that we don’t want to be doing.

The only being we should be calling sheep are, you know, actual sheep.

We’re oversimplify things to a ridiculous extent. It’s not just a matter of people either doing what they’re told or forging their own path. Someone’s ability to choose a path such as unschooling is largely dependent on exposure to the concept (or similar concepts); the resources to actually follow through with it; feeling that their choices won’t be unduly punished due to severe marginalization they already face; and the support needed to maintain such a connected and unconventional way of living.

I hope that someday unschooling can be the way everyone has the opportunity to live, and I support all efforts to make unschooling and life learning (as well as any self-directed schooling projects) more widespread and more accessible. But we’re not there yet. In the meantime, blaming people for not being able to unschool, or feeling unable to do so, makes no sense and is pretty unfair.

Whether someone goes to school or went to school, has criticism of their schooling experience or thinks compulsory schooling is a good thing, it doesn’t lessen them as a person.

When we use negative language about schooled people, it’s alienating. If we really mean it when we say that we want more people to learn about and understand unschooling, and I truly believe that most of us do, then being superior about it isn’t going to help. I’m all for standing up to people who are being rude and aggressive about our choices, but if we start in with being rude and aggressive instead, we never give people a chance to express genuine curiosity and actually learn about our educational beliefs and learning lifestyle.

If we want to be very insular in our way of living, and furthermore have people know us as those rude and judgemental people, then maybe calling others zombie-drones is appropriate. Otherwise? It’s not appropriate, it’s not kind, and it’s not productive.

I’m all for criticizing schools, and compulsory education, and standardized curriculums. I absolutely believe there’s something majorly wrong with those things, and I appreciate the many great critiques out there. I just think you can criticize those things without criticizing the individuals who, through no fault of their own, are forced to attend school whether they want to or not.

I’m sure that the upper levels of institutional schooling (the bureaucracy, the government offices and corporate supplier of curriculum) would like to manage children like sheep, and turn them into drones (you know, good workers), but that does not mean that anyone, child or adult, is a sheep or a drone.

There’s a big difference between those two things.

I know I’ve talked disdainfully in the past about “the masses,” and though I hope I haven’t used any of the other ones, I really can’t swear I haven’t. I know all of us have seen these terms used by others, and most of us have probably used at least one ourselves.

In some of the less sensitive and perhaps less aware writing I did in my later teenage years, my passion for unschooling was often accompanied by anger at the institution of schooling, which is understandable. But what wasn’t reasonable was that it sometimes overflowed into negative feelings about kids who went to school.

So I get it. I get that it comes from defensiveness, and feeling that you’ve been rejected or are looked down upon by schooled people. I get it when it comes to teens and young people. And to some extent, I get it when it comes to adults, who may have similar feelings about judgement, and react similarly defensively. But, as an adult, be aware that the aspersions you’re casting on people who go to school include those who are currently in school. Children and teenagers.

I find the language we use has such a profound affect on the way we think. As I’ve learned and listened more when it comes to a variety of social issues, from racism and classism to adultism and heterosexism, I’ve found myself constantly challenged to look critically at the language I use, the way I write and speak, and what beliefs or prejudices might be lurking behind those words.

That self reflection has definitely bled into all of my writing, including my writing about education. It’s a continuous process of learning and growing, one I’m sure will be ongoing throughout my life. It involves some simple practices of actually listening when someone says “hey, that’s hurtful”; learning about and trying to remain aware of the social inequalities around us, whose voice is given more weight and whose rights are prioritized; and seeking in the way I act and speak and write to challenge these inequalities, and just to be kinder and more considerate.

In my writing about unschooling that meant, and continues to mean, thinking about who has the easiest time unschooling, who has access to the most resources, and paying attention to how I talk about people who aren’t unschoolers.

This isn’t an attempt to dictate how others write about unschooling. What I’m trying to do is merely share some of my own process, point out that some language I see being used too often can be both hurtful and alienating, and to just suggest that people put some real thought into their words.

We want to share this wonderful unschooling thing with others, not to have people think of us as those mean people who think everyone not like them are sheep.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I Do Have a Problem with Authority. I'm Just Not Convinced That's a Bad Thing.

A common criticism of unschooling is that "those kids" will never learn to respect authority. My reaction tends to be well, if so, is that really a bad thing?

Automatic respect for authority shouldn't be the goal

Why on earth should respecting authority, just because it's authority, be a good thing? That type of attitude leads people to stand passively by while great wrongs are committed, because they're being committed by people and institutions in positions of power. It's an attitude that leads to the continuation of existing oppression and marginalization, a continuation of the current status quo, simply because it's maintained by those with the greatest authority. It leads to individuals not speaking up when they feel they're personally being treated unfairly, or when they have ideas of how to do things better. It leads to people sticking with the path they're told is the best or only way to do things, instead of standing up to authority and building alternatives.

Basic respect for each other as human being is important. But beyond that, respect needs to be earned, needs to be built through solid relationships and trust. No one deserves widespread respect just because of the position they hold.

Change--positive, real change--only happens when people are forming their own opinions and making their own choices, and working with others to make their ideals a reality, instead of just following authority.

Important life skills include learning how to deal with people in positions of power or authority, and how to navigate hierarchies

This is true, I think, no matter your political views or educational choices (and these skills can definitely be learned without children having to be institutionalized in an authoritarian environment for 12+ years).

I may be an unschooler and an anarchist, but I am the most polite, calm person you will ever meet when dealing with people in positions of authority, from police, border guards, and airport security to bureaucrats with the power to deny me what I need. I can participate in traditional style classes with a teacher presiding over them with no problem. I rarely break rules. In fact, I've jokingly said that I'm the most rule-abiding anarchist I know (funny, but true)! I hate conflict, and hate making people unhappy. That should give you some idea of the reasons I was drawn to anarchist schools of thought (pardon the pun), namely that it wasn't a desire to rebel, break things, and piss people off, but instead because I strongly believe that humans are, at their core, cooperative social creatures capable of organizing in humane, non-hierarchical ways. I'm an anarchist because I believe that, given the right set of circumstances, people are basically good, and basically equipped to live well with others.

I've learned how to handle myself in situations where others have authority over me because it's an essential skill to have (more so even for groups of people frequently targeted with violence by police and vigilantes alike).

But, that doesn't mean I have to like it. It doesn't mean I can't or shouldn't be outraged that authority figures with guns regularly get away with shooting unarmed people, or that many other people can so easily be denied housing or healthcare because someone else (or an institutional someone else) decides to withhold it.

I'm distrustful of people who seek power over others

To me this seems a very reasonable and automatic response. I tend to assume people are drawn to professions and positions that give them power over others at least in part because they're drawn to power, which makes me wary. I learned this distrust young, and it's generally served me well. It leads me to trust people who are more trustworthy, namely those treat the people around them as equals, and allows me to avoid people who don't have such good intentions.

I really liked working in a coop. (Photo credit Kat, I think, from Le Milieu)

Does unschooling make us more sensitive to institutionalization and authoritarianism?

A friend tagged me in a post on Facebook ages ago, asking if fellow grown unschoolers also felt as sensitive to institutionalization as she did. She was wondering if that might be an effect of the lifestyle we grew up with. I didn't respond at the time, but that question lodged in my brain, and is something I've pondered quite a bit since then. It's certainly not the sole or only contributor, but I do wonder if my friend wasn't on to something. My sister can't watch, read, or listen to anything about prisons or similar forced confinement without crying. We both feel very, intensely aware of when another person has social or institutional power over us. We both feel very emotional about people being institutionalized in any way, about schools and a lot of workplaces and various other institutional environments. I can get distressed about that type of thing really easily, and having to deal with authority figures, people who feel they are somehow more important or more powerful than me, ties my stomach in knots.

The ideals I have and the types of communities I'm drawn to are in large part an instinctual draw to the exact opposite of the people and places that make me feel so deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps, had my childhood been different, I would have become more numbed to that discomfort, more used to others having intimate control over my life and my choices. Growing up the way I did, however, I know that there are better ways of doing things, starting with how we raise children.

Visions of a different world

One of the reasons I've remained so passionate about unschooling is because I genuinely feel that within this philosophy and way of life lies a lot of potential for beginning important change. I don't see it as an either or between a connected and social world of entrenched hierarchies and government on one side, and a rugged and violent individualism on the other. People can and already are organizing in cooperative and collectivist ways, while working to deconstruct social hierarchies and inequalities.

I see unschooling as a potential first step, where instead of being warehoused from a young age in an authoritarian environment, children are treated with a great deal of respect and kindness, and learn how to be in the world and live in community by doing so from a young age. It's certainly not a solution to all the world's problems in and of itself, but it does seem like a pretty good start.

We all have different skills to share, different strengths, and different experiences. This means that sometimes one person will be in a leadership position, and sometimes someone else will. It's only when a position becomes entrenched, when someone ceases to be a member of a community of equals and becomes, instead, an authority figure--someone with a heightened position of power and control--that I start to feel uncomfortable.

I believe strongly that there are better ways of organizing, living, and learning together than those currently found in the dominant culture. Unschoolers are just one group among many who are working to change the way we relate to and live with each other.

I will always strive to live in a way that's in line with my ideals of social justice and egalitarianism, which is why I'll continue to have a problem with authority. I just don't think that's such a bad thing.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Learning Happens When it's Relevant and Relatable: the Case for Learning in the Real World

Learning happens best when it feels relevant to the learner, and when it relates to their own interests and life.

This is no secret, and is well recognized in the wider education world. On the popular education blog MindShift, there are articles talking about how to connect school learning to a bigger purpose in an attempt to make students actually care about it, and in a list of ways to "motivate" students on the same blog "connect abstract learning to concrete situations" is number four.

As much as I try to care about some abstract collection of knowledge or skills, if I can't see the relevance in my own life, or how it relates to the things I find interesting and important, I just can't make myself focus enough to truly learn it. 

This is true of almost everyone, and is the reason so many people remember so little of what they supposedly learned in school. Once the test is over, the knowledge, if it doesn't feel relevant to the learner, will be forgotten quickly.

Though many educators might disagree about just how much knowledge is lost, as the above MindShift articles show, they know that learning works best when it feels relevant to the student, which is why attempts to increase relevance are regularly made by progressive educators. However, what strikes me about many of those attempts is just how artificial they feel. It's a desperate attempt to relate the material being taught to students' lives, in much the way that a lot of material is dressed up in bright colours and "fun" games in the lower grades. I doubt either the supposed fun or attempted relevance fools many students, because ultimately much of what's on your normal school curriculum won't be used in your life and isn't important to your community, and most of the work you do or the content you create doesn't have any real impact or wider audience than a single teacher or possibly a whole class. It's not real work, it's just busywork, which is about as far from relevant as you can get.

Stuck in a very narrow mindset that sees schools (in roughly the form they currently exist in) as the only option, most approaches don't truly seek to re-imagine what education can look like and be. Even the data educators are working off of is based on such a narrow segment of humans, that of children in a very rigid and coercive school environment, that it's not necessarily an accurate sampling of children. As Carol Black, director of the film Schooling the World,  has said, "collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World."

When a teacher is coming from a place that sees compulsory schooling as a given, attempts at bringing the real world into the classroom too often look like pale copies of the real thing--learning about wildlife from books instead of the wild, and solving problems for a test, not to fill a real need in your community.

Some initiatives in some schools do actually make a difference in students' lives, and do manage to bring some learning and work that really matters into schools. I don't want to erase or downplay the ones that get it right.

However, as far as I'm concerned, school can never do as good a job at teaching children about the real world (complete with real world problems and diversity and work), as participating in the real world itself.

It seems somewhat ironic that one of the biggest criticisms school free learners face is that they're somehow avoiding the "real world," when in reality life learners are embedded in it.

Everything we do has meaning in our lives. I've never written a book report or an essay because I was required to do so, I've only ever written for an actual audience, or because I was driven by inspiration. I've only ever taken classes I chose to or agreed to participate in. I've only ever learned about things I felt a real need to learn about, whether that was because of a personal interest or because that learning was needed to further a goal. Every part of my education has been driven by real need, real interest, and actual relevance in my life.

Contrary to what some believe, that doesn't mean I've never done anything hard, or that I've never had to deal with difficult people or situations. Living in the real world, you encounter a whole lot of different people and situations, some more pleasant than others, and you're confronted with a range of problems and difficulties. Far from sheltering children from anything challenging or hard, learning through living means learning (with the help of supportive adult figures) how to navigate difficult situations, handle unpleasant people, and make the choices that are best for you and those around you.

Life learning is all about authenticity, because nothing is constructed or designed in an attempt at engineering specific outcomes or learning. Instead, everything is an experience to be learned from, and at the same time, everything is just living. The world ceases to be broken down into what's educational or not, what can be learned from and what can't. Unschoolers seek to recognize that learning is always happening, no engineering needed, and instead just seek to build rich lives, full of resources and fun, interesting people and activities, and trust that that's all you need for equally rich learning to occur.

When you structure your life in such an open way, with an outlook that's so receptive to whatever learning might occur, you create situations where everything feels relevant to the learner, and where everything that's done is done for a reason, whether that reason is fun, fascination, getting into a program you really want to be in, or helping out a friend.

To me, that's what the real world looks like, not the artificial constraints of a school building, school timeline, and school curriculum.

Unschooling is learning in the real world. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Why Some Learning Isn't Better Than Other Learning: Television and Books Through An Unschooling Lense

TV watching and book-reading often seem to be seen as somewhat opposite activities. Books are seen as worthwhile, good for your brain, a useful way to spend time, and TV a waste of time, useless, a brain-rotting and lazy pursuit.

In my own life, that's never been the way I considered those two activities. I might have made distinctions between fiction and non-fiction, documentaries and dramas, but TV and books have never been an either or, a one versus the other. They've both been activities that have brought me great joy, and yes, led to a lot of learning.

Books

Before I was reading myself, my parents were reading aloud daily. Stories, in some form or another, have always been a part of my life. But when I started reading myself, I dove into the world of novels in a very big way. There were years where I read three or even four short novels a day, and I can still easily race through the newest book in a favourite series in the course of a single day. Novels draw me in, too, and lead to an incredible amount of investment in imaginary people and worlds.

I also like sharing what I read, and it became common practice in my family years ago to tell each other about the stories we were reading. Sharing a book you're enthusiastic about is really nice.

It's not as social an activity as TV watching, though, which I find interesting, considering reading is often considered the more meaningful activity. Reading is often a deeply personal and immersive activity, which has it's own benefits, so this isn't to say that TV is somehow better, just that I'm far from convinced that either is better, and instead feel that both provide a whole lot of positives.

Television

"Are you ready to watch yet?" I ask for the 9th time. I'm not the most patient person around, and a show that's caught my attention is a very big draw. Despite that impatience, and my desire to watch the next episode as soon as I'm able to, I almost always watch shows with other people. The four of us who make up my family watch a variety of British mysteries, genre shows, police procedurals, and assorted dramas. Currently Veronica Mars is big with us, and we've just started season three with great excitement.

To many people, TV watching looks like something solitary, something done in isolation, a passive activity involving no social interaction. My experience could not be further from that.

Not only do I almost always watch TV with family, bursting into laughter together, nudging each other with an elbow at good bits, or occasionally grabbing each other in fear (well, okay, mostly I'm the only one who does that), we also talk about them.

Throughout our watching of Veronica Mars, there have been countless conversations in the car, while washing dishes, and sometimes in the middle of an episode (paused, of course) about what was happening in the plot. Who killed Lily? Who was where, when, and who could have been somehow involved? Every character's actions and motivations were dissected and examined through enthusiastic discussion. It's fun to treat shows--especially mysteries--that way, and it becomes a real bonding experience with the people you're watching with.

By being such a social and involved experience, it's also anything but passive. Watching shows becomes something engaging and social, something that leads to a lot of thinking, discussing, and sharing.

Looking critically at media and pop culture

"I think one of the most important things I've learned is how to critically look at all different types of media," I said in a workshop the other day. The ability to analyze and think critically about what I'm consuming--whether it's novels or non-fiction books, TV shows or movies, the news or a newspaper, comic books or magazines--is an invaluable skill, and one that has brought much richness, lots of deep thought and thoughtful conversations to my life. I learned young from my parents that just because someone says something on TV, even on the news, doesn't mean it's true, and my sister and I learned ourselves as teens to broaden and deepen our analysis of various forms of media and entertainment.

I've had discussions about the subtle sexism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as its major failings when it comes to issues of representation and racism. I've talked about the neo-liberal pro-military bias on a more liberal-leaning news network. I've had good conversations about how the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott does a remarkably excellent job in portraying a range of women characters, as well as creating a fantasy world that's both racially and culturally diverse and interesting.

I recently heard it suggested that TV is dangerous simply because it's often considered fluff, junk, unworthy of serious thought, and thus people absorb a lot of messages and prejudices from what they watch, because they're not engaging critically with what they're viewing. That seems more than possible to me, and serves as a good argument for treating TV as important, because it is a part of most peoples lives, and it affects how we think and what we learn.

The same can all be said about books, as they often contain messages we might feel are harmful as well. Once again I feel like books and TV have a lot more in common than many people realize.

Potential negatives

A lot of parents have a lot of worries about screens having a negative impact, health-wise, on their children. However, books aren't without negative consequences, either. In my three-books-a-day phase, and still sometimes when I get too wrapped up in a story, I read to the point of eye strain and tension headaches. Before I got my up-to-date prescription glasses, I'd read to the point of increased blurry vision. My optometrist had to make a point of telling me I had to stop reading every ten minutes or so and look out the window, focus on something far away, for the health of my eyes. I know when it comes to my own physical comfort, I generally find computer screens the worst, reading on page next, and watching TV the most comfortable. Focusing on something a bit further away is easier.

The point I'm really trying to get at here is just that everything is healthier in moderation, but TV isn't necessarily worse, or less healthy, or anything else when compared to similarly stationary pursuits.

I feel like many people might say "well that's all fine, but you're obviously special. My children would just watch TV all day!" Now, while different people have different needs, an easier or less easy time listening to their bodies, and maybe need more or less parental help in figuring things out, I do think parents often sell their kids short in thinking that all they'll ever do is watch TV. That attitude shows a strong and perhaps somewhat misplaced bias against this one form of entertainment and learning, and it also seems not to take into account that no one will want to do only one thing, forever. Boredom starts to set it. It's also important for children, with parental involvement and support, to figure out for themselves what feels good and bad for them, and that's best done by exploring and trying different things and figuring out that sitting on the couch for 10 hours doesn't tend to make you feel so good.

I just caution parents to examine their biases, and consider that if you wouldn't say "you've already read too much this week, do something else," then maybe pause for a moment before saying the same about television.

Developing a healthy relationship to screens and pages

I think a rich and healthy relationship with different types of media is best gained by experiencing it with involved adults, adults who want to hear about the story their child is reading, who talk about and sometimes criticize what they see on TV and what they read in print. Basically, adults who engage in the shows and movies they watch and the books and magazines they read, discussing and thinking about them, will help children learn to be engaged and critical themselves.

Some children will only really be into one or the other. Some will consume media in less common ways, such as listening to audio books instead of reading, whether due to learning or other disabilities or simply personal preferences. If we're going to respect that each individual is different, and will learn about and experience the world in different ways, I think part of that is realizing that placing various activities on a hierarchy of which is best to worst, or most to least educational, is counterproductive to the learning process.  

This isn't to say I'm entirely against parents ever intervening in their children's use of of various media. I'm not. I just think that creating arbitrary distinctions between things like TV and books makes little sense, and isn't an ideal environment for creating excitement about learning in all its forms, including both screens and pages.

In my own life

I love that I can take such intense joy from a new TV show find, or a favourite novel, and that I don't find myself feeling guilty about spending time with either of those things. I love that I can be so critical of what I consume, that I'm able to deconstruct things and have thoughtful conversations about them, as well as just enjoying something without feeling a need to be strongly critical of it.

Armed with the knowledge needed to navigate the media and pop culture around me, without any guilt about what's "useless" bogging me down, I've had a wonderful time exploring the worlds of fiction and non-fiction alike. It's been and continues to be a bonding experience with others, a collection of ways I've learned a lot of cool things and stretched my thinking in new ways, and brought countless ours of fun and enjoyment into my life.

My conclusion? Books and TV are both pretty great.
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