Friday, July 25, 2014

The Ultimate Unschooling Socialization Post

I've talked about the socialization of unschoolers a fair bit. It's kind of something I've been forced to address, seeing as how every single school free learner is very familiar with the oh so frequent concern "But what about socialization?!?"

So this is my attempt at having a go-to post to share with people whenever they pull out some variant on that tired old query. Consider it in the same series as my posts about the actual risk of unschooling, and how unschooling is not some newfangled idea.

I saw a comment today on a shared post of mine that I think hits every single socialization "concern." So I've drawn a list from that comment to start, then just continued compiling complaints about un/homeschoolers and our supposed complete lack of socialization that I've seen and heard before, to hopefully put these misconceptions to rest once and for all (yeah, right)! These are the supposed social benefits gained in schools that those outside of schools sadly miss out on, and my rebuttal of the missing-out-on part.

Learning how to deal with bullies and "mean girls" 

I'd like to share something I wrote recently in response to this question.
No, I have never met a bully. I’ve never met anyone I didn’t like. I have lived my entire life surrounded by wonderful people, flowers, cupcakes and unicorns.
Please excuse the snark, but I let myself be snarky just to make a point about how strange these type of questions seem to me. 
Of course I’ve had to deal with bullies, people who are nasty, people who hurt or seek to hurt myself or others. I’ve dealt with way more people than I’d like who have a strong sense of entitlement. I’ve known and know plenty of people who I really don’t like. 
That’s the nature of life. School doesn’t have a monopoly on unpleasant people (unfortunately. That might make things more pleasant for unschoolers, at least during school hours). Another term for what some of us choose to call unschooling is life learning, and that’s a perfect description of how we seek to learn. Life is full of challenging people and situations. As people, we can’t help but have to deal with them, no matter our education. 
That said, I think being able to leave situations or groups that feel abusive/toxic is really important, and that with unschooling, children and teens are granted the freedom to do just that.
To expand on that last part, no one should ever have to put up with abusive and cruel behaviour from others. Ever. Not as a "lesson," not to "toughen them up," not because "they were asking for it..." And lest you think the former two statements are vastly different from the last one, I think they're all a part of a pattern of excusing violent and abusive behaviour. Everyone, no matter their age, should have the right to live a life free of abuse and abusive people.

As I wrote a while back:
[U]ltimately, difficult things are impossible to entirely (or sometimes even mostly) avoid. Your friend groups will have fights and issues, you'll have to support your friend who's going through something really rough, relationships will end, you'll run into abusive people, and sometimes you'll feel that you have to deal with an environment that feels really toxic. 
But what unschooling can do is let you avoid some of the worst situations and some of the unnecessary ones. It gives children and teens a lot of the same freedom adults have, to quit a job with an abusive boss or stop going to that quilting class where people keep talking behind other peoples' backs.

I think that children and teens, when given that freedom, can't help but be at least a bit healthier, happier, and better equipped to deal with difficulties in more intentional ways.

Dealing with other students who didn't share the same beliefs, work ethic, habits, etc.

The world is full of people who aren't like you. In fact, the world contains much more diversity of people, considering that schools are:
  1. Age segregated
  2. Contain students only from that schools district, which means that as often as not, the student body will be fairly homogeneous in terms of socio-economic level, race, and even religion.
That's true of where you live, as well, so it might not be different outside of school, besides the age-segregation part, but it certainly won't be worse. While there might be some negative stereotypes of the extremely conservative far-right Christian school-at-homers who wish to keep their children away from everyone who doesn't think exactly like them, that's not the reality for any unschoolers I've ever met (when it comes to homeschoolers, sometimes that view is accurate, though more frequently it's not). Unschoolers are out in the world doing things and meeting people, which means you're going to come across quite a few people who don't share your beliefs, work ethics, and habits. That's just a part of living life, and a good part, usually!

Not being "socially awkward"

Here I'd like to reach back to an older post, once again, this time talking specifically of the myth of "social awkwardness" among school-free learners:
Like any other skill set, social skills differ greatly from person to person, regardless of their schooling (or lack thereof). For some people social interaction is extremely easy: they find knowing what to say and when to say it, how to behave around different people, to be second nature. Others have to work hard at it: to make a conscious effort to learn what is socially normal and then work to be that if they want to. How easily those skills come, despite what a ridiculously large amount of anti-homeschoolers have to say, does not make a person any better or worse a person for it. It's simply yet another thing that varies vastly between individuals.
It's also not a skill set that comes easier to schooled people than unschooled ones. I've met unschoolers who have great social ease and competence, and schooled people about whom I'd say the same. And I've met unschoolers who do not have as easy a time socially, as well as schooled people with not as great social skills. The majority of people I've met fall somewhere in between, no matter their education.

Beyond that, should someone's worth, the respect they're shown, really depend entirely on that one thing? I think people should be judged on a much wider range of skills, experiences, and competencies, without all the emphasis on "but are they socially awkward" and shame heaped on those deemed (by some) to be socially incompetent. It's also important to note that it seems disturbingly frequent for people who are neuro-divergent/neuro-atypical, have learning disabilities, mental illnesses, or other disabilities to be stuck with the label of "socially awkward." Maybe think about having more compassion for others and more flexibility in the way you interact with different people.

Having friends 

Have you only ever made friends with people you've met in school? If so, that seems like a sadly limited pool of people to befriend. I'd hope instead that you made friends from school, yes, but also dance class or martial arts, sports teams or a hiking group, by meeting friends of friends or going to a camp, by meeting people who live locally and by meeting people when you're visiting somewhere on vacation... Unschoolers make friends through all these ways, too, just minus the school part and possibly plus homeschool coops or groups or conferences. The world is a big place, and it's full of people. School is hardly the only place to meet them.

That said, making friends can be hard, no matter your education. In my teens I was often lonely, felt out of place in groups of people, felt like no one understood me. My sister on the other hand, also unschooled, made friends wherever she went and was always right in the thick of things. Sounds kind of like the difference between different kids in school, no? The teenage years are often hard, and when you throw in social groups that often feel toxic, struggles with mental illness (I have some anxiety issues), introversion, and a differing world view from many people, it doesn't matter what your education looks like, making good friends will probably feel difficult. There are lonely kids in school and out.

I'm happy to say that as an older teen and now adult, I made quite a few friends, including several close ones. It's all about finding the types of groups where you feel at home, the types of people you feel you can really connect with. I wrote more about this subject in the post The Socialization Question Hits Adulthood: Unschooled Identity and Fitting In.

Having a chance to be in team sports

Believe me when I say I'm not exactly into team sports. Yet even with that, I managed to be on a bowling team (yeah, I know, that's stretching the definition of "team sports") and an ultimate Frisbee team. Being out of school is no impediment to being part of team sports, if you so wish.

Learning to respect authority

When people bring up this one, I kind of just want to tell them that I think we're coming from such wildly different perspectives that I'm just not sure how to even go about addressing it. 

I don't believe in "respecting authority," I believe in not being an asshole. To me those are very different things. The first means doing what you're told. The second means basing your actions on your morals and values, and treating other people with respect; it means being polite and kind unless someone's behavior necessitates a less kind and less polite response; not breaking other people's stuff.; not talking over people, and making space for quieter people to be heard; learning to be aware of the social privileges we each carry that subtly effect how we're treated and how we learn to treat others, and seeking to break down those inequalities through our words and actions... Basically, a whole bunch of things that neatly fit under "don't be an asshole." Or, if you prefer, "trying to be a good person."

Respecting authority, on the other hand, means doing what you're told, regardless of whether what you're being told to do is in line with your values or even basic human decency. It means letting someone else's views of what you should be doing supersede your own feelings about what's best and healthiest for you (or your children). This taking away of peoples' power and choice starts when children are small, and continues on up through schooling, in everything from having to ask to go to the bathroom; having to learn (or at least memorize) things that have no relevance in your life and may even be negative about people like you or your family (I'm thinking of anti-queer and racist comments by teachers, policies in school dress that disproportionately target people of a specific race, and/or women and/or queer youth); having to listen to teachers who might be bullies themselves; and just having incredibly few choices in how you live your day to day life.

I don't think respect for authority is a good thing to be teaching children at all.

Having a shared experience

Never have I heard adults who have gone to different school go "haha, remember what it was like sitting in class/hanging out in the hallways/eating in the cafeteria?" I mean, if you went to the same school as someone else, the two of you might reminisce about specific people or classes or events. But otherwise? Just the act of going to school doesn't provide that much common ground. What you do hear people reminisce about is the music they listened to in their teens, or the movies they watched on a loop as a child, or that ridiculous meme from a few years ago. When it comes to age peers especially, shared culture creates shared experience. You know what else provides shared experiences? Plain old human existence, with all it's difficulties and joys. You can laugh over the annoying habits that your separate family members share, or talk about the struggles of being a young adult in the current economic climate. You can share similar experiences because of a cultural or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, political views, or geographic locations. 

There are a whole bunch of things that can provide common ground with others, and I'd say school is pretty low on that list.

Dealing with peer pressure

This is another one of these things where I just think you do know that people, including people who might try and pressure you into things, do exist outside of school, right? I've been offered drugs on numerous occasions in my life, and never accepted them as a teen (though I may have as an adult... Shh, don't tell). I want to make it clear that I don't think teens who use drugs are bad people, or that marijuana is a particularly dangerous substance, whether used by teens or adults (my body reacts FAR worse to caffeine, and more strongly to alcohol). I'm just trying to make the point that unschoolers are quite capable of making their own choices in the face of peer pressure, and if anything, I think not being in school could help in dealing with it. It's hard to face people every single day who are pushing you to do something, and not feel strong pressure to do it. If, on the other hand, you don't have to see people regularly who push you to do things you're uncomfortable with, firstly that's just making your life freer of coercive people who don't really care about your wants and needs, and secondly it's just not going to matter as much what those people think or want.

To sum it up? People who think it's okay to try and get others to do things they don't want to do are, sadly, a part of life. But unschooling can provide more space and support for choosing healthier social groups and making better choices.

Waiting in line

I almost hesitate to add this to the list, but when I asked people on my Facebook page to share concerned (or concern-trolling) queries they'd received about unschooling/homeschooling and socialization, more than one person had been asked how their children will learn to stand in line.

I don't know, maybe by parents saying "hey sweetie, we've got to stand at the back of the line because those people got here before us, and it's not nice to push in front of people." Also by waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting in line to check out your books at the library, waiting in line for an amusement park ride, waiting in line to get ice cream...

Getting to go to prom 

So, let me get this straight. You can unschool, and spend your teenage years learning things that fascinate and excite you; spending your time in pursuits that feel meaningful and important; volunteering and working; getting to sleep lots, and slow down when you need to; spending time in social situations you actually like, or at least have decided the benefits outweigh the negatives; and just generally enjoying daily life. Or, you could spend all those years sitting in a classroom, and then go to prom. Why is this even considered close to something that would make someone consider school the better option?

Also, some homeschooling groups organize proms, so unschoolers can get all of the party with none of the school.

My question is, do we really want school's version of socialization?

I read my sister one of the comments that sparked this post, and she burst out in frustration "can't people see that school is literally training you for the work force? People say things like 'school isn't really about academics, it's about social aspects. I learned to work with people with poorer work ethics than me, to deal with people who are cruel to me... now that's what I do in my life!' wow, good job, you learned to settle for shit."

Ivan Illich said much the same thing, if with very different wording, when he observed that:
School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition. And school directly or indirectly employs a major portion of the population. School either keeps people for life or makes sure that they will fit into some institution.
My conclusion? Unschoolers generally do plenty of socializing--though with the positive ability to make choices about how much or little time spent alone or with others feels best to them--and many of the concerns others express about the socialization of children outside of school are completely unfounded. However, I also think it's important to challenge the mindset that takes school as a given, as the norm and standard all other methods should be judged off of. Is the purpose of the socialization received in school really something we want for children and teens (ever heard of the hidden curriculum)? It's commonly accepted that schools are failing even at their stated goals, so why should people outside of school be attempting to emulate them in any way? Doesn't it make more sense to make choices based on the wants and needs of the parents, family, communities, and especially the learners themselves, not on how schools would go about doing things?

I'd rather unschoolers didn't "get socialized," and instead just learned to interact with a range of people in the real world, to be kind and polite, yet also to stand up for themselves and others, to follow rules and guidelines that make sense and do good, and question those that seem useless or harmful.

Finally, I'd like to end with some words by Wendy Priesnitz:
Life for children in school is public. They have virtually no time or space to which adults can be denied access. Children who find psychological privacy by daydreaming are labeled as inattentive or disinterested. On the other hand, life for unschooled children - even ones without siblings - is a mixture of personal and shared time, which allows them to get to know themselves, at the same time as they learn to value, yet be discriminating about, the time spent with others. 
My observation of thousands of home educated children over the past 35 years suggests that another factor outweighs any kind of peer or sibling interaction in its influence on social development. Feelings of security and self confidence are created in children who have the freedom to venture into sophisticated social situations at their own speed. This positive self concept is nurtured by warm, loving interaction with parents who respect their children. As the main ingredients in a child's social development, these even outweigh the contribution of continued social contact in creating a child who functions well in society.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

6 Reasons I'm Glad I Grew Up Unschooling

When I was five, I went to kindergarten. And while I was still five, I left kindergarten.

As a kindergarten dropout, my family started me out with some curriculum, but everything was always pretty flexible, and over the years we organically moved into something that looked more and more like unschooling. We lived and learned together as a family, reading out loud and by ourselves, endlessly discussing books and TV shows, writing, joining a variety of different groups and clubs and classes, and just generally building our lives around what was interesting and important to us both individually and as a family.

The result is that now, in my early 20’s, I look on the type of education I experienced with great fondness, and am continuing to learn in much the same way now as an adult. I’m grateful for having lived an unschooling lifestyle, and these are some of the reasons why.


I got to spend as much or as little time as I wanted to on different subjects
With a more traditional curriculum, either in school or out, how much time and effort is spent and expended on each subject is mandated and overseen by a teacher. Whereas I had the luxury of digging deep when I wanted to, immersing myself in something that fascinated me for as long as it held my attention, or simply doing a quick Google search and stopping after I’d finished a Wikipedia article or two (and maybe at least glanced at some of the sources).

The subjects I spent weeks or months reading about and researching and surrounding myself with were as diverse as World War II and the civil rights movement, horses and photography, Irish folklore and cooking and poetry. With many other things, way too many to count, the interest lasted a much shorter time.

But all of these things were meaningful, and fed a need I had at the time, whether it was a spark of interest at a passing comment made by a friend, or a burning desire to learn as much as I possibly could about a subject I was making a big part of my life. The lack of pressure to spend “enough” time to make learning about a specific thing “worthwhile” freed me to learn about a wide range of things without feeling guilt if I only wanted to learn a little bit about something, or pressure to stop reading about horses already and move on to something else.


I knew that all subjects were interconnected
For the most part, things weren’t broken up into individual subjects. Something that probably would have looked like English to someone on the outside bled over into and encompassed history, public speaking, writing, art… I didn’t learn by subject, I just learned, and a whole bunch of subjects were naturally involved in my learning.

This is something I’ve carried over into adult life, where I tend to recognize the interconnectedness of different subjects and areas of my life. I was never taught to compartmentalize things, so I value how much all different types of learning are involved in all different aspects of life.

We also valued lots of real life skills. Like, for instance, dog wrangling pet care.


I had the freedom to quit
For the most part schools, and all the classes you must take in schools, are not something you can choose to just stop going to (or at least, you can’t without some major repercussions, or parents willing to say they’re homeschooling you). This is regardless of whether a specific class or teacher is actually doing a good job at all of teaching their subject matter, and whether the information is relevant to the learner or hopelessly outdated and seemingly completely removed from real life application.

As a life learner, I was free to only keep things in my life that were actually adding value (classes I thought were important, subjects that had relevance in my life and future plans). If something wasn’t working, or was causing a lot more stress than learning, or felt like an unsafe environment, or no longer held any interest for me, I was free to quit.

While sticking with things can also be important, I think it’s really over-emphasized in our culture. People are shamed for quitting even for the most important reasons, and are encouraged to stay with things that are actively causing harm, and not adding any value to their lives. Thus I think that, along with persevering at difficult things, learning how to quit is also something everyone should be encouraged to learn how to do.


I learned on my own timeline
Everyone knows that there are certain ages children are “supposed” to learn certain things, milestones that are “supposed” to be achieved at certain points in life. This can cause a lot of shame for children deemed “behind” or “slow learners,” when really everyone just has their own timeline for learning. I learned to read when I was 8 or 9. If I’d been in school (or with more school-at-home inclined parents) this would have been considered a major issue. As it was, I just learned when I was ready to, and quickly went on to devour a huge amount of books over the next several years, and eventually go on to become a published writer.

Trying to hold children to an externally imposed timeline of what things should be learned when can cause a whole bunch of stress, shame, and unnecessary worry, for both kids and parents. Recognizing instead that each child is different, and will learn different things at different times when they’re ready to can free children to learn at their own pace and in their own way, stress and guilt free.

Sometimes I still feel bad or worried if I’m not learning things as fast as others, or don’t know some things that some others my age do. But for the most part, I’ve really internalized the message that learning is unique to the individual, and shouldn’t be compared to that of others.


I learned in authentic ways
So often things in school are taught in a way that’s really disconnected from a student’s day-to-day life, things that have very little relevance to them, or are presented in ways that simply obscure any relevance. Any work produced by a student is generally only ever produced to get a grade, and will only be seen by a teacher and perhaps some classmates.

My experience, on the other hand, was very different. The learning I did and the work I created felt genuinely meaningful, relevant to my life and goals, and truly authentic. It was learning and work I felt good about.

As an example, I started writing book reviews for a homeschooling magazine in my teens, and moved on to blogging in my later teenage years. Through blogging, my writing improved so much. I was creating content for an actual audience, about a subject I was passionate about, getting meaningful feedback, seeing my gradual improvement, having exciting goals to work towards, and getting other writing opportunities presented to me because of my work.

I still feel that way about blogging now, and credit it for leading to a lot of positive things in my life (both more tangible, like speaking opportunities at conferences, and less so, like connections made with others I admire doing similar work). I think all children and teenagers should have the time and opportunity, not to mention encouragement and support, to pursue their own personally meaningful learning, creation, and work.


My education was truly personalized
Without a pre-packaged curriculum, the education my family and I built for myself was truly unique and personalized. Tailored to my needs, desires, interests, and goals--as well as those of my family and community--the experiences I’ve had, the body of knowledge I’ve gained, my skillset, and my portfolio are all truly unique. I had, and am continuing to pursue, an education that is like no one else’s.

To me that’s one of the greatest strengths of life learning: that each individual has a completely unique education, based on their needs and the needs of their family and community.

As far as I’m concerned, a healthy community is best built by people with widely varying experiences, strengths, and skills, and it seems to me that home education, and especially unschooling, is in an excellent position to help do just that.

There are times I feel less secure in my experiences. Times of worry and doubt. Growing up, things certainly weren’t perfect, and they aren’t perfect now. But they were good, and the way I was raised has had such a profound impact on my outlook and how I’m choosing to live my life. Along with the positives I discuss above, I feel like unschooling really helped me develop and gain self-knowledge, and that the way I learned and the knowledge and experience I’ve gained has been invaluable.

And that’s why I’m very glad that I grew up unschooled.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Everyone Knows How to Learn

People often talk about how their preferred educational method (be that traditional schooling, homeschooling, or unschooling) teaches children "how to learn."

With unschooling, children learn how to learn, I've heard more than once.

I appreciate the sentiment, but it doesn't really sit right with me. Mostly because it seems to be minimizing the natural drive humans have to learn and explore and create. It's taking away from something I believe to be innate, by making it something external that has to be done to children. Even with the gentler "learning how to learn" version, it still seems to imply that this learning must be sought from some external source.

If this were the case, I don't think people would learn to walk or talk, interact positively with others, or any of those other things that babies and small children manage just fine long before they've had a chance to learn how to learn. They manage to learn anyway.

Children are greatly helped in learning by having older people who model behaviour and skills, cheer them on, expose them to new things, and otherwise provide helpful support. But the learning itself, they already know how to do.

"Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners." John Holt

It's important to acknowledge that there are things you can learn that will greatly help with your learning. These things might include:

  • How to research efficiently and organize your research
  • How to set and achieve goals
  • When to quit things and how to go about doing so
  • How to approach people with requests for teaching or mentorship
  • How to organize a group, club, or event
  • How to adapt when things aren't going to plan
  • How to look critically at media, books, etc.

All of these things can help in your educational journey. But none of them are what I would call learning how to learn. Perhaps just learning to better organize, plan, and execute your learning, especially when you want to be pursuing things in a more structured way or achieving some big goal. Important skills, yes, but not vital to learning and growing.

So yes, there are lots of things people can learn. Things that are learned for their own sake, skills that are learned to help with learning, things that are learned to achieve some specific goal...

But all that learning we're able to do because we're born knowing how to learn. It's a legacy of our species, and it's what makes unschooling so great. We just need to embrace it, encourage it, and watch the amazing things that happen.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Happy 6th Blogging Anniversary + Unschooling 101 Zine Giveaway!

I can hardly believe it's been six years since I first started this blog. To say it, and I, have changed a lot during that time is an understatement. This blog has taken my life in a direction I never expected, and lead to some really awesome opportunities and connections. Thanks to this blog I have:
  • Made so many friends/met so many great people
  • Spoken at conferences scattered across North America
  • Had my work published in several magazines
  • Greatly improved my writing and communication and public speaking skills
  • Made a name for myself, as it were, and built up an online resume of sorts
  • Felt like I'm actually doing meaningful work
  • Gotten free books
  • Received so many lovely, humbling, sweet, and confidence boosting messages
Plus too many more things to list. A huge thanks to every reader, new and old, who has given me their time and their words over the years! I'm incredibly grateful.

A couple of things about the blog

  • I wrote the first post on the blog on July 6th, 2008, when I was just 17 (which seems hard for me to believe now)
  • I wrote the first post specifically about unschooling (as opposed to just mentioning unschooling in a post) in January, 2009
Top ten most popular posts of all time on the blog

And now, a zine. Two copies of a zine, actually.

I'm doing my first ever giveaway! I'm giving away two separate copies of the the Unschooling 101 Zine (as in, you have two chances to win), to anyone anywhere in the world (you don't have to be from North America!). To enter, you just have to leave a comment on this post saying why you'd like a copy, and be willing to provide me with a valid mailing address. The giveaway is only open for 24 hours (the entire day of the anniversary), so enter now before it's too late!

Good luck, and thanks for reading!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Experiences Aren't Universal: Why Personalized Education is Important

People seem to have a lot of ideas about what types of experiences other people--especially children, teens and young adults-- should be having.

Thus we get a whole bunch of faux-concerned (or, hey, maybe some actually concerned) individuals saying “But what about prom? That was such a great night for me.”

“How are children supposed to learn about adversity? I grew stronger through dealing with bullies.”

“It’s about the whole college experience, though! That’s where I learned to live independently.”

Some things, like the bullying, I believe are wrong no matter what. But for other things, they can definitely be important milestones in many peoples' lives.

They don't have to be, though. What some experience as a milestone, others won't feel to be a big deal, and still others will never have that experience and not miss it at all.

This isn't just the case in events and milestones related to schooling, either. For example people who espouse travel as a form of self-discovery frequently seem rather dismissive of people who don’t like to travel, and dismissive even of those who do like traveling but are merely “tourists,” and are not properly pursuing self discovery through life on the road, and backpacking, and couchsurfing. Or how some people believe that all young adults should experience living entirely on their own, without even roommates, as some attempt to learn how to be a "real" adult.

People seem to frequently make the mistake of thinking that because something is meaningful and helpful in their own lives, then it must be meaningful and helpful in everyone’s lives. Which means everyone should do X, Y, or Z important thing as a Right of Passage or a Way to Find Yourself.

Sharing what’s worked in your own life can be really helpful and inspiring to others. But don’t make the assumption that just because it worked for you, it’s going to work for most (or even many) other people. We’re all individuals with different paths to pursue.

This is one of the reasons I love unschooling so much. As I've said numerous times, when asked what my favourite thing about unschooling is or why I think unschooling is important, one of the best things about unschooling, in my mind,  is the personalization of our education,  as we pursue what we truly want and need to learn. This holds true for learning without college, as well, and attempting to build a life as an adult that feels in line with our desires, our values, and our strengths.

It’s wonderful knowing that people have gained joy and personal growth in their life thanks to an experience they had in school, or an epic backpacking trip they went on, or painting every day, or living entirely alone in a cabin in the woods, or adopting a religion. It’s great reading about the myriad of ways people are living meaningful lives and doing important work. But of all those paths, we’ll each find different ones inspiring, different ones that make us go “wow, I want to do that!”

There’s much good to be had in embracing a variety of ways of living, as long as they do no harm to others. Realizing that what’s right for us may not be right for our sibling, or our friend, or a stranger on the internet, is important as we share what's worked in our own lives.

In embracing life learning, a philosophy all about finding the most meaningful and personally relevant path in each individual's life, it seems to me we're making an important step in creating a world where we all have a lot more personal power in the shape our education, and our life, takes.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Review of Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree.

I haven't written a book review on this blog for ages. Probably because I've read very few non-fiction books in the last couple of years! But sparked by some newly discovered energy and motivation, I decided to change that, which is why I put aside some time over a couple of days to read Blake Boles' Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree.

The first thing I liked about it was that I could easily read it over a couple of evenings, with plenty of time left over. I'm a fast reader, but even so, this book isn't long. It's concise and straight-forward, which is really nice, as longer, more verbose books on education often just aren't that easy to get through. If you want to appeal to a larger audience, make it something that isn't intimidating to pick up. On a similar note, get rid of any ideas you have about self-published books being sloppy or unprofessional. Thanks, I'm sure, to a lot of work by multiple people, this book looks really appealing. You want to pick it up.

But all that isn't nearly as important as the contents. So, on to that!

There are some things I really liked about this book. I like that it starts with some "propositions" on which the rest of the book is based on, outlining the reasons college might not be as great as it's cracked up to be, and why skipping college might be a good idea. I was happy to see that the idea of it being a "gamble" skipping college was addressed, with Blake pointing out that going to college is just as much of a gamble. Also, of course, some criticism of the cost of college. As Blake writes
This is the real culture of fear that should surround college: not that purposefully skipping college will ruin your life, but that mindlessly attending college (or graduate school) may lock you into a huge pile of debt from which you can never escape.
As I've struggled with figuring out what I'm doing and how to go about doing it, one of the things that never ceases to make me feel better is just going well, at least I'm not in debt.

I also appreciated the big focus in this book on the importance of self-knowledge. To me that's always been an important aspect of unschooling. Knowing yourself, and working to understand more about the way you best function, what's important to you, your strengths and weaknesses, is invaluable. I agree with Blake that that's an important thing to be striving for, whether you're in college or not.

The other main thing I appreciated about Better Than College was that Blake does a very good job of taking the concept and giving you concrete ideas on how to actually implement the whole living-without-college-and-learning-lots-of-stuff-and-becoming-financially-more-secure thing in your own life. Parts were inspiring to me, as Blake makes it seem, if not easy, than at least very doable.

The parts that weren't as strong to me were those talking more about famous successful college drop-outs, quoting The Education of Millionaires frequently, and Blake's list of inspiring people. Made up in large part of financiers, venture capitalists, business writers, and CEO's, they're not exactly the type of people I'd personally look up to. Steve Jobs and Penelope Trunk (author of this charming piece on why women should just put up with sexual harrassment) are not my idea of good role models. With a quote from each "inspiring" person included, one especially stood out to me. William Deresiewicz has this to say:
You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist--that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort. You have to live in an ordinary house instead of an apartment in Manhatten or or a mansion in L.A.... [B]ut what are such losses when set against the opportunity to do work you believe in, work you're suited for, work you love, every day of your life?
My first thought was just really? You can live comfortably as a community organizer or artist? I must just know the wrong organizers and artists... I agree that these are deeply worthwhile vocations, and that you should be able to live comfortably doing such a job. But currently, it can be pretty darn hard to.

This is a good example to me of the obliviousness that seems to run through this book. It seems to have been written mostly for a very privileged audience, and it would have been nice if it was acknowledged that all the suggestions on networking and marketing yourself and similarly hacking your education are likely to work best if you're white, male, affluent (or at the very least middle class), straight, and are generally the stereotype of the entrepreneurial, tech heavy, young professional crowd.

There's a great exercise nearer the beginning of the book, designed to get you to look critically at what's most important to you, and how you can use your skills to help others. I loved it, and the sentiments behind it! But then for much of the rest of the book, everything is couched as a way to gain value or "get" something: get a job, get money, get skills, get ahead. Everything was about networking and badgering people to hire you (and I'm sitting there thinking what about sufferers from anxiety, especially social anxiety?), and seeming to encourage you to look at every single interaction as a networking opportunity. What about simple kindness? Friendships where you're not trying to get anything from the other person other than reciprocal caring?

I ended up liking the first half of this book, with more of a focus on self-knowledge and concrete ways to learn outside of college, better than the second half.

So, I would recommend Better Than College, but with some caveats. I think it addresses some things very well and provides some good tools and ideas, but falls short in other ways.

I hope to continue reading more non-fiction, and have some more interesting books to share soon!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Value in Writing for an Audience, Not a Grade

After not reading any non-fiction books in quite a while, I picked up Better Than College by Blake Boles this afternoon and started reading. Instantly, something sparked a blog post idea. Blake writes:
Instead of working on homework, papers, and presentations destined to be seen once and tossed into a trashcan, self-directed learners turn much of their hard work into useful products for other people.
I don't know about "products," per se, but definitely something useful and appreciated.

Reading that, I had a thought that somehow had never occurred to me before. Most young people view non-fiction writing as something primarily done to get good grades, something that is only useful insofar as it pleases a teacher or professor and thus leads to good marks.

I've never written a five paragraph essay. Count paragraphs, you say? Construct an essay based on a rigid outline? Why would I do that? I've worked within word or space or time constraints numerous times, writing articles for magazines or talks for conferences. But I've never written an essay expected to adhere so closely to a specific outline, nor have I ever written something designed to please just one specific person.

I learned to write for an audience. I started writing before I even started reading, dictating silly stories for my mother to write down. Creating with words is something I've been doing since I was a small child. But when I really started writing in my teens, I first started writing book reviews for a homeschooling magazine, and then I started blogging. And it was through blogging that I became good at writing.

An Idzie writing.

I think blogging has been helpful for me in developing good writing skills for several reasons, and I think it's helpful for other people for the same reasons.

  1. Your content is personally meaningful. You're writing about things that are actually important to you, things you're interested in, things that are relevant to your life. This isn't something boring you're forced to do, it's something you actually want to be doing, so you're going to care more about it and invest a lot more effort.
  2. You get feedback. That's supposed to be the point of teachers grading papers, but blogging does that much more effectively, both because the audience is wider, and because feedback isn't the main point. The point is whatever you're writing about: politics or stories of daily life or unschooling philosophy. Getting feedback on your writing, directly through comments and emails and indirectly through which posts are more and less popular, allows you to improve your writing in a much more organic and meaningful way.
  3. You learn to write accessibly. I'm generally considered a decent writer, with a good vocabulary. Yet when I read an academic paper written at a university level, or listen to a couple of academics discuss something suitably academic, often as not I'm left understanding only half of what's being said, and encountering a whole bunch of unfamiliar vocabulary--and I don't mean vocabulary related to a specific field, just academic jargon. It's a form of gate-keeping, separating people into those who have had access to ivory towers and those who have not. Blogging breaks that down. No matter your subject, you're likely writing for a wider audience, and so you want a large number of people to be able to understand what you're saying.
  4. You get better at communicating. I can't count the number of times someone has misinterpreted something I've written. That has happened less though as I've been pushed to be ever clearer in my writing. Expressing yourself clearly and concisely is a good skill, and blogging is a platform very conducive to improving that skill.
  5. You focus on the content, not the mechanics of writing.  Schools often emphasize writing first as a technical process, teaching proper grammar and structure, with content coming second. In reality, it works so much better if you instead focus on things that feel like they have more meaning, on the actual content, and let skills be built naturally through the practice of creating meaningful content.
  6. You have something exciting to strive for. Having people interact with your writing, commenting on it and sharing it and sending you emails about it, is super rewarding. Knowing people value your voice, value what you have to share, feels wonderful. A blog is also something that feels like it can grow, not only as more and more people discover it, but also in content and style, as your perspective and experiences change. It can also lead to a lot of other cool things: having your work published in magazines and books; getting your own books published; making money or getting a job. All of that is likely to be a lot more exciting than just writing to get a good grade!
Writing can certainly be meaningful in both high school and university settings. If you like the topic you're studying, you might be quite happy to be writing about it. I just think blogging can provide an excellent self-directed way to grow as a writer.

Through blogging I've created a bunch of content I'm really proud of; I've had my work published in magazines and books; I've gone to conferences I never would have gotten to go to otherwise; I've made many friends; received many free books; and discovered a bunch of great content created by other people.

Through it all, even when it's been difficult, writing has felt like something good. Important. Something that has meaning.

I may have never written a five paragraph essay, but I have learned to write, and write well, for an audience of people who really care about what I have to say. 

And that seems like a much better way to learn.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Unschooling Isn't New. Really, It Isn't.

"Have you heard of this 'unschooling' thing? Just wait until those kids grow up, they'll never make it in the real world!"

I can't count the number of times I've said, with as much patience as I can muster, that unschooling isn't new. That quite a few of "those kids" have already grown up.

John Holt is famously known as the creator of the term unschooling, about which Pat Farenga has this to say:
Unschooling is actually defined by Holt in GWS #2: "GWS will say 'unschooling' when we mean taking children out of school, and 'deschooling' when we mean changing the laws to make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to grade , rank , and label people, i.e., to make lasting , official, public judgments about them."
I've been asked to define unschooling since 1981. The simple answer I learned from John is unschooling is NOT school. John Holt was tuned into popular culture and during the 1970s there was a popular television commercial for a soft drink called 7-Up. The marketing hook for 7-Up was that it was "The Uncola"—clear to look at, refreshing to the palate—it was NOT a syrupy cola. When John was casting around for words to describe learning without going to school the Uncola campaign was in full swing and it could have influenced him.
It's not a new term, and it's not a new movement.

Its also not a new concept. The idea of learning through living without compulsory institutions, learning through play and community involvement and following passions, is not new. In fact, it's really, really old. Peter Gray has written extensively both about the importance of play in learning, and how indigenous children traditionally learn.

Unschooling isn't new.

The "results" have already been seen.

Unschooled children have grown to adulthood.

Countless life learners have gone on to lead fulfilling lives.

It's not some weird untested theory being practiced by a bunch of people who just don't know any better. Instead, it's a way of living based on observations and experiences of how people actually learn best. It's an attempt to embrace what comes naturally to humans, which is a drive to learn and explore and become active members of our communities.

Children want to be part of everything. In this case, making bread!
An Idzie circa 1993.

It may have been getting increasingly popular, and receiving more media attention in the past handful of years. But that simply means that more and more people--educators, parents, students, and community members--are feeling there's something deeply wrong with the institution of schooling as it currently exists. While there are lots of new projects and new initiatives, new books and new blogs about unschooling and complimentary ideas, the ideas themselves aren't new.

Which means that we're lucky enough to have people to look to for inspiration, no matter how near or far in the past we're looking. It can be scary no matter what, to choose something as unconventional as unschooling, but we're not making our way through entirely uncharted territory. There are people who've gone before me, and now I'm honoured to have people who look to the experiences of my family for inspiration.

Before you react with a knee-jerk "that will never turn out well!", know that unschooling has been around for a very long time. It has worked, it does work, and it will continue to work.

Embracing unschooling may be becoming more trendy, but the practice itself is just plain old natural learning. And that? That's been around for a very long time.
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