Monday, July 31, 2017

In Defense of "Screens"

One of the most controversial topics I ever touch on is the issue of “screens.” There are a lot of strong feelings on the topic, but it probably won’t surprise anyone that I fall squarely on the side of more options rather than less, fewer limits rather than more. Seeing as this topic is a big one, though, I wanted to take some time to explore why I feel the way I do, how electronics fit into unschooling, the importance of self-direction, and some reasons why screens might not really be so scary. I hope that, whether you agree with me or not, you find some thoughts worth considering and links worth reading in this exploration of the important place screens can have in a child’s life.


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When I think about the distinguishing features of unschooling, one of the first things that comes to mind (I would think unsurprisingly) is that learning is self-directed, which means the learner themselves is deciding what activities to pursue. When self-direction is the goal, a myriad of options are usually given by the adults in a child’s life, a variety of tools made available. Unschooling, to me, is all about providing more options, more choice, more freedom in learning. So I find myself puzzled when some choose instead to narrow options, allowing children to “self-direct” only in a range deemed acceptable by concerned adults. While it’s undeniably important for adults to provide help, support, and guidance, choosing to cut out--or severely limit--one of the biggest available windows into the wider world seems counter-intuitive.

My sister and I are part of the first generation to grow up with easy access to the internet. My family got our fancy dial-up service when I was 5 or 6, my sister a couple of years younger, and we delighted in Neopets and other online games, the ability to make our own pages and blogs, to search out any questions we had (though admittedly there was a far smaller database of information to be had 20 years ago), to chat with friends, and to find communities of people who shared experiences and interests that I didn’t have access to in my daily in-person life. My life was intimately shaped by this new technology in overwhelmingly positive ways, and it most certainly lead to friendships, real world connections to local groups and events, and important discoveries--like my love of blogging and my sister’s love of fiction writing.

Sometimes people, in their advocacy for a screen-free childhood, say some variation of can’t you feel what it does to you? And I can. I feel it opening up possibilities.

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While some people are convinced that there’s solid science on how awful screens are for children (no thanks to the prevalence of scare-mongering pop-science pieces that show up with startling regularity), the reality is a lot more complicated, and there is no scientific consensus that Screens Are Bad. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics backed off of its hardline--and severely outdated--guidelines on screen use for children last fall, as evidence of the positive aspects continues to build. For the most part, the fear around screen use seems to be the same old fear that crops up any time something new comes into popular usage, and while there’s still plenty to learn about how current technology affects us, the decisions people are making around “screens” seem to have far more to do with fear than science. This article, though a few years old, still does a very good job of addressing the “history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook.”

Even when it’s accepted that all screen use might not be bad, the narrative remains that while some people might be fine with “screens,” others will become hopelessly “addicted” if not rigidly controlled. To start with, I’m really uncomfortable with how casually the term “addiction” is thrown around: in the same way an overly controlling boss isn’t “OCD” and a friend who gets upset faster than expected isn’t “bipolar,” a child who spends more time online than their parent would like isn’t “addicted.” It’s important to note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) includes “video game addiction” only in the section reserved for subjects which need further study, and while the DSM certainly isn’t infallible, that’s a good sign of how little evidence there currently is to support the addiction argument. Undoubtedly almost any activity can be taken to unhealthy extremes, but to single out any one activity as being more dangerous without sufficient evidence seems unreasonable. And while parents certainly want to help their children make good choices, their children will eventually--sooner rather than later if they’re in their teens--be making ALL of their own decisions, so shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to learn self-regulation? And if the goal is self-regulation, doesn’t it make sense to let children get as much practice at making their own choices as possible, before they’re out on their own for real? As one of my favorite quotes from Alfie Kohn says, “'The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” Or put a different way by Mimi Ito: “The longer parents play time cop, the longer it takes for kids to learn self-control.”

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It’s undeniable that the internet provides access to a repository of information unlike any other in human history, and with that in mind, deciding children are better off screen free seems extremely limiting. But even beyond that, “merely” playing on computers (or gaming devices, or phones…), one of the biggest targets of anti-screen rhetoric, is also a positive part of many people’s lives. In a truly excellent piece by Peter Gray, he references studies showing some of the effects of gaming: “Repeated experiments have shown that playing fast-paced action video games can quite markedly increase players' scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including tests that are used as components of standard IQ tests. Other studies suggest that, depending on the type of game, video games can also increase scores on measures of working memory (the ability to hold several items of information in mind at once), critical thinking, and problem solving. In addition, there is growing evidence that kids who previously showed little interest in reading and writing are now acquiring advanced literacy skills through the text-based communication in online video games.” He further elaborates on the social aspects of gaming, pointing out that “Other research has documented, qualitatively, the many ways that video games promote social interactions and friendships. Kids make friends with other gamers, both in person and online. They talk about their games with one another, teach one another strategies, and often play together, either in the same room or online.”



The image many have in their minds of lone individuals glued to their screens like zombies, cut off from all interactions with others, just doesn’t reflect reality in the majority of cases. Whether it’s gaming, TV shows, social media sites, blogging, or anything else, “screen time” is usually “social time” in one way or another.

A frequently expressed “socialization” concern in regards to school-free learners is that they won’t share common experiences with their schooled peers, and yet I’ve often thought that shared culture--shared arts and media--is a better point over which to bond than shared institutionalization. While culture is experienced in different ways, both online and off, it most certainly includes TV shows and video games, web comics and YouTube channels, social media sites and blogs. Finding people who love the same things you do is one of the great joys of the internet, and is often the spark for friendships online and off.

On the other side of things, parents of school-free learners often express concerns over negative content in popular media: racism, sexism, homophobia and the like. While that’s certainly a big issue, I’ve always thought the best way to learn to think critically about the media we consume is to interact with and interrogate it, to have thoughtful discussions about what is done well and poorly in any given show or game (or book, for that matter). I’d never suggest that adults leave children to fend for themselves, without involvement or guidance, and instead I think parents can help their children learn to think about what they’re playing or watching by playing and watching it with them, and having those discussions from the time a child is young.
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Some of the most frequent questions I get about my unschooling experience are about passion: What were your passions? How did you discover your passions? What did your parents do to help you find your passions? And my partial answer to the last of those has to be that they didn’t treat my interests with fear and disdain. They let me have my own interests--my own passions--even when they didn’t understand or “get” them.

You can’t choose what someone else cares about. It doesn’t matter if they’re your children; their minds are their own, and if you’re serious about self-directed learning, then their interests must be allowed to be their own as well.

Right now, I love makeup. Love it. I spend hours watching YouTube tutorials and unboxings, reading product reviews, sorting through my makeup collection, putting on my makeup… For me it’s a form of artistic expression, something I can get lost in, by all judges a true passion. Yet to many people this would seem like a mind numbingly boring pursuit. They’d find it shallow and pointless.


On the other hand, I’ve never been very into video games: I find them uninteresting, and even when a game initially seems interesting, I find it bores me incredibly quickly. But that doesn’t mean I see them as a lesser pursuit, or see my interests as in any way superior.

It’s often hard to see, from the outside, what someone else is getting out of an activity or interest that we don’t share, but rest assured that they are getting something out of it, or they wouldn’t be doing it. And if you try and get involved, or talk to someone about the things they care about, you might just start to see why they’re so passionate.

Or you could just dismiss it out of hand, miss an opportunity to get a window into someone else’s world, and crush a budding passion.

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Sometimes I spend too much time scrolling endlessly through Facebook, or watching YouTube videos, or reading a really long piece of investigative journalism. I consider the time spent to be “too much” because my leg falls asleep from sitting too long, or I regret staying up as late as I did, or I wish I’d gone out to the garden while the sun was still up. But as an adult--and as a teenager who didn’t have “screen limits”--those decisions are mine to own and the consequences are naturally occurring (as opposed to punishments, which some parents name “consequences” in order to make themselves feel more justified). Once again I return to the concept of self-direction being crucial to unschooling, and to be truly self-directed is to sometimes direct ourselves into choices we regret. That’s just part of learning, no matter what age we are.



I also see a big difference between parents intervening in an actual problem, and parents creating arbitrary limits in order to feel some control over possibly preventing future problems (which may never manifest). There’s a difference between saying “you’ve been playing that game for a really long time, let’s go do something different now” and an inflexible rule that children are only allowed two hours of screen time per day. And there’s a difference between deciding not to let a 2 year old spend time playing on a tablet versus deciding that the bulk of childhood should be spent without access to a whole category of play and learning.

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In deciding that screen time is automatically damaging--or at the very least suspect--and casting almost any other activity as better, a whole bunch of unneeded conflict arises: suddenly it’s screens versus books, screens versus outdoor play, screens versus family time. Electronics become the forbidden fruit, made more tempting by its exclusion from a list of acceptable activities. In pitting activities against each other in such a way, the supposed “good” activities can be made to feel like a chore (something I explored recently in my post Summer Rules?). A child is told they have go outside for an hour before they can go online. This then becomes an interminable hour where all they do is kick at leaves and wander around restlessly, unable to think of anything but how much they want to talk to their friend who’s only online for a couple more hours, because they live on opposite sides of the globe in a very different timezone…

Then there’s the matter of how frequently hypocrisy comes into play, when a parent spends all day inside on their phone and the computer, yet kicks their children outside and admonishes them to “go play!” instead of allowing them to spend a similar amount of time on their respective devices. If you want to instill a joy of the outdoors (or reading, or anything else you deem important) you have to show that you take joy in it, yourself. As Lori Pickett said in a wonderful post on screen time:
Whenever you make it about “give up this thing you really love,” you are probably going to lose. Even if you win on paper, you are still losing in the ways that count. You’re losing credibility. You’re losing their attention. You’re losing their trust. 
You are sending all kinds of subtle, between-the-lines messages about what’s broccoli and what’s candy. You’re sending those messages every day when you choose how to spend your free time, too. Before they learn how to velcro their shoes, kids know when your words don’t match your actions. 
We have to change our entire approach and start saying, “If these things are really important to us — as a family, as a community, as a society — then we need to start enjoying them, together.”
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Whether people are delighted by the technology available to us or concerned by its rising prevalence, the reality is that it’s here to stay, and has become a vital tool in virtually every sphere of life. Children growing up today need to understand it because they need to have the skills to navigate this world. There’s beauty in balance, but what balance means to each individual is something they have to figure out for themselves, and while caring adults should be ready to offer guidance to the children in their lives, ultimately those children are their own people, and need to to be making their own choices--or at least moving in a direction of increasing freedom of choice. Self-direction is such a powerful thing, and when adults can move past their fear, there’s such a wealth of learning and fun and connection to be had with those oft reviled screens. So many opportunities! Almost limitless options. Personally, I’m grateful to have always had so many “screens” in my life.


*I put screens in quotations because I find it a very reductive and misleading way to talk about a whole range of different devices.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Summer Rules?

There’s an image I see going around Facebook a lot lately. Titled “Summer Rules,” it sets a long list of requirements that must be met before children are allowed to “use electronics.” While I’ve certainly seen some dissenting voices, the overwhelming response seems to be one of great satisfaction. That’s the way to make kids live life right, people explain, congratulating each other on assuring that children make exactly the choices that the adults in their lives think are most appropriate, even during what, for many, is their one real break from school all year long.

Source

As you’ve probably already guessed, I find this graphic frustrating at best, infuriating at worst. Why? Here are just a few reasons…

I already fail to meet this list of requirements every single day. My bed gets made at night, right before I get into it, because that’s my routine and there’s nothing wrong with it. I spend plenty of days in my PJ’s. My hair rarely gets combed out (the breakage! The frizz!), as a light finger combing that doesn’t unnecessarily disturb my curls is usually all that’s needed. I tend to brush my teeth while I open up my computer for the day, checking email and Facebook notifications while tending to oral hygiene. Ditto for breakfast. I get to make all these decisions for myself, because I’m an adult, but I also got to make these decisions for myself when I was younger, because my parents respected me. As I hope I’ve just made clear, doing all of these first section “rules” before electronics every morning, or even doing all of them every day, is pretty arbitrary. Yes, I get that we want children to be clean and to eat well and all that, but there are a whole bunch of better ways to encourage healthy habits besides holding electronics over children’s heads as bribes/blackmail.

Making some things “good” activities, and others “bad” (the old books versus screens dichotomy) is a great way to teach kids just that… But not necessarily in the direction you want. What is forbidden usually becomes more desirable. Screens! What is forced generally becomes less desirable. Books! Art! Playing outside! Tidying! Helping others! Is that really what anyone wants? When activities are instead presented as equally valid choices, when children are involved in family life, and when adults themselves are engaging in a range of different types of activities, children are going to be influenced by that. And sometimes? Sometimes they really love something and will want to spend all their time engaged in that something, and if we want to nurture passion, sometimes we’re going to have to accept that other people--children included--will be passionate about something we neither like or understand, and learn to be okay with that. No one gets to choose what someone else will love, whether they’re children or adults. Also? Lumping things like artistic creation and reading into the same category as cleaning is a good way to extra, super duper discourage them. Like, has anyone really thought that one through?

There are a whole lot of different uses for “electronics.” I’m going to assume here that the creator of the List Of Rules means computers and video games here, and not, say, a microwave, because they’re not very clear. If we’re talking about video games, see above on passion. If we’re talking about computers… Well. Some of the things people regularly do on the computer include: writing emails, reading (fiction and articles and essays and poetry), writing (blog posts or essays or fiction), watching YouTube videos (for both instruction and entertainment), playing games (strategy games and simulation games and puzzle games), talking to friends, creating art, participating in online discussions and forums, researching any topic you can imagine, looking for new hobbies or activities, looking at art… Whenever people decide to generalize “screens” or “electronics” I can’t help but be exasperated. You’d think that when we opened up our computers, there was just one option: Stare At Blue Screen Like Zombie. In reality, the amount of activities it’s possible to engage in on screened electronics is huge. It’s a really big window into a whole lot of the world, and dismissing it as bad, or deciding (as the above image seems to be doing) that virtually any activity off of screens is better than any on seems completely absurd.

Luckily, someone out there named Laura Sweet did a bit of fixing:


“Have you: Woken up today? Then you can enjoy summer like kids should.”

Now that’s something I can get behind.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Regulating Unschooling? Only If There's No Testing Involved

As unschooling in particular and homeschooling in general become ever more widespread, the rumblings of unease from everyone not unschooling (or homeschooling) also seem to get louder: wait, why isn’t there more oversight? These families could be using this as a cover for educational neglect. Shouldn’t someone be testing these kids?

Ah, testing. Again and again it comes up as an answer to better controlling the homeschooling population. After all, isn’t that the best way to compare school free learners to those in school, and make sure they’re getting a real education?

It makes sense. If, that is, you believe that testing is an accurate judge of education… And that’s increasingly being called into question not only by fringe groups of educational radicals, but by ever more mainstream groups of people--teachers, parents, children, and concerned citizens--who see how increased standardized testing is harming learning and stressing children to the point of illness. The “opt-out” movement has gained traction across the US, and in it’s New York epicenter the last several years have seen over 20% of students refusing to take standardized state tests. In countless op-eds and articles educators, parents, and students expound on the flaws and failings of our mass cultural reliance on standardized testing.

If testing itself is failing in schools, institutions built by their very nature to standardize education in order to test it’s supposed efficacy, then why on earth would it be a good idea to export standardized tests to school free learners, as well?


The reason people choose to forgo schooling is because they want a different type of experience, one they’re not able to achieve in a traditional school setting. While some homeschoolers will re-create the trappings of a school education outside of the institution, many more (unschoolers most of all) are looking to leave schooling itself behind, believing that our modern method of education largely ignores the importance of self-directed learning, free play, internal motivation, building respectful multi age relationships, authentic work, and all the other marvelous benefits available to a child with supportive and available adults in their lives. When life and learning are inseparable, testing seems like an absurd intrusion on a natural process.

But how do you know they’re learning? critics cry. Well, that’s actually pretty simple. Firstly, a lack of curriculum doesn’t mean a lack of (learner chosen) goals, whether stated or not: to be able to read well enough to enjoy getting through Harry Potter; to go to space camp; to learn Japanese. Secondly, when not being taught to the test children will engage in authentic and clearly visible projects and activities: planting their own garden; writing a novel; building a video game. Thirdly, and most importantly, when engaging in adult supported self-directed learning there are strong relationships formed between adult and child, and the adult(s) sees the learning happening: in enthusiastic discussions; activities practiced together; books read aloud and shows watched together; in narrations of whatever was done in science club/book club/Scouts/4H/art class/martial arts, etc. When you live and learn together with children, you can’t stop seeing the learning happening.

This isn’t to say I’m 100% against any regulations of school free education. I’m just against any regulation that takes the model of schooling as an unquestioned success, and deems anything different to be suspect. I understand that self-directed learning seems strange and unmeasurable to many, and in all fairness it usually is unmeasurable and is sometimes strange (depending on your definition)! And I can understand fear of school free learning being used as a “mask” for child abuse, at least in that I’d hope that we all want children to be safe and happy, and would be concerned at anything we think might not support that. But in looking to regulate home educators, I think there are some important things to consider (and here I take inspiration from what my province’s largest secular home education organization is recommending to the Quebec government as it prepares new legislation):

  1. Most parents are deemed innocent until proven guilty. This makes sense, because the majority of parents are essentially decent. Yet when it comes to school free learning, suddenly some view parents in the reverse: guilty until proven innocent. There is no proof that school free children are at a greater risk for abuse, and in fact plenty of people turn to home education precisely because their children are experiencing abuse in school (from either other children or teachers). It seems pretty hypocritical to single out school free learners for scrutiny. Instead assume good intent: that the parents or guardians want their children to be happy and gain the skills needed to function in society, and only investigate if there are signs this isn’t the case/a complaint is made to the local child protection service. Bonus? Enact laws that protect all children from physical violence by outlawing corporal punishment, whether practiced in schools (still legal in many US states) or by parents.
  2. Recognize that there are many different “methods” practiced by school-free learners, and while it’s perfectly reasonable to expect parents to be able to express to an official why they choose not to send children to school and the type of learning environment they hope to create instead (whether they have a name for it or not), it’s not reasonable to expect home educators to recreate school at home. Doing something different is precisely why families are home educating, after all!
  3. Separate the stereotypes from reality. In many parts of North America home education is synonymous with conservative religious practice, but that’s never been wholly accurate, and is becoming even less accurate as ever greater numbers of families are choosing home education for secular reasons (whether they’re religious or not). If there are risk factors associated with certain groups--for instance the popularity of the horrifically abusive Pearl parenting method among certain segments of evangelical Christians, for whom homeschooling is also common--focus on that, not the entire home education demographic.
  4. Home educators frequently make good use of any and all resources available in their community. Isolation is the exception, not the rule, and many school-free learners would be quite happy to have access to resources in local schools as well. Think band, sports, labs… School boards are only the enemy when they insist on trying to get school-free learners to conform to a common curriculum, instead of respecting the differences inherent in an educational alternative.
In a world where education is--ever so slowly yet ever so surely--becoming more diverse and more individualized, school-free education is going to keep on growing. I think it now falls on those of us comfortable speaking out about our experiences to share them, and those who worry to truly listen, and begin the process of questioning their assumptions about education. Standardized testing in elementary and high school levels has never and will never be an accurate method for establishing whether authentic learning is happening, even inside of schools, and unschoolers as a whole want no part of it. Unschoolers seek to work with children, instead of against them, and perhaps it’s time the rest of society to take a page from our playbook and start working with educational alternatives instead of shutting them down. I have great hope that, with the progress alternative education ideas have made just in my lifetime, real change isn’t only possible, but inevitable.

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Friday, April 7, 2017

There's No Such Thing As "Self-Taught"

The term “self-taught” is bandied about a lot in self-directed education circles. People learning outside the strictures of formal institutions, classes, or tutors are deemed have taught themselves, taken on the internal role of both student and teacher.

And yet “self-taught” is not really a term I like or use myself.

To me, self-taught implies that learning happens in a vacuum. Alone, without external influences, without help, without the plethora of human resources available in this world. Unschooling is too often viewed, in my opinion, as something both insular and perhaps even lonely (that age-old “socialization” myth), along with being almost arrogant in nature: you think you know enough to teach yourselves? You certainly have a high opinion of your skills…

While there are really great aspects of independence that life learning obviously provides--after all, the whole point is self-directed learning, making your own decisions about what you choose to do with your time--I think there’s an important distinction to be made between independence and isolation. Between learning which is self-directed, and knowledge which is supposedly self-taught. The reality of unschooling is that it functions best within community, with the support of myriads of different people--sometimes even teachers! Besides, being “self-taught” may not even be possible. After all, even if you learn something from books, YouTube videos, or observation, someone wrote those books, filmed those videos, and is practicing their skills in a place you can observe them.


I’ve said it before, but as far as I’m concerned it bears frequent repetition: unschooling is about opening up more of the world to children than they’d generally encounter in school, not less. Spending time around a wider variety of people (ages, backgrounds, skills), not fewer. Life learning is truly a community venture, rooted in the unique places we inhabit, not a solo-expedition in self-teaching.

What do I personally like to emphasize, instead?

Delight-driven: Learning that starts with a spark, building curiosity, a burst of inspiration, excitement, delight.

Inquiry-based: Finding the answers to a question (or a hundred questions), the solution to a real problem, exploring the world with interest and thoughtfulness and wonder.

Self-directed: Choosing which pursuits are worth pursuing, who you turn to for support and direction, what you spend your time in doing.

Life learning doesn’t seek to turn everything into teaching, whether by yourself or others, and it certainly isn’t about going it alone and lonely (at least if you can possibly help it). Instead it’s about taking advantage of any opportunities available to you, if they seem important or interesting, and shaping a collaborative, self-directed education.

Doesn’t that sound a lot better than self-taught?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"That's Not Unschooling!" Tips on Sharing Unschooling Advice Kindly and Effectively

This post was originally published on Patreon in October 2016. Patreon is a crowdfunding platform I use which lets supporters like you pledge any amount you choose--from $1 to $20 or more--per month to support my work, and in exchange you gain access to my patron only online feed of exclusive posts, interviews, newsletters, behind the scenes updates, and more. Most of the posts I write for patrons will remain exclusive to Patreon, but sometimes, many months later, one of those posts will make its way here. I hope you enjoy this one, and I also hope that if you appreciate my work you'll consider becoming a supporter!

Something I see sometimes that makes me scratch my head: "We use a curriculum that's really unschooling friendly!"

...Which seems to be missing the point more than a little.

If a child chooses to do a curriculum of their own free will (as in, there wasn't strong parental pressure to do it) that IS still unschooling. But if the adults involved have chosen a curriculum and are forcing their children to in any way adhere to it--even if it's a “relaxed” curriculum, even if it allows children to choose from a list of pre-determined activities--that's still, well, schooling.

There is a strong cultural story of what school looks like. It has separate classrooms; separate teachers; knowledge is transferred in a neat one-way direction from teachers to students; there are clear distinctions between periods; clear separations between subjects; there’s a cafeteria and recess and homework to do afterward…

So when people choose to break away from this vision of school, and don’t create an exact replica of school inside of their own homes, I think it can be easy to think that what they’re doing must be UN-schooling. And I mean, it almost certainly IS better than school! An important step (many steps) away from mainstream schooling!

But it might not be unschooling just yet. And if a parent is enforcing any type of curriculum (no matter how loosely) on their children, it definitely isn’t.

This isn’t a criticism, so much as an observation of just how deeply we, as a culture, have internalized How Education Works based on a model of forced schooling, so that even when someone has shed the most obvious trappings of schooling (the classrooms, the periods, the different teachers for every different subject), they’re still usually harboring a lot of schoolish ideas. They’re still looking at things, as I once pointed out, through “school coloured glasses.” There might not be a whole cadre of professional teachers, but an adult still has to be planning lessons of some sort. There might not be periods divided by that old fashioned ringing of the bell, but there are still “learning activities” and activities from which children are apparently not learning (video games, anyone?).

For prospective unschoolers, it often takes a whole lot of deschooling, an unpacking of all the myriad beliefs of what learning is “supposed” to look like, and a gradual understanding of how freeform and ever present life learning actually is.

For those of us who are further along on that journey, whether by a little bit or a lot, I find myself often wondering--even after many years now interacting with new unschoolers myself--how to gently point out what isn’t unschooling, and suggest a change of direction to those who are looking to embrace life learning. It’s a continuous process of learning to do better, and I think I will always be working on being clearer and kinder in my communication, but there are some things I try to keep in mind. Note that I’m talking specifically about people who WANT to unschool, who are interested in learning more, and just don’t have a very accurate grasp of just what unschooling is yet. I am not talking about people who stubbornly insist they want to call their homeschool unschooling even when it’s anything but, and have no interest in moving further in a self-directed direction.

Now that we have that out of the way…

Be gentle. Maybe instead of a straight up “that’s not unschooling,” a softer yet still clear approach is better: “Unschooling is all about adult facilitated self-directed learning, so if you’re making your kids follow a curriculum or do workbooks when they haven’t chosen to do so themselves, I’d consider that to be eclectic or relaxed homeschooling. If you and your family are happy with that, then that’s fine. But if you’d like to move in a more unschooling direction, I’d love to share some resources with you or tell you a bit about how we do life learning in my family.”

There are so many great resources to share. Some of my personal favorite sites right now are Living Joyfully With Unschooling; Unschooling Mom2Mom; Offtrail Learning; and of course my own archives may also prove helpful.

Talk about your own breakthrough moments and successes. That time you realized your child had started reading without you ever trying to teach them to do so; how much more happy things became--and how much more learning you observed--when you ditched your curriculum; how focusing on relationships instead of “education” lead to a wonderful family project… Whatever it was that made unschooling “click” for you might help someone else in their own breakthroughs, all while keeping it focused on things that work for you, instead of telling the person in question what they’re doing wrong.

Give concrete suggestions. If someone is actively asking for help with a difficult situation, or bemoaning the fact their attempts at unschooling (based on their potentially flawed views on just what it is) isn’t “working,” it can be really helpful to make some suggestions. Unsolicited advice is usually a bad idea, but when people are looking for help, so many unschoolers have so much wisdom to share. And in my experience, phrasing things in the form of questions is often the most effective approach. “Have you tried looking at things from her perspective? I wonder how she feels about X thing?” “Are you focusing on your interests, too? It’s great for children to see their parents passionate about their own activities, and maybe he’d like to join you!” “Have you talked to them about how you’re feeling, and asked them how they feel? If you work on having open lines of communication, it will probably be easier to find a solution that works for everyone.”

I think there will always be times when we find ourselves frustrated with misunderstandings of how unschooling works and what it even is, but for those who want the benefits of a truly life learning educational experience, we’re in a wonderful position to share our own experiences and help all the new folks find their own unschooling groove, in a way that’s both kind and effective.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Unschooling Helps Raise Critical Thinkers

When asked what education is supposed to do, what it’s supposed to instill in the minds of growing humans, one of the most common answers is “critical thinking.” After browsing through definitions from various dictionaries, all of which amount to essentially the same thing, I found Google’s version to be the most succinct: “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”

That seems reasonable. We all want the people around us--and we want ourselves--to look at issues thoughtfully and come to conclusions through careful consideration, instead of snap judgements based on little knowledge.

But how do you foster that type of thinking? And are schools really the best place to do so? You can probably guess that my opinion on the latter would be a big “no.” So how do you encourage critical thinking outside of school? I have a few thoughts on the subject that have proven true in my own life...


When others make choices for you, there’s no critical thinking. Or as Alfie Kohn put it, “The fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” By giving children greater control over the everyday choices in their lives and including them in the realities of family decision making you’re automatically introducing them to the art of critical thinking.

Experiencing differences. Neighborhoods and school districts are often made up of a roughly homogeneous group of people in similar socio-economic brackets and racial backgrounds. This isn’t always the case, of course, but too often it is. If you value critical thinking (not to mention social justice), this is bad news. Exposure to a range of different people is generally understood to be a good way to build empathy for others, gain a more nuanced view of different experiences, and figure out where you stand on important issues. In other words, experience with other people and other views helps build critical thinking. Funnily enough, this is one that unschoolers--all school free learners, in fact--are frequently accused of doing a poor job of. Plenty of times that’s true, but it’s every bit as true of schools.

With all of the above, I don’t mean to imply that entertaining bigoted or abusive views in the name of “respecting different opinions” should be the goal. Certain views are considered unacceptable for a reason, and don’t deserve respect. I’m just trying to touch on the importance of joining or building many different communities, not only spending time with people who are exactly the same as you.

Talking about and learning to recognize biases in the world around you. While the term “fake news” might be being bandied about a bit too loosely, it is important to understand that not all sources are equally accurate, and even the best sources are still not wholly unbiased: everyone perceives the world through their own set of prejudices, and even a journalist doing their best to report accurately is going to be subtly influenced by their unique set. So how do unschoolers--or anyone, for that matter--learn to recognize bias? You talk about it! Or at least, that’s what I learned to do. What unquestioned beliefs underlie this storyline? What identities does this reporter hold that might tell you something about their perspective? Is there a reason the creators of this film might want to influence your thinking in a specific way? I ask myself these types of questions all the time, and I discuss them with family and with friends. This type of deconstructing is contagious, spreading among friend groups and instilling habits of questioning everything in the children in your lives.

Looking at studies, not headlines (and looking at those studies critically). I’m sure all of us have posted an article a time or two without verifying the accuracy of its claims. I know I have! But as a general rule, I try to look past the headlines and figure out what exactly is behind them. For instance, while scientific research or surveys are often sensationalized in headlines, the breadth of the study, its quality, what the conclusions the researchers reached actually were, and any caveats they share in their own overview is very rarely (wholly) reflected in mainstream press coverage. So I generally make a habit of looking over whatever part of the study in question is available for free, and looking over it thoughtfully. What I mean by that is that the very first things I ask myself after getting some basic ideas about the methodology of the study, the demographic groups surveyed, etc. is “how could the choices the researchers made have affected the results?” How long were the study participants followed? If a wider range of demographics were surveyed, might the results have been different? Too often we learn to see experts as infallible, and while there are certainly many areas where I respect the knowledge others have as greater than my own, that certainly doesn’t mean I can’t turn a critical eye to any and all things I read, and use my own reasoning to decide how reliable it is.

Emotions are as important as rationality. Sometimes people like to take the idea of critical thinking to mean “feelings don’t matter, stop acting like emotions are important and coddling people.” Critical thinking is about knowing what elements exist in any given situation, and considering how they do or should affect the outcome. In human culture and human interactions, emotions will always be an important consideration. The whole debate about content warnings in university syllabi come to mind. On one side, you have people ranting against “political correctness run amok,” and higher institutions no longer being about that all important “critical thinking.” Yet all students are asking for is more information. What is going to be covered in this course? Critical thinking is all about gathering as much information on a topic or situation as possible in order to make an informed decision (in this case, that decision would be, “is this the right course for me, my goals, and my needs, or not?”). Those who oppose content warnings in academia or in online spaces seem to have no similar problems with the content warnings on films and TV shows. You can’t make good decisions if you don’t have all the relevant information, and whether a movie has PG rated violence or R rated violence is going to make a big difference in who you choose to watch it with (your 10 year old nephew or your friend who can’t stand gore are not going to be a good fit for the latter). Our emotional lives and limitations are part of critical thinking and making good decisions for ourselves.

This is, of course, just an overview of some of the things I’ve found helpful to incorporate into my own life, and though I certainly don’t always do as good a job as I’d like, I have managed to grow into a person who is mostly used to dissecting the media I consume, having thoughtful conversations with friends, verifying sources, and all that other good stuff. And that holds true for a large portion of the adult unschoolers I know as well! When you grow up with a lot more self-determination, it tends to create an environment that fosters what everyone claims to want in children: critical thinking.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Personal Manifesto On Learning Bravely

Most of what I share is advice and theory, deeply rooted in my personal experiences, but not often about my own learning journey. So as the new year starts--and thanks to a bit of inspiration from Sue Patterson’s unschooling manifesto--I wanted to sit down and consider what types of attitudes I want to cultivate, and what pieces of advice I want to give to myself, as I continue my own grown-up unschooling. These are not so much specifics: “read more books” or “take up running,” these aren’t new year's resolutions (easily made and as easily broken), but instead I hope will act more as my own mini-manifesto for the coming year, a year in which I hope I can work on growing, healing, and learning bravely. Here goes!

My unschooling mug! (Society6)

  1. Recognize when I’m stuck, and don’t let myself stay stuck for too long. 
  2. Get help when I need it. Professional help, support from friends, classes, whatever. I’m not a one-person island, and reaching out for support, in whatever way is needed, is a good thing.
  3. Push outside my comfort zone. This is one of my biggest goals for this coming year! As a person with generalized anxiety disorder, pretty much EVERYTHING is outside my comfort zone, and the longer I stay in my little zone, the smaller it becomes. I need to always be expanding it, step by step, little by little, outwards if I want to do better.
  4. Fun is important. Really important! It’s okay to enjoy something even if it doesn’t have an immediate, obvious “point.”
  5. Quiet times are good in moderation, but a balance needs to be found. I love daydreaming and enjoying the small things of everyday life: --a good cup of coffee, a good cuddle session with my cat, a wonderful new novel. However, I can get so wrapped up in them I become isolated. Other people need to be a regular part of my life, too.
  6. Stop comparing myself to others, and finding myself lacking. If I truly believe what I say about each person having their own unique timeline, I can’t keep thinking I’m at the “wrong” point on it.
  7. Don’t ever be embarrassed to share what I’m interested in or excited about, even if--or maybe especially if--it’s something that I know some people would dismiss as unimportant.
  8. Celebrate every tiny little success as if it’s a Big Deal, because it IS a big deal! It’s important to recognize progress, whether it’s big steps forward or small ones.
  9. Despite what I tell myself, coffee does not actually help me do anything. Use it in moderation.
  10. Inspiration doesn’t usually just pop up all on it’s own. Finding inspiration is work, a deliberate practice of paying attention, doing new things, engaging in conversation with others, and being genuinely thoughtful about what I read and see and hear. 
  11. Being brave in my work doesn’t only mean talking about my struggles (with anxiety and depression, mainly), it also means branching out with my writing, choosing topics that interest me, but I don’t know if others will want to read. It means creating more things in mediums I haven’t explored much before (video, audio). It means saying “yes” more to interview requests. 
  12. Productivity is a self perpetuating cycle. While it’s okay to not be productive sometimes, and my value as a human being is not attached to my productivity, when I do more, I feel better. And when I feel better, I do more. Once the ball starts rolling, I have to keep it rolling, even when things are hard. Doing only a little bit feels a whole lot better than doing nothing.
If you choose to join in and write your own mini-manifestos, please share the links in the comments. I’d love to read them!

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