Thursday, December 11, 2014

Authentic, Personalized, Flexible Learning: Why Curriculum Will Never Be Good Enough

I've always been against the use of any type of curriculum that isn't chosen expressly by the learner themselves, but I found myself wanting to explain why I felt that way. What was so irredeemable about externally mandated educational plans? This is the answer I came up with.

A curriculum is stagnant. It's created as a solid, linear plan, detailing what facts, theories, and formulas an individual should know and in what order they should learn them. It's designed by people other than the learners themselves, it's based on the idea that there is one core body of knowledge and set of skills that hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of children should all have, and that they should all learn it at the same age. It doesn't grow with the individual, it doesn't bend or adapt. It exists as a series of check marks, a string of benchmarks and numbers that have little to do with what's actually best for the learner, what they care about, their unique strengths and quirks and ways of being in the world.

True, deep, and meaningful learning can never be contained in something so stifling as a standardized curriculum.

There are some words and phrases I go back to again and again to describe my own life learning experience. My learning was always authentic, I say, because it was always learning that felt relevant and interesting. It was personalized, unique to me and what I wanted and needed at any given point. It was flexible, because I could always choose to learn different things in different ways with different people.

This kind of learning is pretty much the exact opposite of a pre-packaged curriculum. It's learning that is constantly evolving and changing as the learners themselves evolve and change, alongside their family and communities. It's the ultimate in authentic, personalized and flexible learning, better in my mind than any faddish new curriculum or teaching methodology that's taken those terms as handy buzzwords.

Reading selfie!
If the learners themselves aren't deeply involved in the shaping of their own education, if they aren't able to make important choices about what and how they learn (with supportive adults there to give a helping hand, find resources, play games, and otherwise enjoy the ride), then I don't think learning really can be any of those things. It becomes, instead, a pale shadow of what learning should be, as it's strangled by adults' desire for control over a process they can never truly own, a bureaucratic need for measurable educational progress, and a deep-set distrust of children and their innate abilities.

In this desperate attempt to make learning into something controllable and measurable, not only do we miss out on the richness that comes of learning for the sake of learning, but learning also becomes something that's complicated in really unnecessary ways. The more talk of methodologies and new teaching practices, or the latest curricular advancements and improvements, the more education--and by extension learning--starts to sound like something arcane and difficult, something that must be left in the hands of well-trained experts lest ordinary folks mess it up by not knowing the correct approaches or methods.

This has always bothered me since in my own life, learning has never been complicated. Difficult sometimes, confusing on occasion, but never complicated. You go where you need to go to get the knowledge and skills you want, which means that sometimes turning to an expert for a specific topic or trade is what will serve you best. But the actual process of learning isn't nearly as complex and hard to understand as so many educational experts seem to think (or at least seem to want other people to think).

If you believe that learning is complicated, then you believe that it has to be carefully designed and constructed, which means curriculum. But when you realize how unnecessary and actively harmful a standardized curriculum can be, the whole world opens up. Suddenly there are so many different things you can learn about and explore and do. There's no rush, so it doesn't all need to be packed into a certain time frame; you can learn from many different people, not just teachers.

It's exciting, fun, difficult, sometimes overwhelming, but it is always rewarding. Outside the confines of a curriculum, I've been able to focus on what's interesting and important to me, the things I feel genuinely matter. I feel very good about my "education," because it's mine. It's not the education someone else thought I should have.

That owning of your learning, the authenticity and joy it can bring into your life, can never be replicated by outside forces with big plans. It has to come from you, and your own exploration of the amazing world around you.

A big thanks to Sol, Chantal, and Lua for their editing assistance on this post! 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Socialization, Homeschooling, and Life Lessons

I currently have a very unpleasant cold, so getting something new written for the blog this week hasn't really worked out. But once I realized if you don't subscribe to my newsletter, then you probably don't know about all the writing of mine that's been shared other places over the past month, I figured I would share that content. There's a fair bit of it!

There's a new home education magazine out there, with a terrific layout, and secular content covering everything from books reviews and resources, to thoughtful columns by such writers as Patricia Zaballos. While the magazine is not an unschooling magazine, plenty of contributors to Home / School / Life are unschoolers. Including myself! Or, more accurately, I'm a regular contributor the the Home / School / Life blog. I've been pleased to share two posts on that blog so far, and I'm happy with how each of them turned out!

How to Talk About Homeschooling (So That People Will Listen)
I left kindergarten for a life of school-free self directed learning, so I’ve had many years to get used to talking about home education. Some people are curious or excited, some angry or defensive, but what remains a constant is that almost everyone has an opinion on the topic and some questions to ask. I still freeze up sometimes when asked an unexpected question, or stumble over a simple explanation, but for the most part I feel that I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with the range of questions and reactions that come from different people. 
The approach I take hinges on a couple of key questions: who is it I’m talking to? And, what’s my goal for this conversation? It all depends on the answers to those questions. (Read more)
How Unschooling Shaped My Social Life
We’re all familiar with the tired old myth of the “unsocialized” homeschoolers, spending their days locked inside, interacting only with their family members. I’ve certainly spent my fair share of time disputing these myths (earlier this year I even wrote a post addressing every possible misplaced socialization criticism I’ve ever heard). Yet while there are plenty of wrong ideas on home education and socialization, I find myself pondering how unschooling has impacted the friendships I make and the communities that I’m a part of now, as a 20-something adult. 
Like many homeschooled families, when I was young my family participated in a range of activities, from homeschool coops to French classes, group hikes to choirs. What set us apart from many other home educating families in my area at the time was just how much input my sister and I had in the activities and outings we were involved in, and on whether we stuck with those activities. I knew that my mother would step in when asked (and occasionally when not asked!) to help solve a problem–such as when the musical director of a production I was involved in was trying to use me, a “good” kid, as a human buffer between the two most disruptive children in the group–and that if there wasn’t a good solution that I was free to quit. If I didn’t like a group of kids, or found that certain adults treated me and other children unfairly, I was never forced to spend time around those groups or individuals. (Read more)
Not only am I now a regular contributor to the Home / School / Life blog, but also to the new website Vermicious, created by author and unschooling parent John Seven. I've only shared one piece on that site so far, but I'm excited to be taking a departure from my usual education writing, in order to explore some different topics. My tagline is "Idzie Desmarais learns from the rituals of life," which really sums it up perfectly.

Lessons from the Dog Park
Last year my family brought a new dog into our house. I’ve grown up with dogs, we’ve
always had them around, but while I still live with my parents, this dog search marked the first one that I truly participated in as an adult. After months of searching, of countless calls and emails and visits to shelters, we finally found an Irish Wolfhound cross named Blue, with soulful eyes, a habit of leaning against your legs to better look up at you with said soulful eyes, and a deep streak of goofiness, who very quickly won all of our hearts. 
This year, in an attempt to help him get the exercise he needed–and hopefully socialize him out of the habit of jumping up and down at the end of his leash screaming at other dogs–we started bringing him daily to the local dog park. 
As human socializing goes, it’s pretty low key. The dog owners sit and stand around a central picnic table, watching their respective furry creatures romp, talking about funny pet stories and pet health problems, discussing which dogs haven’t been seen in a while and which dogs we hope never to see at the park again. It’s pretty telling that I remember the names of a couple of dozen dogs (not just my own dog’s best friends Crystal and Lexi, but also Heaven and Elvis, Bunker and Merlin), yet only know the name of one dog owner. It’s pretty clear to everyone who the truly important individuals in that park are, and it’s sure not the humans. (Read more)
Now I'll leave with an excerpt from another piece of mine that has recently been shared, this time in Home Education Magazine. If you're a subscriber, check out the November/December issue!

How Do We Value Ourselves?
In our culture, it’s very obvious that we value certain knowledge and skills more highly than others. Namely skills that are academic and intellectual, communication skills, and social skills (somewhat less tangibly, seeing as those are harder to test). It seems everything else comes a distant second. 
Schools are all about teaching academic skills to the exclusion of all else (though how good a job they do at imparting those skills is very debatable). 
When we take school out of the equation in our own lives and families, we have the option, the opportunity, to take a hard look at what skills are valued, and decide to broaden what we personally value and encourage. 
But are we taking that opportunity? Too often, I don’t think we are. 
My family didn’t, or at least didn’t to as much of an extent as we could have. This isn’t meant to place blame on my parents; we’re each of us constantly learning and growing, and unlearning ideas that have a negative impact on ourselves and others. My parents did the best they could in the places they were at, and I’m grateful for it. But looking back, it’s very obvious that the skills they were most concerned with me and my sister acquiring were those taught in school. It was subtle, because it was unintentional, but that preferencing of academic skills, at least to some extent, was very much present.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How Unschooling Works: Finding Balance and Learning in Place

When I received a message yesterday from a prospective homeschooling/unschooling parent, I thought that I would respond in the form of a whole blog post. She brings up a couple of concerns I hear expressed a lot, so I wanted to take the time to address them in-depth!

Learning in Place

How do I as her mother give her opportunities to discover things that interest her? S. writes, concerned that as an expat, Many of the opportunities that I would have given her in the US (parks, swimming pools, zoos, museums, and so many other things) are infinitely more difficult [here]. However, there are opportunities [here] that would be impossible in the US. I worry that she may be interested in things that we won't be able to explore as fully...as we could in the US.

Our learning will always be shaped by our geographic location, by our family, and by the communities we're a part of, as well as by our personal interests and goals. The world is full of an infinite amount of things that can be learned, experienced, and explored, and each of us will only ever know a fraction of those things. So I think it's kind of exciting to just work on embracing the experiences, the culture, and the community you find yourself in, no matter where in the world that might be. The unschooling community online looks pretty US-centric (even as a Canadian I sometimes feel kind of frustrated at how US-centric it is), so the examples we see can look similar in a lot of ways. I don't think that says much about what an "ideal" unschooling life should look like, though, and instead just says something about the relative popularity of unschooling in the US! There are travelling families, such as Lainie and Miro, who took their learning on the road and never looked back. There are also families like the Hewitt's who, while living in the US, very strongly value the intense on-the-land learning that's afforded by their subsistence farming lifestyle in rural Vermont. Successful unschooling doesn't depend on being able to have a specific body of experiences and resources: instead, it's shaped by our surroundings, whatever they may be.

It seems that parents often feel a lot of pressure to expose their kids to everything, or at least as much of everything as they can possibly fit in. However, I think exposure is more about quality than quantity, and can simply be having an internet connection, access to both fiction and nonfiction books, some games of various types, some crafting materials... The specific interests expressed by the child can guide any further things you introduce, and beyond that, just exploring what's available near you is enough, I believe. We'll all have different experiences and different educations, but that's largely true whether or not you’re unschooled. School curriculums vary by country and by region, what's taught in a more or less exciting way varies by teacher, and what you actually remember is dependent on what seems interesting and relevant to you personally.

All we're doing with unschooling is embracing the uniqueness of each person's education, encouraging individuals to approach learning with curiosity and joy, and working to value all different types of learning, not just the learning deemed properly "educational" by schools. While lack of access to time and resources can be a major impediment to unschooling, if you have those things, you have enough.

Finding Balance

How do parents balance providing guidance and a certain level of boundaries (based on their greater experience and responsibility to protect) with giving the freedom to learn for yourself? S. asks. I am truly interested in knowing how to find the balance for my family between child led learning and parental involvement in teaching.

I think Pam Sorooshian said it well when she expressed that, instead of unschooling being "child-led learning," it was "more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in sync with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others’ little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other."
My mother and sister, circa 2010.


It's a very school-based way of thinking that sees one person as a teacher and one as a student, one a leader and one a follower. In reality, unschooling quickly starts to look more organic, more flexible, and more collaborative than any ideas of people having to embody just one role (that of a learner, or one who imparts learning). Sometimes a parent excitedly learns about something alongside their kid, who finds the subject at hand fascinating, and thus initiates the exploration. Sometimes a parent will introduce a subject or activity, and be the main force behind bringing it into family life.

Can it be difficult for parents to find that balance? I have no doubt it can be, and I'm sure unschooling parents would be in a much better position to talk about that difficulty with you! I know that from the perspective of an unschooler, I was pretty good at letting my mother know when I felt she was being pushy about something I had no interest in learning, and I think that's true for most kids. They're pretty good at letting you know when they're not interested!

Experience is Better Than Theory

Ultimately, while I hope the words of unschoolers can be helpful to you, I think actually practicing and experiencing life learning is the only real way to feel out how it works. It's a matter of deliberately and consciously working to let go of schoolish ideas about what an education should look like, and instead focusing on the actual learning and growth happening for your child, and yourself, moment by moment and day by day. It's a difficult process--even for someone like me who spent very little time in school, yet still managed to internalize a lot of bad ideas about successful education--but an infinitely rewarding one.

Wishing you all the best with whatever form life learning takes in your own family!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Valuing a Different Kind of Education

This piece was written back in July, for a writing project that ended up being shelved for the time being. So, I thought I'd share it here instead! A look at how I value (or don't value) the uniqueness of my education.


I had an epiphany about my own relationship to my learning and education recently. This came about after a couple of different minor events.

First, I had a lovely exchange with a reader. They referred to me as a “successful young professional,” and continued to say that “I guess my definition of success (at least what I had in mind when I was writing to you) is that it is based on the connections you've made with the fellow people in your field, the ideas you offer to your field, and your mastery of the subject. Your blog has allowed you to make those connections and get those ideas out there. And considering that you've been unschooling for more than awhile, I assume you are, at the very least, on your way to mastery.” I was taken aback, never having been referred to as a “professional” before, and flattered that someone thought I seemed so successful.

Secondly, after my parents had spent the day with some old friends they hadn’t seen in a while, I nervously asked what they’d said about me and my recent pursuits. How did they make me sound? I wondered did I come across as successful, or a real loser?

The next day, in the car with both parents, I got in a conversation about school and work. I said that I couldn’t see myself taking courses in non-fiction writing through a university, because I felt for the most part they were teaching a style of writing and communication that is somewhat outdated, as I don’t think most universities (and the professors who teach at them) have fully embraced the changes that the internet and blogging has brought. I also talked about how outdated traditional CV’s and resumes are becoming, as increasingly what’s important is building some type of online portfolio, especially when showcasing any type of work that you can fairly easily do without any type of degree or diploma. Experiences are now starting to matter more than degrees, I said.

Later that day, the epiphany came. I thought, wait a second, I say all this, but I don’t actually believe it when it comes to myself. Over the last couple of years, I’ve become expert at making myself sound as traditionally successful as possible. “I worked catering last year,” I say. “I’m considering going to culinary school.” I tell people “I was homeschooled,” and try to assure them that I turned out perfectly fine.

I’ve become invested in making myself seem as normal as possible.

I didn’t set out to do that, and in part I ended up doing so just out of a desire for privacy. Why should I expose my life and choices to the judgement of near strangers? I thought. 
"Normal" sisters? I don't know about normal,
but I think we're pretty cute regardless!

That’s not the only reason, though. There’s a part of me that feels ashamed of my background. Ashamed of what I haven’t done. Namely that I haven’t worked in a “normal” job, ever, or ever been financially independent. Ashamed that, at 23, I don’t have more to show for myself.

This has lead to a series of attempts to at least try and look successful, even if I don’t feel like I’m actually that successful.

I suppose this says something about how deeply embedded these cultural messages are, that someone with my background in education, who regularly talks about how great self-directed learning, unschooling, and skipping college is, can so blithely fall into a trap of judging my own success by such rigid standards.

Not only is this bad for my self-esteem, it’s also bad for my success. If I really believe in everything I say, which intellectually I do, then I need to actually start acting like it.

I have been successful in many ways. I’ve built an extensive online portfolio, in the form of archived blog posts and a personal website chronicling various pursuits and experience. I’ve had my work published in various alternative education magazines, journals, and even a book, and have spoken at several conferences. I’ve turned down some media interviews and accepted others, and I’ve had many people express that my work has impacted their lives in a meaningful way. I’ve met and talked to people doing similar work whom I admire and who provide inspiration to me.

All this is to say that I’ve created a body of work that is appreciated by lots of people in specific alternative education circles, all while feeling really positive and excited about the work I was doing.

In Blake Boles’ book College Without High School, one of the suggested Zero Tuition College “assignments” is to “become a public intellectual.” Expanding on what that entails, he writes: “public intellectuals research, think, talk, and write about a social problem but don’t necessarily hold formal credentials. They spread their messages via blogs, websites, books, magazines, podcasts, videos, and other media platforms.” I told my sister, Emilie, “apparently I’m a public intellectual.” she laughed. “That sounds amazingly pretentious,” she added.

It does sound more than a little pretentious, it’s true. But it’s the first time I’ve seen essentially what I’ve been spending the usual university years doing laid out as a desirable and worthwhile alternative to college or university.

It’s also yet another reminder, among the many that lead to my aforementioned epiphany, that what I’ve done in my life, so far, is not just important and meaningful, but “marketable.”

When I strive so hard to make myself seem more normal, my choices more conventional, and my experiences more in line with my traditionally schooled age-peers, I lose out on an opportunity to not just sound more impressive, but share the genuinely cool accomplishments I’ve made and experiences I’ve had.

My unique background is an asset, not a weakness. A reason people might find me interesting to talk to at the least, or offer me amazing opportunities at the most. The reputation and body of work I’ve built for myself can continue to be both meaningful and challenging, as well as leading to money making opportunities (either through opportunities I create myself, or through a potential employer wanting to hire me based on my experience).

Perhaps all this should have been obvious. Bits and pieces have been, at different times. I’ve been proud of some work, greatly valued some experiences, knew that some of what I had done was important to others.

But I didn’t really value the unconventionality of my lack-of-college experience, or appreciate just how much I’ve gained by doing things differently.

After having the thought that I was ashamed by what I hadn’t done over the last few years, I was quickly flooded by excitement at the idea that I could speak with pride about what I had done.

Such a simple yet profound shift, to go from “look at all I haven’t done” to “look at everything I have done.”

Whether you’re a teen or grown unschooler, an unschooling parent, or a young adult who’s chosen to forego college or university, I think it’s important that we cultivate just such a mindset. It’s so easy to get caught up in comparing ourselves to those who are doing things more traditionally, but we do a great disservice to ourselves when we do that. In focusing instead on the value in the true uniqueness of our experiences and education, we can instead be proud of what we’ve done and how we’ve chosen to “get an education” in our lives so far. Feeling confident in the skills we’ve gained and things we’ve done outside of school seems important to me primarily because of how much better it is for my emotional well being. But it’s certainly also of great benefit being able to share that confidence with others. If you’re secure in the worth of your unique experiences, work, and skills, you’re going to be better able to present yourself and your accomplishments to the important people in your life, and better able to turn your skills into ways to earn money, make important connections with people doing work you admire, and build a life that feels truly successful to you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Role of Boredom and Dabbling in Pursuit of Passionate Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Unschooling My Way to a Love of Classic Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Unschooling Isn't Just Self Directed Schooling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Unschooling and Trust in the Adolescent Years: Teenage Rebellion Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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