Monday, September 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Looking critically at media and pop culture

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

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

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

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

Potential negatives

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

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

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

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

Developing a healthy relationship to screens and pages

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

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

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

In my own life

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

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

My conclusion? Books and TV are both pretty great.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I Don't Believe in Laziness

I don't think I believe in laziness. In fact, I'm almost certain I don't.

In my imagination, I hear countless people gasp in shock and horror. What do you mean laziness isn't a thing? Look around you, there are lazy people everywhere!

What I do believe is that a lot of people have a lot of really lousy ideas about what types of people are lazy and what laziness looks like. In our consumerist, capitalist, and highly competitive society, productivity (here being defined as the participation in monetary work in an economy built on a model of endless growth) is valued above pretty much everything else, and if you're not either: a. working most of your waking hours for pay or b. in school preparing to be working most of your waking hours for pay, you're probably just being lazy.

People like to talk about kids being lazy a lot. Lazy because they're doing badly in school, or playing too much, or not doing their homework, or getting really stressed by school. And common wisdom says that kids are too lazy to do hard things like learning on their own terms, which is a frequent criticism unschoolers get from relatives, strangers, and random people on the internet.

I'd like to argue that whenever people see something they'd label as lazy, it's really one of these other things they're seeing instead.

People who are struggling, or even in crisis. People with disabilities, mental illnesses, and chronic illnesses/chronic pain are very, very familiar with being considered lazy. Lazy because they're not performing up to the standards of "normal," healthy people, and if they just tried harder, thought more positively, and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, they could surely do better. Any children in school, who are learning (or not) in a high stress environment, with regular evaluations, and the threat of failing grades leading to summer school or even having to repeat a grade, are in a difficult enough position as it is. Add in the struggle of a disability or illness of some sort, and you're expecting the impossible. You're expecting someone to thrive in an environment and a lifestyle that they're literally incapable of coping with. Then on top of that, they get called lazy, and blamed for the failings of a system that was not built for them. They get to feel worthless and like a failure, like they should be able to do better, even if they can't. Though it's compounded in children with physical or emotional difficulties, the reality that school is the problem not the student holds true for those without any illnesses or disabilities, as well. Schools weren't built to be a nurturing, flexible environment in tune with how children naturally learn and grow, so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that a large portion of children struggle in such an institution.

People who feel lost, directionless, and unenthusiastic. Sometimes, even if someone isn't struggling in a major way, a way that could actually end up being a diagnosable illness, they're still not doing so well. Maybe they have trouble getting excited about learning or doing anything much, they're stressed out and uncertain about what they want to do or how they want to do it. This means they need people to help them figure things out, find some new pursuits, make any necessary changes to their environment, set some goals that feel good to the learner, or otherwise offer a supportive presence and helping hand. What someone who feels lost and uncertain doesn't need is to be made to feel guilty about those feelings, and like really they're just being lazy.

People who like to daydream, and whose learning is largely more internal and less visible. In our culture there's a common idea of what learning is supposed to look like. Children who are learning are supposed to look diligent, hard at work, focused, and possibly like they're not having too good a time. Everyone learns in ways that don't look like learning at least some of the time, but especially for some young learners, learning can be a very internal, non-structured process, involving lots of daydreaming and quiet time playing, thinking, and imagining. This isn't laziness, just learning in ways that schools don't tend to value.

People who learn in more active, energetic, kinesthetic ways, through play and exploration. This very much overlaps with the above. This is yet another learning preference that is largely ignored in school, to great detriment for many active, enthusiastic kids. There's also a tendency for adults to think that kids who are just running around playing all the time are having way too much fun to actually be learning. This, of course, is not at all true, and luckily there's more and more research showing the importance of play for children AND adults.

People with a sense of entitlement. I'm leery about the word entitlement, simply because it's so often lobbed at people in the same way lazy is, and for the same reasons. I don't think it's entitled to expect respectful treatment; access to food, water, healthcare and shelter; experiences that bring you joy; support when you're having trouble; and a place in the world. Those are human rights, not something entitled millennials or children or name-the-group are unreasonably demanding. However, I do think a sense of entitlement exists, in people who believe that they're more deserving of good things than others, who believe that by virtue of their birth or wealth or other attributes they're better than others, or that they don't have a duty to be generally polite and kind to those around them. Basically, there are people who don't ever go out of their way to do anything for other people, and that's really entitlement right there. But don't call it laziness. Name it for what it is: a sense of superiority and lack of caring for others.

People who call themselves lazy. Sometimes (okay, for many of us, often) we really want to do something, and yet we don't start doing it. We start something, and then avoid doing it for weeks. We procrastinate endlessly. Then that little voice starts in our heads, "I guess I'm just lazy." Well, I don't think you are. I don't think I am. I think it's more likely either one of the above (struggles either big or small, a favoured learning style that doesn't look productive), or perhaps most often fear. Fear of failure, fear you're not smart enough or good enough to be doing what you want to do, fear of ridicule or criticism. Laziness might not exist, but fear most definitely does.

I also find myself wanting to ask, is "doing nothing" really so bad? Must we constantly be engaging in something productive? Why can't we just relax, without having to justify whatever we're doing to either ourselves or others? Something doesn't have to be a "learning experience" to be worthwhile. Once we move past some puritanical (or maybe more capitalistic) mindset of having to be constantly engaged in something appropriately useful, we can really work on embracing all life has to offer, whether it's useful to the economy or not. I don't want to dissect the episode of Veronica Mars I just watched for any learning potential, I just want to enjoy it, and enjoy the discussions with my sister it sparks on the characters and plot and what we think might happen next...

Learning is always happening, whether we're noticing it or not. But more importantly, just living, just existing and enjoying and working and playing and yes, learning, is enough. We don't have to justify our very existence by being productive. Just being is good enough.
This is why I always wince when I hear the word lazy passing anyone's lips. It's demeaning, it further hurts children who are already struggling, makes people feel guilty and worthless, and just creates a horrible environment to live in, never mind for positive learning and growth. Learning happens best when people feel supported and challenged, not when they feel stressed and insecure, with people watching them in disapproval and muttering about laziness. If adults really care about learning, then they need to work on being more supportive and less critical, and erase the word lazy from their vocabulary, and the false concept of laziness from their minds.

Then we can all get down to the joyful business of life learning a little bit easier.

A big thanks to Nikki and Ashley for kindly offering their copy-editing skills and making this post read better than it otherwise would have!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I'm Not Bill Gates. I'm Still An Autodidact (and So Are You).

There was an article published last week in Slate titled Bill Gates Is an Autodidact. You’re Probably Not., and when I read it yesterday, it was pretty eye-roll inducing. So I decided that it was time to write a rebuttal on the blog. The article starts by talking about Bill Gates:
At a young age, Gates was already an autodidact, someone compelled to learn for himself what he needed to know. Over the course of his life, Gates has maintained this habit: He dropped out of college after two years, but he has continued his education through incessant reading and conversing. Michael Specter, a New Yorker writer who profiled Gates for the magazine, has said that the Microsoft founder “is one of these autodidacts who reads, reads, reads. He reads hundreds of books about immunology and biochemistry and biology, and asks a lot of questions, and because he’s Bill Gates [he] can get to talk to whoever he wants.”
Many of Gates’ fellow leaders in the ed tech world are also members of the autodidact club. Computer scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, academics—they are a self-selected group of individuals who have schooled themselves in a fast-changing field for which there is no settled syllabus, no well-established curriculum.
This seems to be a pretty clear case of someone seeing autodidacts as "special." The geniuses, those destined for greatness, no matter what they face. The "autodidact club" is thus considered to be something pretty exclusive.

Though that particular club might be exclusive, I think it's pretty misleading to think that the fact they're autodidacts is the main thing that sets them apart. I'd argue that what sets them apart is that they're business people, corporatists, very wealthy, and largely male (also almost certainly largely white. Statistically, the richest and most "successful" people in America tend to be both a. white and b. male, so I figure it's a pretty good guess). No, these people are not your every-man, but I don't think being an autodidact or not has all that much to do with it.


The author continues with what is their main point of the article:
Most people are not autodidacts. In order to learn effectively, they need guidance provided by teachers. They need support provided by peers. And they need structure provided by institutions. 
...Do they now. I know a whole lot of unschoolers who would disagree.
Productive learning without guidance and support from others is rare.
It seems that the author suffers from the misconception that self directed learning means learning entirely and completely on your own, alone, with no help, ever. While I disagree in a major way that learners need "guidance provided by teachers" and "structure provided by institutions," self-directed learners do need other people. Peers, mentors, parents, and yes, sometimes even teachers. The thing is, self directed means just that: the individual is making the decisions about their own lives and learning. These decisions can include a large amount of other people, and even a large amount of structure. It all depends on the individual learner and what they want and need.
A pair of eminent researchers has gone so far as to call the very notion of self-directed learning “an urban legend in education.”
I... Well. I told my sister, Emilie, about the "urban legend" thing and she laughed. "Hi, I'm Bigfoot!" was her response.

Emilie's life and my own life are proof against this supposed truth. But lest anyone quickly jump to the "then you must be special!" conclusion, I'd like to point out that every single unschooler I've met is proof against this absurd idea. Lifelong unschoolers and unschoolers who left school in elementary, middle, or high school; unschoolers who left school because they were struggling, and unschoolers who left because they didn't feel challenged; unschoolers whose parents made the choice to unschool, and those individuals who chose themselves. We're all managing to learn just fine, in the most self-directed way you can find!

So, who are these apparently "eminent" researchers and what are their conclusions?
In a paper published in Educational Psychologist last year, Paul A. Kirschner of the Open University of the Netherlands and Jeroen J.G. van MerriĆ«nboer of Maastricht University challenge the popular assumption “that it is the learner who knows best and that she or he should be the controlling force in her or his learning.” 
There are three problems with this premise, van MerriĆ«nboer and Kirschner write. The first is that novices, by definition, don’t yet know much about the subject they’re learning, and so are ill-equipped to make effective choices about what and how to learn next. The second problem is that learners “often choose what they prefer, but what they prefer is not always what is best for them”—that is, they practice tasks that they enjoy or are already proficient at, instead of tackling the more difficult tasks that would actually enhance their expertise. And third, although learners like having some options, unlimited choices quickly become frustrating—as well as mentally taxing, constraining the very learning such freedom was supposed to liberate.
Again, I find myself re-reading to make sure I actually read it properly the first time. This reads like just the regular criticisms everyone has about self directed learning. "Children don't know what's best for themselves, you can't trust children," people say, and "if no one's making them do hard things, they'll never do anything difficult!"

Though to be honest, I've never heard the researchers last assertion, that choices are bad. Wow. Okay. I think I am a very different person from those researchers, who are apparently pretty overwhelmed with the vast variety of choices life represents. I loved how my sister put it, in discussion about this article. She said that while in theory there might be "unlimited choices," there aren't actually, because life doesn't work that way. You want to go out to eat, so theoretically you could go to any single restaurant in the city, but in reality your choices are going to be based on what's close to you, what's within your price range, what type of cuisine you like, what you're in the mood for, what any friends or family you're going to dinner with like... In practice, you'll be able to pare down your theoretical choices to a few actual options pretty quickly. That's how all choices, including about your learning, work. As Emilie said: "I could try and go into engineering school tomorrow. That's a choice I could make. But it wouldn't make any sense based on my interests or goals or the past choices I've made." This 'too many choices are bad' thing seems pretty detached from the reality of how people make choices.

When it comes to needing experienced teachers to steer a novice learner, that's why, as I mentioned before, unschoolers often choose to make other people part of their learning. Emilie has been taking Ninjutsu classes since she was 16. That's because she can't learn Ninjitsu on her own. Her choice to start classes and her choice to continue them are all her own. Self-directed, yes, but not something she's pursuing alone.

I wondered if these researchers were being quoted out of context. It seemed, to me, that their paper sounded more like an an attempt at legitimizing what educators want to believe in regards to why self-directed learning can't possibly work (even though it obviously does) than anything else. But was that really the case? Sadly, it seems so. The summary of their paper is this:
This article takes a critical look at three pervasive urban legends in education about the nature of learners, learning, and teaching and looks at what educational and psychological research has to say about them. The three legends can be seen as variations on one central theme, namely, that it is the learner who knows best and that she or he should be the controlling force in her or his learning. The first legend is one of learners as digital natives who form a generation of students knowing by nature how to learn from new media, and for whom “old” media and methods used in teaching/learning no longer work. The second legend is the widespread belief that learners have specific learning styles and that education should be individualized to the extent that the pedagogy of teaching/learning is matched to the preferred style of the learner. The final legend is that learners ought to be seen as self-educators who should be given maximum control over what they are learning and their learning trajectory. It concludes with a possible reason why these legends have taken hold, are so pervasive, and are so difficult to eradicate.
I disagree that these are common notions. It's only very recently that self-directed education has become trendy again, and the vast majority of people still feel strongly that the way people learn is by being taught, by a teacher, in a school. The authors of the above paper provide no new research, and simply quote research done by others, pulled specifically to make their points which are pretty clearly stated in the above summary. I will point out that the Slate article obscures the fact they're talking specifically about the idea of self-directed learning online, but then again, though that's what the authors of the paper claim they're looking at, they seem to lump all self-directed learning together, whether online or not. So I'd say the Slate article is a pretty accurate representation of what these authors are saying (basically that they're pissed that teachers might be losing power, and students gaining some, and they want it to stop, because they claim science isn't behind these changes, which is bad).

But back to the Slate article. According to the bio on the article, "This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University." I think that really puts it all in perspective. While they might be nonpartisan, I'd hardly consider a teacher's college to be unbiased when it comes to the role of teachers and schools in society. Their very livelihood depends on teachers retaining power, and students staying in school, listening to the teachers.

So that's the reason this is a subject that seems so important to the author. And the central point that the author seems to be attempting to drive home in protection of their livelihood is that self-directed learning isn't for everyone. Most people can't do it. Only special people learn that way.

I grew up a life learner. An autodidact, if you will. I called the important shots in my own education, and still do today. I didn't sneak out of my house as Gates did to work on supercomputers, I don't read texts on immunology and biochemistry, and I'm not a scientist, engineer, or academic. By all accounts I'm not part of an exclusive "autodidact club" made up of the rich and influential. What I am is a plain old run-of-the-mill self-directed learner. The type who learned to read because I loved Harry Potter, who memorized old poems, wrote books reviews, studied World War II, played for hours with my sister, and learned alongside my family as a child. I'm the type of autodidact who spends hours in the kitchen working on a new dish, and tons of time writing about self-directed education. The type who reads books about living on less money and re-imagining domesticity (Saved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Man in the World and Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture), and on unschooling and alternative education (I finished Challenging Assumptions in Education recently, and am now in the middle of The Unschooling Unmanual). I go to workshops and talks and conferences on my favourite subjects, such as unschooling and alternative education and preserving food...

How my life and education looks is intimately shaped by my own passions and interests and goals. That's how being a self-directed learner works. Sometimes what you're doing will look impressive, and sometimes it won't. That's perfectly fine. We don't have to be impressive. And autodidacts as a whole are certainly not part of a special club.

I also think it's important to recognize the role school and forced teaching play in killing motivation. As unschoolers we end up repeating, time and time again, that humans are innate learners, that babies learn to walk and talk because they have a burning desire to learn, grow, and become a part of the culture they find themselves in. Humans are perhaps best defined by our ability to learn, our ability to adapt, our flexibility and busy minds. So why does it seem so hard for so many people to grasp that learning isn't something that must be induced in someone? It's not something you have to make people do. Learning is something you need to support, to encourage, and sometimes just to keep out of the way of. If supportive environments are provided, and people stop putting blocks in front of learners in the form of curriculum that must be followed, times in which learning must occur, tests and assessments and grading, then learning will happen enthusiastically and well.

We WANT to learn. It's in our nature.

Which is why I'm an autodidact. Or life learner, as I sometimes prefer to call myself. And you know what? So are you. Embrace it, and enjoy your own uniquely individual self directed learning journey.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Breaking Down Hierarchies in Learning: Re-Imagining the Student-Teacher Relationship Through Unschooling

One of the most fundamental, and I believe revolutionary aspects of unschooling, is how it challenges one of the most deeply rooted beliefs about education and how it works in our society. The belief is that teachers are the holders of knowledge, wisdom, and other educational things, and students are the receivers, empty vessels to be filled. As Ivan Illich said:
Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.
I had a short conversation recently with someone on Twitter, where they said that they'd talked recently with someone about unschooling, and that person said he just couldn't see how someone could get interested in something without an inspiring teacher. As an unschooler, this attitude seems mind-blowing to me. I can't quite get my head around how it could possibly make sense to someone to think that way. Yet, when I consider that of all the concerns people have about unschooling, a huge portion of them boil down to "but how can you learn without a teacher?," it doesn't necessarily make any more sense, but it does seem to show a pattern. There are a whole lot of people who literally don't understand how children could learn without a teacher. There are a lot of people who think that teachers are depositors and students are depositories.

This is a sad state of affairs for everyone involved.

I started writing this article months ago. But after just a scribbled paragraph, it got put aside in favour of something else. I have a long list of post and article ideas, not to mention the ebook I'm working on, so it's easy to jump around between thoughts and ideas and writing projects. But when I re-discovered that little snippet, I liked it. And it's really what I'd consider the heart of this post, what I'm really trying to get at, so I wanted to share it here:
By challenging the idea of one person as the learner and another as the teacher, you start breaking down a lot of ingrained ideas about hierarchies of knowledge, and who belongs where on that hierarchy. Realizing that everyone, no matter their age, has things to both learn and share, strengthens individual and community bonds, as well as opening up access to a whole lot of knowledge and skills you wouldn't really have access to if you were only looking at professional teachers. Thus unschooling parents aren't seeking to become teachers, but to learn alongside their children, to both share knowledge and gain it themselves.

By living an unschooling life, we have the opportunity to challenge a lot of hierarchies that many people take for granted. We get to re-imagine what it can be to live together as a family, with respect for children and teens, good communication, and working partnerships, instead of a top-down, authoritarian, parents give directives and children don't question them set-up. It also gives us the chance to re-imagine what learning can look like without the teacher-student hierarchies of the schooling system.

What if children don't have to be forced to learn? What if children don't have to be taught? What if "education" can look like meaningful partnerships where learning is recognized as a collaborative process?

Both older and younger people can share and gain knowledge from each other. This means that mixed age friendships, mixed age groups and classes, friendships with age peers, and groups of age peers can all benefit from relationships of shared learning, and have relationships based on mutual respect and liking, no matter their age. One person doesn't have to take on a Teacher role and the other that of a Student. They can just share and learn and discuss...

Yes, age makes a difference. It often changes the way people relate to each other, older people have had more life experience, and more time to develop mastery in their chosen fields or areas of passion. Thus a mentor and mentored relationship might develop when there's a large age gap between two people, which is perfectly natural. But within that framework, both parties can still recognize that they both have valuable things to contribute: one is not the filler of the pail and the other, well, a bucket.

Free choice can radically change the relationship between a teacher and a student. In a school type setting, teachers are there because it's a job, and while hopefully many care about what they're doing, their livelihood likely depends on keeping their student's test scores up, and not being overly controversial in the material they teach. Students are there because they have to be. Neither part has all that many options.

Outside of a school, even formal teacher-student relationships can change dramatically. As unschoolers, children and teens are choosing to enter into such a relationship, which means they're doing it because they want to, because they're learning about something that matters to them, because they care. And the teachers, instead of having to focus on tests, have the job of best sharing their knowledge in a way that's interesting, enjoyable, and challenging. They're trying to create a good experience for their student(s), and if they don't succeed at that, an unschooled student can choose to simply end that relationship. It becomes about a good rapport between teacher and students, and about actually learning something meaningful, not about standardized results.

It's not all clear cut. The lines between teacher and mentor, teacher and student, friend and teacher quickly start to blur when you take school out of the equation and add in a big dose of free choice. Sometimes monetary exchanges will be involved, and sometimes they won't. Sometimes there will be a class, sometimes a one-on-one lesson, and sometimes a casual meeting. Sometimes a teacher will turn into a friend, or a friend become a mentor as well.

What remains a constant with unschooling is that learning and teaching--how it works, who does it, and when it happens--is being re-imagined, and approached with an attitude of openness. This challenging of existing knowledge hierarchies--who is thought to have "authority" and who not--is to me one of the most radical and important elements of life learning. We're not just re-imagining learning, we're changing how people relate to each other.

This more egalitarian way of looking at learning and at relationships between learners (because really, everyone is a learner) is also empowering for children. If we value what children and teenagers have to share, their ideas, their experiences, and their knowledge, we're showing them that they're valuable, and worthy of respect. They're not depositories, they're people capable of learning from others and making contributions themselves.

What do I hope people will take away from this article? Mainly just that, outside of schools and schooling, there can be a wonderfully diverse amount of learning relationships, and that the role of "teachers" and "students" is much more flexible, has much more fluidity, and is a lot less authoritarian. It even starts to look a lot less like Teachers and Students, and a lot more like just a bunch of people learning from and with each other: a collection of mutually agreeable learning relationships and learning communities.

There is so much richness to be gained when you stop looking at some people as depositors and others as depositories, and instead see that we're all learners, and we're all in it together.

A big thanks to Sarah and Lauren for looking over this post and helping me to fix a few problems. My regular editor (also known as my sister) is away this week, so the help was much appreciated!

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Ultimate Unschooling Socialization Post

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

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

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

Learning how to deal with bullies and "mean girls" 

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

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

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

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

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

Not being "socially awkward"

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

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

Having friends 

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

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

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

Having a chance to be in team sports

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

Learning to respect authority

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

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

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

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

Having a shared experience

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

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

Dealing with peer pressure

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

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

Waiting in line

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

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

Getting to go to prom 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

6 Reasons I'm Glad I Grew Up Unschooling

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Everyone Knows How to Learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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