Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Experiences Aren't Universal: Why Personalized Education is Important

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Value in Writing for an Audience, Not a Grade

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

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

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

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

An Idzie writing.

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

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

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

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

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

And that seems like a much better way to learn.

Monday, June 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Unschooling isn't new.

The "results" have already been seen.

Unschooled children have grown to adulthood.

Countless life learners have gone on to lead fulfilling lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Short Interview With An Idzie: Making the Choice and What Separates Unschooling

I recently did an email interview for the Romanian website Think Outside The Box, which you can read in that language here. I'm happy to also be sharing that interview here, in it's original form! 

Why unschooling and not homeschooling? Why was that the choice versus homeschooling and, of course, versus public schooling?

Why not public schooling was, well, a mix of things. My mother never wanted to send me to school, but because my father wanted to, I went to kindergarten. However, there were quickly problems (weird/obscene prank calls from a kid a couple grades ahead of me, as in, grade 2) which convinced my father that maybe homeschooling was a better option.

As for the why unschooling question, unschooling is something we just organically moved into. The home education in my family was relaxed from the start: I didn't have to do a set amount of things each day, and though my mother started out with some curriculum, when it came to everything but math I was free to stop using anything I wanted to. Over the years, our house just filled with interesting books and games, we went to a couple of different homeschool coops and classes, and participated in a range of different activities, from nature clubes to French classes. Me and my sister, who's two years my junior, learned about whatever excited or interested us, always with an enthusiastic parent ready to bring us to the library, search for relevant local events, and otherwise assist us in our pursuits.

After finally saying no more math textbooks, I hate this to much at around 10 or so, I'd say we truly became unschoolers, though we didn't start using that term until a couple of years after that.

Our learning experience though, no matter what term we were using at any given time, was always something very flexible and driven largely by passion. My mother has always been and continues to be truly passionate about learning things, all kinds of things, and that really influenced her approach to parenting and home learning right from the start.

What do you consider to be your most important accomplishments due to unschooling (what's the best things you think you came to experience because you were unschooled instead of being in a system)?

One of the best things is definitely the writing and advocacy stuff I've done! I have a successful blog, I've done public speaking as far away as Texas and as close as my home city of Montreal, my writing has appeared in multiple magazines and a book, and I've gotten messages from people all over the world telling me how much they appreciate my writing. That means a lot to me, and I'd say all that is an accomplishment (or series of accomplishments) I'm really proud of. Essentially I've built a name for myself as a writer and speaker!

Check out the T-shirt! Pretty cool, huh?
Will unschooling be the choice for your children, in the future or will you let them choose for themselves if they want to be in school or not?

I definitely plan to unschool my kids, though when they're older, they'd be free to make their own choices about whether they go to school or not. When they're younger? I don't know, and I don't think that's a question I'll be able to answer until I do have kids. I think it would depend on my child and the general situation, as well as the school options available.

What did your parents, family and friends think about you being unschooled, in the beginning and what do they think now?

Honestly? For the most part I don't know. Perhaps surprisingly, unschooling isn't something I discuss regularly with people who aren't interested specifically in homeschooling or alternative education. One close friend whom I've known for years still likes to mention that my sister and I are unschoolers when introducing us to new people, since he seems to find the fact either an interesting anomally or an important part of our identity. I'm not really sure which. My mother was the most enthusiastic advocate for home education and later unschooling, and that hasn't changed to this day. My father's feelings have gone up and down over the years, I believe, sometimes worrying, other times feeling better about things. All in all, I'd say it's a pretty mixed bag.

Which are, in your opinion, the most important features of unschooling, the ones that make a real difference for life, for unschooled children, compared to the public schooled kids?

Firstly the flexibility and personalization of unschooling. The fact that each and every unschooler is learning about different things in a different way, guided by their interests, their needs, their family, and their communities. To me that's something truly special, the ability to have so much choice and options in what and how you learn from a young age. I also believe that this can contribute to a healthy community, with a variety of individuals who have different skills and strengths, who are confident in what they know and are good at.

And secondly, being able to learn in an environment that feels safe with support that feels nurturing. Without the competition, stress, and shame often induced by trying (and sometimes failing) to learn things in a school setting, there's just so much less pressure and so much more joy that can come from learning. If you don't have that terror of failing in front of a whole bunch of others, if you don't have a teacher watching you with eagle eyes and standardized tests measuring whether you're doing good enough, it can be a lot easier to to take risks, try new things, and explore new skills without fear. I believe getting to choose which environments (classes, coops, groups, home, libraries, community centers) feel good to be in is a really powerful thing when it comes to emotional health and growth. It's important for kids to branch out, and take on new situations as they feel ready and able to, instead of being thrown into an environment that might be causing a whole lot of stress and anxiety with no option to leave it.

To sum it up, I think the biggest difference with unschooling, as opposed to schooling, is that each unschooling journey is entirely unique and built around the needs and desires of the learner, and that children are allowed to grow and learn in a respectful and caring way that promotes well-being.
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