Thursday, June 7, 2012

Occupy Education Conference Talk

I wrote a fairly short introductory talk on unschooling for an event that happened last weekend, the Occupy Education conference. The attendees were a mix of homeschooling and unschooling parents, striking university students (there's a pretty incredible social movement going on here in Quebec. Google "Quebec student strike" and you'll find lots of info!), and educators. It went really well. Lots of interesting group and one-on-one discussions! And since most readers couldn't be there, I wanted to at least share the talk I wrote. It's nothing I haven't said before, but I hope you'll enjoy reading it nonetheless.

My name is Idzie, and I'm a kindergarten drop-out.

The early years

When my parents first took me out of school, they had the idea that they'd homeschool me. And most people have at least a vague idea of what homeschooling is (though they usually also have a whole bunch of misconceptions). Instead of being taught by teachers, kids are taught by their parents. Usually at least some curriculum, bought or put together by the parents, is used, and, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the family, you do school at home. That's the idea that we started with. But my mother always trusted a lot in the innate ability of children to learn, so from the beginning we were very relaxed homeschoolers, and by that I mean that there wasn't a curriculum that my sister (who also didn't go to school) and I were expected to, but my parents still expected us to work on certain "school" subjects, namely math.

As we grew older, those expectations started to dissapear, and I finally said no, I'm no longer going to use those math textbooks, which is when I'd say we truly became unschoolers. I was probably around 10 or 11.

What is unschooling?

Unschooling, on the other hand, is something that people know less about.  It can be described in several different ways, all accurate, just different. I've decided to share this passage from my blog, slightly changed from the original, because I think it's the most thorough description of unschooling that I've ever written.

Version #1: Unschooling, which is considered a type of homeschooling, is student directed learning, which means the child or teen learns whatever they want, whenever they want. Learning is entirely interest driven, not dictated or directed by an external curriculum, by teachers, or by parents. For an unschooler, life is their classroom.

Version #2: Unschooling requires a paradigm shift, one in which you must stop looking at the world as a series of occurrences/resources/experiences etc. that can be learned from, and a series that can’t.  The world doesn’t divide neatly into different subjects, and you can’t tell right from the outset what a seemingly unimportant question, interest, or TV show obsession will lead to.  I learn from every aspect of my life, every activity I do, be it discussing politics with a friend, gardening, reading a novel, or simply daydreaming. Unschooling, at its heart, is nothing more complicated or simple than the realization that life and learning are not two separate things.  And when you realize that living and learning are inseparable, it all starts to truly make sense.

A rise in popularity

Unschooling, or life learning, as some prefer to call it, is the oldest type of learning there is. It existed long before anyone came up with the idea of putting everyone under a certain age into a single building, deciding that they'd best learn how to function in the rest of the world by staying in that building for a number of years. Even the modern unschooling movement has been around since the 70s (when the term "unschooling" was coined by John Holt), yet I've seen a marked increase in interest in this philosophy in my lifetime, and especially in the last few years. There's been a lot more media attention, with a myriad of TV spots and articles from sources across North America. More unschooling conferences are popping up, and people are even starting to recognize the term, even if they're still not sure what it means! I feel this increased interest is a very positive thing, and shows how dissatisfied so many people are with the current system.

Misconceptions and important questions

With the added exposure to unschooling--usually exposure that's presented in a very misleading and sensationalized way--comes a lot of misconceptions about the concept, and it gives rise to a ton of different questions. I'd like to address a few of the ones I've encountered most frequently, just to get them out of the way right from the beginning!

Many people think because unschooling parents or caregivers don't enforce an educational structure on their children, that unschooling automatically means there is no structure, which isn't true at all. Since unschooling puts learning into the hands of the learners themselves, they can and do choose as much or as little structure as they personally want. Thus, from the outside, it might even look like what some unschoolers are doing is school: with a curriculum, a schedule, and classes they take through their homeschool co-op. The difference is that that structure is freely chosen by the learner. They've decided that's the way they learn best, and the way they feel happiest learning. By the same token, unschooling parents may suggest various classes or structured activities, and the learner is free to say yes or no. Unschooling doesn't mean no textbooks or classes, it just means no textbooks or classes unless you want them!

It's also common to believe that, because unschooling parents don't usually "teach" their children (though they may if their children ask them to), that they're uninvolved in their lives and in their learning, which couldn't be further from the truth! Unschooling parents are generally extremely involved, helping their children navigate the world, exposing them to interesting things, helping them access various resources from books to classes to mentors, and in many cases simply sharing in the discovery and wonder their children experience in their daily lives.

And sometimes, people like to say that unschooling would only work with motivated individuals. That only a few especially intelligent or special people could "succeed" with unschooling. And I really couldn't disagree more! I'm not especially motivated or especially special (though I suppose it's flattering that so many people seem to think so). What people fail to realize is that, if nothing gets in the way of the joy, people really love learning. Humans are good at learning, and, empowered by how trusted they are with their own education, unschoolers are motivated to learn. So it's not that motivated people are particularly suited to unschooling, but that unschooling creates motivated people. That learning may not always, or even often, look like the education you'd find in school, but it's most definitely learning.

"If kids get to choose what they do, all they'll ever do is play video games and read comics!", people say, which doesn't take several things into account. First, that those activities have worth, and much can be learned from them. I've heard of some kids who learned to read by reading video game manuals, and my sister has spent quite a bit of time in the past studying Japanese, thanks to an interest in Japanese culture sparked by Manga (so, basically, comic books). The second is that no one wants to do only one thing forever. Unschoolers may go through stages where it seems ALL that they're doing is one thing and one thing only. For a couple of years most of what I did was read novels. Eventually, I started wanting to do other things as well, and, in large part, I credit that time of intense and voracious devouring of books with the skills in writing I have now. It was all-consuming, but it was okay. It was good. Sometimes, people learn best by focusing on one thing for a while.

People also sometimes tell me that learning is hard, and kids don't like to do hard things. Yet babies learn to walk and talk without any forcing, something I'm sure is incredibly difficult. We're driven to be part of the world we find ourselves in, and are drawn to learning the skills we need to function in it. Sometimes learning feels easy, and sometimes it feels hard. Sometimes learning, whether it's harder or easier, is fun, and sometimes it's less fun. But if it seems important and relevant in our lives, and if we have the confidence and support needed to do so, we will learn what we need to learn. Though, again, it may not be on the timeline expected from those in school. I learned to read at age 8 or 9, "late" by many peoples' count, but it hasn't harmed my ability to read or write at all.

Where I am now

Now, as a grown unschooler, freedom-based education and unschooling in particular has become quite important to me. I write a blog about unschooling, I speak at conferences and similar events, and I try to share what knowledge I have on the subject in hopes it'll help others searching for an entirely different way of looking at learning and education. I'm also extremely passionate about food, growing it and cooking it and sharing it with others. Next year I plan to leave home and spend the year living in various rural areas, and working on organic farms. Eventually, I want to be involved in building a radically sustainable intentional community. I'm interested in feminism, non-hierarchal organizing and collective decision making, travel, and writing. There's still a fairly big gap between where I am now in my life and where I want to be, but I feel I'm heading in the right direction. Contrary to what some believe when they hear of unschooling, I do not and never have hated my parents for not sending me to school, or not "making" me learn. Instead, I'm incredibly grateful to them for the freedom I was given, and feel that because of that freedom, I had the time and space to figure out a lot of important things about myself, about the world, and about where I fit (and want to fit) in that world. And that's an important thing to know!

In conclusion   

If there's something from the philosophy of unschooling that I most want people to get, it's a realization of how capable humans are: children of learning, and parents and caregivers of assisting their children in learning. We don't need large institutions to teach us, or corporations to sell us "educational material," or governments, institutions, or corporations to tell us what we need to be learning. We're capable, as individuals, as families, and as communities, of controlling our own learning and our own lives. In empowering us with this knowledge, I truly believe unschooling as a philosophy has great potential in helping us to really change the world and how we live in it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Teens, Control, and the Nature of Love

Possibly the article I've received the most angry and condescending reactions to, of anything I've ever written, is my post on teenage rebellion (especially when it was posted, with heavy edits that I did not approve prior to posting, on the supposedly alternative parenting site Offbeat Mama).  And several months ago when that same article was published on Scarleteen, another comment (which we chose to delete because of it's condescending tone and the perspective it seemed to be coming from) got me thinking about the most common (and often very angry) criticism of the respectful parenting of teens: the idea of boundaries.

I feel like the way people talk about boundaries is the same way they talk about structure: as if both are these external things that are very important in creating "Disciplined," "Educated," and otherwise useful (aka "Productive") human beings. Things that the good and responsible adults (parents, teachers, etc.) are supposed to construct and enforce.

But, the same way that structure, when it comes to unschooling, is a mix of the natural rhythms found in the home and community and whatever the unschooler themselves chooses to consciously build in their life, I think boundaries are often similar. There are boundaries, both natural and constructed, in all aspects of life. I feel like everything from physical space limitations and physical abilities to laws, rules, and money could all be considered "boundaries" of a sort. Many of these boundaries should be challenged and pushed, in my opinion, but currently they all do exist, to some extent, for everyone.

Yet when I most often see and hear people talking about boundaries, it's very specifically the rules parents construct and enforce on their children. It's most often in the context of "I can really tell your parents never properly enforced any boundaries for you!" Once, on the aforementioned Offbeat Mama publishing of my rebellion article, someone even said that "Kids need, and deep down WANT, limits and boundaries," which is one of those things that, when writing about it, I need to first take a deep breath before I can go on to calmly discuss and dispute it, since my first instinct is just to say "fuck you," which isn't very helpful. But the incredible superiority and condescension contained in such statements takes my breath away, and brings home to me in a very profound way how terribly teenagers are looked at and treated in this culture.

Every pro-enforced-boundaries discussion comes back to the idea that teens are not full and complete human beings capable of making their own decisions and living their own lives. They're irresponsible, "unfinished," untrustworthy, and otherwise faulty.  I have very little patience for the condescension, rigid attemtps at control, and outright disgust and mockery that teens regularly have to deal with, because ultimately, all of this is sending some very harmful messages: there's something wrong with you. You're not good enough. Because of your age, you don't deserve to be treated well and fairly.

There are plenty of rationalizations made for the treatment teens receive, of course. From the scientific there's-something-wrong-with-their-brains (instead of celebrating the difference as just another stage of life), to "they secretly like being controlled", also known as control as a sign of love. There was recently a discussion on Facebook about teens and access to the internet, with much discussion by some parents in the thread about spying on their children (literally going into their email and Facebook accounts, and looking at their web history), and informing their children they were spying because they love them. Now, I can respect that those parents really do love their children, and that their actions are driven by fear which is driven by love, but I don't think these parents realize just how differently their teens most likely see things. What I posted on that thread was:
Snooping on a teen's internet activities is every bit as bad as reading their diary, as far as I'm concerned. Both are WRONG and a major violation of trust. It's horrifying for me to even think of the betrayal I would have felt had my parents hacked into any of my online accounts, checked history on my computer, or anything else. Good relationships and open communication are what's needed to help keep teens safe, NOT creepy things like reading their email (and Facebook messages, etc.)!
The idea that control shows love makes sense if you're used to there only being two options when it comes to parenting teens: pay lots of attention to your kids by placing lots of rules and restrictions on them, or ignore them entirely and neglect their needs. But once you realize that there are more options than that, you can see that control as love is far from the best way things can be. And in a very personal way, if control equaled teens feeling loved, and a lack of control equaled teens feeling unloved, I, and all my unschooling friends whose parents didn't/don't parent in a controlling and authoritarian way, should feel resentful and unloved. Which is very, very far from the case, as most of the unschoolers I know have really wonderful relationships with their parents. If you have a relationship that includes good communication, which is pretty essential for good relationships of any sort, then the love will be obvious. The idea that control equals love is really just a botched version of attention equals love, and parents can be and are attentive, caring, and loving without being controlling.

People seem to envision a state of utter chaos if teens are allowed freedom in the choices they make and the lives they lead, and while I find that an unlikely outcome to say the least, I do think there's some kernel of truth to the fear. Teens are more likely to be risk-takers. Teens are change-makers. And I imagine an entire population of trusted, respected, empowered teenagers participating actively in the communities around them would really shake things up. There's a lot of adults who really wouldn't like that! But I think it would do the world a great deal of good to embrace the strengths and unique viewpoint that teens bring to the table. Teenagers are important. And their voices and experiences need to be acknowledged as such.

What are or were your experiences, as a teen or as the parent of a teen, with discussions around "boundaries," control, privacy, and similar things? How did the way your parents parented effect you, and what things do you consider positive or negative about the decisions they made? Leave a comment and join the discussion!