Thursday, March 27, 2014

When Unschooling Isn't Perfect: a Call for More Compassion and Less Striving for Philosophical Purity

When I was somewhere in my teens, my mother said to me that my father was worried about what I was learning, and she wondered if I'd mind reading a history book to make him feel better. I agreed, and she handed me an overview of Canadian history that she thought I'd find interesting. I did, though I stopped somewhere near the end when it ceased to be as interesting.

This is one of the very few times past early childhood (when we were still closer to the homeschooling end of things) I can remember my parents exerting any type of pressure on me to learn a specific thing. Yet it occurred to me that that history book thing would horrify some. "That isn't unschooling," I can hear people thinking. "Was she even unschooled at all??"

I say this because I've seen this attitude directed at plenty of other people. "You did what?? Your unschooling card should be revoked!" My mother was once even told that, since she used the term child-led learning when my sister and I were young, that we weren't real unschoolers, and furthermore, that since my sister and I were both well into our teens by then, that it was "too late" to start unschooling.

Any worry I had about whether people think I'm a good unschooler or not faded years ago, and beyond that, with the reputation as an unschooling writer I've built, I doubt anyone would level those types of accusations at me now anyway.

But it's troubling to me that those types of attitudes exist, because it seems to be an attitude more concerned with some type of philosophical purity (and the prestige of being able to claim such purity) than with the actual success and happiness of families and children.

It's not that I'm against clarifying what unschooling is, and that it doesn't involve forced curriculum or forced teaching. Just that within the amorphous philosophy that's most frequently called unschooling (but that also goes by life learning, natural learning, autonomous education, and a whole range of other terms), if people are making a continuous effort in their lives to live in a way that allows their children a whole lot more freedom, and doing their best to act as supportive mentors in their children's learning journey, there's no need to pounce on any perceived mistake or "wrong" decision they make and declare them bad unschoolers. People are mostly just trying to cope with the situations they find themselves in, striving to do better each time. And whether a decision was made deliberately that some purists would disapprove of, or someone just reacted badly and decides themselves it was a poor decision after the fact, it's not your life, those aren't your choices, and if you really want to help you'd do it with kindness. If someone seems unhappy with a choice they've made, maybe ask if they'd like to hear some alternative ways of doing things. But if someone is happy with their choices, whether you agree with them or not, telling them they're being bad unschoolers isn't exactly likely to make things better for them or their children. Sometimes, even if a decision doesn't seem in line with the unschooling philosophy to you, for that person, in that family, in that situation, it's the right decision.

Two happy and imperfect grown up unschoolers.

Another important point, to me, is that unschooling just isn't that fragile. An entire lifestyle doesn't collapse because a parent says they'd prefer their children wait until they turn 18 to get any tattoos, or because they get some SAT prep books and say "hey, have you thought about taking the SATs next year?," or enforce a bedtime, or because they ask if you'll read a history book to appease a worried father. If pressure to learn specific things is a regular thing, or there are a whole lot of I-don't-want-you-to-be-doing-that's, then maybe things aren't working out so well. But if it's an occasional thing? Well, people aren't perfect. Unschooling isn't going to be perfect. And striving for perfection is likely to lead to either frustration or, perhaps, a false sense of superiority, when the reality is that no one is going to get it right all the time.

So I guess what I'm hoping for is just a little more understanding and compassion. Talk about your own successes, but also your failures, and when things don't go right. It always helps others to know they're not alone. Write about how unschooling is different than homeschooling, but don't walk up to someone and say "you know what you're doing isn't unschooling." Examine your intentions and make sure they're coming from a good place, a place that's attempting to make things better in a general way, or help someone out, not just make yourself seem more right.

This isn't in any way an attempt to say I'm the one who gets to decide what is and isn't kind, or that I'm always as kind as I could be myself. I've made countless mistakes over the years in my advocating of unschooling, things I've changed my stance on or just wished in retrospect that I'd handled differently, more compassionately. Yet in the years I've been writing, I've noticed a troubling amount of people, who are really trying their best, being made to feel that they're just never going to be good enough. It's one thing to help each other do better and be better, but it's an entirely different thing to hold up an image of unschooling as a pure practice that must be enacted without any mistakes or deviations from the correct philosophical ideals. No one is perfect, and I think it would be really great to remember the importance of empathy and understanding when it comes to our unschooling advocacy!

Monday, March 24, 2014

When You're An Unschooler, Ignorance is the Greatest Sin

The other day as I was driving somewhere with my sister, I turned to her thoughtfully and asked "do you feel like you've learned to hide when you don't know something so people don't blame it on unschooling? Because I feel like I do that automatically." She agreed that she did that as well. "It's not a good thing, though" she said. "It's not," I agreed, "but it is a thing."

Growing up as an unschooler, it often feels like people are watching you like a hawk, just waiting for you to stumble, so they can shout "aha, I knew unschooling wasn't a good idea!" You never want to provide fuel for other people's judgement, so it becomes easier to just pretend you know what's going on around you, or that you understand that unfamiliar word someone just used. Most people, regardless of their education, tend to do this to some extent, but I think unschoolers and homeschoolers can fall into the trap of doing this to a much larger extent, just because we know that our ignorance will likely be taken as a reflection of an entire philosophy and community.

It strikes me as rather ironic that those most concerned with how much unschoolers do or don't know, those who frequently decide it's appropriate to quiz people as soon as they discover their educational background, are actually making it harder for unschoolers to learn. If you learn that expressing curiosity around strangers comes with the risk they'll react badly to it based on your education, you're going to quickly stop asking as many questions, and thus miss out on learning a lot of interesting things!

My ignorance is great when it comes to drawing.
I am, however, quite good at cooking!

I'm trying to unlearn that habit now, as an adult, since as my sister noted, it really isn't a good thing. But right now I still only really feel comfortable showing ignorance around trusted people: either unschoolers and unschooling types, or trusted friends from different communities who I know won't judge me for it, or think that unschooling has led to my, you know, not knowing everything.

Lest it sound like I think unschoolers are less curious because of this, I don't think that's the case at all. I just think the widespread judgement we face can, sometimes, lead to people being more cautious of which environments they express that curiosity in.

Which, no matter how you look at it, is just a real shame.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Quizzing is For School, Not Life

Ah, quizzing. People in any type of formal education are probably familiar with the official kind, the test kind, but for the crowds of homeschoolers and unschoolers especially, we learn early on to dread the questions coming as soon someone finds out you don't go to school. "What's 8 times 8?" "What's the capital of China?"

There's an easy way to separate quizzing from plain old asking of questions, and it's this:

Questions asked in curiosity, asked because you want to know the answer for yourself, is the way a question is generally best asked. When you instead quiz someone, ask them a question you know the answer to just to see if they know it, too, it becomes something entirely different. It becomes an attempt to assert yourself as smarter, more accomplished, superior. An attempt to bump yourself up higher on the perceived knowledge hierarchy. Anyone who, as a child, has had another child ask "do YOU know what that means?" or had an adult bend down and with the greatest of condescension ask them a question that adult most certainly already know the answer to, knows just what that looks and feels like.

You'd think that it would end as an adult, though, wouldn't you? That adults would at the very least treat other adults with enough courtesy to not quiz each other unless invited to. Yet that obviously isn't the case, as I've learned. It happens sometimes still because of unschooling, such as when, a year or two ago, someone tried to ask me a math question upon finding out I hadn't gone to school. And at an unschooling conference a couple of years ago, my sister (then 18) got in a conversation with a family staying in the same hotel who weren't part of our group, where as soon as they discovered what type of conference was going on one promptly asked her a question about physics. She doesn't tend to let herself be pushed around, so responded simply "I don't think that's usually how you introduce yourself to someone you've just met." The quizzer was embarrassed, and his family apologized, commenting that "he's a teacher!" which I suppose was supposed to convey that he just couldn't help himself. Yet more frequently than that rude quizzing from complete strangers, I think it often happens among people who do know each other, by individuals who just don't think about how condescending their queries are likely to sound.

Last spring, I was happily telling a friend who's very into wild edibles and wild skills about how I'd been harvesting and eating fiddleheads, and the first thing he said was "how did you know they were the right species?" taken aback, I explained that they had the correct groove in them. "Other non-edible ferns have that too." still feeling rather off balanced, I added that they also had the correct papery bits, at which point he nodded, satisfied.

I was left feeling angry and hurt though. The lack of respect for my judgement shown with that question, to think I'd eat a wild food without feeling confident in my identification, was insulting, and that someone I considered a friend thought nothing of quizzing me was rather hurtful. I recognize it was likely coming from a place of concern, and when friends do this I'm sure there's no bad intention behind it. Yet it still ends up coming out badly!

There are appropriate times to quiz people, of course. Times when you've entered into a relationship where you expect that from someone: you've accepted someone as a teacher or mentor for a specific subject, you're attending a workshop or class, or you've asked a friend to quiz you on a particular set of knowledge you're trying to get to stick. That's the type of quizzing that's actually helpful and beneficial.

But if someone hasn't asked for it, that's it. Just don't, no matter the age of the person you're tempted to quiz. Instead, save questions for when you don't know something, and want to know more. Ask questions out of curiosity and fascination and excitement and a desire to learn more. That's what questions are meant to be all about.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Uncollege, Hackschooling, and When Success and Profit Hijack the Message

I've been grumbling and grumping periodically (on the blog Facebook page, Twitter, and other online haunts) about the problems I have with the uncollege/education hacking movements for over a year now. People have reacted differently, some saying I'm being overly critical, some agreeing, and some just saying then WRITE something already explaining your stance instead of just complaining! Those latter people are probably right, in that perhaps it would have been a good idea to write about that ages ago, but at the same time, I don't think the timing was right. I haven't been in quite the right head-space.

I finally got the push I needed when I read a post a few days ago by Jessica over at College Rebellion. Several things came together: that post, the post she links (When "Life Hacking" is Really White Privilege, which I read a month or two ago and which has really stuck with me), and a quote I remembered posting many months ago. Suddenly it wasn't just that I felt vaguely uncomfortable almost every time I read something about uncollege or education hacking, now I had an actual post in my head. A place to start.

"Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, [is] jumping on the 'self-directed learning' bandwagon these days.

And they are bringing to it all the same old bullshit - children who are 'more'. More curious, more motivated, more more more.

So let me put my position out there. For me this lifestyle is about a principle and that alone - offering as free a life as possible to my children and myself. It's not about making a little super genius, super diverse interest, super engaged human. These children are not circus performers. So stop showcasing who did what at the youngest age, who gives the best TED teen presentations and not think that to me it will look no different except now the child is at home.

Unschooling, self-directed lives, natural learning, call it what you want. If it's 'about' results then it's not my cup of tea. Into flow or no expectations? Then I can engage even if the flow includes results." -Gillian Goddard
I think expecting that once grown someone has the skills to support themselves  is reasonable (if there are jobs to be had, and if disability, mental illness, or other serious things don't impede someone's ability to do that... So even that expectation isn't cut and dried). Nevertheless this perfectly highlights, to me, one of the biggest problems I feel there is with the uncollege type movement.

People have taken a philosophy about learning more freely, a philosophy that should be exciting and comforting at the same time (following what interests you, combined with the comfort of choosing how much or little you feel able to do, free from the stress of a heavy college course load), and turned it into just the newest way to claw your way up the corporate ladder, become a wealthy entrepreneur, or otherwise become "successful" by the most capitalistic measures out there.

Who are they speaking to?

I say "movements," plural, in this post because it isn't necessarily one movement, but a collection of trends moving in generally the same direction, that share a lot of commonalities in attitudes and views.

Generally, there's lots of talks about how college is a waste of time and money; college is conventional and makes someone boring, and to truly stand out from the crowd you should do impressive things instead (like travel the world or start a business); corporations prefer people who are involved with business from a young age instead of going to college; you'll learn more than your peers in college; the way of the future is technology, and schools are outdated and lacking in technology...

A couple of those I agree with (like the fact that college is really ridiculously expensive in some parts of the world, and most definitely in the US, for instance, though it's not as bad where I live), but many other seem like pretty bad points, to be honest, and points that only seem especially relevant to a select group of people.

While not going to college is cheaper than going, for many people doing anything but directly entering the job market is a struggle. Many people don't come from families where parents can support either college or expensive travel adventures, for instance.

Underpinning at least my understanding of unschooling has always been life learning as a, perhaps, liberatory approach to education. An unschooling influenced by Wendy Priesnitz' talk of life learning as an important part of saving our planet and re-imagining ways of living together, and unschooling as an important part of decolonization. The uncollege-and-hacking-your-education movements don't even seem to realize social inequalities exist, or if they do they don't seem to care. Ignoring the existence of institutionalized inequalities doesn't erase them, it just means that those considered the default, those already most privileged in our society, continue to be those best served by an oblivious or uncaring movement: white, male, straight, middle and upper class. No, not everyone involved falls into those categories. But everything I've seen seems to show that many people involved fall into at least a couple of those, and that there's very little to no representation from those most marginalized.

In prioritizing corporate and business ideas of success above any type of societal shift for a more just, more egalitarian, more sustainable world, I think it's clear that this movement isn't and has never been for everyone. It's just a new way for those already in the lead (of a race that was rigged to start with) to pull even further ahead.

Money talks

With the surge in popularity for unschooling, uncollege, hacking your education, edupunking, the whole learning-more-independently-outside-of-educational-institutions thing, there's been a corresponding surge in people trying to make money off of this trend. A "trend-spotting firm" (something that, until very recently, I did not know existed) even predicted recently that unschooling counselor will be one of "8 new jobs people have in 2025." I think it's fair to say that job already exists, with numerous people offering unschooling and uncollege coaching over phone, Skype, and through online programs. New events and alternative programs claiming to support this type of education are popping up all over the place.

I don't think this is necessarily bad in and of itself. In fact, in plenty of cases this is a good thing! But it does point to a worrying trend of both turning unschooling into yet another specialty held by experts, and something you need to pay for to receive, instead of something everyone can do without any type of expert intervention (finances to have the time to pursue education permitting).

It also leads to some people misrepresenting their credentials, their success, and their experience in order to take advantage of a new market. I often feel like those claiming to want to help the unschooling or uncollege community--for a fee, of course--are far less concerned with helping and far ore concerned with that fee. Who's genuine and reasonable when it comes to the numerous books, programs, and coaching available is, of course, something each individual can only decide for themselves. If you trust someone, can afford their services, and gain positive things from it, that's great! And if you love something you're knowledgeable about and want to help support yourself through the sharing of that knowledge, I also don't think there's anything wrong with that. I'd just like to see maybe a bit more accountability to the community, and more openness about an individual's experience and troubles. If someone's life seems too good to be true, it might be because it isn't true.

Either way, I find it alarming that unschooling is being turned into a commodity, information and expertise to be bought and sold, instead of a free-form philosophy about living and learning.

I've never felt like there's much room for me

I'm not attending college or university, and I never have attended any type of educational institution. So initially, I got excited about all this new stuff. I joined groups on Facebook, followed blogs, read articles. And quickly started feeling disillusioned. Nowhere was I seeing the concern for humanity as a whole I was more used to seeing in unschooling circles. I was just seeing a lot of Success! And tech! And success in tech! And entrepreneurship! Business is good! I saw posts suggesting pursuing learning in ways that didn't appeal to me at all, grand adventures that I'd never want to go on (and in fact with my struggles with anxiety probably couldn't go on without suffering a breakdown) and couldn't afford. I didn't feel like my anxious queer hippie feminist self had a place in that movement at all, and I still don't.

Not a condemnation

All that said, I think the college-free movements have helped popularize some important ideas. I think popular advocates have said plenty of good and helpful things. I think plenty of people have gotten a lot of good out of being a part of these movements. I don't think they should cease to exist. I just think there are a lot of largely unacknowledged problems, big blind spots, and goals I can never get behind. I want to like seeing unschooling ideas for college aged people getting so much attention and support, but I just feel uneasy and uncomfortable by so much of it that I see and read. And I really just hope to see more awareness in the future of social realities, and goals more closely aligned with the true success of all people, not just the wealthiest, whitest, most male of the lot.

[Edited March 19th] The note about comments that was originally posted here was taken by some as an attempt to dissuade criticism or disagreement with this post, which was not my intent at all. So instead I'd just like to remind people, when discussing this potentially loaded topic, to please remain respectful in the comment section, and to note that I will be moderating it and deleting hostile/disrespectful comments. Thank you for your understanding!