Friday, May 16, 2014

Unschooling Doesn't Mean There's No Hard Work

One of the biggest criticisms of unschooling rests on a fundamental belief about children (and teenagers) and their ability to stay motivated and do difficult things.

People say that, if not forced to, children will never do hard things. Never apply themselves, practice skills intensively, or push through challenging material.

I suppose if you believe so strongly that children and teens aren't capable of doing anything difficult, then that would naturally make you rather unimpressed with the idea of unschooling. Because the truth is, a lot of things are hard. Often even things we find fun are also difficult!

Take writing, for instance. No matter how much you love the written word, love reading, love finding the perfect turn of phrase to convey exactly the mood you're looking for, or to explain a difficult concept in a way people can relate to, it's also work. Every writer, whether they're a novelist or blogger, is going to be familiar with the dread of an entirely blank page that needs to be filled; the difficulty of finding a word you know you know, but you just can't think of; pushing through when it feels like you have to fight for every single sentence.

No matter how you cut it, writing is hard.

So is cooking, my other main passion. Only with cooking, the "hard" comes with a big physical component: mixing batter, kneading dough, hoisting around heavy pots and pans, chopping huge bowls of vegetables... Though working in a commercial kitchen is the hardest, I'm regularly drained by home cooking and baking, as well. When I finish a big project--an oven full of entirely from-scratch hand-pies, for instance--I drop down, extremely tired, on the nearest cushy sitting surface, my back aching and sore from hunching over food stuffs for long periods of time, and mentally tired from focusing for hours on getting everything just right with whatever I'm creating.

Cooking, too, is hard work.

Butternut squash and caramelized onion galette with cheddar cheese.
Daunting to begin with, and satisfyingly delicious once it was done!

Now, I suppose some could say I'm an adult, and that's why I manage such things now. But my writing started before I hit my teens, and my ability to write as well as I do now comes from years of facing that daunting blank page.

My sister as a child and a teenager wrote (and writes) voraciously; she started playing marching snare drum when she was 12, started taking lessons in highland snare drum when she was 14 or 15, and now plays professionally, for pay; she's been practicing Ninjutsu since she was 16, and has progressed through several belts; she's completed NaNoWriMo on multiple occasions.

All of those things, too, were not easy to do, not things that came without much work and dedication.

Unschoolers, too, can be prone to procrastination, to avoiding doing hard things that need to be done and dropping hobbies they like when they get too difficult. I wouldn't say unschoolers are necessarily more likely to be motivated and work hard at things than people in school (they might be! I'm just not confident enough of that to attempt to make that claim). But what unschoolers do have is the time to really pursue things, to dig in deep and build skills they care about.

There are important elements that need to be in place to provide the best possible environment for managing hard things. One of those elements is having people (often parents, or mentors or teachers or friends or other family members) who are dedicated to helping you learn, who will cheer you on and encourage you when the going gets tough. Who will help you come up with goals, find the resources you need, and get important projects finished. Who will remind you that you said you wanted to practice violin every single day, and that you swore you'd get that chapter you've been working on finished by the end of the week.

It's hard to stay motivated if you've got no one in your corner who's invested in what you're doing and wants you to succeed at whatever you're trying to succeed at. But we do children and teens a huge disservice when we think, with the needed support, that they're incapable of dealing with difficulty.

A whole lot of what feels exciting and interesting is going to come along with a certain amount of difficulty and hard work. That holds true no matter your age. Beyond that all-important support, I think several other things contribute to people working hard:

  • Doing things you're genuinely excited about, things that feel joyful and fascinating. I feel this when I'm enthusiastically telling someone about the process behind a fermentation technique I've been reading about, or when I embark with determination and a deep breath on an intimidating yet exciting new baking project.
  • Finding meaning in your projects. When you choose what you do, instead of having someone else choose what they think you should be learning or doing, you're doing it because it has meaning to you. It's something you care about, something that actually seems important and relevant to you. You're going to put a lot more effort into something if it has importance in your life than if it's something someone else says you have to do.
  • The time to devote to learning and skill building. While deadlines, either self-imposed or imposed by a relevant external force (the print deadline of a magazine, the entry deadline for a contest, or the date for a performance), can certainly prove helpful, if you're tired out and mentally drained from too many things then you're not going to have the energy to truly apply yourself to something. I feel like this is something that gets in the way of school students focusing on what's really important to them. All the hours spent in school, going to and from school, doing homework, and often plenty of extra-curricular activities besides, suck up time and leave little left over for other pursuits. Hopefully some of those extra-curriculars are things the student really cares about, but with too much time taken up by school, it can be difficult or near impossible to focus on what the individual truly wants to be focusing on.
None of this is a guarantee: sometimes unschoolers don't feel challenged enough, are frequently bored, or have great difficulty sticking with things they care about when they get difficult. Sometimes maybe something in the environment or parental approach or personal attitude needs to change for things to improve, and sometimes, because we're human, no matter how good the surrounding circumstances are, hard things are hard.

We can do them, though. Unschoolers are proving every day that you don't need schools, don't need teachers or parents, to force young people to do hard things. Young people are more than capable of working, and working hard, because they care, and want to improve, and enjoy the warm glow you get upon accomplishing something difficult. All that's needed is for the individual to have access to the tools and support to help them in achieving all the things that children and teens are excited and motivated to do.

Learning is exciting, and learning is also hard. Let's start realizing that kids are naturally great at learning, no matter how hard it can sometimes be.


  1. Would you consider letting me repost this with you as a guest poster??? It's just SO GOOD!!!!!!! I would even like to keep your links on the bottom......
    Please let me know.

    Karen. (my last name)

  2. I love your writing. Your way of wording things is what helped me convince my dad to let me unschool. I'm mid year through 9th grade and dropping out to unschool.