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.