Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Language That We Use Matters: Why Schooled People Aren't Sheep

This article was originally published in the July/August issue of Life Learning Magazine, a really lovely magazine filled with unschooling goodness, and it pleases me greatly that I've somehow become a somewhat regular contributor. You can check out another Life Learning original article of mine, When You Unschool You Don't "Unparticipate:" Community Engagement and the Value of Different Ideas, here in PDF form.

I find myself thinking more lately about the language we use when we talk about unschooling, and the way in which we talk about people who are not unschooling.

Often in my reading of unschooling and alternative education posts online (and sometimes in print as well), I’ve found myself wincing in discomfort at some of the language being used.

Drones. Zombies. Sheep. The masses.

I remember, in my teens as well, finding myself feeling uncomfortable at a comment or joke a fellow homeschooler or unschooler would make at the expense of school kids. I remember very vividly thinking one time it’s not their fault.

When we reduce the level of conversation to slinging about words like “sheep,” we’re both being hurtful and obscuring the points we’re actually trying to make. When we use language like that, I think we’re doing a couple of different things that we don’t want to be doing.

The only being we should be calling sheep are, you know, actual sheep.

We’re oversimplify things to a ridiculous extent. It’s not just a matter of people either doing what they’re told or forging their own path. Someone’s ability to choose a path such as unschooling is largely dependent on exposure to the concept (or similar concepts); the resources to actually follow through with it; feeling that their choices won’t be unduly punished due to severe marginalization they already face; and the support needed to maintain such a connected and unconventional way of living.

I hope that someday unschooling can be the way everyone has the opportunity to live, and I support all efforts to make unschooling and life learning (as well as any self-directed schooling projects) more widespread and more accessible. But we’re not there yet. In the meantime, blaming people for not being able to unschool, or feeling unable to do so, makes no sense and is pretty unfair.

Whether someone goes to school or went to school, has criticism of their schooling experience or thinks compulsory schooling is a good thing, it doesn’t lessen them as a person.

When we use negative language about schooled people, it’s alienating. If we really mean it when we say that we want more people to learn about and understand unschooling, and I truly believe that most of us do, then being superior about it isn’t going to help. I’m all for standing up to people who are being rude and aggressive about our choices, but if we start in with being rude and aggressive instead, we never give people a chance to express genuine curiosity and actually learn about our educational beliefs and learning lifestyle.

If we want to be very insular in our way of living, and furthermore have people know us as those rude and judgemental people, then maybe calling others zombie-drones is appropriate. Otherwise? It’s not appropriate, it’s not kind, and it’s not productive.

I’m all for criticizing schools, and compulsory education, and standardized curriculums. I absolutely believe there’s something majorly wrong with those things, and I appreciate the many great critiques out there. I just think you can criticize those things without criticizing the individuals who, through no fault of their own, are forced to attend school whether they want to or not.

I’m sure that the upper levels of institutional schooling (the bureaucracy, the government offices and corporate supplier of curriculum) would like to manage children like sheep, and turn them into drones (you know, good workers), but that does not mean that anyone, child or adult, is a sheep or a drone.

There’s a big difference between those two things.

I know I’ve talked disdainfully in the past about “the masses,” and though I hope I haven’t used any of the other ones, I really can’t swear I haven’t. I know all of us have seen these terms used by others, and most of us have probably used at least one ourselves.

In some of the less sensitive and perhaps less aware writing I did in my later teenage years, my passion for unschooling was often accompanied by anger at the institution of schooling, which is understandable. But what wasn’t reasonable was that it sometimes overflowed into negative feelings about kids who went to school.

So I get it. I get that it comes from defensiveness, and feeling that you’ve been rejected or are looked down upon by schooled people. I get it when it comes to teens and young people. And to some extent, I get it when it comes to adults, who may have similar feelings about judgement, and react similarly defensively. But, as an adult, be aware that the aspersions you’re casting on people who go to school include those who are currently in school. Children and teenagers.

I find the language we use has such a profound affect on the way we think. As I’ve learned and listened more when it comes to a variety of social issues, from racism and classism to adultism and heterosexism, I’ve found myself constantly challenged to look critically at the language I use, the way I write and speak, and what beliefs or prejudices might be lurking behind those words.

That self reflection has definitely bled into all of my writing, including my writing about education. It’s a continuous process of learning and growing, one I’m sure will be ongoing throughout my life. It involves some simple practices of actually listening when someone says “hey, that’s hurtful”; learning about and trying to remain aware of the social inequalities around us, whose voice is given more weight and whose rights are prioritized; and seeking in the way I act and speak and write to challenge these inequalities, and just to be kinder and more considerate.

In my writing about unschooling that meant, and continues to mean, thinking about who has the easiest time unschooling, who has access to the most resources, and paying attention to how I talk about people who aren’t unschoolers.

This isn’t an attempt to dictate how others write about unschooling. What I’m trying to do is merely share some of my own process, point out that some language I see being used too often can be both hurtful and alienating, and to just suggest that people put some real thought into their words.

We want to share this wonderful unschooling thing with others, not to have people think of us as those mean people who think everyone not like them are sheep.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I Do Have a Problem with Authority. I'm Just Not Convinced That's a Bad Thing.

A common criticism of unschooling is that "those kids" will never learn to respect authority. My reaction tends to be well, if so, is that really a bad thing?

Automatic respect for authority shouldn't be the goal

Why on earth should respecting authority, just because it's authority, be a good thing? That type of attitude leads people to stand passively by while great wrongs are committed, because they're being committed by people and institutions in positions of power. It's an attitude that leads to the continuation of existing oppression and marginalization, a continuation of the current status quo, simply because it's maintained by those with the greatest authority. It leads to individuals not speaking up when they feel they're personally being treated unfairly, or when they have ideas of how to do things better. It leads to people sticking with the path they're told is the best or only way to do things, instead of standing up to authority and building alternatives.

Basic respect for each other as human being is important. But beyond that, respect needs to be earned, needs to be built through solid relationships and trust. No one deserves widespread respect just because of the position they hold.

Change--positive, real change--only happens when people are forming their own opinions and making their own choices, and working with others to make their ideals a reality, instead of just following authority.

Important life skills include learning how to deal with people in positions of power or authority, and how to navigate hierarchies

This is true, I think, no matter your political views or educational choices (and these skills can definitely be learned without children having to be institutionalized in an authoritarian environment for 12+ years).

I may be an unschooler and an anarchist, but I am the most polite, calm person you will ever meet when dealing with people in positions of authority, from police, border guards, and airport security to bureaucrats with the power to deny me what I need. I can participate in traditional style classes with a teacher presiding over them with no problem. I rarely break rules. In fact, I've jokingly said that I'm the most rule-abiding anarchist I know (funny, but true)! I hate conflict, and hate making people unhappy. That should give you some idea of the reasons I was drawn to anarchist schools of thought (pardon the pun), namely that it wasn't a desire to rebel, break things, and piss people off, but instead because I strongly believe that humans are, at their core, cooperative social creatures capable of organizing in humane, non-hierarchical ways. I'm an anarchist because I believe that, given the right set of circumstances, people are basically good, and basically equipped to live well with others.

I've learned how to handle myself in situations where others have authority over me because it's an essential skill to have (more so even for groups of people frequently targeted with violence by police and vigilantes alike).

But, that doesn't mean I have to like it. It doesn't mean I can't or shouldn't be outraged that authority figures with guns regularly get away with shooting unarmed people, or that many other people can so easily be denied housing or healthcare because someone else (or an institutional someone else) decides to withhold it.

I'm distrustful of people who seek power over others

To me this seems a very reasonable and automatic response. I tend to assume people are drawn to professions and positions that give them power over others at least in part because they're drawn to power, which makes me wary. I learned this distrust young, and it's generally served me well. It leads me to trust people who are more trustworthy, namely those treat the people around them as equals, and allows me to avoid people who don't have such good intentions.

I really liked working in a coop. (Photo credit Kat, I think, from Le Milieu)

Does unschooling make us more sensitive to institutionalization and authoritarianism?

A friend tagged me in a post on Facebook ages ago, asking if fellow grown unschoolers also felt as sensitive to institutionalization as she did. She was wondering if that might be an effect of the lifestyle we grew up with. I didn't respond at the time, but that question lodged in my brain, and is something I've pondered quite a bit since then. It's certainly not the sole or only contributor, but I do wonder if my friend wasn't on to something. My sister can't watch, read, or listen to anything about prisons or similar forced confinement without crying. We both feel very, intensely aware of when another person has social or institutional power over us. We both feel very emotional about people being institutionalized in any way, about schools and a lot of workplaces and various other institutional environments. I can get distressed about that type of thing really easily, and having to deal with authority figures, people who feel they are somehow more important or more powerful than me, ties my stomach in knots.

The ideals I have and the types of communities I'm drawn to are in large part an instinctual draw to the exact opposite of the people and places that make me feel so deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps, had my childhood been different, I would have become more numbed to that discomfort, more used to others having intimate control over my life and my choices. Growing up the way I did, however, I know that there are better ways of doing things, starting with how we raise children.

Visions of a different world

One of the reasons I've remained so passionate about unschooling is because I genuinely feel that within this philosophy and way of life lies a lot of potential for beginning important change. I don't see it as an either or between a connected and social world of entrenched hierarchies and government on one side, and a rugged and violent individualism on the other. People can and already are organizing in cooperative and collectivist ways, while working to deconstruct social hierarchies and inequalities.

I see unschooling as a potential first step, where instead of being warehoused from a young age in an authoritarian environment, children are treated with a great deal of respect and kindness, and learn how to be in the world and live in community by doing so from a young age. It's certainly not a solution to all the world's problems in and of itself, but it does seem like a pretty good start.

We all have different skills to share, different strengths, and different experiences. This means that sometimes one person will be in a leadership position, and sometimes someone else will. It's only when a position becomes entrenched, when someone ceases to be a member of a community of equals and becomes, instead, an authority figure--someone with a heightened position of power and control--that I start to feel uncomfortable.

I believe strongly that there are better ways of organizing, living, and learning together than those currently found in the dominant culture. Unschoolers are just one group among many who are working to change the way we relate to and live with each other.

I will always strive to live in a way that's in line with my ideals of social justice and egalitarianism, which is why I'll continue to have a problem with authority. I just don't think that's such a bad thing.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Learning Happens When it's Relevant and Relatable: the Case for Learning in the Real World

Learning happens best when it feels relevant to the learner, and when it relates to their own interests and life.

This is no secret, and is well recognized in the wider education world. On the popular education blog MindShift, there are articles talking about how to connect school learning to a bigger purpose in an attempt to make students actually care about it, and in a list of ways to "motivate" students on the same blog "connect abstract learning to concrete situations" is number four.

As much as I try to care about some abstract collection of knowledge or skills, if I can't see the relevance in my own life, or how it relates to the things I find interesting and important, I just can't make myself focus enough to truly learn it. 

This is true of almost everyone, and is the reason so many people remember so little of what they supposedly learned in school. Once the test is over, the knowledge, if it doesn't feel relevant to the learner, will be forgotten quickly.

Though many educators might disagree about just how much knowledge is lost, as the above MindShift articles show, they know that learning works best when it feels relevant to the student, which is why attempts to increase relevance are regularly made by progressive educators. However, what strikes me about many of those attempts is just how artificial they feel. It's a desperate attempt to relate the material being taught to students' lives, in much the way that a lot of material is dressed up in bright colours and "fun" games in the lower grades. I doubt either the supposed fun or attempted relevance fools many students, because ultimately much of what's on your normal school curriculum won't be used in your life and isn't important to your community, and most of the work you do or the content you create doesn't have any real impact or wider audience than a single teacher or possibly a whole class. It's not real work, it's just busywork, which is about as far from relevant as you can get.

Stuck in a very narrow mindset that sees schools (in roughly the form they currently exist in) as the only option, most approaches don't truly seek to re-imagine what education can look like and be. Even the data educators are working off of is based on such a narrow segment of humans, that of children in a very rigid and coercive school environment, that it's not necessarily an accurate sampling of children. As Carol Black, director of the film Schooling the World,  has said, "collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World."

When a teacher is coming from a place that sees compulsory schooling as a given, attempts at bringing the real world into the classroom too often look like pale copies of the real thing--learning about wildlife from books instead of the wild, and solving problems for a test, not to fill a real need in your community.

Some initiatives in some schools do actually make a difference in students' lives, and do manage to bring some learning and work that really matters into schools. I don't want to erase or downplay the ones that get it right.

However, as far as I'm concerned, school can never do as good a job at teaching children about the real world (complete with real world problems and diversity and work), as participating in the real world itself.

It seems somewhat ironic that one of the biggest criticisms school free learners face is that they're somehow avoiding the "real world," when in reality life learners are embedded in it.

Everything we do has meaning in our lives. I've never written a book report or an essay because I was required to do so, I've only ever written for an actual audience, or because I was driven by inspiration. I've only ever taken classes I chose to or agreed to participate in. I've only ever learned about things I felt a real need to learn about, whether that was because of a personal interest or because that learning was needed to further a goal. Every part of my education has been driven by real need, real interest, and actual relevance in my life.

Contrary to what some believe, that doesn't mean I've never done anything hard, or that I've never had to deal with difficult people or situations. Living in the real world, you encounter a whole lot of different people and situations, some more pleasant than others, and you're confronted with a range of problems and difficulties. Far from sheltering children from anything challenging or hard, learning through living means learning (with the help of supportive adult figures) how to navigate difficult situations, handle unpleasant people, and make the choices that are best for you and those around you.

Life learning is all about authenticity, because nothing is constructed or designed in an attempt at engineering specific outcomes or learning. Instead, everything is an experience to be learned from, and at the same time, everything is just living. The world ceases to be broken down into what's educational or not, what can be learned from and what can't. Unschoolers seek to recognize that learning is always happening, no engineering needed, and instead just seek to build rich lives, full of resources and fun, interesting people and activities, and trust that that's all you need for equally rich learning to occur.

When you structure your life in such an open way, with an outlook that's so receptive to whatever learning might occur, you create situations where everything feels relevant to the learner, and where everything that's done is done for a reason, whether that reason is fun, fascination, getting into a program you really want to be in, or helping out a friend.

To me, that's what the real world looks like, not the artificial constraints of a school building, school timeline, and school curriculum.

Unschooling is learning in the real world. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Why Some Learning Isn't Better Than Other Learning: Television and Books Through An Unschooling Lense

TV watching and book-reading often seem to be seen as somewhat opposite activities. Books are seen as worthwhile, good for your brain, a useful way to spend time, and TV a waste of time, useless, a brain-rotting and lazy pursuit.

In my own life, that's never been the way I considered those two activities. I might have made distinctions between fiction and non-fiction, documentaries and dramas, but TV and books have never been an either or, a one versus the other. They've both been activities that have brought me great joy, and yes, led to a lot of learning.


Before I was reading myself, my parents were reading aloud daily. Stories, in some form or another, have always been a part of my life. But when I started reading myself, I dove into the world of novels in a very big way. There were years where I read three or even four short novels a day, and I can still easily race through the newest book in a favourite series in the course of a single day. Novels draw me in, too, and lead to an incredible amount of investment in imaginary people and worlds.

I also like sharing what I read, and it became common practice in my family years ago to tell each other about the stories we were reading. Sharing a book you're enthusiastic about is really nice.

It's not as social an activity as TV watching, though, which I find interesting, considering reading is often considered the more meaningful activity. Reading is often a deeply personal and immersive activity, which has it's own benefits, so this isn't to say that TV is somehow better, just that I'm far from convinced that either is better, and instead feel that both provide a whole lot of positives.


"Are you ready to watch yet?" I ask for the 9th time. I'm not the most patient person around, and a show that's caught my attention is a very big draw. Despite that impatience, and my desire to watch the next episode as soon as I'm able to, I almost always watch shows with other people. The four of us who make up my family watch a variety of British mysteries, genre shows, police procedurals, and assorted dramas. Currently Veronica Mars is big with us, and we've just started season three with great excitement.

To many people, TV watching looks like something solitary, something done in isolation, a passive activity involving no social interaction. My experience could not be further from that.

Not only do I almost always watch TV with family, bursting into laughter together, nudging each other with an elbow at good bits, or occasionally grabbing each other in fear (well, okay, mostly I'm the only one who does that), we also talk about them.

Throughout our watching of Veronica Mars, there have been countless conversations in the car, while washing dishes, and sometimes in the middle of an episode (paused, of course) about what was happening in the plot. Who killed Lily? Who was where, when, and who could have been somehow involved? Every character's actions and motivations were dissected and examined through enthusiastic discussion. It's fun to treat shows--especially mysteries--that way, and it becomes a real bonding experience with the people you're watching with.

By being such a social and involved experience, it's also anything but passive. Watching shows becomes something engaging and social, something that leads to a lot of thinking, discussing, and sharing.

Looking critically at media and pop culture

"I think one of the most important things I've learned is how to critically look at all different types of media," I said in a workshop the other day. The ability to analyze and think critically about what I'm consuming--whether it's novels or non-fiction books, TV shows or movies, the news or a newspaper, comic books or magazines--is an invaluable skill, and one that has brought much richness, lots of deep thought and thoughtful conversations to my life. I learned young from my parents that just because someone says something on TV, even on the news, doesn't mean it's true, and my sister and I learned ourselves as teens to broaden and deepen our analysis of various forms of media and entertainment.

I've had discussions about the subtle sexism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as its major failings when it comes to issues of representation and racism. I've talked about the neo-liberal pro-military bias on a more liberal-leaning news network. I've had good conversations about how the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott does a remarkably excellent job in portraying a range of women characters, as well as creating a fantasy world that's both racially and culturally diverse and interesting.

I recently heard it suggested that TV is dangerous simply because it's often considered fluff, junk, unworthy of serious thought, and thus people absorb a lot of messages and prejudices from what they watch, because they're not engaging critically with what they're viewing. That seems more than possible to me, and serves as a good argument for treating TV as important, because it is a part of most peoples lives, and it affects how we think and what we learn.

The same can all be said about books, as they often contain messages we might feel are harmful as well. Once again I feel like books and TV have a lot more in common than many people realize.

Potential negatives

A lot of parents have a lot of worries about screens having a negative impact, health-wise, on their children. However, books aren't without negative consequences, either. In my three-books-a-day phase, and still sometimes when I get too wrapped up in a story, I read to the point of eye strain and tension headaches. Before I got my up-to-date prescription glasses, I'd read to the point of increased blurry vision. My optometrist had to make a point of telling me I had to stop reading every ten minutes or so and look out the window, focus on something far away, for the health of my eyes. I know when it comes to my own physical comfort, I generally find computer screens the worst, reading on page next, and watching TV the most comfortable. Focusing on something a bit further away is easier.

The point I'm really trying to get at here is just that everything is healthier in moderation, but TV isn't necessarily worse, or less healthy, or anything else when compared to similarly stationary pursuits.

I feel like many people might say "well that's all fine, but you're obviously special. My children would just watch TV all day!" Now, while different people have different needs, an easier or less easy time listening to their bodies, and maybe need more or less parental help in figuring things out, I do think parents often sell their kids short in thinking that all they'll ever do is watch TV. That attitude shows a strong and perhaps somewhat misplaced bias against this one form of entertainment and learning, and it also seems not to take into account that no one will want to do only one thing, forever. Boredom starts to set it. It's also important for children, with parental involvement and support, to figure out for themselves what feels good and bad for them, and that's best done by exploring and trying different things and figuring out that sitting on the couch for 10 hours doesn't tend to make you feel so good.

I just caution parents to examine their biases, and consider that if you wouldn't say "you've already read too much this week, do something else," then maybe pause for a moment before saying the same about television.

Developing a healthy relationship to screens and pages

I think a rich and healthy relationship with different types of media is best gained by experiencing it with involved adults, adults who want to hear about the story their child is reading, who talk about and sometimes criticize what they see on TV and what they read in print. Basically, adults who engage in the shows and movies they watch and the books and magazines they read, discussing and thinking about them, will help children learn to be engaged and critical themselves.

Some children will only really be into one or the other. Some will consume media in less common ways, such as listening to audio books instead of reading, whether due to learning or other disabilities or simply personal preferences. If we're going to respect that each individual is different, and will learn about and experience the world in different ways, I think part of that is realizing that placing various activities on a hierarchy of which is best to worst, or most to least educational, is counterproductive to the learning process.  

This isn't to say I'm entirely against parents ever intervening in their children's use of of various media. I'm not. I just think that creating arbitrary distinctions between things like TV and books makes little sense, and isn't an ideal environment for creating excitement about learning in all its forms, including both screens and pages.

In my own life

I love that I can take such intense joy from a new TV show find, or a favourite novel, and that I don't find myself feeling guilty about spending time with either of those things. I love that I can be so critical of what I consume, that I'm able to deconstruct things and have thoughtful conversations about them, as well as just enjoying something without feeling a need to be strongly critical of it.

Armed with the knowledge needed to navigate the media and pop culture around me, without any guilt about what's "useless" bogging me down, I've had a wonderful time exploring the worlds of fiction and non-fiction alike. It's been and continues to be a bonding experience with others, a collection of ways I've learned a lot of cool things and stretched my thinking in new ways, and brought countless ours of fun and enjoyment into my life.

My conclusion? Books and TV are both pretty great.