Saturday, August 10, 2013

I Can't Teach You to Unschool

I'm not anti-teaching.
Some unschoolers are, and believe that there is nothing that must be taught to be learned.

I've discussed this in other posts.
Some things are much easier to learn if you have an expert who knows how, to help you learn it. Extremely precise psychomotor skills come to mind. Something that needs immediate feedback to correct.

I think that by FAR, most knowledge does not need to be taught, but can be learned in a variety of ways.

And, I've come to believe, some things CAN'T be taught.
I've learned this over many years of trying to help people in various ways.

I was a La Leche League Leader for several years when my kids were young. I spent a lot of time helping over the phone, and a fair amount of time visiting people's homes. Most of the time, I was able to help the new Mom at least a little, but not always.

When I wasn't able to help, I always wondered why. I thought that maybe if I could camp out in her closet, and see what really was happening, I might be able to figure it out. It's not that I thought the Mom was hiding anything or lying, it's that it can be so challenging to describe things, or to figure out a problem from a brief snapshot in time. If only I could be there for an extended period, I might be able to see patterns I couldn't see in a short visit, or hear over the phone. Maybe she was doing something she wasn't aware of, or something she didn't realize was important to mention.

Lack of access to someone for an extended period of time, lack of direct observation over time, and lack of ability to respond in the moment, is part of what makes it difficult to teach some things. The person's life goes on without you the rest of the time, and whatever other influences they have may well override your (and their) efforts.

Another piece of the puzzle is the idea that unschooling "is like being on vacation all of the time!"

It isn't. :-)

Some of the activities may be similar to the kinds of things many people tend to do on their vacations, but unschooling has an important- critical- aspect that vacations do not share.
That of not being a vacation.

The thing about vacations is that they are departures from your "regular," day-to-day life. They often take place at a location other than your home. People frequently allow or tolerate things they would not want to live with every day, because they know it is of limited duration. Unfamiliar foods, uncomfortable bedding, strangers being around a lot, a lack of usual resources, etc. People may make exceptions to their preferred diet, for a variety of reasons. They may go without sleep. They may choose different activities, because those activities are only available during the vacation, putting off things they normally enjoy. They may tolerate more disruptive behavior, under the belief that a vacation means "having fun," and everyone needs to "go along."

This is important to realize.

The most critical part to understand about the difference between day-to-day life and "vacation," is that most people defer dealing with anything difficult until the vacation is over, because they either don't want to make a big deal out of it and "ruin the vacation," or because the vacation is happening for the very reason of getting away from day-to-day stresses. Vacation isn't the time when people work on their difficult issues, or on interpersonal communication. It is, often, a time of purposely NOT doing or dealing with anything that is unpleasant, saving that for afterwards.

I understand what people MEAN when they say that unschooling is like a permanent vacation. They are referring to the idea of relaxing rules, doing fun things, and being together as a family, and in those ways, yes, it can be similar. It is possible to do fun things much more often than a once a year vacation!

Where the analogy doesn't work, though, is that unschooling MUST BE YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE, not separate from it. You can't BE "on vacation all the time." If you are out doing all those fun things, but neglect your relationships, and put off improving communication, and simply don't deal with any difficulties that come up, it's not going to work very well. Pair this idea of "vacation" with people who believe unschooling means "never saying no," and what you get is confusion about why things "aren't working" and impatience waiting for kids to "self regulate." Unschooling is ACTIVE, not passive.

Both of these things- the lack of access for extended periods of time, and the fact that unschooling has to be your everyday life, and not separate from it, are the foundations for why I believe I can't teach anyone to unschool.

If I come into your life with the purpose of teaching you something, my very presence makes things different.
Unless I live with you, I am a) not there for extended periods of time, available whenever you need information or advice, and b)not part of your family.
My not being part of your family means I am a guest, and when a family has a guest in their home, their behavior changes significantly.
If everyone's behavior is not the same as it usually is, especially if they are on their "best behavior," I won't be able to observe the very things that you probably need help with, because they won't happen while I'm there. And even if they did, I can't be there to walk you through the process of recognizing, adapting, responding, softening, learning to be proactive, addressing future instances, etc. It is SUCH an ongoing thing that I can't possibly be there for as long as it takes to adapt and change, to learn new ways of being. 

In a sense, my presence will create many of the same issues as does a "vacation," in that things are suddenly changed, and won't go back to "day-to-day life" until I leave. I can ONLY see your family in that mode, which makes me very little help at all. I can't come in and teach you, based on observing your family for a short period of time. I can't "fix" things for you in an hour, or a day, or a week. If I'm not there AT ALL, but only communicating over the phone or online, I can only take your word for what is happening, rather than observe it directly, and without a history of good communication and understanding between us, it would take some time before we could both be sure that nothing is being misinterpreted in either direction.

I can share information. I can offer suggestions. I can tell you what worked for us, and things I've heard worked for others. I can suggest resources. I can help you connect with other unschoolers. I can reassure you that unschooling really does work, based on knowing an increasing number of adults who grew up unschooling. I can encourage you to find your own path. 

But I can't teach you how to do it.


  1. I love, love love this! Am sharing with all my Twitter peeps and FB friends. This is why there can be no unschooling "gurus", only caring members of a community who support each other. You are right, the best we can do is give suggestions and tell others what works for us. Wonderful post!