Monday, September 8, 2014

On Teaching, and Learning to Ask For Help

(I haven't posted in a LONG time. It has been an... interesting... couple of years. Hoping to get back to posting regularly. We'll see. Will at least post an update to the kitten story soon, since there is much more to that story.)

It's a funny thing.
We're unschoolers.
Some would use the phrase "Radical Unschoolers."

The entire rhythm and flow of our lives is different from "average," whatever that means.

We are all active, interested, enthusiastic and fluent learners.
The range of things we've individually and collectively been interested in is both wide and deep.
All of us excel at figuring out how to figure out what we need to know, at finding resources.
All of us prioritize actual learning over any sort of paperwork that typically has no more meaning than attendance and possibly testing well.

Self-motivated, we are.
It's a good thing.

I spend hours online, trying to help people come to a better understanding of learning itself, of how people learn, and how it isn't necessary to "teach" kids all the stuff that people seem to think kids "need to know." 
Most of it really IS basic, fundamental to everything in our lives, and kids pick it up from using it, seeing it used, from needing information in order to do the stuff they want to do. 
The whole idea of sitting people down at a desk, standing up in front of them, lecturing, and then giving written exams (often "multiple guess") in order to have SOME way of "evaluating" students comes primarily from an educational system that requires large groups of students and a need to move them along to the "next grade." With individualized learning, that is not required. It's easy to know what a student knows if you have the time and opportunity to talk to them about it, to observe them in an ongoing way, and often, to be learning the same thing right along with them.

So it's more than a little funny that what I do a LOT of in my life is… teach.

What I DON'T do is stand up and lecture, read powerpoint slides, and give written exams that don't measure anything other than test taking skills.

Living and learning with my kids has given me a very different foundation for teaching than most people have.
Having excellent mentors has added to that.

When I teach, I'm drawing understanding from my students more than attempting to put information "in."
My job is to help them make an emotional connection to the material, not to drown them with facts.
The content is far less important than the environment we create.
If I'm successful, if the students make that connection, then all the learning will be self-driven, with them actively wanting and seeking the information, rather than me needing to push, at all.

Sounds great, right?
Mostly, it is.

Except for one thing.
Many of them lack those very skills, of knowing HOW to learn.

MOST of them come to me with a learned helplessness surrounding any sort of "education."
They are so accustomed to having everything pushed at them, that they aren't sure what to do if it is not.
They are so used to trying to figure out "the right answer" or "what the teacher wants" that they filter everything with that purpose, so when there IS NO "right answer," they feel anxious, like they must have made a mistake, or missed something.
The fear of feeling stupid, or being embarrassed in front of the class is SO STRONG that it hinders people greatly.

Isn't it odd that one of the biggest challenges in teaching is helping students get past the idea that they somehow are supposed to ALREADY KNOW what they are there to learn, and that admitting that they don't, or showing any lack of knowledge is culturally, socially, and personally TERRIFYING?

One of the very first things I remind students of is that they are here because they DON'T know, and that's great.
That they all start at this same place of "not knowing," and that's exactly where they should be.
That not only is there no need to pretend to know anything, there is no need to try to impress anyone by faking it.
It is only by admitting what we don't know, that we begin to learn it. This is literally true: your brain tries to make things fit what it already knows, and it is only when it recognizes the need to learn something new, that it can do so.

And one of the ways to do that is to embrace asking for help.
Needing help is okay.
Everyone needs help with something.

In a group, people are often reluctant to ask for help, because they aren't past that fear of not knowing yet. In a small group, it is somewhat less frightening, so more people will ask questions. One on one, it's both easier to ask, and easier for both people to recognize the need without a specific question, some of the time.

A lot of my task in teaching a group is helping them see it as one-on-one, a learning experience JUST FOR THEM, even if there are other people in the room. I tell them to focus on their own learning, and let everyone else worry about everyone else. 
If you want to learn something, take ownership of that process, and ask for the help you need. That's how you'll learn, by making it all relevant TO YOU. 
Focusing on what anyone else is or isn't doing, won't help you learn. 
Waiting for someone else to ask questions won't help you learn.
Trying to copy, or be like, someone else who ALSO doesn't know, won't help you learn, even if it makes you feel more socially comfortable, especially if it allows you to hang onto ineffective patterns of thinking or doing.
Letting other people (other students OR whoever is teaching!) decide what things to focus on won't help you, unless you happen to need the exact same things, which is extremely unlikely. 

Speak up for yourself. Ask. 
Understand that the way things are presented right now, today, in this situation, will rarely be the ONLY way to demonstrate, describe, explain, or clarify something.
Keep asking, until you understand.
Recognize your own role in seeking understanding- sometimes, the "answers" might be more questions, and might require you to take further action, or time to pass, rather than just being "given" to you.
Everyone learns at their own pace, and in their own ways. 

Find yours.

This is all as true about learning about unschooling itself, as about everything else.


When I mention to unschoolers that I teach, I'm sure they are often confused, and may picture me as teaching public school, or something.
I don't often mention WHAT I teach, unless directly asked.
It's more than a little unusual. :-)

One of the things I teach is relatively common. 
I'm an EMT, and help teach new ones. 
I'm currently focused on teaching/facilitating the psychomotor and affective domain skills, rather than the cognitive information, although that is part of everything, of course.
That's the semi-normal thing I teach. Lots of great folks out there doing that, many with far more experience than I have.

But the other thing…
I'm one of very, very few.
It's so unusual that it is challenging to describe since the phrases that would have described it years ago no longer give an accurate representation of what I do, since the "modern" version is SO far removed from the fundamental skills, as to suggest an entirely different thing, with no real relationship whatsoever.
I teach people the skills required to be heroes. :-)

If that intrigues you at all, check out our website, where there is a bit more explanation.

If our mission appeals to you, and you are able, we are currently asking for help.
We are a not-for-profit educational corporation, and have no funding from anyone other than our students and our own pockets.
Our facilities are in desperate need of rehabilitation, and we don't have the money to do it without help.
We are running an Indiegogo campaign called "Unlock the Hero In Your Heart", and every little bit helps, as does spreading the word.