Saturday, February 7, 2015

Not An Unschooling Article

Once again, there is an article making the rounds that uses the term "unschooling" to describe a way of homeschooling that is not in line with how most experienced unschoolers would define it. That's not a surprise, since most people really don't understand unschooling, and it is HIGHLY unlikely that anyone writing an article is going to "get it" in the amount of time and research that is done to write an article. It is so very different from how most people grew up, from how they think about and experience the world, that misconceptions are common. Understanding unschooling is a process, rather than an event. It comes from a period of thought and observation, not from a conversation, or the answer to a question or two.

Let's start with a little about homeschooling in general.

There are a wide variety of ways to homeschool, as many as there are people doing so. There are also as many reasons for homeschooling as there are people homeschooling.

It is simplest to imagine homeschooling as being a set of two or three different "methods," and a couple of different reasons, but this isn't accurate, at all. 

Some people attempt to replicate school at home, only to do so better than the schools do, because they have a much better student-to-teacher ratio, and the ability to give more time and attention to each student. They tend to be very focused on academics, with a goal of academic excellence, and perhaps early entry to college. Or, they may simply live where the schools are not so good, and they believe they can do better. Either way, the methods and goals and tools of evaluation are typically very similar to those used in schools, from curriculum to lesson planning to writing assignments to testing.  The difference is that it is a parent who is "in charge" and assigning those things, as well as making sure their child "keeps up." This type of homeschooling is the easiest to explain to other people, since it uses many of the same concepts and school subjects with which most are familiar.

Some people take this in a slightly different direction, and acknowledge that one of the greatest advantages of homeschooling is not having to keep to a school's schedule or methods. They keep the concept of school subjects, but choose to use a wider variety of methods and materials to accomplish that. For some things, they might use a text book, or an online class, or sign up for classes at a homeschool co-op, while for others they may use a tutor, or look stuff up on the internet, or they may take field trips, play educational games, or visit museums. They keep an eye out for the "best" educational materials, the most interesting and innovative ways to study different topics. They may not follow the scope and sequence of a public school precisely, but they do make sure to "cover" the school subjects. They may or may not use tests to evaluate the students. They may choose to use "alternative" methods of evaluation, such as oral exams or keeping a portfolio of work.

Some people- probably most, I would guess- pick and choose somewhat, using very school like methods for some subjects, while being more relaxed and experimental with others. How much of which depends on the parents' comfort level with each subject, and likely with what they find available and affordable to use. There is an infinite variety of combinations.

This is still in the realm of the easily described and explained, because most people can get excited about the idea of doing all sorts of exciting and fun things instead of "seatwork" for learning. Many, many parents start homeschooling with this very image in their heads, that they will provide all of these incredible opportunities and exciting tools for their kids, much better than any school could provide. They will use this resource for their math, another for their science, and will find opportunities like immersion classes for the child to learn a second language. It is impressive, and makes the parents feel like they are accomplishing great things, and, indeed, some are.

Many people first trip on the idea of unschooling at right about this point, when the school-at-home method or the find-exciting-things-and-other-ways-to-teach method crash and burn. They are exhausted, the kids are resistant, and things aren't working out AT ALL like they had planned, expected, and/or hoped. The kids don't want to focus on that math class, or that chemistry book, or go on that field trip or write that paper, and every day is more and more stressful. The parents reach out for help, or do some research, or have heard about someone who is doing something different, and they grab at the desperate hope that it doesn't have to be this way.

They decide they will unschool their kids, instead.

And right there is the first misconception: that unschooling is just another method, that it is something done to kids by their parents.

To start, they will simply STOP whatever else they were doing.
They see unschooling as "no curriculum."
As "child led."
As NOT what they were doing before.

So they stop the teaching, stop the planning, and they wait.
They wait for their child to lead.
A child who has no experience whatsoever in such a thing.
They watch their kid, wanting and expecting to see the child suddenly "take charge of their learning" and start doing all those educational things on their own, without the parent telling them to.

When this doesn't happen, they get confused.
They don't understand that they are "looking for love in all the wrong places," so to speak.

Unschooling doesn't look like schooling. It isn't about a school-based concept of education, only the child is in charge.

So what IS it?

And here is where it gets tricky to explain.

We have to start with learning, itself.
Humans learn. It's what they do. All the time.
WHAT they learn depends on what they need, what is in their environment, and what obstacles they must overcome.

In a culture that places a high value on public education, people are trained to conceive of learning as what happens in school, but it isn't.
Not even in great schools.
All the "teaching" in the world doesn't guarantee that the material is learned, because learning takes place within the person. Learning happens when the individual makes a personal, emotional, connection to the material. When it has meaning for them.
Don't get me wrong- some teachers are exceptionally good at helping a student make those connections, but the learning still takes place within the student. It can't be pushed on them. Rote memorization can be, but it is temporary, without the emotional "glue" that creates retention.

Not all people who have the title "teacher" are actually good teachers. Not all understand how learning happens, since their own "education" in such things often focuses on pretty much everything else they will be required to do. Lesson planning, classroom control, testing, record keeping, etc. They do, typically, have SOME education in the learning domains, but typically undervalue the affective domain, which is sort of tagged on after the cognitive and psychomotor domains, almost as an afterthought, partly because it is more difficult to understand at a cognitive level. It's funny, really, that all three domains are taught using only the first, the cognitive one, but I digress.

Learning IN school is very much focused on the cognitive domain, learning by being told, or by thinking about something.
Learning in the real world is very much focused on the affective domain: learning by feeling, by wanting to know, by finding something interesting and intriguing and exciting and fascinating or simply by it being useful, by needing to know it to DO something of value. It is driven by desire, by intrinsic motivation.

THIS is where unschooling "lives" and is also why many people have the somewhat inaccurate perception that it is "child led."

It is… and it isn't, exactly.
It is "child led" in the sense that it is driven by intrinsic motivation. 
But children do not exist in a vacuum.
Unschooling parents are connected to their child, to their interests and ways of seeing the world, to what they enjoy, what fits, what gets them excited, and that creates a partnership where children and parents actively reinforce and encourage each other's learning. There is sharing, rather than waiting for someone to "express an interest."

Which brings us to the next misconception many people have.

Okay, I get that it's intrinsically motivated.
I get that it's a partnership.

What if?

What if my child doesn't show an interest in math?
What if they don't learn to read on their own?
What if they just want to play videogames all day, and never do anything else?
What if they don't want to go out and do all the interesting things that other families are doing?

How do I know?

How do I know they are learning if I don't test them?
How do we meet state requirements?
How do they get a diploma, go to college, get a job, learn to stand in line, to do things they don't want to do?

There is a huge morass of concerns that people fall into because they still don't quite get it, they still can't let go of how they grew up and were literally trained to think about education, and they aren't yet able to see any other path than the one schools promote.

In short, they still want schooled results, as far as expectations of learning specific subjects, by a certain age, in order to go to college and join the rat race, just as if they would have had they gone to school.
But they ALSO want what they see as the results of unschooling, with bright, interested and interesting adultlings, with great family relationships, a love of learning, and perhaps some precocious excellence in whatever subject the child is "passionate" about, because they were able to focus on that interest and run with it in a way they would not have been able to do with so much of their time taken up by schools.

It is wanting the best of both worlds that ends up tangling up or outright preventing the best of either.

Instead, sit down, take a breath, relax for a minute, and look at what is really happening.
Focus on the important part: a life well-lived.

It is in the beginnings of understanding how people learn, and how everything is connected, that true understanding of unschooling begins.

Everything is connected to everything. Look far enough into one thing, and you can't help but explore and discover a wide web of interrelated and interconnected things. Life IS NOT, most emphatically is not, broken up into school subjects. It isn't. School does that because it is easier to keep track of large numbers of people that way. It is easier to test and evaluate and grade and compare that way: NONE of which are actually important in the learning process. The kind of evaluation that is actually important is the ongoing, interactive, give-and-take, discussion, sharing, demonstration based DOING that people do on their own, with perhaps a knowledgeable guide to help them make good choices. Test scores and grades are easy to calculate and record, but they don't mean much. Most written tests don't measure what they claim because things are rarely that simple, and the easiest test to grade- multiple choice- is the LEAST meaningful.

One of the most important parts of understanding unschooling is really, truly, honestly, from the heart, understanding that all things lead to learning, all learning is valuable, and it all adds up to create and support the mental and emotional environment, the backbone, from where each person approaches their lives. An unschooling parent's responsibility is to provide the resources necessary to have an actively learning, interesting, full life. Some of those resources are material things, like books or videos, but the most important one is role modeling, of how a person finds out what they want and need to know, that learning never stops, that the world is endlessly fascinating. It is the learning environment that is critical: the physical environment, but also the mental environment and the emotional one. Back to those three learning domains. They are all important.

If a family lives the way many do, where learning is something that happens in school, and outside of that, never read for pleasure, never look something up just to know, and where an interest in education is ridiculed, unschooling isn't going to happen. If the parents restrict access to certain kinds of activities, because they aren't "educational," while promoting others, as if that type of learning is "better," unschooling isn't going to happen. A child cannot learn to trust their own perceptions, to be active and proactive in finding out what they need to know, in following their interests happily, if they are not trusted to do so. Period.

The "basics" that people worry so much about are called basics because they ARE the foundation of everything else. Because they are necessary to so much else, to everything people want to know, want to be able to do, and enjoy doing, there is no need to separate them out to be sure they are learned. People will do amazing things in order to be able to do what they love, given a chance. Give them that chance.

Within a family, unschooling is inspiration-driven. Living and learning with a group of people, all with their own interests, preferences, and needs, requires cooperation, facilitation, communication, compromise, innovation, experimentation, etc. Most of it can't be seen from the outside, and certainly not without context. Most happens in tiny bits, moments here or there, that add up to a wealth of knowledge over time, all connected, and therefore more easily remembered and recalled. Unschooling is an active way of being, a learning lifestyle, not simply the absence of school. It is not about getting schooled results without school, and it is not about sitting back and expecting kids to learn everything "on their own." It is about facilitating what they need, whether that leads to college, opening their own business, grand traveling adventures, or simply to someone who grows up prioritizing being a good person, one who is conscientious, honest, caring and kind, and who makes choices in their life based on supporting their community and doing no harm, whether they end up with a prestigious career, or not. It is about honoring who they want to be, not what anyone else expects them to be.

If they want to go to college, help them go.
If they want a 9-to-5 job, help them prepare for it.
If they want time to explore options, provide it.
If they ask for help, help them.
If you find something they might find interesting, share it.
Hang out with your kids.
Be a good person, a good role model, and connect with others who are living lives they love.

But at the very beginning, remember this: it is a journey. You don't yet know what you don't know, or understand what you don't understand.
Don't expect to "get it" in one fell swoop.
Spend some time thinking about learning.
Be very observant.
Watch people.
Watch what they do, how they behave, how they feel, when they are doing something they aren't interested in, and/or don't want to do.
Listen to what they say about their lives.
Watch what people do, how they do it, how they talk and feel about it, when they are doing what they LOVE. Find those people. Notice what they have in common.
Think about your own experiences, of both pressure and joy. Of things that have made you miserable, and of those that have made your heart sing.

THEN choose.
What life do you want?
What life do you want for your kids?
What are your priorities, really?
What really matters?
How can you live in a way that honors those priorities?
Do the best you can to do that, no matter what other people tell you, no matter how many naysayers try to influence you.
People have a very hard time seeing others succeed at what they'd love to do, but are too fearful to attempt.
Understand that- and move on.

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