Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Adding Up All the Little Things

I've been wanting to write about this for a while, and have been thinking about how best to describe my thoughts. I still don't have it perfect, but I saw something on facebook last night that encouraged me to start writing anyway.

A woman was asking questions about unschooling, because she had some doubts about all that "free access." One of the things she said was that at the age of eight, her daughter was too young to understand ANYTHING about sex.

I find that attitude disturbing and potentially dangerous, but that, in and of itself, isn't what I want to write about.

My immediate thought was that if someone believes that a child is too young to know something at the age of eight, and, in the case of sex education, puberty becomes a little late for beginning to explain… then when, in there, will that person talk to their child about sex? At the age of nine? Ten? The day her period starts?

The same could be said about every topic out there.
When does someone need to know something?

Sometimes, it's fairly simple.
If it's a small, concrete thing, it can be easy to figure out.
For example, if I need to drive to Boston, I need to know how to get there.
I can look at a map right before getting in my car.
I might like to know the details of how to drive there sooner than that, but I don't actually need the specific driving instructions until right before I start driving.

So that's easy.

Or is it?

What do I need to know, in order to be able to understand the driving directions, and to safely and successfully make the trip?

I need to know how to drive.
I need to know how to read a map and/or follow directions.
I need a plan for what I'm doing when I get where I'm going- where to stay, where will I eat, etc.
I need some idea of the costs involved.
I need a general idea of how far I can drive before needing to refill my gas tank.
I need a general idea of how long it will take.
I probably need a plan for who is taking care of my animals while I'm gone, and there may be a variety of other things that need attending to, that I need to have made arrangements for.

In short, there is a LOT of information that goes into the trip, besides the last minute, simple information of what route to take.

This is true of pretty much everything.
Everything someone does, and everything someone needs to know, is based on everything they already know.

Here is where I think unschooling absolutely shines, compared to other educational models.

For one thing, we already recognize the interconnectedness of everything.

For another, we have the time and ongoing interactions that are critical for a foundation of an infinite number of small moments, that add up to form a wide-ranging web of knowledge, ability and interests.

One of the things about school that makes things easier to quantify, is the concept of following a curriculum, and often, a lesson plan as well. That way, each class is pre-planned, and at the end of the day, the week, the month, a teacher can show exactly what was "covered in class," and therefore, what specific information they expect their students to know. It makes things very organized, for sure. It lends itself well to keeping track of a group of students.

Unfortunately, what it does NOT do, is ensure that the students actually DO know the material, and it makes no effort at all to be sure that any of the specific material is of use to any individual student.

Homeschoolers who do "school at home" fall into much of the same trap, although it is a little easier to tailor things to individuals when there aren't as many of them. Even so, any choice to follow a curriculum provided by someone else means that the specifics of the subjects may or may not be the most appropriate for any particular student.

All curriculum still has two things in common. One is that life is separated into subjects at all, and the other is that there is an order in which things are taught that is decided on by someone other than the person doing the learning. So how does the person creating the curriculum decide what should be taught when, in what order, at what age? And how do they account for all the tiny bits of knowledge that may or may not be known by the student?

Unschooling (Finally! Actually on the subject!) depends on having all the time in the world, really, to learn.
It isn't about "introducing" a "subject" at the most appropriate time, it's about building a foundation of learning that extends into anything and everything. It's about literally millions of little moments, all adding up to better understanding.

It becomes almost impossible to identify when anything was "introduced" because everything is so interconnected, that you can't see where one thing changed to become another, or where someone stopped learning one thing, and began learning another, because there are no such moments. There is a LOT of overlap.

Things come up in conversation, or in passing. Maybe in a book, or a game, or a movie, or an unfamiliar word on a sign. In thinking about one thing, as someone starts to understand it, they start considering all sorts of related things.

My younger sister and I are masters of this. :-)
Perhaps you are, as well, and this will sound familiar.
She and I talk on the phone infrequently, but when we do, the conversations are long and very wide-ranging. Everything reminds us of something else we wanted to say, or discuss, and each of those things is a pathway to more stuff we want to share with each other. It is a rapid-fire experience, bouncing from one thing to another and back, and I have at times actually TAKEN NOTES during a conversation because I know that we will dance from thing to thing so fast, with each new thought so intriguing that we want to follow it, and yet, I don't want to miss some of them, so I write them down to be sure we loop back around.

We never do "cover" everything.
We ALWAYS find things to explore in conversation together that were not what we called to talk about, or at least weren't what we thought we meant to discuss. 

Life is like that.
Mental pinball.

A touch here, a thought there, a more intense exploration for a while, then on to something else, looping back around like the grand rollercoaster of learning.

There is no way to keep track of it all.
There is also no NEED to keep track of it all.
Everything, every little bit, each thought, each rambling conversation, each paragraph read, or each time someone shows someone else how to do something, or make something, all of it extends that foundation, so that when a time comes when some specific bit of information is necessary in order to accomplish something in particular, it is possible to fall back on a HUGE base of knowledge and experience and interests, and move forward from there.

If, instead, knowledge has been parceled out in discrete packages- today, we will learn addition- without a rich context, it will be much more difficult for someone to connect everything, and make USE of what they know and can do. If, instead, certain things are saved up to be taught at certain times, or certain ages, or in a certain order, if it comes to pass that someone needs some of that foundation, and it hasn't been allowed them yet, hasn't even begun to be part of their consciousness, it is much more difficult to figure out what to introduce and when and how, in order to help them do what they need to do.

Not impossible.
It isn't that if they didn't learn to read by the age of eight, they are forever doomed.

It isn't about COMPLETION of learning by any specific time or age.

It's about the beginnings.
With a curriculum, or a lesson plan, there are concrete BEGINNINGS of when something is introduced. Usually at a certain age or grade. Math. A foreign language. Reading. And if there is a specific beginning point, then, by definition, it was not begun earlier. If someone believes that the things that are specifically taught in this way DEFINE learning, they miss out on a LOT. They may well wait, or avoid certain subjects, expecting it to be provided to them later.

In "real life," everything has begun, is beginning, is in progress, all the time.
It's the recognition that everything builds from what came before, and is the beginning of something else, that is important. The recognition of the flow of learning, the overlap, the connections. 

So back to the woman who thinks that her daughter, at age eight, is not able to understand ANYTHING about sex, and therefore, should not be exposed to any information about it.


First, how is that even possible?
Unless, for that person, the subject of "sex" is very limited, perhaps only to intercourse?

But even working with that hypothesis, how well would it work to avoid all information about something, and then, at some specific age, decided on by the parent (or a teacher), not the person needing or wanting to know, they…. what? Sit them down and have "the discussion," with never having talked about any of it before? "Now that you are <some age>, it's time, there is something I need to tell you that I've been keeping from you your entire life…you need to know about sex, now, today. Didn't need to know yesterday." Pity the parent who has that sort of plan, and then has their child (too young!) suddenly start asking questions they are not prepared or willing to answer.

That doesn't work well with ANYTHING, let alone talking about sex.

Learning isn't a straight road, with specific stops. (Suddenly, the sex talk!)
It's a lifelong meander through the world, leaning one way here, another there, depending on interests and goals and opportunities.
Some people like a well worn path, knowing where they are going. Others prefer to blaze new trails. Most are probably somewhere in between.

It's all in the details.
The chance observation one day, that leads to a conversation another time, perhaps looking up information, deciding to participate in an activity, leading to greater interest, more conversations, more exploration. Maybe a lifelong interest, or a calling, that had its genesis in one small connection many years prior. Or it could just as easily go a different way, something thoroughly enjoyed for a while, before moving on to something else. It doesn't even need an endpoint at all; it's fine to discuss things just to do so, no big deal, an interest in the moment. It's okay to mention a little bit when an interest comes up, drop it, talk about it again later, a little more in depth, without ever needing to force a subject.

It's all good.
And all the richness and variety, whether of activities, or of thought, is part of who a person becomes.
Adding up all the little things along the way.


  1. Simply loved this post! So encompasses much of why we choose to unschool:)!

  2. I agree. Learning is a process. If we parcel topics out and rarely let them intertwine, how will we learn how to apply these things we learn? Also, teaching about autonomy and the right to say no as well as the necessity to listen when someone else says no to even a hug or kiss IS sex education and yes my children (10, 8, and 3) ALL know about autonomy. Thanks for the post!