Friday, April 7, 2017

There's No Such Thing As "Self-Taught"

The term “self-taught” is bandied about a lot in self-directed education circles. People learning outside the strictures of formal institutions, classes, or tutors are deemed have taught themselves, taken on the internal role of both student and teacher.

And yet “self-taught” is not really a term I like or use myself.

To me, self-taught implies that learning happens in a vacuum. Alone, without external influences, without help, without the plethora of human resources available in this world. Unschooling is too often viewed, in my opinion, as something both insular and perhaps even lonely (that age-old “socialization” myth), along with being almost arrogant in nature: you think you know enough to teach yourselves? You certainly have a high opinion of your skills…

While there are really great aspects of independence that life learning obviously provides--after all, the whole point is self-directed learning, making your own decisions about what you choose to do with your time--I think there’s an important distinction to be made between independence and isolation. Between learning which is self-directed, and knowledge which is supposedly self-taught. The reality of unschooling is that it functions best within community, with the support of myriads of different people--sometimes even teachers! Besides, being “self-taught” may not even be possible. After all, even if you learn something from books, YouTube videos, or observation, someone wrote those books, filmed those videos, and is practicing their skills in a place you can observe them.


I’ve said it before, but as far as I’m concerned it bears frequent repetition: unschooling is about opening up more of the world to children than they’d generally encounter in school, not less. Spending time around a wider variety of people (ages, backgrounds, skills), not fewer. Life learning is truly a community venture, rooted in the unique places we inhabit, not a solo-expedition in self-teaching.

What do I personally like to emphasize, instead?

Delight-driven: Learning that starts with a spark, building curiosity, a burst of inspiration, excitement, delight.

Inquiry-based: Finding the answers to a question (or a hundred questions), the solution to a real problem, exploring the world with interest and thoughtfulness and wonder.

Self-directed: Choosing which pursuits are worth pursuing, who you turn to for support and direction, what you spend your time in doing.

Life learning doesn’t seek to turn everything into teaching, whether by yourself or others, and it certainly isn’t about going it alone and lonely (at least if you can possibly help it). Instead it’s about taking advantage of any opportunities available to you, if they seem important or interesting, and shaping a collaborative, self-directed education.

Doesn’t that sound a lot better than self-taught?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"That's Not Unschooling!" Tips on Sharing Unschooling Advice Kindly and Effectively

This post was originally published on Patreon in October 2016. Patreon is a crowdfunding platform I use which lets supporters like you pledge any amount you choose--from $1 to $20 or more--per month to support my work, and in exchange you gain access to my patron only online feed of exclusive posts, interviews, newsletters, behind the scenes updates, and more. Most of the posts I write for patrons will remain exclusive to Patreon, but sometimes, many months later, one of those posts will make its way here. I hope you enjoy this one, and I also hope that if you appreciate my work you'll consider becoming a supporter!

Something I see sometimes that makes me scratch my head: "We use a curriculum that's really unschooling friendly!"

...Which seems to be missing the point more than a little.

If a child chooses to do a curriculum of their own free will (as in, there wasn't strong parental pressure to do it) that IS still unschooling. But if the adults involved have chosen a curriculum and are forcing their children to in any way adhere to it--even if it's a “relaxed” curriculum, even if it allows children to choose from a list of pre-determined activities--that's still, well, schooling.

There is a strong cultural story of what school looks like. It has separate classrooms; separate teachers; knowledge is transferred in a neat one-way direction from teachers to students; there are clear distinctions between periods; clear separations between subjects; there’s a cafeteria and recess and homework to do afterward…

So when people choose to break away from this vision of school, and don’t create an exact replica of school inside of their own homes, I think it can be easy to think that what they’re doing must be UN-schooling. And I mean, it almost certainly IS better than school! An important step (many steps) away from mainstream schooling!

But it might not be unschooling just yet. And if a parent is enforcing any type of curriculum (no matter how loosely) on their children, it definitely isn’t.

This isn’t a criticism, so much as an observation of just how deeply we, as a culture, have internalized How Education Works based on a model of forced schooling, so that even when someone has shed the most obvious trappings of schooling (the classrooms, the periods, the different teachers for every different subject), they’re still usually harboring a lot of schoolish ideas. They’re still looking at things, as I once pointed out, through “school coloured glasses.” There might not be a whole cadre of professional teachers, but an adult still has to be planning lessons of some sort. There might not be periods divided by that old fashioned ringing of the bell, but there are still “learning activities” and activities from which children are apparently not learning (video games, anyone?).

For prospective unschoolers, it often takes a whole lot of deschooling, an unpacking of all the myriad beliefs of what learning is “supposed” to look like, and a gradual understanding of how freeform and ever present life learning actually is.

For those of us who are further along on that journey, whether by a little bit or a lot, I find myself often wondering--even after many years now interacting with new unschoolers myself--how to gently point out what isn’t unschooling, and suggest a change of direction to those who are looking to embrace life learning. It’s a continuous process of learning to do better, and I think I will always be working on being clearer and kinder in my communication, but there are some things I try to keep in mind. Note that I’m talking specifically about people who WANT to unschool, who are interested in learning more, and just don’t have a very accurate grasp of just what unschooling is yet. I am not talking about people who stubbornly insist they want to call their homeschool unschooling even when it’s anything but, and have no interest in moving further in a self-directed direction.

Now that we have that out of the way…

Be gentle. Maybe instead of a straight up “that’s not unschooling,” a softer yet still clear approach is better: “Unschooling is all about adult facilitated self-directed learning, so if you’re making your kids follow a curriculum or do workbooks when they haven’t chosen to do so themselves, I’d consider that to be eclectic or relaxed homeschooling. If you and your family are happy with that, then that’s fine. But if you’d like to move in a more unschooling direction, I’d love to share some resources with you or tell you a bit about how we do life learning in my family.”

There are so many great resources to share. Some of my personal favorite sites right now are Living Joyfully With Unschooling; Unschooling Mom2Mom; Offtrail Learning; and of course my own archives may also prove helpful.

Talk about your own breakthrough moments and successes. That time you realized your child had started reading without you ever trying to teach them to do so; how much more happy things became--and how much more learning you observed--when you ditched your curriculum; how focusing on relationships instead of “education” lead to a wonderful family project… Whatever it was that made unschooling “click” for you might help someone else in their own breakthroughs, all while keeping it focused on things that work for you, instead of telling the person in question what they’re doing wrong.

Give concrete suggestions. If someone is actively asking for help with a difficult situation, or bemoaning the fact their attempts at unschooling (based on their potentially flawed views on just what it is) isn’t “working,” it can be really helpful to make some suggestions. Unsolicited advice is usually a bad idea, but when people are looking for help, so many unschoolers have so much wisdom to share. And in my experience, phrasing things in the form of questions is often the most effective approach. “Have you tried looking at things from her perspective? I wonder how she feels about X thing?” “Are you focusing on your interests, too? It’s great for children to see their parents passionate about their own activities, and maybe he’d like to join you!” “Have you talked to them about how you’re feeling, and asked them how they feel? If you work on having open lines of communication, it will probably be easier to find a solution that works for everyone.”

I think there will always be times when we find ourselves frustrated with misunderstandings of how unschooling works and what it even is, but for those who want the benefits of a truly life learning educational experience, we’re in a wonderful position to share our own experiences and help all the new folks find their own unschooling groove, in a way that’s both kind and effective.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Unschooling Helps Raise Critical Thinkers

When asked what education is supposed to do, what it’s supposed to instill in the minds of growing humans, one of the most common answers is “critical thinking.” After browsing through definitions from various dictionaries, all of which amount to essentially the same thing, I found Google’s version to be the most succinct: “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”

That seems reasonable. We all want the people around us--and we want ourselves--to look at issues thoughtfully and come to conclusions through careful consideration, instead of snap judgements based on little knowledge.

But how do you foster that type of thinking? And are schools really the best place to do so? You can probably guess that my opinion on the latter would be a big “no.” So how do you encourage critical thinking outside of school? I have a few thoughts on the subject that have proven true in my own life...


When others make choices for you, there’s no critical thinking. Or as Alfie Kohn put it, “The fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” By giving children greater control over the everyday choices in their lives and including them in the realities of family decision making you’re automatically introducing them to the art of critical thinking.

Experiencing differences. Neighborhoods and school districts are often made up of a roughly homogeneous group of people in similar socio-economic brackets and racial backgrounds. This isn’t always the case, of course, but too often it is. If you value critical thinking (not to mention social justice), this is bad news. Exposure to a range of different people is generally understood to be a good way to build empathy for others, gain a more nuanced view of different experiences, and figure out where you stand on important issues. In other words, experience with other people and other views helps build critical thinking. Funnily enough, this is one that unschoolers--all school free learners, in fact--are frequently accused of doing a poor job of. Plenty of times that’s true, but it’s every bit as true of schools.

With all of the above, I don’t mean to imply that entertaining bigoted or abusive views in the name of “respecting different opinions” should be the goal. Certain views are considered unacceptable for a reason, and don’t deserve respect. I’m just trying to touch on the importance of joining or building many different communities, not only spending time with people who are exactly the same as you.

Talking about and learning to recognize biases in the world around you. While the term “fake news” might be being bandied about a bit too loosely, it is important to understand that not all sources are equally accurate, and even the best sources are still not wholly unbiased: everyone perceives the world through their own set of prejudices, and even a journalist doing their best to report accurately is going to be subtly influenced by their unique set. So how do unschoolers--or anyone, for that matter--learn to recognize bias? You talk about it! Or at least, that’s what I learned to do. What unquestioned beliefs underlie this storyline? What identities does this reporter hold that might tell you something about their perspective? Is there a reason the creators of this film might want to influence your thinking in a specific way? I ask myself these types of questions all the time, and I discuss them with family and with friends. This type of deconstructing is contagious, spreading among friend groups and instilling habits of questioning everything in the children in your lives.

Looking at studies, not headlines (and looking at those studies critically). I’m sure all of us have posted an article a time or two without verifying the accuracy of its claims. I know I have! But as a general rule, I try to look past the headlines and figure out what exactly is behind them. For instance, while scientific research or surveys are often sensationalized in headlines, the breadth of the study, its quality, what the conclusions the researchers reached actually were, and any caveats they share in their own overview is very rarely (wholly) reflected in mainstream press coverage. So I generally make a habit of looking over whatever part of the study in question is available for free, and looking over it thoughtfully. What I mean by that is that the very first things I ask myself after getting some basic ideas about the methodology of the study, the demographic groups surveyed, etc. is “how could the choices the researchers made have affected the results?” How long were the study participants followed? If a wider range of demographics were surveyed, might the results have been different? Too often we learn to see experts as infallible, and while there are certainly many areas where I respect the knowledge others have as greater than my own, that certainly doesn’t mean I can’t turn a critical eye to any and all things I read, and use my own reasoning to decide how reliable it is.

Emotions are as important as rationality. Sometimes people like to take the idea of critical thinking to mean “feelings don’t matter, stop acting like emotions are important and coddling people.” Critical thinking is about knowing what elements exist in any given situation, and considering how they do or should affect the outcome. In human culture and human interactions, emotions will always be an important consideration. The whole debate about content warnings in university syllabi come to mind. On one side, you have people ranting against “political correctness run amok,” and higher institutions no longer being about that all important “critical thinking.” Yet all students are asking for is more information. What is going to be covered in this course? Critical thinking is all about gathering as much information on a topic or situation as possible in order to make an informed decision (in this case, that decision would be, “is this the right course for me, my goals, and my needs, or not?”). Those who oppose content warnings in academia or in online spaces seem to have no similar problems with the content warnings on films and TV shows. You can’t make good decisions if you don’t have all the relevant information, and whether a movie has PG rated violence or R rated violence is going to make a big difference in who you choose to watch it with (your 10 year old nephew or your friend who can’t stand gore are not going to be a good fit for the latter). Our emotional lives and limitations are part of critical thinking and making good decisions for ourselves.

This is, of course, just an overview of some of the things I’ve found helpful to incorporate into my own life, and though I certainly don’t always do as good a job as I’d like, I have managed to grow into a person who is mostly used to dissecting the media I consume, having thoughtful conversations with friends, verifying sources, and all that other good stuff. And that holds true for a large portion of the adult unschoolers I know as well! When you grow up with a lot more self-determination, it tends to create an environment that fosters what everyone claims to want in children: critical thinking.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Personal Manifesto On Learning Bravely

Most of what I share is advice and theory, deeply rooted in my personal experiences, but not often about my own learning journey. So as the new year starts--and thanks to a bit of inspiration from Sue Patterson’s unschooling manifesto--I wanted to sit down and consider what types of attitudes I want to cultivate, and what pieces of advice I want to give to myself, as I continue my own grown-up unschooling. These are not so much specifics: “read more books” or “take up running,” these aren’t new year's resolutions (easily made and as easily broken), but instead I hope will act more as my own mini-manifesto for the coming year, a year in which I hope I can work on growing, healing, and learning bravely. Here goes!

My unschooling mug! (Society6)

  1. Recognize when I’m stuck, and don’t let myself stay stuck for too long. 
  2. Get help when I need it. Professional help, support from friends, classes, whatever. I’m not a one-person island, and reaching out for support, in whatever way is needed, is a good thing.
  3. Push outside my comfort zone. This is one of my biggest goals for this coming year! As a person with generalized anxiety disorder, pretty much EVERYTHING is outside my comfort zone, and the longer I stay in my little zone, the smaller it becomes. I need to always be expanding it, step by step, little by little, outwards if I want to do better.
  4. Fun is important. Really important! It’s okay to enjoy something even if it doesn’t have an immediate, obvious “point.”
  5. Quiet times are good in moderation, but a balance needs to be found. I love daydreaming and enjoying the small things of everyday life: --a good cup of coffee, a good cuddle session with my cat, a wonderful new novel. However, I can get so wrapped up in them I become isolated. Other people need to be a regular part of my life, too.
  6. Stop comparing myself to others, and finding myself lacking. If I truly believe what I say about each person having their own unique timeline, I can’t keep thinking I’m at the “wrong” point on it.
  7. Don’t ever be embarrassed to share what I’m interested in or excited about, even if--or maybe especially if--it’s something that I know some people would dismiss as unimportant.
  8. Celebrate every tiny little success as if it’s a Big Deal, because it IS a big deal! It’s important to recognize progress, whether it’s big steps forward or small ones.
  9. Despite what I tell myself, coffee does not actually help me do anything. Use it in moderation.
  10. Inspiration doesn’t usually just pop up all on it’s own. Finding inspiration is work, a deliberate practice of paying attention, doing new things, engaging in conversation with others, and being genuinely thoughtful about what I read and see and hear. 
  11. Being brave in my work doesn’t only mean talking about my struggles (with anxiety and depression, mainly), it also means branching out with my writing, choosing topics that interest me, but I don’t know if others will want to read. It means creating more things in mediums I haven’t explored much before (video, audio). It means saying “yes” more to interview requests. 
  12. Productivity is a self perpetuating cycle. While it’s okay to not be productive sometimes, and my value as a human being is not attached to my productivity, when I do more, I feel better. And when I feel better, I do more. Once the ball starts rolling, I have to keep it rolling, even when things are hard. Doing only a little bit feels a whole lot better than doing nothing.
If you choose to join in and write your own mini-manifestos, please share the links in the comments. I’d love to read them!

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