Monthly Archives: November 2013

Unschooling Success or Failure?

Unschooling success or failure?After I wrote about unschoolers and potential a few months ago, somebody asked me how successful my life learning daughters’ adult lives have been. I responded that they’ve been just as successful as their childhood lives were. That didn’t satisfy this person, who began to ask more pointed questions about what kind of careers they have, how much money they’re making, if they have lots of friends, and other common measures. I realized that he was, in fact, quizzing me about unschooling success or failure…and what my daughters have turned out like without teachers and parents goading them to perform to their potential.

Success is personal. I don’t like to speak for other people, including my daughters. I think his questions were rude. And, as important as one’s childhood is, there are many contributors to success. But I did tell this person that I don’t personally define success as the ability to have acquired things, monetary or otherwise. And it’s certainly not something that can be standardized. (I think my evasiveness led him to assume they are both in the poorhouse or jail!)

In fact, I’m not even sure that success is a condition or even a permanent state of being. It is a process of accomplishing what is required to achieve a task or realize a dream, plus the lessons you learn along the way. And those lessons are invaluable even if the goal is not realized. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t see it this way – maybe because most people think the product is more important than process, while unschoolers see it the other way around.

Success and failure are seen as black or white, good or bad, proud or shameful. If being successful is good, then failing is bad. Failure often is accompanied by shame and ridicule. This just leads, in most cases, to a paralyzing fear of failure. We become focused on trying not to fail. We avoid taking risks. We hold ourselves back from fully living, from the process of learning and, inevitably and somewhat paradoxically, from experiencing opportunities for success.

Young children – especially those who haven’t been exposed to school – are good at being successful. They ask incisive questions, they acquire information, they experiment…they undertake the process of that leads to success in whatever they’re doing. But they, too, can learn to fear failure if their inquisitiveness gets turned off by teachers or parents or if they are made to feel self-conscious if they don’t appear to be achieving success.

I think our school-free lifestyle protected my daughters from that. One is a successfully self-employed graphic designer and writer, the other is a passionate conservation horticulturalist who runs a native plant botanical garden attached to a university. They both have loving partners and friends, and appear to me to have remained as happy, curious, creative, self-directed, and fearless as they were as children, while accumulating the wisdom of midlife. And that is the kind of “unschooling success” I hoped they would achieve.

The Importance of Questions

The Importance of Questions for Learning“Ask questions to find out something about the world itself,
not to find out whether or not someone knows about it.” ~ John Holt

As I wrote in an article in 2013 for Life Learning Magazine about unschooling and motivation, intrinsic motivation is the key to deep learning. And a major part of that is curiosity. Children are born curious and learning. They watch intently what others do, listen closely to what people say, touch everything, and explore every nook and cranny available to them. Later, they incessantly ask questions in an attempt to understand the whys and hows of their ever-expanding field of interest. Most parents of very young children will make the time to respect the importance of questions and curiosity to their children’s learning…as incessant as those questions sometimes seem.

However, that can change as kids grow older, especially if they attend school. Any school (or even pre-school) that relies on a standardized curriculum is, by default, structured to interfere with curiosity. Where curiosity leads is a uniquely individual thing, and is often in conflict with what curriculum writers dictate. In the standardized, competitive, results-focused environment of schools, there just isn’t time to deviate from the curriculum, let alone answer the questions posed by a roomful of kids. Teachers prefer to ask the questions (to which they already know the answers) and have the students provide the “correct” responses; that never-ending querying is an almost sure-fire way to dampen a child’s curiosity.

By definition, life learning parents recognize, nurture, and protect children’s curiosity. But however much faith and trust we have in children and in their learning process, we, too, can sometimes find ourselves too busy being curious (or worried) about what our children know (or don’t know) to allow curiosity to be their guide.

In another article for Life Learning Magazine about nurturing our children’s curiosity, I examine some of the other barriers to allowing kids to fully pursue their curiosity, including a concern that it will lead them to risky behavior or into unsafe situations or environments. Children need unstructured time to play, dream, create, and explore. Our role as unschooling parents is to provide that for our children so they can pursue answers to their questions, not to provide the “correct” answers. We would do well to remember Albert Einstein’s words about this: “Curiosity is a delicate little plant which, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom,”

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