Tag Archives: trust

Compulsory Self-Directed Learning?

Compulsory Self-Directed Learning?

What do you call it when students are allowed to self-direct their learning when their attendance at school is compulsory? I call it cognitive dissonance. You might call it baby steps in the right direction!

There’s a new school opening later this year in California. It’s called, for now, the UnSchool (the students will be able to choose their own name later). There are also a number of other schools, specialized programs, and organizations that use the term “unschooling” or ally themselves with it.

What they’re really about – and share with life learning/unschooling – is the principle of self-directed learning. And it’s great that so many people are recognizing how much learning happens when one controls, and therefore engages with, their subject matter. As much as that is obvious to life learners (like my family, who practiced self-directed learning before the author John Holt coined the term “unschooling” in the 1970s), it is a huge step for most educators. They, after all, have mostly experienced kids caught in classroom tedium and the rebellious behavior that often results. So the fact that kids can be self-directed learners can come as a surprise to – or even be denied by – most teachers, school administrators, and parents.

My problem is that the schools that do get it – like the UnSchool and the Sudbury Valley Schools, for instance – are still schools with compulsory attendance. And our thinking about learning and learners can be stretched so much further – to include, among other things, children’s rights. Self-direction can be seen as a basic life principle. In the introduction to my 2000 book Challenging Assumptions in Education, I wrote that trusting one thing leads to trust in others, and questioning the assumptions embedded in one aspect of life leads us to question others. (Some refer to this as “radical unschooling,” but I think it’s a natural and inevitable progression in trust and respect.)

If we agree that learning arises not from compulsion, memorization, and repetition of material dictated by someone else but through self-direction, investigation, and discovery, then where is the justification for coercive, compulsory participation?

In that light, I look forward to the day when those who offer self-directed educational opportunities further extend their trust in and respect for children and young people…and stop enforcing compulsory school attendance. That way, they can truly pursue a self-directed education!

Mindful Learning and What You Can Miss if You’re Not Present

Mindful Learning and What Parents Can Miss

Mindful learning involves being present in our children’s lives, trusting them to learn, and enjoying the process.

Maybe it’s because I spent some time on the vendor section of a virtual homeschooling conference website. Or maybe it’s because I read an article in the business press referring to homeschooling as “an industry.” Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking about what we miss because we’re too busy planning the next “educational” outing for our life learning children. Or watching out for the next “teachable moment.” Or chasing what we think is the correct unschooling definition or the ideal life learning lifestyle.

And, yes, we life learners are prone to getting in our own way as much as the parents who are the target market for the conference vendors that make up the industry. Our concern that we’re not doing enough for our kids can result in busyness that we mistake for facilitation. Our momentary lack of confidence in the process can lead us to seek out products and advice that will supposedly help us do it “better.”

But what if success lies with doing less rather than more, with being rather than doing? Think “mindful learning.”

I’ve long been focused on mindfulness and mindful learning. And I’m pretty sure I enjoyed my life learning daughters as much as I could when they were children. But I’m also sure I was often overly-involved with writing, magazine production work, and community activism – or, as one of them reminded me recently, advising new life learners over the phone while the rest of the family ate dinner. And sometimes, I was just too tired or burnt out to be present for, let alone appreciate, each precious moment of our family’s life.

I know I trusted my daughters to develop into the adults they now are, and I respected them as individuals from the time they were born. But the years went by quickly. And I wish I had even more of those wonderful moments to marvel at now. On many days, I forgot to record about the good times in my journal; don’t you do that.

Here are some more keys to mindful learning and living that I suggest you consider:

  • Stay in the present with your children. Enjoy them where they are right now. Share their wonder at a snail making its slow way across the sidewalk. Celebrate with them their video game victory. Notice the feel of their hand in yours as you walk to the park. Play; be silly with them and laugh.
  • Keep in mind that childhood is a real stage of life, not a rehearsal for adulthood.
  • Trust your kids. Remember that the hour of playing with their pet bunny holds lots of learning.
  • Trust yourself to do what’s right for your kids. (Remember that most of us went to school and need to deschool ourselves before we can fully trust ourselves and our kids to learn without school.)
  • Stop trying to control or measure your children’s learning. If they take your lead and remain engaged with the present moment, they will learn. Remember that you don’t really have much control over their learning anyway – it’s mostly in their hands.
  • Pay attention to the difference between manipulation and facilitation. Your kids are watching you, so model learning behavior. Your role is to introduce them to the wonders of the world but not to try and force their interest in any one of them.
  • Remember that learning happens best when it’s not the goal but the byproduct of living.
  • Don’t overcommit, either your kids or yourself. Do they really need all those play dates, classes, and clubs? Examine the real purpose behind them all: Are you signing them up because they really want the activity or because you worry they won’t get enough socialization or stimulation?
  • And lastly, look after yourself. While taking care of everyone else and their learning, make time for you. When you’re not burnt out, you’ll be more apt to stay in the present and not miss all those wonderful moments with your kids. You will have to trust me on that one.

Mindful learning involves being present in our lives. Those learning moments (as opposed to teachable moments!) that we all pursue will happen on their own without your fretting or planning. Pay attention to them – and all the other moments of your family’s life – and you will not regret missing anything.

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Fear and Learning

Fear and LearningI’ve been thinking about fear and how it is used to manipulate and influence. A while back, I wrote this article about fear and learning for Life Learning Magazine. I also describe what happens instead when we create environments where our children feel secure. But aside from the issue of fear and learning, fear is an issue in many other aspects of our lives these days. Politicians try to motivate us to vote for them (on the basis that they will protect us from economic collapse or a massacre by foreign terrorists). Corporations persuade us to buy their stuff (drugs to protect us and our children against or cure us from diseases, for instance). Authorities try to keep us and our children in line (ostensibly for our/their “own good,” whether it’s attending school or playing alone in and walking home from the park).

I don’t want to reduce a complicated topic to black and white, because there are international economic instabilities, terrorists, diseases, and abusive parents, all of which are fear-inducing. However, I think it’s important for us to explore about whether or not we and our children are influenced and/or manipulated by fear, whether or not that has any rational basis, and if there is a better way to live.

In terms of fear and learning, children’s use of electronics is a good place to begin for many of us. It is the topic of two recent articles in Life Learning Magazinehere and here. There is fear of cyberbullies, pornography, violence, mind-numbing compulsive use or even addiction, negative health effects from cellphones and Wi-Fi, even obesity from sitting too long. Some of those could be valid concerns. However, there is also this, as expressed in an article in The Atlantic in April, 2015: “Kids are learning a distorted view of the digital world that reflects the fears of adults rather than the aspirations of youth.”

One of the foundations of life learning is trust in children’s abilities. But fear can gnaw away at that trust. We might fear doing the wrong thing, parenting the wrong way, or messing up or hurting our kids; we may fear what others will think, or the unknowns lurking in the future. Fear might cause us to doubt ourselves and our decisions, and even act against what we think is in our children’s best interests.

So what do we do about that? I think we take the advice I gave in my article: We trust our kids as we help them explore the world. We research the source of our fear, we formulate a plan to manage the risk if it turns out that there is one, and we learn from any missteps we might take (especially if the misstep involves flagging trust!). We meet the world and its possible dangers in partnership with our children, not focused on our fear but motivated by their enthusiasm for the moment and aspirations for the future. That will help them learn to manage risk and help protect them against being manipulated by fear, both of which are important life lessons.

Hanging Out With My Unschooling Daughters

hanging out unschoolingSome of the best memories that I have from when my daughters Heidi and Melanie were young life learners / unschoolers involve us hanging out and doing things together. Our life learning / unschooling companionship took many forms: Family excursions to the zoo, rollicking road trips (we lived in an RV for a while), leisurely hikes across town and on country roads, gardening, baking, cooking, sewing, building LEGO villages. And then there were the conversations…talking about everything and nothing while doing things or just sitting in the kitchen enjoying each others’ company. In fact, as memorable as the excursions were, what I really miss is the companionship – the hours spent sitting together in the same room, each reading our own books, doing our own work, or just absorbed in our own thoughts.

We’ve probably all encountered people who wonder what our unschooling family life looks like – and have struggled to explain a day in the life (or been frustrated at having been asked). Sometimes, the questioners are homeschooling families that want to move away from curriculum and towards active learning; other times they’re curious onlookers. Or they may be the many people with negative judgments spurred by media coverage of unschooling – that it’s “non-parenting,” that the kids do nothing all day (except perhaps eat donuts), that life learners’ lives are without structure, and so on.

The reality is that encouraging active, self-directed learning can look like doing nothing. It involves providing space and materials, modeling behavior (a fancy way to say going about one’s own business), and keeping out of the way while remaining accessible, companionable, and supportive. It is often, indeed, about the “un” in “unschooling.” It’s about curing oneself of what Naomi Aldort, writing in Life Learning Magazine back in 2007, called a disease named “teacheria.” Teacheria symptoms include needing to explain or take over, to turn dinner into a lesson, to answer simple questions with complex answers, to find an audience, to get in the way of learning.

Keeping out of the way and allowing independence to develop naturally is harder than it looks…and it’s certainly not “unparenting.” But its importance – and the power of companionship in unschooling families – can be difficult for others to understand. In our culture, we have a fear of idleness, and therefore tend to over-program kids, rather than giving them space and time for themselves, or opportunities to enjoy adult company and to be part of our real-life activities. I remember that when I was a child, my mother never allowed me to be still, especially during summer vacation when my time wasn’t programmed by somebody else. Fearful that my idleness would lead me into “trouble,” she would program my time and/or create some busy work for me. Her efforts were futile, possibly because I was stubborn enough to reject her suggestions on general principle, probably because it only looked like I was doing nothing. And if I did admit to boredom, that was a plea for spending some time with my mother, rather than for one of her projects designed to keep me out of her way.

Life with my own unschooling daughters was quite different. For one thing, there was a great deal more trust and respect – on both sides. We also enjoyed being together, which is something that surprises many parents of young children. In fact, we were usually in the same space together for much of the day, no matter how large our living space was. When I was sewing, the girls would bring their projects into the sewing room. When I was cooking, they were in the kitchen with me, whether they were participating or doing something else. When I was doing magazine work or writing, they were often in the office – companionably doing their own thing. Sometimes, I didn’t even notice there was a child curled up beside me intently focused on pencil and paper, puzzle, book, or toy. When their dad or I needed to take a trip to the store, post office, bank, library, accountant, printer, or other personal or business destination, they were usually eager to go along for the ride, a chat, and whatever adventure there was to be had.

A great deal of learning resulted from all of those opportunities to be together. Like most kids, Heidi and Melanie soaked up information from whatever was going on around them, and they were, in fact, being mentored in many aspects of life and learning without us even really noticing. Our trust and respect for them led to them having a huge amount of choice and control over their lives. Our companionship was readily available and help was near when they asked for it. One of Heidi’s earliest sentences was, “I can do it myself!” But she also made it clear that she didn’t want me completely out of the way; what she really wanted was my trust, support, occasional assistance, and companionship. That not only gave me some great memories but put them on the path to adult independence.

Why Trusting Kids is So Hard

Why it is so hard to trust our kids.A Life Learning Magazine reader recently asked me to publish more articles about trusting kids and how to to do it. I said I’d think about it – not because I don’t want to (trust is, after all, a foundation of unschooling) but because I’m not sure there is a set of how-to instructions. And, really, most of the articles in the magazine revolve around doing just that – either learning how in the first place or reinforcing the belief that kids can, indeed, be trusted.

Why is trusting kids so hard? Why do we find it so difficult to trust them not only to learn, but to eat properly, to develop “good manners” (meaning to treat others mindfully), to get enough sleep, and to generally do the right thing for themselves and others?

Trusting kids isn’t popular in our culture. People “know” that children and young people can’t make their own decisions, that they won’t learn unless taught, that they won’t say thank you unless we tell them to, that they’ll grow up to be slobs unless we bribe them to keep their bedrooms clean…. Our society says children can’t be trusted because they aren’t trustworthy, and that they are wild, loud, inconsiderate, and uninterested in learning about the world around them unless forced. They must be socialized and molded.

I think the reason trusting kids is hard is that we don’t trust ourselves and, therefore, can’t trust our children. And that’s because our parents and our teachers didn’t trust us. Growing up, most of us weren’t allowed to make our own decisions – what to wear, what and when to eat, whether or not we were cold, what friends to have, what to study and when, how to participate in family decision making. We were managed, not trusted. We were dictated to, not allowed to think. Then, as we became young adults, our parents and teachers worried about us – not realizing that their lack of trust and the resulting control had ill-prepared us to make our own decisions. In the end, their lack of trust often became a self-fulfilling prophecy and we messed up. Many people think that adolescent mistake-making is a rite of passage, an important part of growing up.

And, indeed, most of us learned from the mistakes we made. But some those mistakes have been very painful for us and other. And many of us have spent a lot of time and money on therapy, retreats, workshops, and self-help books in order to learn to trust ourselves. If that is still a work in process, we can pass along the legacy of our upbringing and schooling to our children.

Those of us who have decided there is another way need to be sure the pattern doesn’t get repeated. We need to give our children the message that they know what is best for them, and that we are available to help and guide them if they are confused, and want our help.

By choosing life learning, we have chosen to mindfully protect and encourage our children’s ability to live their lives with joy and the knowledge of who they are. Even if we’re still figuring things out for ourselves, we can listen to and treat our kids with respect. We can model self-respect, mindfulness, and care for ourselves and others.

Trusting kids is not something that most of us were programmed for, so we need to be patient with ourselves as we walk the alternative parenting/life learning path.