Exploring Unschooling Podcast

One of the really great new (in my terms) resources for unschoolers is Pam Laricchia's Living Joyfully website, which includes, among other things, a wonderful podcast series. I totally recommend it, and not just because I'm on it. There are some wonderful interviews with wonderful unschooling parents.

Here's the link to the interview she did with me, if you want to know what I sound like:

And since I'm no good at speaking off-the-cuff, here's a transcript of my notes, which run pretty close to what I actually said on the podcast:
  • 1. Can you share with us a bit about you and your family, and how you came to unschooling?
    MY SET-UP: The vast majority of unschooling parents come from a school background, me included, so that’s what learning looks like to us when we first start learning about unschooling. So I thought it would be helpful to compare and contrast what learning looks like in the school system and with unschooling. I came up with five aspects to compare that I think will be helpful.
So, I've always been interested in the mind and the workings of the mind – everything: psychology, neuroscience, chemistry, education, but also things like: meditation, spirituality, linguistics, radical feminism, philosophy... you name it. If it has to do with why and how people think and learn, I'm into it.

And for awhile I lived sort of communally with a bunch of folks in the hills of Tennessee, where I kind of came into unschooling unintentionally, at least at first. My stepson, Ray's bio parents wanted to homeschool him, so I ended up involved with that and over time we kind of blundered our way toward unschooling – especially in terms of parenting. Conventional parenting really didn't work well for Ray and it turned out that the kinder, more thoughtful and proactive we were able to be, the better his life got. Then right around the time I was having my daughter, Morgan, and starting to learn about unschooling online, we ended up needing to put Ray in school for a few years. So Mo got to unschool from the start and eventually Ray got to come home and unschool too, when he was 13. So I've kind of had a range of home and unschooling experiences and unschooling wins hands down in my book.

  • 2. comparison #1: school’s focus on teaching vs unschooling’s focus on learning
    One of the first things people new to unschooling are encouraged to do is to shift their perspective from teaching to learning. Why is this such an important shift when we want to learn about unschooling?

So much of the way parent-child relationships are framed ends up being about teaching: about what we want our kids to know and how we want our kids to be. That was something that really surprised me about myself when I started thinking about it. I had all these ideas about parenting that were really more about me than about my kids. And since I'd always thought of myself as someone who respected kids as people, it was kind of disturbing. I had all this emotional energy invested in this fantasy of what kind of mom I wanted to be and that was getting in the way of actually understanding who my kids were and what they were telling me about themselves.

That was especially true with Ray – I had all these rules and expectations that of course were for his own good, right? To make him into the best version of him that I could imagine. And the further I got away from that, and the more I worked on seeing him, for himself, the better things became. He was a pretty intense kid, and all those rules and expectations – all the things you're supposed to teach children and the ways you're supposed to teach them, made him even more intense and frustrated. The closer we got to unschooling, the better things became.

  • 3. comparison #2: school’s focus on curriculum vs unschooling’s focus on curiosity
    With unschooling, children are encouraged to, and actively supported as, they follow their interests, rather than a set curriculum. What advantages have you seen to learning this way?
Well it's really amazing how much richer their learning experience actually is. I mean, even the best, most well thought out, integrated curriculum is still limited by the fact that it's something that's imposed on another person from the outside. In schools you see that all the time as the “is this going to be on the test?” phenomenon. Homeschool parents know this from those times you come up with a really, really great idea and your kids still say “are we done? Can I go play now?” But even more than that, there's an extent to which just creating a learning plan limits where learning is likely to go.

Natural curiosity doesn't have those same limits. And some people are naturally curious enough, or... I don't know maybe intellectually subversive enough to overcome educational limits. But when curiosity itself is the starting point, learning expands in all sorts of unanticipated directions.

  • 4. One of the concerns people often mention is that there is a general set of knowledge and skills needed to get along in their community and world, and how will they learn them if they’re just doing what they want? How do you answer that one?

That's actually an idea that comes right out of the system of education itself – and I mean system in the grand, western-cultural sense not just your local school system. I've just been reading Montaigne's essay On The Education of Children, which was written in 1580, okay? And some of his complaints about education are the same basic complaints we have about schools today – that kids are memorizing this “basic set” of information and then not really using it for anything. And he's quoting people like Plutarch and Aristotle, right? So this idea that there's a basic set of stuff to learn goes way back, along with the idea that maybe there's nothing so special about it, and that it's really better to learn from life. Montaigne talks about that – heck Socrates talks about that. It's not a new idea. It's not even a new idea when applied to children.

The more interesting question – to me, anyway – is why do we cling to this idea of a generalized body of knowledge? And I think the main reason, as parents, is that we think it's safe. As long as we're staying within bounds, we can't be accused of doing our kids a disservice.

Stepping out of bounds feels risky. It is risky. And I think that's why unschooling can be so attractive to parents with kids who've had a rough time in school or homeschooling – we've seen first hand that there are risks to sticking with the system, too.

All that being said -

One of the really fascinating things about kids following the various rabbit trails of natural curiosity, is that they actually do pick up a lot of “basic skills and information” along the way. And they do that because some of those basic skills really are useful and empowering, and that's a big motivator for learning.

  • 5. comparison #3: school’s focus on the compulsory school years vs unschooling’s focus on lifelong learning
    Unschooling and the concept of lifelong learning weave together so tightly, and leaving behind the idea that childhood is for learning and adulthood is for living can have a profound impact on everyone in an unschooling family, parents included. Have you found that to be true?
Well, I've always been interested in adult learning – lifelong learning – so the part that's been more profound for me has been the idea that the very messy, convoluted, interactive ways that adults explore their interests actually does work for kids. Even though their brains aren't adult brains.

That's something that was a sticking point for me, and I think it is for a lot of parents because we get told over and over that kids aren't like adults, their brains aren't like adult brains, so we can't treat them like... normal people. You see that a lot lately with teens – how your teenager's brain makes them demented, so you shouldn't be too nice to them.

One of the really fascinating things about radical unschooling, in particular, is how it manages to integrate the very real effects of human development with the equally real social and motivational factors that make up a big part of how learning works.

And for me, learning about that has affected the way I see my own learning process and made me a better learner. Thinking about the ways that human beings of all ages are social, for instance, and how we learn from and about social situations, has made it easier for me to learn from other people. That was something I definitely didn't learn in school, but I learned about through unschooling.       
  • 6. comparison #4: school’s focus on the child to adapting to the classroom environment vs unschooling’s focus on the child’s learning style. What are some of the advantages you see for children who are learning outside the classroom?
Well obviously, it's a much richer experience. I mean, that's why Socrates wandered around town making a pest of himself asking people questions. That's not new.

And really, even though putting kids in classrooms can feel safe on a parental level, we know that trying to adapt kids to that kind of dull, sterile environment doesn't work very well. That's the whole driving force behind alternative education and even conventional educational reform. We know the classroom isn't a great environment.

One of the real tragedies of the push to get kids in school sooner and standardize education more, is that, culturally, we've lost or love of... the idea of kids like Tom Sawyer. The kid who really, obviously, learns more outside of the classroom than in it is no longer a valued cultural trope. Today kids like that get diagnoses so that they can be better molded to fit in.

My daughter's kind of atypical, so I'm really glad she has never had to adapt to the classroom environment, because I think it would have been a nightmare for her. She didn't even think much of the few classes we did try and she's really sensitive to... so many of the things she'd run into in school. Unless she managed to get a run of really, really sympathetic teachers she'd probably have shut down pretty hard, and might not be considered all that high functioning. Instead...eh... she's very introverted, not much of a talker, she has some quirks and sensitivities, but none of those are defects. They're just the way she is, you know. Kind of like... to use another kid-trope, Wednesday Adams. She's kind of a weird kid, from a weird family, but that's not a bad thing. She's happy being who she is. I don't think she'd have that if she'd gone to school. In school, she'd be maladapted. Out in the world, she has friends who are like her and friends who aren't like her, older, younger, all over the country. She likes her comfort zone, but she can step out of it when she chooses to – and she does.       
  • 7. comparison #5: school’s focus on testing vs unschooling’s focus on being with the childA common question from people trying to wrap their mind around unschooling is: If we aren’t testing them, how do we know they’re learning?
Testing is one of the worst ways to evaluate what someone actually knows. Even educators know that – it's one of the things they complain about. I see testing as one of those things people do to feel safe. You can point to a test score and say: see? We're not just screwing around, here. Education is happening.

And that's what makes experiential learning harder to evaluate – there aren't necessarily a lot of easy markers you can use as proof. It's arguably one of the down sides of unschooling, at least in the short term.

In the longer term, you find out what your kids know by living with them – having conversations, doing things together, sharing opinions, telling jokes. Sandra Dodd has a comment on her website about the value of learning in terms of being able to get more jokes – and humor is really a fantastic way to know what someone else knows and how they understand the world. You know that feeling when your kid is finally old enough to get a certain kind of joke – whether it's a pun, or ironic humor, or... sexual humor. Unschooling is pretty rich in those kinds of moments, or moments when our kids introduce us to something new, or come up with some insight that just blows us away.       
  • 8. While conventional wisdom tells us that children resist learning and need to motivated to do it, unschooling parents see something very different. Why don’t unschooled kids hate learning?

I actually think curiosity is one of the driving forces of human nature. And I think people miss that because there's a certain amount of intellectual snobbery around pop culture, for instance, but even there you can see an endless font of human curiosity. People want to learn things, even if it's just who's sleeping with who. We wanna know.

And one of the great strengths of unschooling is that we don't prioritize some kinds of learning over others. It's okay if what your kid wants to know is all the evolutions of all the Pokemon. Or all the lines to Barbie Fairytopia. Or how to draw Shadow the Hedgehog just like in the picture.

There's a lot of pressure on parents to steer kids away from certain interests, but that kind of steering is exactly what leads kids to find learning frustrating. They get told that the things they find wonderful aren't worth learning. So why learn anything at all?

But it turns out that when we let personality drive natural curiosity, even when it's driving in the direction of trivia, learning itself gets a lot bigger than we expect.

One of the big reliefs of finally getting to pull Ray out of school was getting to see his love of learning come back. When he could learn about spray-painting skulls on skateboards, that one little thing spread out in so many different directions it was just amazing. Just buying some spray paint ended up involving learning about the legal system as applied to teenagers... because he wasn't allowed to buy it on his own, an adult had to buy it for him. One little dollar fifty can of paint and the kid learned more about systems of justice and the social contract than all his previous education combined. And it was fun. And interesting. And he got what he wanted.

A lot of times parents want to know how to make learning fun and interesting. But it turns out that learning is already fun and interesting. It's wired into our heads that way. When we don't prioritize giving quizzes on Article 3 of the Constitution over buying spray paint, learning stays fun and interesting.

And that's one of the ways that “general set of knowledge” we talked about earlier gets picked up along the way, while unschooling. Basic civics comes up through interacting with the real world.

  • 9. One of the challenges newer unschooling parents sometimes encounter is interpreting the actions of experienced unschoolers as a set “rules for unschooling.” But unschooling doesn’t have a recipe, does it?

I think parents come in looking for rules and recipes because parenting tends to be framed that way in general. If you follow the recipe, you'll be safe... even if it doesn't taste very good.

Unschooling could be said to use a recipe as a jumping off point, but the funny thing is, the recipe itself isn't about unschooling, it's about people and relationships. Part of the recipe is knowing that people like to learn. Part of the recipe is knowing that people are social – we care about other people and like to learn from other people. Part of the recipe is knowing that there's a difference between the external world and the individual experience, a difference between the self and the other. It's a complicated recipe – the recipe of human nature!

That's why it's so hard to give a quick-and-dirty definition of unschooling because at it's core, unschooling is about what it means to be people, living and learning together. It's something that a lot of people have talked and written about that over the centuries with regards to adults. But what's new and different about unschooling is that we bring kids into the conversation as people, too.

When sometimes people say that unschooling is about treating kids like adults they don't mean making them pay rent and letting them drive the car, they mean bringing that kind of understanding that we extend to other adults into our relationships with kids.

They're not the same as we are, but the fact that there's a difference between the world as it is and the world as it's perceived still matters. They're not the same as we are, but they're still social beings. They're not the same as we are, but then again, neither is anyone else.

  • 10. I’d love to talk about choice for a moment. I think one of the key aspects at the root of learning through unschooling is giving our children the space and support to make the choices that they think will work for them. What’s your perspective on the importance of choice in our unschooling lives?

I talked about this a little in regards to the question about why don't unschooling kids hate learning. Choice is a big deal, there.

But, to kind of take the question in a slightly different direction, because one of the really interesting things about people getting to make choices is that there's more of a chance to make mistakes – and that's really important. It's one of the things that scares the pants off parents – we really, really don't want our kids to make mistakes, especially not some of the mistakes we made. We'd really rather just give our kids the answers to those life questions so they don't have to go through that same awkward process we did. We're very altruistic in that way. Unfortunately, our kids don't want our pre-lived experiences, they want their own process. They want to follow the rabbit trails of curiosity, even though some of those trails drop you into pool of tears or the Court of the Red Queen. That's actually one of the surprising things about curiosity and learning – that making mistakes, even sometimes painful mistakes, is an important part of the process. Sometimes it's even a desirable part of the process.

Which isn't to say we should set our kids up to fail – this is another aspect of choice as it pertains to learning. There's a difference between choosing to take a risk and having it dumped on you. There's an actual difference in what you learn from the experience.

That's something parents get stuck on all the time. We want to be able push our kids to do certain things so they learn how great they are – and sometimes it seems to work. What ends up working, though, has to do with that difference between world and the self – when kids feel like they're getting to choose and we're helping them, they can feel empowered. When they feel like they're being thrown into the shark tank... not so much! That's something that comes up with atypical kids a lot – how much to “let” them choose to move out of their comfort zone. As if their own feelings about choice are something we can “let” them have. It's still, ultimately their choice, one that they're going to make based on their own internal accounting. We don't get to pick that. We don’t get to say “now you can decide to be brave, my child.” They're their own people, no matter what.

What we can do, as parents, is to listen to our kids about what choices are important to them right now and how they want us to help them. They don't always know, but that's okay, too. It's okay to be learning with your kids, and figuring things out together. That's something that actually makes sense to kids on a deep level – because people are social. Learning together makes sense.

  • 11. One theme that has come up pretty regularly on the podcast is that, in the end, unschooling thrives when we have strong, connected, and trusting relationships with our children. You recently wrote something I loved: “It may help to step back from the idea that parenting is a job. It's a relationship, first and foremost.” Can you expand on that?
The idea that parenting is a job goes hand in hand with the idea that parenting is about teaching. And those are ideas that distract us from our kids' “personhood” I guess you could say. On an intellectual level, I think any modern, western parent would say they think children are people and should be respected and treated as such, but because of the ways conventional parenting is framed, we're bad at that. We don't listen to our kids very well. We don't take their thoughts and feelings seriously. We trivialize their interests. If you look at random parenting articles and advice, a lot of it is around getting kids to do and be what we want them to do and be. That's the job of parenting.

Unschooling re-conceptualizes the whole parent-child relationship as a relationship first and foremost, and that changes... so many things. I mean, what if you were to describe having a baby as getting a new best friend rather than starting a new job? How does that change your whole attitude about this other person? And naturally, you want to do right by your new best friend. You want to be a good friend. You want this friendship to be strong and healthy and one you can value life long, even knowing that people grow and change and that different people bring different things to relationships. That feels really different than trying to figure out how many diaper changes until your new employee will be ready to take out the trash without supervision. It's a really different set of priorities.

And the great thing is, it works. It doesn't somehow ruin your kids to be a really good friend to them. It doesn't unfit them for life, or any of the other things they warn you about in the parent job training handbooks. It's okay to be friends with your kid. And it feels sooooooo much better than parenting as a job. I have a job. I get to go home to my kid and be a friend. That's awesome.

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