Here's the link to the interview she did with me, if you want to know what I sound like:http://livingjoyfully.ca/blog/2016/07/eu029-what-learning-looks-like-with-meredith-novak/
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:
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.
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.
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.