This is an incredible moment in human history. The ability to communicate and share ideas with other like-minded people across the globe has burst into our daily lives over the last decade, challenging our beliefs more deeply and swiftly than has been possible before. So many conventional paradigms are being challenged: health, lifestyle, and more and more, education.
Without access to the Internet I’m not sure I would have even come across the idea of unschooling. I mean, I questioned some conventional parenting wisdom on my own—just observing my own young children and trusting my instincts led us to a somewhat attachment parenting lifestyle before I knew such a model existed. But questioning the education system as a whole? Not on my radar. My eldest was in school through grade four—with me working with his teachers year after year in an attempt to make it a more palatable experience—before I discovered that participation in the public education system was optional. It took that long because nobody in my network of friends and family had ever challenged that convention. But nowadays, when you start questioning things you can ask a vastly bigger audience than the face-to-face community that surrounds you. You can ask the world.
Regardless of the initial inspiration—whether you commonly challenge the status quo or specific issues have arisen that are now encouraging you to ask questions—a paradigm shift is the culmination of two discrete, yet connected, actions: shifting away from something that doesn’t seem to be working for you (typical a conventional viewpoint), and moving towards an idea that seems to better align with your understanding, experience, and goals.
Let’s look at a couple of the conventional ideas that are typically the first to fall as people philosophically find their way to unschooling.
A conventional idea about learning:
Learning needs to be directed by a teacher and measured by a test.
Often one of the first conventional paradigms that is challenged as people find their way to unschooling is the idea that for learning to happen it needs to be directed by a teacher and measured by a test (and then a midterm, and then a final exam). It’s a pretty ubiquitous idea, I mean our entire public school system, and much of the private, is built around this premise. So what might cause people to begin to question it?
Sometimes they’ve had a frustrating school career themselves. Looking back, they have come to realize that they learn just fine on their own when they’re pursuing their hobbies, but that the required subjects at school, or the way they were presented, just weren’t interesting enough to keep their attention. Or maybe over the years they discovered they just aren’t very good at taking tests—they knew the stuff, but couldn’t often get it across on the test the way the teacher wanted. Does that mean they don’t know it? Even when they use that knowledge day-to-day? Do their less than stellar test scores tell the real story?
Or maybe they are drawn to evaluate the process itself. Who chooses what everyone should learn? Why? How do they make their choices? From what perspective? Who is the customer in the learning transaction? The learner? The parents? The company that may hire the student as a graduate? How does the business of education, the enormous industry surrounding the creation and selling of curricula and standardized tests, affect the product? What’s the motivation behind the curriculization (damn, that should be a real word!) of all manner of things that make up being human, like character and sex?
Maybe they dig into the idea of curriculum—is that really how people learn? Does everyone’s learning path march the same equidistant steps, to the same beat, as the curriculum developer envisions? Through their hobbies, maybe they recognize that their own learning process thrives on following the unique path of questions and connections that arise for them as they delve into a topic. Is it important to normalize as many students as possible into following the curriculum’s specific path? Why? If they don’t fall into step, what is the long-term consequence?
Once one thing, some thing, tweaks a person to start questioning this conventional idea about learning, there are so many facets of the educational system that seem to be at odds with helping children learn. Not children as a concept, as a norm, but real children. Your children.
A conventional idea about parenting:
Parents need to set boundaries for their children, and a definitive no helps the parents stay in control.
Another conventional paradigm that is often challenged early as people learn about unschooling is the idea that parents need to be the boss of their family and keep their children inside their arbitrary lines. Training a child to do as they’re told starts early and doesn’t let up: parents, teachers, coaches—any adult in a conventional supervisory capacity demands it. What might cause parents to question this paradigm?
Maybe they remember moments from their own childhood when they did what they adults in their lives told them to but it didn’t work out well—they are quite certain things would have been better if they had followed their instincts. They felt deeply misunderstood. Maybe their rebellion was so fierce and damaging that they are looking for ways to break that seemingly inevitable cycle with their own children.
If they are drawn to digging into the paradigm of power struggles maybe they begin to question the conventional wisdom of firmly saying no and not changing your mind: “Don’t flip flop or you’ll just confuse them, they won’t understand where the boundary is, and they’ll continue to challenge you.” Meaning, wear them down until they stop asking. They wonder if this logic might work too: “Hmm. That doesn’t seem safe. What are you trying to do? Maybe we can figure out another way to do it.” In other words, is it possible to work together rather than struggle against each other?
Or maybe seeing their children’s play in action causes them to question whether seemingly arbitrary boundaries interfere with their everyday joy and learning. They watch their children as they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the activity at hand. Look at that concentration! Do I really want to disturb it? Is my need for, say a tidy playroom before we go to bed, more important than my children’s passionate engagement? Look at them trying to build that tower over and over and over. What’s the worst that might happen if I let them keep at it for now? If they ask me bring them more supplies from the cupboard, should I? Is saving them for a hypothetical “next time” more important than giving them what they need to continue exploring right now?
Again, once a parent begins to question their role, they begin to discover how much of our conventional parenting wisdom is geared to controlling our children to make our lives easier today, rather than to raising thoughtful and interesting human beings that, in turn, are a real asset to society. Not because they fit in, but because they stand out; not necessarily in any over-the-top fashion, but in their day-to-day lives, in their family, in their chosen communities.
Learning about the philosophy of unschooling is often sparked by something that challenges us to begin questioning the conventional ideas about learning, parenting, living, success, the path of school-college-job. These ideas were often handed to us without question by the adults in our lives as we were growing up. Whether or not these conventional paradigms end up working well for you, it’s important to question them, to roll them around in your mind, to see how they fit with your understanding of yourself, of the world, and of your goals. The key is realizing you have a choice. The philosophy you choose to live need not be foisted upon you by others, but can bubble out of you with determination, care, and joy. That’s living joyfully. 🙂
Phew! That was a long one! But it’s a key piece of the puzzle: understanding where you’re coming from and what may not be working for you. Next week we’ll look at the second part of the shift: moving toward ideas, or principles, that seems to better align with your understanding, experience, and goals.