PAM: Hi everyone. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today, I’m here with Emma Marie Forde. Hi, Emma!
EMMA: Hi, Pam.
PAM: Hello. It’s so nice to have you back for another book chat episode! These are really fun.
EMMA: Yeah, thanks. I’m really looking forward to it.
PAM: Me too. I really enjoyed this one. This time Emma and I will be talking about The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children, by Alison Gopnik and it was published last year (2016).
A bit of info: Alison is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley and her research explores how young children come to know the world around them. She’s written a number of books, including The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life, and The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn.
I wanted to share with you guys the book description for The Gardener and the Carpenter:
Caring deeply about our children is part of what makes us human. Yet the thing we call “parenting” is a surprisingly new invention. In the past 30 years, the concept of parenting and the multibillion-dollar industry surrounding it have transformed child care into obsessive, controlling, and goal-oriented labor intended to create a particular kind of child and therefore a particular kind of adult.
In the book, Alison Gopnik argues that the familiar 21st-century picture of parents and children is profoundly wrong—it’s not just based on bad science, it’s bad for kids and parents, too. Drawing on the study of human evolution and her own cutting-edge scientific research into how children learn, Gopnik shows that although caring for children is profoundly important, it is not a matter of shaping them to turn out a particular way. Children are designed to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative, and very different both from their parents and from each other. The variability and flexibility of childhood lets them innovate, create, and survive in an unpredictable world. “Parenting” won’t make children learn—but caring parents let children learn by creating secure, loving environments.
That sounds pretty interesting, right?
I’m just going to start us off by talking about the two models of parenting that she’s talking about—the gardener and the carpenter. With the carpenter model, parents are working with a goal of producing a particular kind of adult. They are essentially trying to shape their child into a final product that fits what the vision they had in mind to begin with—so for them, parenting is about control. There are many parenting how-to books these days that promise if parents do x, y, and z, that will make a substantial difference in the way their child turns out. The idea is so pervasive and seductive that, conventionally at least, it almost seems self-evident, right? Of course that’s the way you parent. And, Alison explains, this parenting model is also the default model for much of education.
She makes a great point that nowadays, when people become parents, they typically have had lots of experience with schooling but little experience with caregiving, so when parents or policy makers hear her and other scientists that she does research with talk about how much children learn, the people listening often conclude that, well, we should teach them even more because they learn so well. They assume that we should be teaching them the way they do in school. And she writes, “But children actually learn more from the unconscious details of what caregivers do than from any of the conscious manipulations of parenting.” So that’s carpenter parenting there.
On the other hand, when we garden, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. She explains that a good garden is constantly changing as it adapts to the changing circumstances, and a good gardener “works to create fertile soil that can sustain a whole ecosystem of different plants with different strengths and beauties—and with different weaknesses and difficulties too.” In this way, “being a good parent won’t transform children into smart or happy or successful adults. But it can help create a new generation that is robust and adaptable and resilient, better able to deal with the inevitable, unpredictable changes that face them in the future.”
She also dives into the rewards of being a parent, and it’s not your child’s grades and trophies. “They come from the moment-by-moment physical and psychological joy of being with this particular child, and in that child’s moment-by-moment joy in being with you.” She says, “The purpose of loving children, in particular, is to give those helpless young human beings a rich, stable, safe environment—an environment in which variation, innovation, and novelty can blossom.”
And by the end of the introduction she’s set us up with this: “So our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it’s to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done. We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.”
I was just kind-of in love by the end of the introduction because that sounds so much like the kind of attitude and perspective that unschooling parents bring to the table, and to their relationships with their children, doesn’t it?
EMMA: Yeah, I thought it was great really. It really fits so well with the unschooling approach and the research which I thought was really interesting. I really enjoyed it.
PAM: I know, I love the way she’s talking about moving away from control over children to nurturing them from underneath, because for me that’s always how I’ve seen it. They talk about helicopter parenting, to me that’s like hovering above, trying to control things. With unschooling we talk about how we are foundational support, helping from underneath, the roots, supporting from below rather than controlling from above. I really loved her gardening analogy because I thought that really fit well.
EMMA: Yeah, I was thinking there were a few ideas there. One of them is about being like a gardener and creating an ecosystem where you’re really focusing on the environment that you are creating for your children. One of the main parts of that is the relationship which I think Alison has really picked up on throughout the book and I think that’s the part for me which really fits well with unschooling and also in terms of nurturing the relationship and your child’s emotional development. It really fits in with the learning that happens, emerges really, from the relationship between the parent and the child, and teaching a child is actually counter productive. The analogy of the gardener, she picked up on so many important points through that.
PAM: I know, what’s really cool is when you think about it as the environment and as a garden. She talked about the wide variety of flowers and plants that can grow, so it so well encompasses the whole creating an environment for your child to thrive—if they are introverted, extroverted, or wherever they are on that scale in the moment. Just the wide variety of individual children and she talks so much about how you’re connecting with this individual child, and that’s who you’re gardening for.
When I said it that way that seems a little bit more controlling. Oh! She came up with ‘hot housing’ when you are trying to garden for a particular kind of plant, that’s not what we’re getting at either, because that’s the whole point: that children grow and change over time so you don’t know, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when this blossom comes up or what direction the next branch grows to. I just love how open the analogy is.
EMMA: Yeah, the idea of a wild garden as well, I like that, where you want lots of different plants thriving and that’s what makes it really, the whole environment is nurturing unique and individual children. In terms of evolutionary history, you don’t want everyone to be the same, you want diversity and difference because that’s what enables us to thrive and I think that’s what she was saying about childhood, it’s actually beneficial, you don’t want all the children to be the same, learning all the same things at the same time, you actually want to facilitate and nurture the development of different aspects of a child’s personality and the things that they’re interested in. It’s through that diversity that cultural innovation and change really becomes possible. Yeah, I really liked that aspect to it.
PAM: It’s an analogy that works on all levels, from individual child right through childhood per se, and the diversity of the generation of children as well; I thought that was really cool.
I really liked a point she made too about how trying to shape their children into worthy adults becomes a great source of anxiety and guilt as well as frustration for parents—yet that is what we are all feeling pressured to do. We see that everywhere. And that for this kind of parenting, for children, it leads to, as she described it, “an oppressive cloud of hovering expectations.” We talk about how expectations get in the way so much, so it was really cool to see her make that connection as well.
EMMA: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I think when we consciously try to teach children it actually shuts them down rather than enabling them to open up, explore the world and the things that they are interesting in. Alison really takes us through some of that research that’s showing how children are learning implicitly and intuitively in relationships everyday, so it’s not so much about what we are consciously trying to teach them but what they are picking up on all the time.
PAM: I really like how she described quite a bit of the research and how it was set up. I found it really interesting to see how they managed to get below the directions to observe the child freely making choices and to be able to set up inferences for them. That’s how you saw them learning; them figuring things out. They saw young kids figuring out so much stuff!
That’s why when we talk to unschooling parents and we say relax the control for a bit and watch your children. This is what they are going to see, they are going to see their kids being so capable in situations and picking up so much information and using it so intelligently but when we are so busy trying to control them we never give them the space to do that. Relax for a bit—it’s the weekend for the next six months—and watch your kids because it’s amazing! So, it was really fun reading about her experiments.
The other thing I found really interesting was in the chapter on the evolution of childhood, Alison writes, “The mind of a human child working in concert with the minds of the people caring for him is the most flexible and powerful learning device in the known universe.”
What I found really interesting was her description of how natural learning and cultural transmission are important because they encourage feedback loops. It caught my attention because a couple of weeks ago I was talking to Dan Cadzow and he also talked about cultural transmission. In one of her previous books, Alison describes children as little scientists, always experimenting to learn more about both their physical and psychological world. They try something and see what happens, and incorporate that experience moving forward. We talk about that so much with unschooling, and that’s what she means by feedback loops.
When she talks about children from an evolutionary perspective, she explains that trying to consciously shape how your children will turn out is futile and self-defeating because we can’t know what kind of challenges our children will face in the future. If we are trying to carpenter work them into either our own image or the image of our current ideals, we might actually keep them from adapting to changes in the future.
What I loved about that quote was it got me twice, when I was reading it because she wrote, “in the image of our current ideals,” and that hits it on the head: so often we expect perfection of our children, even when, and sometimes especially when, we can’t reach it ourselves. We want our children to be BETTER than we are, or were. How’s that for pressure?
And second, it reminded me of the quote which is often attributed to Alvin Toffler but he was quoting Herbert Gerjuoy, in his book Future Shock: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
She emphasizes just what incredible learners children are, through watching and listening and imitating and trying things out—all the things unschooling parents see in action every day—and that the ability to learn flexibly and to adjust to new circumstances are more important than ever. And that the relationship between parents and children are key to creating that nourishing environment in which children can thrive. And that sounds so similar, doesn’t it? We are always talking about the importance of the relationship. That you don’t even have to look for the learning. When you focus on that strong relationship with your child, all the rest of that stuff flows.
EMMA: Yeah, that’s partly what I felt was so interesting about the book as well, how much children are learning through the relationship and how they’re learning unconsciously and intuitively.
One of the research studies that she mentioned in the book was looking at the different attachment styles and how the type of relationship that you have with your child actually influences how they learn from you. So, they looked at children’s attachment at a year old, and then again at four years old and they found that the children who had a secure attachment were more likely to learn from their parent versus a stranger.
Whereas the children who had an avoidant attachment which meant that more of an insecure type of attachment with their parent, were equally likely to learn from a stranger or their parent. It was just quite interesting in terms of what that says about the importance of nurturing relationships with our children.
As you mentioned, in unschooling we really focus on that.
It’s something that Gordon Neufeld talks quite a bit about. He is a clinical psychologist and a developmental theorist and researcher. He always emphasizes how important it is, whether a child learns at home or at school, that they have that connection and that attachment—whether it’s with their parent or their teacher—because that’s how children learn.
I think this is what Alison is saying in the book, which the research shows, how we are really designed to learn from our parents and the people that we are close to. That’s how we learn about cultural traditions, what is important in our culture and how sensitive children really are picking up cues from the adults around them, that’s how they’re learning all the time.
PAM: Yeah, that’s a huge piece. It was interesting what you said. I can remember reading that piece how avoidant attachments are more likely to learn from other people other than their parents. That’s almost when they talk about how important it is to separate from the child when they go to school, right? Because they need to break that attachment so that the child will start learning from somebody else. That was very curious.
EMMA: I think that’s another important point. When children go to school, in the UK there is usually 28, 30, maybe 35 children to one teacher in the class. So, if a child learns best when they are attached with someone in a relationship with them, not all of those children are going to form a close attachment with that teacher and so then it leaves them more vulnerable. Whereas at home, it’s possible to create a more nurturing attachment so you’ve got that connection.
I think sometimes in schools, the importance of that relationship can get lost and it’s so fundamental for learning really, but then you see in schools that children aren’t necessarily always able to learn as effectively as they might if they were feeling secure and attached.
PAM: Yeah, that was one thing that stood out for me in the book because she talks quite a bit and mentions those relationships between children and childcare workers and teachers. She gave them a name; she called them “alloparents.” She talks about the bond that develops, which makes sense on the surface, but when you think about it, like you said, in the classroom and in child care environments it seems like the reality is with so many kids to manage, those adults who are caring for children don’t have the time to develop a secure enough bond with each individual child.
Even years ago, when my kids were at school, that isn’t something that I saw. Even then there were still 27, 30, 35 kids in a classroom and it was all about classroom management. It wasn’t about trying to create bonds and connections—a connection being a lighter kind-of bond. It was all about managing the child’s behaviour and their activities, what they were doing. Not about trying to create a connection with them that would help them learn.
EMMA: It seems when you haven’t got those connections, it’s harder. Children thrive when they are feeling secure and attached, so when they’re not feeling attached and connected then it’s harder for them to learn because they are not as relaxed and playful and exuberant as they might be otherwise.
PAM: Yeah! It’s like you don’t feel safe enough to relax and get in the flow of the moment or the activity, to learn, because you are always feeling protective. You have to watch out for your environment, who might be teasing who, or what the teacher means by this. It seems like you always have to wear a protective shell in a classroom, or wear a personality that fits best. You’re kind of hiding behind the perfect student you are supposed to be, that the teacher is looking for.
EMMA: What she did talk about as well, was about how variability in the classroom isn’t always nurtured or valued. What can happen is that students that maybe have a different kind of attention focus or maybe learning to read at a different rate, way, or speed. Sometimes they can be picked out or labeled as having some kind of learning difference or disability. We’re not really valuing variability within those contexts and so it can become medicalised or pathologized when, actually, it would be a better idea to encourage that variability.
I think that’s something in the education system as it currently is, in many cases, it means that those opportunities aren’t there. I guess this is one of the reasons I think unschooling is such a wonderful thing because you can really encourage each child’s individuality and you can really nurture their interests and passions in a way that is very difficult in a more mainstream context when there are lots of other children who are also needing to be cared for and looked after at the same time.
PAM: I guess that’s why the bond and the connection is really not an environment where you can even expect an individual teacher to be able to individualise things, so that’s why it doesn’t work out that way. I really loved her discussion about variability and why that is so valuable. She did go quite a bit into the whole evolutionary perspective and talking about different animals and how they learn and their relationships with their parents and that was all really interesting stuff that she shared.
EMMA: When she talked about the animals, she talked about the New Caledonian crows and how they have a longer period of infancy than other animals and that they are actually more intelligent when you contrast and look at the species. They spend a lot of their first two years playing, experimenting and exploring their environment and also tool use. The parents are really there to facilitate that, they’re patient and they provide that holding context so that they can experiment and explore. The parents provide joy in that time.
PAM: I loved that piece. She was talking about how the mother crows let the kids play with the tools and they use them wrong so many different times and that was ok because they’re just figuring it out. I loved the discussion and the contrast with the varying length of childhood, basically, of dependence, as you said, they feed the baby crows longer than other animals do because the skills that they want their baby crows to develop, take time. That was an interesting way to look at it.
EMMA: I think what is nice about that is that the crows who show more ability to problem solve and to develop their skills and they’re learning all the time from the environment and changes in the environment. There is much more flexibility and openness and potential to deal with change. I guess Alison is talking about how in human childhood it makes more sense to foster those abilities and to provide a context where we can actually stand back and allow a child more freedom to explore and experiment.
I think the research she has drawn on really showed that when a teacher had the children in an experimental situation—where there was a toy, for example, that had different uses—when a teacher explained those to the children, they were then less likely to explore the other things that the toy could do, so it drew their focus and attention to certain things rather than enabling them to have a more open relationship to what they were exploring. She gave lots of examples like that throughout the book, which sometimes, when the parent can provide space and a nurturing environment, children are more likely to explore and learn and enrich what they know.
PAM: It was super cool because it was so interesting to see the way they set it up and what they saw because I see that now that my kids are older having grown up unschooling and not being told exactly how to use something in that when they and their friends approach a new situation I see their schooled friends just hang back and wait to be told what to do. Whereas my kids and other unschooled kids I’ve seen out and about are just so much more proactive. They’ll go and try something and they’ll experiment or they’ll ask someone. They are comfortable to continue to explore.
There was a point where she talked about American children and, I forget the other nationality, but because American parenting nowadays is so carpenter-focused they saw that American kids will just sit back and wait to be told what to do or how to do something because it’s happened to them enough times they know that’s the only way, right? They just wait. They don’t observe the situation, the environment; they don’t see the clues that are in their environment. There are always so many clues around us for so many things. It was amazing to see that when people are observing they see the same thing that we see with unschooled and schooled kids: that school kids will wait until they are told what to do, when to do it, versus noticing all the things that are going on around them. They don’t see so much in their environment because they just don’t bother looking there, just waiting around to be told.
EMMA: I think I know the bit that you mean there. I think it was Indian children, it was saying how in some of those experiments that they did that the American children were more likely to wait until the teacher was ready to teach them whereas the children from the Indian culture were more likely to be learning while their sibling was learning already.
PAM: Yeah, that was it. They would pay attention when somebody else was being shown something and they would already have it figured out by the time it was their turn. Whereas the other kids wouldn’t even be paying attention to somebody else being shown things. They are just waiting their turn. That was so fascinating!
EMMA: It is, and I think it’s really interesting how powerful culture can be even in shaping things like our attention and our focus. Even providing children with different opportunities and a different way of being can actually really influence those kinds of things on an unconscious level and also on a cultural level. Yes, it’s fascinating stuff.
PAM: Yeah, it really is.
I want to jump back just a little bit because you mentioned this in passing a bit ago and it’s something that we talk pretty regularly about in the Q&A episodes, how our children often pick up so much from us even when we don’t explicitly say anything. It could be our body language, our word choices, or even just our tone. I really did love that Alison mentions that as well.
She wrote, “In some ways, at least, your children may actually know more about you than you do yourself. Children are tuned in to details of how parents act that you may not even notice. For example, preschoolers notice whether you say “Let’s see what this does” or “Let me show you what this does.”
That ties into what we were just talking about. It’s the way we culturally present things and it reminded me of the episode last week. Kelly shared a story last week, how one of her young acting students, after watching her in a TV show, came back to class the next week and mentioned that he was surprised to hear her voice was the same, realizing she doesn’t talk to them in that ‘teacher voice.’ He was just so used to adults having a ‘teacher voice.’ We would, very nicely, tease my sister-in-law because she had a teacher voice when she was talking to the younger kids but she didn’t even notice that she was doing it. It’s just something so natural, but kids pick all that stuff up. They really, really pick up the nuances of a situation so well, it’s amazing.
EMMA. I think she went on to say something that they might know what you mean better than you do yourself. They’re alert and sensitive and picking up these cues that we can’t be aware of all the time on a conscious level and she said that’s how it should be. It’s more helpful to just focus on the relationship and who you are as a person with your children and the relationship than it is to focus on specific teaching strategies.
PAM: I think that’s why so much of moving to unschooling is the parent’s internal work. It’s all about figuring out who we want to be in this relationship and realising all the different ways we are inadvertently exerting control. Because that is “the right way for kids to learn.”
If that’s the tone of your voice, that’s what you really think. If that’s the ‘teacher voice’ that you slide into when you are talking with kids, you’re treating them as a different kind-of class of person, right? They can tell. I mean, this is their reality so what they’re learning isn’t wrong. What they’re learning is real. It’s just us learning, ‘is that what we intend?’ It’s understanding these things that we may be projecting and is that what we mean or is that something that we would like to change? So much of moving to unschooling for me was observing myself too, and taking that moment before an automatic reaction or an automatic phrase that comes out. To align my intentions with my actions, if that makes sense.
EMMA: Yes, it does make sense. Before having children I had psychotherapy as a part of trying to process some of the ways of relating and being with other people and trying to make more conscious things in my life that perhaps had been unconscious. But even those unconscious things can determine how you behave and relate to other people if you are not really aware of it. Alison was saying in the book, you don’t need to be aware of all this stuff; this is going to be happening anyway. I do agree that it can be helpful to be as reflective as you possibly can to avoid going down some of the issues or roots. Maybe if you are used to talking in a teacher-ish way, or being more directive, if you can become aware of that I think it can help because then it leaves a bit more space open for different ways of relating to emerge.
PAM: The other piece too is, again focusing on that relationship and that connection, you get to a point as well where your kids will point these things out to you too. You are you, but we can always strive to be the kind of parent and person that we want to be. We are always growing and changing forever, I think, so definitely there are times too when my kids would point something out. I was like, “Oh, let’s do that over. That’s not what I meant.”
That’s the great thing about the relationship—when you are that well-connected and the relationship is trusting and open enough, you can have these conversations. They feel comfortable mentioning when they notice something. I think that’s great too. It’s another feedback loop. When she was talking about learning from your environment and how you learn about the people that you’re with, their observations about how their receiving whatever you are saying or doing is another feedback loop. “Hey! I didn’t really mean for you to take that from what I said or did so I’m going to learn that for next time, I might try something different.”
EMMA: Yeah, I guess that’s where the variability comes into it as well, so not everything needs to be prescribed, but if you can have that space and the dialogue, it allows more possibilities to emerge.
Is it ok if I just say—it reminded me—she did talk in the book about some research that they’d done and there was something called the Childes Database and how they looked at six thousand early conversations between parents and children and how the children (four-year-olds) were asking questions. And they wanted to know why were they asking these questions.
They looked at all these conversations and analyzed them, and they found that the children really were wanting to have their questions answered, but they wanted to have them answered in a meaningful way, with reasonable explanations. They could see the children actually deepening their knowledge. They weren’t just asking it, you know, like, for any reason. It was just that they genuinely were wanting to learn. And it was showing how actually naturally curious children are, and how within those kind of questions and answers in the conversations, there was so much rich learning that was taking place.
And that kind of really reminded me of some work that I’d read by Alan Thomas, who’s a UK developmental psychologist, but he’s looked into home education quite substantially. He’s looked at how parents and children learn at home, and he says in his research that one of the main ways that children are learning are through these sorts of conversations that happen every day. You know, when you get up in the morning, at breakfast, you know, just like all the time—that’s where the learning’s taking place. I thought that was quite interesting that Alison mentioned about this research and how that kind of fits there.
PAM: Yeah, I really love that too, because you hear so many people feel like their kids are just kind of being more annoying when they ask, “Why? Why? Why?” over and over again. But they saw that they were really, truly curious and wanted to know those answers and kept wanting to dig and dig and dig until it made sense for them, right?
And we see that so often with unschooling kids. When you haven’t—what’s that study that, you know, a toddler hears the word “no” like 300 times a day or something like that? Dan mentioned this too, how much we shut them down when they’re younger. And try to make them almost like adults—we want seen and not heard kind of deal, and we want to stop their exploration: “No, no, no, no, no.” And then, on the other end of the scale, when they’re teenagers, we want to keep them under control. You know, the opposite of letting them start to spread their wings when they’re ready etc.
But yeah, it was really interesting, the stuff she was sharing about those conversations. Because, it’s again what we ask parents who want to move to unschooling, to give their children that space, and to be available for those conversations.
And the important thing is being available when the child asks, because that’s when they’re curious, right? Not putting them off: “Oh, you know, we’ll look at that after dinner.” Or whenever. Sometimes that is necessary, sometimes you really are busy, but so often we just knee-jerk say, “No, later.” To realize that when they’re curious in that moment, that’s when they’re going to learn so much about it, because that’s where their brain is spinning right now, right? (laughs)
EMMA: Yeah. When I was reading this a little while ago, I actually got a little notebook and started to write down Lily and Rose’s questions. Because I realized that every day, you know from almost the moment they wake up, they’re asking questions. And some of them I can’t always answer, because maybe I just don’t know. But I think the key for me is taking what they’re asking seriously, and saying, “Okay maybe I don’t know what the answer is to that, but we can find out together.”
So, I started to collect all their questions, because often actually sometimes it would happen when we were driving somewhere, and they’d have all these questions, like, oh you know, like, “Why is Sunday called Sunday?” or “Do tigers mate a life?” And there were so many questions that were coming up, and I thought, I need to try and hold on to some of these. Because it felt like, you know, some of it is in the moment, and some of it’s nice to be able to go back and say, “Well, I’ve had a look at this,” or “Should we have a look at this together?” And kind of exploring things together like that.
I think when children ask lots of questions there is a tendency to feel, “Oh I haven’t got time for that. It’s not serious.” Or maybe even sometimes dismiss those questions. I just think it’s really important to show and to communicate that you are taking those questions seriously. And I think that’s what this research with the database was really showing that yeah, children’s questions are serious. And when they’re answered, in a way that’s meaningful and explanatory, that they will then move on to something else. And then actually they’ll ask maybe more questions that are deeper in a different way.
So, I thought it was really interesting how by drawing on the research she really picks up on how children are learning, the processes that are happening in these every day kind of conversations. Which is what unschooling’s all about.
PAM: I know, that was the coolest thing. There were just so, so many connections with unschooling. She’s diving into relationships, she’s diving into how young children learn, and so much of it is what we see in action with our kids. That was just so interesting to me.
And that’s the one thing I find fascinating: that through research they can discover all these things that we see happen naturally. Yet, I’m thinking, “So why don’t they do anything about this, if this is how children learn and how it helps to support their learning?” But that’s why I pulled out that quote that she said, when she goes around and she talks to parents and teachers at school, principals etc, that the message that they take away is, “Oh, well, we need to teach them more then.”
It’s fascinating how we just see through our lens, right? It’s so hard. I mean, look how long it takes for us to start to break away the school lens that we bring to it. We talked about deschooling needing, probably for parents, at least a year for the majority of it. There’s always going to be new issues that come up down the road, because the conventional messages are just around us and are so strong. But it’s fascinating to see how people bring their filter and see everything through that filter.
And you know what was fascinating for me? Okay so I’m going to jump here. Because Alison, too, still had that filter. Because she so clearly explains the negative effects of the conventional carpenter parenting style, and gives lots of snippets from her study showing how well children learn and grow into themselves with the gardener style parent. And on top of that she talks about many of the challenges of the school system and how it closely mimics the carpenter parenting model. And yet, not once does she mention homeschooling, let alone unschooling. I wanted to share just a couple of the school related quotes. Because I thought they were fascinating. One of them, she writes:
“A standardized test score is the apotheosis of the goal-directed, child-shaping, carpentry picture of schooling—the idea that schools should be designed to turn all children into creatures with particular characteristics. What schools do best is teach children how to go to school.” Instead, “Schools should be places where children can genuinely exercise their continuing capacities for discovery. They should be places where children can master real-world skills.”
Interestingly, she goes on to describe reading, writing, and calculating as scholastic skills. So, she separates them from real-world skills. But so many of us unschooling parents have seen that those skills are woven into our culture, and we’ve seen that they too can be learned just by being in the real world. They’re part of our culture and those skills will come up and be of interest for kids, and they will pick them up.
There was this piece about her observation of students in her college classes. She wrote:
“By the time they arrive in our classes, many Berkeley undergraduates are absolute Matajuros of test-taking. It’s no wonder we’re gravely disappointed—and they’re resentfully surprised—when we ask them to actually be apprentice scientists or scholars instead.”
And that’s just another way of showing why unschoolers who choose to go to college are so often appreciated by their college professors: because they grew up continuing to be the apprentice scientists that Alison sees in young children, rather than taking the rest of their childhood and being sidetracked in the school system kind of learning—not learning about the world, but learning about how to be a good student.
And then lastly there’s this one:
“We also shouldn’t think of preschool only in terms of “school readiness,” as if the only point of caring for young children is to make them into older children who will do better in the particular strange institution of school.”
So all that makes it so curious to me that her solution—but it so often seems to be the case with academics—is to try and change the school system. She says that “school is more and more essential for success.” To me, that seemed to be where I think she’s stuck. Because inside the system it probably looks that way, but from outside we’re moving further and further away from that. And I think it’s also using a very conventional definition of the idea of success.
So, for me, and for anyone who reads the book, I think when you’re talking with them it’s pretty easy to talk about how all these changes that she’s talking about—the way children learn and being able to, how we can support children’s learning, not trying to control it, the value of the relationship, etc—that this is not the way the school system is. And we’re choosing unschooling because this is the way we want to live with our children right now.
I just thought that was so fascinating that she had all this research that she’s been doing, and she has all these interesting observations about the school system itself and how that’s not working and not meshing with the way children learn, etc and yet school is still where she ended up staying.
EMMA: It is interesting. And I guess slightly frustrating. Because yeah, it was a critique, wasn’t it, really, of mainstream dominant cultural narrative around school and education that she provided. Yeah and she didn’t really move beyond that. I guess it was a critique. I didn’t feel that …
PAM: That she was going for solutions?
EMMA: Yeah, I guess.
PAM: Except for the part where she said school is more and more essential for success. It’s like, how does that match?
EMMA: Yeah. I guess I was thinking about the example she gave of companies like Google and Pixar, and how they’ve cultivated sort of play spaces into their everyday environments and really focusing on the importance of the environment and making opportunities to play, and for people, like parents, to facilitate children’s play, as being beneficial. But, yeah.
PAM: Well, that’s both ends of it, right?
PAM: So, we’ve got young children, and at work. (laughs) But you’re still stuck with the middle. And even, like she said, in college they’re looking for that creative, curious kind of student. They don’t want the rote student. But that, as she says, the students that show up there are just waiting to be told what to do, to study what they’re told and do well on the test. That’s what they’ve been trained to do, as she said. They’ve been trained to be a student. Right?
PAM: It’s interesting.
EMMA: And I guess she didn’t really step outside. I mean she critiqued the narrative but didn’t necessarily step outside it. I think that’s what you’re picking up on.
EMMA: Given all these faults, that would suggest a revolution rather than sort of more of the same or something slightly different, but maybe a paradigm shift.
PAM: Well, yeah. I think the challenge is that just doing little small changes inside the system—like to assume that from working inside and just doing a little bit of tweak here, a little bit of tweak there, ‘Let me tell them how I see children really learning and they’re going to change the environment for them’—that seems to be a bit of an unrealistic expectation.
Now, personally, I’m not saying everybody should be homeschooled or anything like that. But I think that’s also why we’re seeing—maybe it’s just through my lens that I’m seeing this, but—you’ve got the Alliance for Self-Directed Education that are trying to bring together all the different kinds of learning environments that are out there: agile learning centers, Sudbury schools, all these different school environments that a child can go to without their parents. So, those are also possibilities.
I was just surprised she didn’t once mention any of those other possibilities. You know what I mean? But yeah, it could be that she was just staying in the critique mode for the most part. And she did a fascinatingly good job of that. (laughs)
EMMA: Yeah. When you mentioned that, I mean, the thing I felt she was emphasizing was how much we learn from relationships and how much we learn from things that happen all the time. So, to focus on explicit teaching is really quite misleading. Grandparents, parents, friends, relatives—these people are rich sources of learning for children, and for all of us really, throughout our lives. And that it’s happening all the time unconsciously. And that we’re going down the wrong path really, if we think that being explicitly taught is actually the way to go.
She gave some examples at school of how the teachers actually say that they’re not asking questions. And she says, “Yes, but are they interested in their friends and are they interested in what’s happening and who likes who?” And they say, “Oh yes, they’re very fascinated in that, but we don’t actually want to talk about that here. That’s not what we’re here for.”
PAM: Well that’s it. As we say, children are always learning. Just, if you’re trying to control it, they may not be learning what you’re trying to teach them. Right?
They’re always picking up things. They’re always figuring things out. And I guess when you realize, even if school needs to be in the picture, maybe you don’t have an alternative kind of school nearby or whatever, but if you understand that children are always learning and you can break that attachment to the school style, you can still be actively supporting your children’s learning when they’re at home, when they’re with you—you can have that close and connected relationship with them and be helping them learn all the time. And they’re still learning at school the things that they’re picking up.
So, from a parent’s perspective, that would be, you know, not focusing on the grades. The grades aren’t the judge of you as a person. I guess it’s when we talk about kind of almost unschooling the relationship when school happens to be in the picture, right? You don’t add your power behind the school system and the way that’s set up. Your power is your relationship with your child; that’s what comes first and foremost. And they have a whole life, not just: school, come home, do homework, do well at school, and that’s your value as a child. You can still step beyond that.
So, you’re right. I can see that that might have been the direction that she was leaning, that school is just something that you kind of have to put up with, but they’re learning all the time anyway, they’re just learning what is of interest to them and in their environment. (laughs)
Okay! Are there any last words that you would like to share?
EMMA: No, I don’t think so.
PAM: Well, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the book. You enjoyed it too, right?
EMMA: Yeah, I really did enjoy it.
PAM: And all I would say is just keep your critical thinking engaged, I mean, and that’s how we enjoy reading these books for the book chats, right? Thinking about what they’re trying to get across.
And I wanted just to tell everybody to remember that when she uses the word “parenting,” she means carpenter parenting. That took me a couple of chapters to get used to. I was like, “What? What?!” (laughs) Because when she’s referring to gardener style, she uses words like “relationship.” So, once I got used to it, I found that lovely.
That was so interesting. Because, as we talked earlier, as unschooling parents we found that our relationship with our children is at the root of learning, of living day-to-day. So, when we focus on our relationships and our connection, our attachment, everything else just blossoms from there. And I loved Alison’s point: maybe not in the ways that we planned or even hoped for, but in ways that are real for our children.
And something that jumped out at me; it reminded me that, as I learn more and more about stories and writing, that’s how writers describe great endings: as unpredictable yet inevitable. You know, we can’t anticipate with any certainty where our children’s interests will take them, yet when we look back we so often see the threads that brought them there. Our lives, and our children’s lives, really are great stories.
I just thought it was really cool how all these super different things—unschooling kids living as if school doesn’t exist, academic research into how children learn, and writing great stories—when we dive deeper into each of them, they all lead us to the same kinds of truths about being human.
I just found that really, really interesting, and did enjoy the book.
So I want to say thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today, Emma. As always, I had a lot of fun digging into the ideas.
EMMA: Oh, thank you Pam. I really enjoyed it.
PAM: And for people who may not yet know you and your work, where can they connect with you online?
EMMA: I’ve got a blog called RethinkingParenting.co.uk, they can contact me there.
PAM: I’ll put a link to that in the show notes as well.
Have a great day everybody!