Learning is at the heart of unschooling—learning and living are beautifully intertwined. As human beings we want to make sense of our world; it’s uncomfortable when we don’t understand what’s happening around us. That learning process, as we all strive to build our picture of the world and how it works, has two basic parts. Last time I talked about discovering how our children prefer to gather information. Now let’s look at the second part of the learning process: how they process that information and connect it to what they already know.
Going back for a moment to the conventional breakdown of learning styles, beyond the basic three I mentioned in my previous post, there is an expanded seven: visual-spatial; auditory; kinesthetic; verbal/linguistic; logical/mathematical; social/interpersonal; solitary/intrapersonal. You’ll note that the first three are the same. In my mind, they focus on the first step of the learning process, gathering information. The additional four focus on the second step, processing information.
Processing information—thinking—is all about taking information that we’ve gathered and integrating it into our existing understanding of the world, building that bigger picture. And just as there are many ways to gather information, there are also many ways we might choose to process that information.
I personally favour internal, or intrapersonal (within one’s self) processing. I take in information and typically prefer to think it through on my own, having conclusions close at hand before I choose talk with others about the topic. My husband, on the other hand, is more of a verbal, or external processor. He starts talking about a topic from the get go, often sharing thoughts as they occur to him.
It can be challenging when your styles differ. It took me some time to realize that in our conversations my husband was not sharing considered conclusions but rather his interim thoughts and what ifs as he processed out loud. It can be hard for internal ponderers to give external speculators the space to process their thoughts out loud without feeling like they are being provoked into an argument. But it is so helpful to understand what’s going on, to shift to being a sounding board, letting the conversations unfold without trying to direct the other person’s thoughts. That’s important because real understanding, and learning, happens when they make the connections, not when they’re being told what the answer is. And vice versa: if you’re a verbal processor it can be challenging to be patient through the quiet times, not really knowing what the other person is thinking until they are ready to share.
As unschooling parents it’s important that we understand and support both styles and the range in-between. For example, one of my children shows a preference for verbal processing, so when they express a wish for something I often help them dig into it, asking questions, helping them explore their motivation and nail down what they’re looking for. More learning.
Another of my children is a strong internal processor, so when they express a wish for something, my response is more often “Sure!” I know they’ve already done a lot of thinking before sharing this choice so let’s get going and see how it plays out. More learning.
Another thinks best when moving. Long walks in the forest, or tracing a room-to-room track in the house, the repetitive motion helps organize their thoughts and sink deeply into reflection: to think.
Just remember, our styles aren’t carved in stone. Maybe after a short conversation you realize your typically verbal/social processing child is already quite certain about the path forward they’d like to take—join them and move forward, or your continued questions may begin to feel like an interrogation. Or maybe as you quickly start down the path your typically internal/solitary processing child suggested, they start to question it—step back and join them in conversation if they’re interested, or give them more time to reconsider. Either way they are learning more about themselves.
It’s fun to notice how these dynamics play out in groups where people are learning, online or in person, like unschooling groups or writing groups. You probably won’t even notice the internal processors at first, until they’re feeling ready to speak up, while the external processors are busily asking question after question, gathering and processing information in plain sight. Again, no one method is better than another, except to an individual.
Another interesting observation I’ve made over the years about the learning process is that unschooling children find that learning sweet spot of being “in the flow” more often than their conventionally schooled counterparts. You know that feeling, yes? When you’re so into the task at hand that time seems to stand still? Where you don’t second guess yourself; in fact, you don’t analyze yourself at all—you just do. Unschooling children are free to follow their curiosity, to immerse themselves in their interests, so it’s understandable that they are more often engaged in these beautiful moments of flow. There is so much learning found there, both about the world, and about themselves.
By giving your children the space to play with how they process the information they gather, by being a responsive partner in the dance of questions and conversations and silences as they piece together their unique picture of the world and how it works, you are helping them explore and discover how they like to learn. And with that deep understanding of themselves, they will be better able to choose and create environments for living and learning and working that are a good fit for them, throughout their lifetime.