Unschooling as a way of learning and living is unconventional. In general, conventional society trusts the school system as an effective process for learning, where trust is a reasonably confident expectation of outcome. Yet we have chosen a less populated path. We don’t typically have an abundance of unschooling families around us from which to gain an understanding of, and build trust in, this lifestyle. So how do we build trust in unschooling?
First, let’s step back a moment and ask ourselves why—why is it important to trust the process of unschooling? Because without trust, without understanding how unschooling works, when we’re confronted with situations steeped in uncertainty, we may be tempted to reach for control to wrestle our fears into submission. Yet top-down control can interfere with unschooling, chipping away at our trust and relationships, and our children’s learning may start to suffer. It can become a vicious circle. This less effective unschooling environment can precipitate situations with our children that trigger more fear, which can lead us to reach for more control, damaging our relationships, trust, and their learning even further.
So, developing trust is important. How can we go about it? For me, I built a strong understanding of and trust in the process of unschooling during the first couple of years through observation, through seeing it in action with my children and comparing that with my growing understanding of natural learning. That’s the difference between trust and blind trust to me. Blind trust is when you haven’t seen it action before, when you have little to base your trust on. Deep trust builds on experience, on seeing.
Certainly when you first start unschooling you may choose to place some trust in the experience and observations shared by other unschooling parents—yay for the Internet! But soon you will begin to see those ideas play out with your own children. And your trust grows.
Here’s an example. I’ve always enjoyed and processed things through writing. I recently came across a note I typed up during our first year of unschooling after a particularly fun a-ha moment for me when the learning connections were particularly obvious.
Friday October 25, 2002
Just thought I had to write down something that happened last night. Yesterday we spent a great day at the Science Centre and then went straight to P’s house for a “Pizza Party” dinner she organized for the kids. Just before we left P gave Michael a recorder she had laying around. He was very excited since, although we already have two at home, this one was “his”. As soon as we got home, he had to “learn” to play it. As luck would have it, someone on the unschooling list had mentioned that a great first book for learning the recorder was the Usborne book and I had borrowed it from the library 2-3 weeks ago. Since then it had been sitting on my music stand in the library, trying to catch someone’s attention.
Well Michael must have noticed it because he made a beeline for it as soon as we got in and insisted I go through it with him. We quickly covered the basics of the instrument and how to clean it, then how to hold it and his first note (A). Next we discussed counting and how long to hold a quarter note. It was amazing and so much fun! The challenge for me was to quickly scan each double page and give him a quick summary – and I could barely get that out before he was saying “I get it, I get it, be quiet now”, and playing the tune for the page.
We made it through the second note (B) along with half notes and whole notes, then a third note (G) along with rests (quarter, half and whole). I was surprised to see him understand the tempo and rhythm so easily … I could hear the difference between the quarter and half notes, even though I was not allowed to clap a beat past the first couple of pages!
The funniest thing was that every time he squeaked, he would clean it! We got a piece of old cloth and he diligently cleaned it with his cleaning rod. I did convince him that sometimes the squeak was because his mouth was tight … it wasn’t really a squeak, just a higher note. This was especially noticeable with the G note. I told him to try relaxing and play the note with his eyes closed and that worked great. Then he slowly opened his eyes and found he could still play it! It was very exciting to be a part of.
Then after about 45 minutes he said that was enough and he got on his pyjamas and we went upstairs to read his Scooby-Doo books. In one of the books he noticed that the author had used a dash in one of the sentences and he pointed it out and said “it looks like a rest from the music”. I laughed and said yes, it means to pause when you are reading! So I read the sentence over and over while he had me pause for counts of 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 and chose 2 as the one that sounded best to him. Too funny!!
This moment was lit in neon lights for me because it was a glowing example of unschooling in action: my understanding of how unschooling worked meshed tightly with the experience unfolding in front of me.
It’s interesting to see where I was in my journey of learning about unschooling, about seven months in. The way I chose to describe the situation, like the phrase “trying to catch someone’s attention,” clearly shows that my trust in unschooling was still developing—I was still needing and watching for things to unfold, still attaching some level of expectations, or at least hope, to things. And that’s okay. It’s a journey.
Another reason developing trust in the process of unschooling is important is because oftentimes these beautiful moments of learning in action aren’t so glaringly obvious. Sometimes these connections happen inside the child, with no outer clues in the moment—so much of learning is internal. Maybe you catch glimpses of it months down the road when they make a comment or observation and you realize the previously unseen connections they’ve made to get them to that point. I can see that idea became clear to me because a few months later I started writing journals on a monthly basis, looking beyond the day-to-day activities to see the connections that flow through that longer time-frame.
Writing has always been my tool for processing the world—as I write down my thoughts and emotions, I discover and learn. Maybe writing isn’t your tool, your joy. Explore and find the ways you will enjoy documenting these wonderful moments when you see unschooling in action and know in your heart it’s working well.
Pictures? Video? With cameras in many cell phones now it’s pretty easy to capture random and fleeting moments of unschooling in action that can later quickly bring you back to that moment. Mementos? Grab something that has some significance for you to in relation to the moment. Keep them in a memory box or a shoe box or any kind of box. Whatever you choose, have it accessible so you can remind yourself about these moments when you feel your trust waning. At the very least, they will remind you of the kinds of connections to look for so you can again see unschooling in action in your family.
This isn’t about clinging to the “good” moments and ignoring “reality.” It’s about reminding yourself that learning is always happening, that it just may not be so easy to spot. These memories will remind you to trust in the process until you catch the next glimpse of learning in action and say to yourself, “Unschooling is awesome!”