PAM: Hi everyone, I am Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I am here with Meredith Novak. Hi, Meredith!
PAM: Hi, welcome, it is so great to have you on the show. Meredith has been active online in unschooling groups for many, many, years. I have always enjoyed her writing and I am very excited to speak with her today. We are going to dig in to what learning looks like with unschooling.
To get us started, Meredith, can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you came to unschooling.
MEREDITH: Yes, I have always been really interested in the mind and how the mind works everything really to do with the mind—psychology, neuroscience, chemistry, also things like meditation, philosophy, feminism—just anything to do with how and why people think and learn in the world. I am just into all of that. For a while I sort of lived communally with a bunch of other people here in the hills of Tennessee. In the process I sort of blundered into unschooling unintentionally, at least at first. (laugh)
I was with these people who always wanted to unschool though. My stepson’s biological parents, so my partner and his ex, wanted to homeschool. I was like okay, “that is a little crazy but alright I am on board.” So I ended up involved in that. Over the course of that we sort of blundered our way towards unschooling. At first, it was really more in terms of the parenting end of things because conventional parenting really didn’t work well with Ray.
He was kind of intense and it turned out the more we treated him kindly and we were more proactive and thoughtful and listened to what he had to say, the less over the top intense he was. That kind of drew us closer to unschooling. Eventually we started homeschooling, started moving to more eclectic and more interest based, and we were right on the verge to going to full on academic unschooling too.
And then custody things happened. Ray went to school. It was just a bad time. Around the same time, I also had my daughter. I thought “well I am going to start things a little differently this time.” I started learning about unschooling online, so yes, she got to unschool basically from the start (whatever that means). Eventually Ray got to come home and unschool too when he was thirteen. The kids are eight years apart and Ray was homeschooled, kind-of-sort-of unschooled, then in school, then finally unschooled. Morgan was just unschooled all the way.
PAM: That is a really interesting story, you got to see so much. You got to see the relationship within so many different contexts with that journey, didn’t you?
PAM: That is fascinating. To dig into learning I wanted to start with, when I was thinking about how I wanted to frame this episode. When I thought about it, the majority of the unschooling parents who are listening to the podcast and me included, come from a school background so when we get started, that is what learning looks likes to us. That is learning. So I thought what would be helpful would be for us to compare and contrast what learning looks like in school and what it looks like with unschooling.
PAM: Okay, so I came up with five aspects to compare that I hope will be helpful. Then I have a few more questions to go on after that.
Comparison number one: Let us look at school’s focus on teaching versus unschooling’s focus on the learning.
One of the first things people new to unschooling are encouraged to do is to shift their perspective from teaching to learning. Why is this such an important shift when we want to learn more about unschooling?
MEREDITH: From my perspective, so much of the way the parent-child relationship is framed (out in the culture) is really about teaching. It is about what we want our kids to know. Who we want—not necessarily what we want them to grow up to be—but who we want them to grow up to be.
That was something that really surprised me, even about myself, when I started actively considering unschooling. I had all these ideas about parenting that turned out to be a lot more about ME than about my kids. That really disturbed me because I had always thought of myself as someone who respected kids as people and then I dig into it, I was like “Ooh, this is about me, wait. I thought I was over that.” (laughs)
PAM: I am like nodding my head here. Yea, yea, yea. (laughs)
MEREDITH: It was like all the emotional energy I had invested in this idea of myself as a mom, really involved this fantasy of who my kids were and could become…and that was a problem. Especially it was with Ray because he had his own ideas about who he was and it was not necessarily the person in all of our heads.
Morgan, even when she was a little baby, she was very much her own person. She started breaking baby rules right from the start. (laughs) You know, she was one of those babies that wouldn’t make eye contact, didn’t necessarily want to be picked up when she was crying, so you know, we had to learn a whole new set of ways to get along with Morgan. Then with Ray, especially, because he was so intense. You know this was really before we knew anything about unschooling.
We had all these rules and expectations, all the usual parenting rules and expectations. They are all about making him the best version of himself that we could imagine. That really didn’t help him all that much. So the further we got away from that and the more all of us (but especially I worked on) seeing himself who he wanted to be and what he wanted to learn, the better things got just across the board.
PAM: I know that makes such a huge difference because when you think about the school’s system itself yes, it’s whole goal is to make one generic kind of graduate who knows this set of facts, has this set of skills and they graduate. They guarantee that is what, or at least that is what they are focusing on, trying to create that ideal graduating student.
MEREDITH: Even homeschooling and sometimes especially homeschooling it is not so much about making the generic graduate but making like the super kid. (laughs)
PAM: (Laughs) Super Kid, yes.
MEREDITH: We all want that kid that has the articles about him, you know.
MEREDITH: Sailing around the world AND keeps their room clean. You know?
PAM: Yes, exactly. As soon as you have those goals for somebody else, whether it is child or adult, but definitely children because we think we have more control over them, right? That is when you focus on the teaching because “I know what you should know,” “I have these expectations” you were talking about, and whenever you look at that child you just see the missing pieces and what you think you need to teach to fix them, right.”
PAM: Right. It makes a huge difference.
MEREDITH: I am so grateful to Ray and Morgan. Is that neither one of them really let me get away with that. They were not going to be molded into anything else.
PAM: Same thing for me with Joseph it was because that “was not working” that I started looking for other options. That is a good thing, that we could see them and see them being the person they are and not putting up with what we were trying to make them into. So it is good that we could, I guess, step back and say “I am part of the problem.”
MEREDITH: Yes, as difficult as it is. Yes.
PAM: No, exactly.
Comparison number two: School’s focus on curriculum and unschooling focus on curiosity.
With unschooling, children are definitely encouraged to and actively supported by us as they follow their interests instead of a set curriculum. What advantages have you seen learning this way?
MEREDITH: It is really amazing how much richer their learning experience actually is. Especially since we did homeschool and worked really hard at it. Even the best, well thought out, integrated curriculum it is still limited by the fact that it is something that is imposed on another person from the outside. (I think you just said that.)
In schools you see that all the time in the whole like, “is this going to be on the test” phenomena. Homeschool parents do not always have deal with that but know especially when you work really hard on the curriculum and lesson plans you always get great ideas, they are just going to work so well, and your kids are just going to love it and halfway into it and they are like, “Are we done yet, can we go play now?” and you realize AHA…OKAY…all that work, huh.
Even when you get something that does light kids up it still, even then, it limits the directions they end up going. Natural curiosity does not have those limits. I didn’t realize how much even “good education” had those limits until I got to see kids really unschooling and just going where their curiosity led them. It just goes in wild unanticipated directions.
PAM: That is so fascinating, that is one of the pieces that I just love so much. It goes back to when you said, in school your question is always “what is going to be on the test,” right?
I remember that from, I did well in high school and university but that was entirely always the focus. I am just going to learn what I need to know to do well on the test. So even if I loved (say chemistry or something) I was not exploring it I was just saying “Oh, I do not mind going to chemistry class,” and “what is on the test.” (laughs) Right, then you see your kids pursuing an interest and its like holy crap!, the determination!, all the different places they go and there is none of that oh, gee other than am I interested, am I interested! When they catch something they are interested in, it is just crazy all the place they go, isn’t it?
MEREDITH: Yes and how hard they will work on something that (from the outside might seem small, but) they are putting all this effort into. I know when I was homeschooling I would love the kid to put that much effort into something and he was, it just was not “homeschool.”
PAM: Yes, it just wasn’t that stuff. And you also notice that you remember all the things that we learned in school and so that so many times were told “you will need to know that someday, yes you need to” and you were like when am I EVER going to need to know this. I know I have forgotten so, so much yet with my kids, because so much of what they are learning they are interested in and because they are interested in it, they are doing it and thinking about it day after day after day. It just seems that they remember a much higher percentage of all the things they figure out along the way.
MEREDITH: Yes, yes.
PAM: It is fascinating to watch them and I think, you know what, that is one of the places I picked up a lot of my understand of learning, was just watching them in action when they didn’t have all those expectations and curriculum narrowing down what they are supposed to be doing.
About this time usually in conversations one of the concerns that people will often mention, is that there are a general set of knowledge and skills that are needed to get along in our community or in our world and how are they going to learn THOSE things if they are just doing what they want? So how do you answer that question?
MEREDITH: Well it is interesting because this is an idea that actually goes right back to the roots of education itself. I’ve just been reading Montain’s Essay on The Education of Children, (it was written in 1580) okay, this is not a new educational theory.
He starts out with some of the same complaints that people make about education today, like “these kids are memorizing stuff and then not using it” and it is like oh, wait a minute, when was this written, 15 what? Then he goes on and he is quoting people like Aristotle, so these are questions, issues that go way, way back. First of all, there is this body of knowledge and it does not do you all that much good to just memorize it. Socrates, the one who in some ways is the foundation of education, and knowledge and thinking about thinking (that is his whole shtick) was like, forget what you learned. He was like, walk around town and talk to a bunch of strangers, discover what they know and the whole world looks very different.
So the more interesting question to me is why do we cling to this idea that there is this general body of knowledge that we have to know. I think the main reason as parents is that we think it is safe. As long as we are staying within the bounds of “these things” that kids are supposed to know, we can’t be accused of doing our kids a disservice. Even if we fail, we have at least followed the rules. Stepping out of that feels risky. It is risky.
At the same time, it is why unschooling can be so attractive to parents of kids who have had a rough time in school or homeschooling. We have seen how sticking with in the bounds, sticking with the system—trying to focus on this general body of knowledge—how that can fail too and fail spectacularly! So with kids following their natural curiosity, I’m sorry what were you going to say?
PAM: Oh no that is okay, you keep going.
MEREDITH: I got distracted. (laughs)
PAM: Me too. (laughter)
PAM: I am still thinking about Socrates and I just love the fact that these are human questions that have been around for so, so long.
MEREDITH: We really WANT there to be this general body of knowledge, we WANT there to be something that is like EASY and convenient and we know.
PAM: It is scary to take the responsibility for it, right?
MEREDITH: Yes. Step back from issues of school or homeschooling and parents are just talking, you know I mean everybody, everybody really knows that this “block of knowledge” is not working and never really has, but what are you going to do? Why, the answer is unschooling! (laugh)
PAM: It’s true.
MEREDITH: The crazy thing about unschooling is surely as they are following their little rabbit trails of curiosity, they manage to pick up a lot of this basic set of skills and information. They pick up the “three R’s”, they pick up basic cultural information, they become culturally literate. They learn things about history. They learn things about plants. Unschooling kids, we know they get into college, they get jobs, it is not that they are missing out they are just getting there by a really, really, different route.
PAM: I think that is a huge point that is that body of knowledge or skills is not the curriculum in school it is the stuff that they need to interact in their culture and their community. They are picking that up through unschooling because they are already interacting with their community, just picking up the things that help them do that better along the way.
MEREDITH: They can’t help it.
PAM: Yes, exactly. I think that is a much better description of that cultural knowledge and cultural skills (like you said) like reading, basic numeracy and that kind of stuff. They are going, the stuff that they need to get along in the world they are going to pick up because they are ALREADY getting along in the world with you by their side helping them figure it out.
MEREDITH: Yes, and a lot of times what they are getting is what parents complain, what teachers complain and employers complain, “These kids have no real-world knowledge.” (laughs) When Ray left school (at 13) he hated math, for instance, with a passion. Now he is 22 and will be 23 in a couple of months, and he does carpentry, he does metal work. He has help build houses, he is building a couple right now. He does a lot of real world math most of which he didn’t learn in school.
You do not learn to read a tape measure in school. No, you pull a kid out school even a kid who is good at math, good at fractions and say okay, what is one and three fifths plus one and a half? They have got to stop and do some harder math. Somebody who is used to doing a tape measure can go one and three eighths and one and a half is two and seven eighths. They know it because they know the tape measure. They are not having to stop and convert the fractions. It is just part of the real world math.
PAM: That was a big piece for me, knowing and seeing for myself the discrepancy between the stuff I could do in the classroom and being able to apply it out in the world. There was a big discrepancy there. That was part of my figuring out learning and what is valuable about learning was just looking at myself in that issue.
Comparison number 3: School’s focus on the compulsory school years versus unschooling’s focus on life long learning.
Unschooling and the concept of life long learning really weave together tightly. One of the things we leave behind us is the idea that childhood is for learning and adulthood is for living. This can have a really profound impact on everyone in an unschooling family, parents included. I found that a huge piece for me. Have you found that to be true?
MEREDITH: Yes. I’ve always been interested in adult learning/life long learning so the part that has been really profound for me has been the idea that this very messy, convoluted, interactive way that adults explore the world actually works for kids too. Even though their brains are not adult brains. I think that the difference in brains is kind of a sticking point for a lot of parents. I know it was a big difference with me because I had all this background in neuroscience and psychology and chemistry and “The brains are different, we can’t treat them like adults!” (laugh). Worse than “We can’t treat them like adults” was “We can’t treat them like normal people, they are kids!”
Seeing articles like that a lot lately there has been a lot of focus on how the like the neuroscience means you can’t be nice to your kids. It is like oh, your teenagers brain chemistry makes them demented, so you have to really crack down.
PAM: I know I’ve seen those all over.
MEREDITH: One of the really fascinating things about radical unschooling in particular, is how manages to integrate the very real effects of human development with the equally real social and motivational factors that make up a big part of how it works. Learning about that has really affected the way I see my own learning process and it has made me a better learner.
Thinking about the ways that human beings are social for instance and how we learn from social situations and about social situations has made it easier for me to learn from other people. That was something I really did not learn in school. I left school with the social skills of a carrot. (laughs)
I was one of those shy kids who didn’t talk. Learning about unschooling and learning about the way kids learn it was just really startling to me on that level. I was like, “Oh wait, wait, wait, I do that too.” Watch people and learn from them. School was like keep your eyes to yourself. Do not share information. That is cheating.
PAM: I think one of the things too that can stop people up when we start talking about the social aspect is they might worry, “my child does not want to go out, does not want to, does not like groups” and that kind of stuff. That social engagement with the activity and with the people around them, it does not have to be strangers, it does not have to be other kids, you as a parent are right there. So much of that social processing (working together) you have that right in the home. Right?
MEREDITH: Yes. My kids are like night and day when it comes to how they around people. Ray is an extreme extrovert and Morgan is super introvert. So with Ray there were a lot of things with social learning that I thought I had to put him in social situations for him to learn these skills. When really he needed to be home, he needed to be in a lot smaller, easier social situations, so that he could grow up a little bit and so that he could learn, what for him were, easier skills first. Without realizing it I was throwing him into the shark tank and going “Okay, kid. Sharks? It’s what you like right? You are social.”
So, really from him I learned the value of, it is okay keep things small. Morgan is just not a people person. It is really amazing to watch how she approaches learning about other people. This is the part where I really got to learn a lot about myself because I am also an introvert, not as strong as she is. I did a lot of alternative education research on how—there is a lot of this in Montessori classrooms—how do you incorporate a kid who is not a people person. It was there that I learned that some kids just need to stand back and watch. Some kids cannot do the whole group at once. They need to see how people act and react and then make up their minds about that. They need to see how the WHOLE group works and then how smaller groups work and figure out the details. I was like, “Oh wow, really? That is allowed? I can choose that? Alright!”
PAM: Right, that is okay? (laughs) We learn so much about ourselves, don’t we, when we watch our kids in action.
MEREDITH: Even like this week, somebody at work said something (I do not even remember what) but I was like “Wow, is that how you handle that kind of situation?” I’m gonna take down some notes. (laughs.)
PAM: It is funny. I shared a quick story on last week’s podcast episode where I talked about Michael’s starting karate, because HE did that. He was very much wanting to understand a situation before jumping in too much.
He started—you sign up you pay for your month and you can go as often as you want—but he only wanted to go once a week. He wanted to check it out on his own, he didn’t want me. He was eight or nine at the time, this was a piece of him stepping out but he KNEW, he was like, “No, one class a week thanks.”
He knew that about himself and then once he saw how everything worked, got a bit of feel for the people, for Sensei all that kind of stuff he was like, “Ok.” Two or three months later he was ready to look for second class. Then he just added and added and added at his own pace. That was so interesting for me watch and to think through. Because at first you are like, “I signed you up, we will get our money’s worth, you love karate, YOU wanted to sign up, why don’t you want to go three or four times a week?” To be able to take that pause and say “hey, this is not a race, this is him figuring stuff out.”
Not only was he figure stuff out about karate, there was so much learning going on in there for those two/three months and continuing. So much about himself learning/figuring out the situation on his own, seeing where he was comfortable, just so much it was crazy.
MEREDITH: That right there is another one of those big advantages about stepping outside of the classroom model. There is so much learning that just gets wound in together. Like you said, he was not just there learning about karate, he was learning a lot of other things at the same time. School tries to minimize that. “No, you are not here to socialize, young lady.” “We are working on math now, put your science book away.” I got sent to the principal’s office for reading my science book during math class. (laughs) Well I’d done all the math problems!
PAM: I am going to tie this back into this comparison we are talking about “compulsory school years.” Say I’ve got twelve years, or whatever it is in your state, and I have this set of curriculum so I have to break it out over this number of years and this is it. What I have found by watching my kids and other unschooling kids is you realize you do not ever just learn one thing at a time. You and your math might lead you to some reading, which might lead you to some history, which might lead you to a map, on and on and on. I think that because school has to so carefully slice up the learning all those interconnections between everything never come to the surface. The world’s greatest student coming out still has all that learning in discrete packages and does not see how it all relates. Does that make sense?
MEREDITH: Right, yes. My daughter and I were just talking about this last night. We were watching some TV show and there was an anthropologist having an argument with a psychologist. They are both saying the same things but basically speaking different languages. The extreme ends of academia that is what having and separating all these disciplines as rigorously as we do, that is what it results in. The idea that sociology and psychology or psychology and anthropology or sociology and anthropology those are all different things, on one level, that is a little crazy. It is all about people and how people get a long with each other. So we got to talk about that while watching TV, about whether we should eat burritos or popcorn. We got to learn a whole lot of things.
PAM: Yes, that is fascinating. I love that.
Comparison number 4: School’s focus on the child adapting to the classroom environment and unschooling’s focus on the child’s personal learning style.
What are some of the advantages that you see for children who are learning outside of the classroom?
Because that is not big. (laughter.. I am just setting you up here…)
MEREDITH: That is something that goes back to good old Socrates wandering around town instead of sitting in a classroom. There is a bigger world out there. Even though putting kids in a classroom can feel safe on a parental level, we know it is not a great environment and we know getting kids to try and adapt to that environment does not work very well. That is really the whole driving force behind all kinds of alternative education. Even conventional education reform. We know the classroom is not a great place. That is why there is field trips. That is why you have break days where you watch movies.
One of the real tragedies of the push to get kids in school sooner and to standard education more is that culturally we have lost our love of… You ever hear of Tom Sawyer? Tom Sawyer was this like kid cult hero when I was a kid. He was kind of glamorized you know, he was the kid who didn’t fit in well in the classroom, always kind of trouble. But he was a hero for not fitting in.
Or like Pippi Longstockings she was a hero for not fitting in. Those are not really the models we think of when we think of kids and education today. Today, those kids get diagnosed and medicated. The one kid hero is Harry Potter who last six years in a boarding school and he does not really leave for “school” reasons; he leaves because the world is going to end or something.
My daughter is kind of atypical. I usually do not make a big deal about it but I am going to mention it. It is one of the reasons I am really, really glad she never HAD to adapt to the classroom environment because I think it would have been a nightmare for her. She didn’t even like the few classes that she tried here and there. She is really sensitive to a lot of the things she would run into at school. She does not like crowds of people, certain kinds of sounds in the vocal range that she does not really like. She does not do well with certain kinds of attention. It is the sort of thing where when she has a lot of control of her choices and the way she gets to interact with people, it is much less of an issue than when she just does not have any choice in the matter. I think if she was in school, unless she managed to get a run of really, really sympathetic teachers, she would have shut down pretty hard. Might not even be all that high functioning at this point.
Instead she is my super introvert and she has some quirks and she has some sensitivities. But none of these are really defects; they are not necessarily things that stop her. To use a different kid example from culture, like Wednesday Addams, Morgan was more like the Wednesday Addams kid. She’s kind of weird; she is from a kind of a weird family. It is not a bad thing, it is not something she sees as a bad thing, you know. She knows she is not like the other kids in town because she is not them and they are not her.
PAM: And that is one think I love too it was Joseph not fitting into the typical classroom environment that got me looking and finding homeschooling and unschooling. Once they are out of the classroom it is not a big deal per se, it is who they are. The point is, they are learning so much about themselves when they do not have that “expectation layer” on top of them. They are learning who they really, really are. They are learning the kinds of tools and ways that they can work through, whether it is a quirk here or a need here. They are just figuring out ways they can accommodate that during the day. Ways that when they want to do something that maybe makes them a bit more uncomfortable, knowing all the things that they can do to support themselves. This is all learning they are not going to have in the classroom because in the classroom they are like “you do this” and that is it or you get in trouble.
MEREDITH: It is really constrained. My super introverted kid, I have seen her walk up to a complete stranger, at a party, with all the chaos and noise and all the things she hates. She will walk up to a complete stranger and make a friend. This was a friend, this was an adult actually, who was playing Pokémon. This is my Pokémon saves the world story. She sits down next to him and starts talking about Pokémon. For several years they had a weekly Pokémon get together. He would come over and they would play Pokémon. I was there in the background; it was not like they were left alone or anything. That was her Pokémon buddy and she did that in a party of all places. I wouldn’t have expected that.
She’s been able to learn enough about other people and what to look for in other people that she knows when there is somebody she can connect to. In school, she would just be a maladapted kid. That would be it and she would know she didn’t fit.
PAM: Because the classroom environment is such a particular environment, there are so many kids. I am not going to regurgitate our whole “Learning To Read” episode but that was one of the points. In school you understand WHY it is important in the system to have the kind of learning style that reads early, takes information in through reading, spits it out through writing, for tests and that kind of stuff. That style is going to do well there but the problem is, every other style makes the kid feel stupid. Not able to work inside that environment so they think something is wrong with them. Rather than, oh gee this is not a great set-up, a great environment for them.
MEREDITH: In school Morgan would have to do things like she would have to look her teachers in the face. She would have to respond when they asked her questions in a certain tone of voice. These are things that in the adult world, adults do not speak to each other like that. Adults do not expect even the same kind of face-to-face contact as we expect from kids. She can deal with an adult-to-adult relationship now; she can deal with a kid-to-kid but the teacher-child sort of relationship, “NO!.” That hits all her “I am uncomfortable with this” buttons.
PAM: That is a really a great point because that really is more of a power submission kind of relationship isn’t it?
MEREDITH: Yes. It is pretty stylized toward that environment. Teachers are taught to speak in kind of particular tones of voice. They use a particular kind of body language. Those are all the things that really shut Morgan down in big ways. I am talking about like curl up under the chair shut down. Out in the world I can put myself between Morgan and an adult and say, “you know, she needs a little space right now” and people didn’t always like that but it gave her the chance to figure out what her boundaries are and decide when she wanted to move beyond them.
A couple years ago, two summers ago now, we were out on the east coast visiting relatives. We were at the zoo and we had forgotten to bring any water. Morgan got dehydrated and passed out. That apparently is really common at the zoo. They EMTs were like “Oh yeah, this happens all the time we just need to get her hydrated.” She perked up but she had to deal with complete strangers. She had to deal with EMTs. They were not able to find a vein so we ended up having to go to the hospital. She had to deal with a lot of complete strangers in like situations that could have really shut her down hard and didn’t. She was like okay. I said alright, Morgan, this is what is happening this is what is going on and she looked at me and said okay I got this and she did. She was able to answer questions and give medical information to the people she had never met in her life. Even deal with the obnoxious voice people use when they speak at children sometimes.(laugh) She just dealt, “Okay, (sigh) I got this.” Those are all the things that are not supposed to happen unless you put kids in very structured environments and make them deal. They actually can learn to deal in the real world on their own terms.
PAM: That is fascinating because made me think back to when Michael was in the hospital for a few days when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Dealing with all the medical staff. It made me smile when you talked about “that voice” when they are talking to kids. I think he was eleven, when they would come in and start talking to ME and asking me questions, and I would redirect them to him. That is the whole point, how many times would we help them through situations when they are younger, because they are not comfortable. They see us do it and happily help them out time and time again and there does come a point where they just deal, they just step up for themselves. They do not need, they are not looking, that corner of your eye or that little special signal or something that says, or just shutting down and not answering, that says “hey come on and help me through this moment.” They just pick it up and deal with it.
It so interesting that is a cool story for her. I am sure it was not so fun at the moment, it is always nicer looking back on them, isn’t it? (laughs)
MEREDITH: Right. That was bad and really stressful. In retrospect now, looking back on it, it was one of those “Yeah! Team Unschooling” moments. “It does work!” (laughs)
PAM: That was exactly the situation at the time too.
MEREDITH: She is talking to complete strangers AND dealing with a foreign bureaucracy. Look! and she didn’t even have to go to school to learn that, hahaha.
PAM: Our last one.
Comparison number 5: School’s focus on testing and unschooling’s focus on being with the child.
A common question from people trying to wrap their mind around unschooling, is if we are not testing them, how do we know that they are learning?
MEREDITH: Testing has got to be one of the worst ways to evaluate what someone actually knows. Even educators know that. It is one of the things they complain about. It is what parents complain about, it is what teachers complain about, colleges complain about. I took a testing methods class and one of the focuses was what are the things these tests DO NOT do. That is a big thing with a lot of tests they do not. They always by definition, have a very narrow scope of what they are measuring.
I think testing is one of those things people do to feel safe. You know, you can point to a test score and say see we are not just screwing around here, education is happening, everyone can calm down, everything is fine. I do not live in a state where you have to test and so that sometimes a question I get all the time. “Oh, don’t you have to test them?” “How do you know what they are learning” It is funny because every time a teacher asks me that, I say, “What do your kids know a week after the test?” They always stop and go, “Okay, good point. Got me there.”
That is what makes the experiential learning that is a lot of unschooling, that is what makes it harder to evaluate because there are not a lot of like easy simple things that you can point at as PROOF that learning is happening. It is arguably one of the downsides of unschooling, at least in the short term. From one day to the next or one week to the next there is not a lot of concrete evidence. In the longer term there is a lot of concrete evidence. You find out really, just by living with your kids and having conversations, doing things together, telling jokes.
There is a page or comment on Sandra Dodd’s website that says something about being able to get more jokes. Like this is one of the benefits of natural learning, “your kids ‘get’ more jokes.” Humor is really a fantastic way to know what someone else knows and how they understand the world. You know when somebody is not getting the joke you know there is a hole in their learning there. Or there are certain kinds of jokes that people make that the jokes themselves show that they do not understand something. As a parent you probably remember times when your kid was finally old enough to get a certain kind of joke. Like when they were finally old enough to get irony.
I like irony and I had to learn to not use irony when Ray was little. You know, people took me aside and said, “Little kids do not really get irony.” Oops! Alright.
PAM: Good point. (laughing)
MEREDITH: I do not know how to tell you something about the kid but that can finally make an ironic comment, “ooooh” we have reached the stage of irony, “check”.
PAM: A door had opened.
MEREDITH: While we are there, puns… You learn a lot about what kids know by the associations they make. At times, my partner is a very high level punster. Ray somehow didn’t get this gene. He is like an average punster. It was interesting watch him like trying to figure out what puns were and how to make them.
Morgan is definitely an expert level punster. Even though she is not much of a talker she really has a good grasp of how language works. It really comes out in the kind of jokes she makes. A lot of them are about the connections between words and among words among ideas and puns are part of that.
Sexual humor, she has finally reached the sexual humor stage, which is really interesting. Like the potty humor stage was not enough now we have reached sexual humor. 14 they all get there somehow I guess. Yet at the same time it was one of the things I worried about, especially with a kid I can’t like sit down and talk to. How is she going to learn about sex and stuff? So when she starts making sex jokes it was like “OH!” “Where did you learn that?” Especially with older kids unschooling is full of a lot of “where did you learn that?” moments.
PAM: I know that is so fun. That is the whole point, right? When you are with them and hanging around with them and making jokes and having conversations you can almost see their mind at work. You see all these new pieces of information and your like “hey!” Exactly, where did they pick that up or how did they make that connection?
MEREDITH: “Were you actually listening when I was having that conversation!”
PAM: Yes, that too. (laughs)
MEREDITH: “What, you were watching Game of Thrones?!” Oh, I thought you were playing a video game in the other room. (laughs)
PAM: Just hanging out with them but as you said, maybe not over a week or two, we are talking you know, a few months. In a few months you see these natural progressions and steps when you are looking back at a bit of a long (few month) period a bigger time period.
MEREDITH: I mean sometimes it does happen fast. Sometimes kids will just grab something and pull it in really fast. You can even see them working on it. Morgan one of those kids that every now and then and shell get something and you can just really see her working on it.
PAM: I love that. Okay next question.
While conventional wisdom tells us that children resist learning and need to be motivated to do it unschooling parents see something very different. Why don’t unschooled kids hate learning?
MEREDITH: I think curiosity is one of the driving forces of human nature. I think people sometimes miss that. We know that though generally but we tend to say this person isn’t curious or that person isn’t curious. Because we have a certain amount of intellectual snobbery about what kind of learning is worthy and what is not.
An example is anything to do with pop culture. There is sort of an attitude of like “that is not real.” It is not even something we think about as learning. I do not mean like just learning song lyrics but finding out which super model is sleeping with which rock star. We do not think about that as learning but that is part of the process of human curiosity to dive into even just details like that and learn about the world. One of the great strengths of unschooling is it does not divide up those kinds of learning. It does not say this kind of learning is superior to that kind of learning.
It is okay when kids want to learn all the evolutions of all the Pokémon or learn the names of all the characters in Barbie: Fairytopia and what all their special gifts are. There is a lot of pressure on parents to steer kids away from certain interests. The obvious ones are things like violence and sex, but we really try to steer them away from pop culture in a lot of ways because we do not value that kind of learning. That “steering” is what leads kids to find learning frustrating. They get told that the things they WANT to learn are not worth learning. So it is like “Well what is the point of learning at all then?” “I mean if I can’t learn about Pokémon, what is the point?”
PAM: When I think back I am trying to think if my kids, once they were home, if they even really used the word “learning,” “I want to learn” they were just doing. They were just following their curiosity and doing it. I think part of it was that learning just became so much a part of life it was just like living. They wouldn’t dislike getting up and living. They were accomplishing their own goals whatever it is that the wanted. They didn’t say, “my goal today is…” well sometimes they did but it was just following their curiosity and finding what they wanted to accomplish and do. In doing that they learned a whole bunch of stuff but it was just the living in the moment of that day. They didn’t say “okay, I need to learn this and this and this” they just kind of did it.
MEREDITH: One of the really awesome things about finally getting to pull Ray out of school was getting to see his love of learning come back. By the time he left school he was like, “learning is stupid, I hate learning.”
It was maybe two weeks of being home we went and got some spray paint. He wanted to learn about spray painting skulls onto skateboards. Because he had still been in school, he was thinking in terms of learning. I want to learn about spray painting, okay, alright we will do this. Because that was okay, that one little thing spread out in so many different directions it was just amazing. Just the simple act of buying a can of spray paint ended up involving learning about the legal system. It turns out, spray paint is a controlled substance when you are a teenager. So his parents had to come and buy him some spray paint. Everything is fine, it is okay, you do not need to call child services, we are on this. He is going to legitimately use it to, that is, he is going to use it on an art project. Yes, yes, we are homeschoolers. We have an art project.” Shh, do not say anything, do not say anything about skateboards or skulls.”
So one little trip to buy spray paint he really learned more about laws and the justice system than all his previous education combined. And it was fun and it was interesting and he got what he wanted. He didn’t get in trouble even though there was a moment of “oh this is getting weird, oh no wait, wait, parents are here to the rescue instead of the disciplinarians for a change.”
A lot of times parents are like, “how do I make learning interesting?” You know, I was worried about that when I was homeschooling. How do you make learning interesting and fun? It turns out learning is already interesting and fun. It is kind of wired into our heads that way. And when we do not prioritize (giving quizzes on article 3 of the constitution) over buying spray paint, learning stays fun and interesting.
PAM: I love that point. The challenge with school is because they do not have a choice in what they are learning. Learning really is hard at school because they are not interested. It makes no connection to them. It is not something in their everyday lives that is useful. So when you are not interested and you are not engaged with it, learning really is hard. Then that is what they internalize. “I hate learning, learning is hard, it is just memorizing.” Then they take that understanding and perspective is what they take with them for the rest of their life.
MEREDITH: Education also makes learning hard. Some of it is because you are trying to get thirty kids on the same page at the same time. Get them all through this generalized body of knowledge at the same rate. But, some of it (this goes back to the whole system of education on a cultural level) there is an old, old idea that learning should be hard. If it is not hard it is not learning.
Really, this goes back to when everyone could not learn to read because everything was not written down. You had to go to certain places and have a certain background to be able to learn to read. The books just were not available. They all had to be hand written. I was reading something about the history of writing and at one point in the eighth century there became this new fad starting in the Irish monasteries, to put spaces between words. We think about that as a normal thing but someone had to invent this. One of the complaints that people had about it was that it made learning to read too easy.
PAM: I heard that same thing a few days ago. I swear it must have been an audio book I was listening to, I do not know, how did we both come across that same thing so recently?! There were no paragraphs, there were no spaces, it was just all written in a row.
PAM: I guess that is true, that is another separation kind of technique. You must want this, it must be hard or it is not worth it, that kind of stuff. That is interesting.
One of the challenges that newer unschooling parents sometimes encounter is interpreting the actions of experienced unschoolers as a set of rules for unschooling. But unschooling does not really have a recipe, does it?
MEREDITH: I think one reasons parents actually come in looking for rules and recipes is because parenting tends to be framed that way in general already. It is like okay, I am stepping away from the usual parenting rules, so what are the new rules? It is for all the same reasons. You want to stay safe and following the recipe keeps you safe even if the results do not taste very good. Now if it is a cake, follow the recipe! In a way, unschooling could be said to have a recipe or to use a recipe as a jumping off point. But it’s not a recipe about unschooling, it is a recipe about human nature, about people and relationships. Part of that recipe is knowing that people are curious and like to learn. Part of that recipe is knowing that people are social and we care about other people and we like to learn from other people. Part of the recipe is knowing there is a difference between the external world and the world of individual experience or a difference between ‘the self’ and ‘the other’. It is a complicated recipe. Human nature is not a simple, straightforward thing. Unschooling jumps off from there. “Okay, this is what we know about people.”
PAM: That is a great point. When you think about it in that perspective as a recipe, those are like the principles of unschooling. It is a recipe for understanding versus a recipe of the actions. It the actions that come out of that understanding.
MEREDITH: That way of thinking about people and learning is something that has been talked and written about for centuries as it pertains to adults. What is new and different about unschooling in this day and age is that we are finally bringing kids into the picture.
Sometimes people say things like, “Unschooling is about treating kids like adults.” Somebody asked me this the other day, “Oh, this unschooling thing is like treating kids like adults?” Well…you do not want them to pay rent and you do not let them have the keys to the car right away, but it does mean bringing that same kind of understanding towards other adults into our relationship with our kids.
They are not the same as we are but the fact that there is a difference between the world as it is and the world is as it is perceived still matters whether you are a kid or an adult. There is still that. They are not the same as we are but they are still social. They are not the same as we are but then neither is anybody else. We can apply all those things that we know about being people to our kids. One of the startling things about learning about unschooling is realizing the extent that we do not do that. It is hard to bring it up in one-on-one conversations because nobody wants to admit that we do not think of our kids as people in the same way adults are. It is so offensive to all our sensibilities. Yet when we start making that shift and say, “Oh wait a minute, kids can do that too.”
PAM: I think that is such a huge point, Meredith. It is not about treating the kids as adults, it is about treating them as people. Real people. What a huge perspective shift isn’t it, when all of a sudden you see that. You start to see how capable they are as a person at the age that they are. It is not like a five-year-old person is going to want to do things, or find themselves in situations that a 15-year-old person would. I think that is a lot of what our stress and worry comes from because we project today into the future and imagine it. “Drugs” comes up or something but your kids is like five they are going to be a different person when they are 15.
MEREDITH: Shoes with the little lights on them, what!? what you want to use heroin, wait a minute, you do not want to do heroin-back up, we are talking about shoes.
PAM: That person has a lot of development that they are going to do between of five and fifteen, it is not going to be the same conversation. That is key, seeing them as people. It is a huge paradigm shift isn’t it.
Something I’d like to talk about for a moment is CHOICE. I think one of the key aspects, principals, roots of unschooling is giving our children the space and support to make the choices that they think will work for them. What is your perspective on the importance of choice?
MEREDITH: We talked a little bit about that in relationship to why unschooling kids do not hate learning but I kind of want to go in a different direction because on of the really interesting things about people getting to make choices is that there is more of a chance to make mistakes. That is really important for learning. A lot of learning comes out of the kinds of mistakes you make. It is also one of the things that really scares the pants off of parents. We really, really do not want our kids to make mistakes, especially not some of the mistakes that WE made. We would rather just give them the answers to those life questions. They do not have to go through that process. “Yup, you know, just take my word on that kid.” We are very altruistic in that way.
Unfortunately our kids do not want that. They do not want our pre-lived experiences handed to them. They want their own experience, they want their own process, they want their own little rabbit trails of curiosity. Even knowing that some of those rabbit trails are going to the court of the red queen, there are scary things down some of those trails. Kids can be surprisingly okay with that.
One of the really interesting things about learning is how much the ability to make those mistakes, the ability to even choose to make a mistake that is kind of painful, is an important part of the process. And can be a really powerful part of the process. Which isn’t to say you should set your kids up to fail. That is really another part of the “choice issue” as it pertains to learning, there is a difference between choosing to take a risk and having it dumped on you. There is an actual difference in what you learn from that experience.
Like we talked about earlier (kids and social situations) you probably know, like I do, how much encouragement, how much you need to push your kids to do certain things, move out of their comfort zone. There is a degree in which we want to do that because we want our kids to know how awesome they are. We want them to know just how much they can do and be in the world. One of the things that confuses that issue is that people have all these stories about how they were pushed and that really worked. What ends up working has to do with that difference between the world out-there and the world inside-the-self.
When kids feel like they are getting to choose and they feel like we are helping them to choose, then they can feel empowered. If pushing and encouraging to them feels like we are helping them choose that feels really great. When they feel like they are being thrown into the shark tank, not so much. That is something that comes up with atypical kids a lot. How much to let them choose to move out of their comfort zone. As if their own feelings about choice were something we could let them have.
It is ultimately, those are THEIR feelings and their choice and they are going to make their own choices based on their own internal accounting. We do not get to pick that. We do not get to say, “no, you can decide to be brave my child” they are going to be their own people no matter what. What we can do is listen to our kids about what choices are important to them right now and how they want us to help them. They do not always know that, but that is okay too.
It is okay to be learning along side your kids and figuring things out together. That was one of the really good things I learned along the way unschooling was sometimes it was okay to say to my kids, “okay parenting fail here, I do not know what I am doing.” “We are going to blunder our way through this one and see what happens on the other end.” In conventional parenting you do not do that, No you do not do that, you have to be the parents. But learning along side somebody is something kids really seem to get on a deep, under the skin, level. They want security, they want to know that somebody is keeping the lights on but they also understand on a gut level that people are social. So learning together makes sense to them.
PAM: Right now Michael started a new job a couple of weeks ago. It is totally new and we have been having those conversations as in neither of us know the right path forward. What is going to help between his diabetes management because it is a very active physical job in a show and the hours and the drive. There are just so many variables that are up in the air and we are just brainstorming together. I do not come up and say, “I am the parent, I have experience in this area, I think you should leave at this time, I think you should be taking this food, I think you should be checking your blood sugar here, blah, blah, blah.” No, it is totally oh man, look at this, all this stuff we have to consider and it is us coming up with a plan.
When you were talking about before, about not telling them what to do that they are going to make their own choices, but that is the whole point, they are not making those choices in a vacuum. We are not telling them what to do but we are sharing what we see, we are sharing any experience that we have if they are interested in it. Because we have an open and trusting relationship at that point, when these bigger things come up we have that open communication so we can share bits of information that we have. We are not insulted if they make a different choice, because we know we have given them more fodder in which they can make that choice. Rather than demanding them make a certain choice that matches up.
I loved your point about making mistakes being a big point of learning. I remember years ago (I think it was Kelly Lovejoy) she used to call them “learning takes,” instead of mistakes because you learn so much. Things that “went wrong” I really do not see as mistakes because we learn so much.
Remember when we were talking way back in the karate story that you are learning so much in the situation not even just about that one particular yes-no choice or what ever it is you do, we even learn so much when we choose not to do things. Yet at home we step back and say “I didn’t go to that.” You are still learning, “did you regret it later?” Learning in every moment.
MEREDITH: Like Morgan passing out at the zoo. That could be seen as a pretty dramatic parenting fail. We failed to keep the child hydrated. Child hit the dirt.
PAM: But you learned, right?
MEREDITH: I learned a lot from it. Things I wouldn’t have expected to learn.
PAM: It is like, Well…that happened, crap. I am going to pay extra attention moving forward.”
MEREDITH: This is an idea I am really familiar with as professional crafts person because you know there are so many times where I am in situations where I am like “Ooh I should not have done that that. How much fabric do I have left? Ooh not really enough, time to get creative and learn a new skill.” So I am very familiar with how even with catastrophic mistakes, I’ll be okay in retrospect once you have learned that thing.
We do not want our kids to learn too many things the hard way and the goal is not to say, “alright, you are learning at the school of life.”
PAM: Because there is so much that we can do, that is why we talk so much about supporting them, not just leaving them on their own. We can help them so much but there are moments that despite all the help that we can think of and the things that we do, life is going to happen. We do not need to set them up for it, that is what it is.
Last question for today, one theme that has come up pretty regularly on the podcast is: In the end unschooling thrives when we have (like what we have just been talking about) strong, connected and trusting relationships with our children. You recently wrote something I really love. You wrote, “It may help to step back from the idea that parenting is a job. It is a relationship, first and foremost.” I was hoping you could expand on that a bit for us.
MEREDITH: That is funny because that is something that gets said a lot about how parenting is a job. It is only recently that I thought, that is really not a very good metaphor. The idea of “parenting as a job” goes hand-in-hand with the idea that parenting is teaching. “It is OUR job to teach our kids what is right in the world.” Those are the ideas that distract us from our kid’s personhood. Unschooling re-conceptualizes the whole parent-child relationship as a relationship first and foremost. That changes so many things.
Imagine just for a second, you were to describe having a baby in terms of getting a new best friend as opposed to starting a new job. How does that change your whole attitude about this other person. Naturally you want to do right by your new best friend. You want to be a good friend. You want this friendship to be a strong and healthy one that you can value your whole life long, even knowing that people grow and change and that different people bring different things to relationships. That all feels really, really different than trying to figure out how many diaper changes until your new employee will be ready to take out the trash without supervision.
PAM: I love that!
MEREDITH: The great thing is that it works. It does not somehow ruin kids to be a really good friend to them. It does not un-fit them for life or any of the other things they warn you about in the parent job training handbooks. It is actually okay to be friends with your kid and it feels SO much better than parenting as a job. You know what, I have a full time job, I get to go home to my kid and be a friend and that is awesome.
PAM: I think that is one of the huge shifts when people get through deschooling and on to unschooling that it is just life now. It is not parent-child, it is a family living together.
MEREDITH: Having lived that other life, it is a really different feel.
PAM: It is like night and day. That is why you have experienced unschoolers online excitedly sharing.
MEREDITH: Really, you can like your kids, even as teenagers. I swear it can happen.
PAM: I know and you can have a good relationship and you can have fun with them and you can enjoy things together. It is why I think it seems so utopian or downright crazy to conventional people. That is not a negative thing to say with school or convention. You see and you understand their perspective because the environment in which they have set up and which they are living, those are the things that are going to happen. Kids are going to hate learning. Parents are going to think they need to control, control, control. When you take that leap, it is a whole different life isn’t it?
MEREDITH: Yes and I mean even when Ray was in school, knowing that because we really didn’t have and other good alternatives at that point we had to deprioritize relationships in a lot of ways. There were things that had to happen so that school could happen. Some of those things get in the way of relationships and that is just how it works. School is not about building relationships. Not between parents and kids anyway. It is not like you said, it is not necessarily like dissing school to say that unschooling is really more about relationships. There is a lot of things that in terms of relationships that really cannot happen. In the same way as when kids are in school especially if they are not there by choice. That is another big issue is how much choice plays a part in being able to have a relationship.
PAM: That is a great point. Because even the experience of school is fundamentally different if the child is choosing to go. Because they still feel empowered. They still have that possibility. The possibility to say no, no more thanks . I was talking to Carlo Ricci a while ago on the podcast and he talked about he talks to his daughters who chosen to go to school all the time about the things that they put up with, for lack of a better phrase. What they get out of it is more. So they talk about the stuff they do not like, the more negative things but because they know it is a choice they know that they are making that choice they know that they are not being forced to put up with that stuff. So they do not internalize it as much.
Okay, well I must say I had a great, great time speaking with you Meredith. Thank you so much.
MEREDITH: Best way to do this.
PAM: I hope you had fun too and before we go where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
MEREDITH: The best place is probably unchoolingmom2mom on FaceBook. I am on there every day.
PAM: Yes I love going by every day to check out what you are writing. That is where I found the quote I believe.
MEREDITH: That is pretty much the only place I write about unschooling these days.
PAM: Okay well I will be sure to share a link in the show notes if they are not already a member they can go check it out it is a great group. Thanks very much and have a great evening, Meredith!
MEREDITH: Yes, it is evening here too!