PAM: Hi everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Emma Forde. Hi, Emma!
EMMA: Hi, Pam!
PAM: Hi! Emma was on the podcast back in episode 31 and we had a great conversation as she answered my ten questions. Since then we’ve discovered that we both really enjoy looking at current books and research about learning and parenting through the lens of unschooling. It’s something that I’ve enjoyed doing for years and have been actively doing the last couple of years as research for an upcoming, someday book.
So it was really fun when I started connecting with Emma more and more about that. I love talking about it and eventually it did occur to me that it would be fun to do for the podcast. So I was thrilled when Emma graciously agreed to chat books with me.
Our plan right now is to do a book chat episode every couple of months, but we’ll see how it plays out. The prep time is definitely time consuming but it’s super fun, isn’t it?
EMMA: Yep! We’ve enjoyed it.
PAM: So for this episode, Emma and I read the book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, by Scott Barry Kaufman. We’ve each chosen three ideas and quotes that we’d like to share and chat about and we’ll go through them in the order they appear in the book.
So, to start us off, here’s a quick bio on Scott Barry Kaufman. He received his PhD in cognitive psychology from Yale University. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, writes the Beautiful Minds column at Scientific American magazine, and hosts The Psychology Podcast.
I wanted to share a bit of an intro in his own words from his website. He writes:
Hi, I’m Scott. I’m deeply interested in using psychological science to help everyone– all kinds of minds— live a creative, fulfilling, and meaningful life. I am scientific director of the Imagination Institute, and I conduct research in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania on intelligence, creativity, and well-being. My writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and Harvard Business Review.
In 2013, I published Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, which reviewed the latest science of intelligence and also detailed my experiences as a child growing up with a learning disability. In the book, I outlined my Theory of Personal Intelligence, which goes beyond traditional metrics of intelligence (e.g., IQ, standardized tests), and takes into account each person’s unique abilities, passions, personal goals, and developmental trajectory.
So, that’s his little intro into the book as well.
I think this quote from the prologue will help us see the perspective that Scott brings to his exploration of the concept of intelligence. In the book, he writes:
“In the real world, people clearly differ in their inclinations, passions, dreams, and goals. But environments also differ, so people in theory (but unfortunately not always in practice) have the opportunity to seek out or create their own unique niches.
Not so in school. In this peculiar microcosm of reality, you aren’t supposed to be different. We have general education, where we group children together by such arbitrary criteria as age, ability, grade, and subject matter. Information is presented in discrete units, with little information given about how it is all connected or how any of it can be applied in the world at large.”
I really love how that ties in to one of the ways I sometimes explain unschooling to people who are new to the idea. Basically saying that at school, they teach you these pieces of information, these facts, and these skills that, once they graduate into the real world, they’ll need to know. Whereas unschooling, we live in the real world, and those facts and skills come up and we learn them at that point rather than learning them first and then eventually living them.
And it also reminded me about Maria Popova’s quote (see Quote of the Week from episode EU008) about how wisdom comes from context, from understanding the connections, not just knowing the discrete facts and the discrete skills.
So, in the first section of his book, he dives into the origins of measuring intelligence. It was definitely interesting, for me anyway, to follow as he wove his way through years of IQ studies. IQ tests were not originally meant to whittle intelligence down to a single number, but as a holistic picture of a range of skills. He kept emphasizing that the point was that they were measuring them at a particular moment in time. They were only meant to distinguish between fast learners and slow learners in a school environment.
It was interesting to see how his work, in a sense, has grown out of him being labeled as learning disabled in school and his motivation to kind of prove them wrong through his work.
So now we’re ready to get started! The first quote that I wanted to chat about is from his section on labels and what it looks like through the lens of unschooling.
Many of the negative learning disabled labels on children in school have to do with how well they fit into the classroom environment itself, how their learning style meshes in the classroom, and how well the pace of their learning aligns with the curriculum schedule. They need to learn at this particular pace.
With unschooling, we leave the classroom behind and the curriculum behind and find that most of these negative labels fall away because they are all about how they mesh with those things. And when that’s no longer a requirement, all of a sudden, these comparisons no longer work. You’re creating an environment where they thrive so there’s no clash anymore.
But I like that Scott also discussed the potential impact of even the seemingly positive labels. He shared a quote from Steven Pfeiffer, a psychologist and gifted counsellor.
“Potential can become a terrible burden for some children of high ability. We certainly don’t want parental thoughts about potential to slip from ‘possibility’ to ‘expectation.’ … Many children of uncanny ability may decide—and should be encouraged by their parents to decide—to follow their hearts, wherever their life journey may take them.”
I love that because it reminded me about how unschooling parents are so cognizant of not adding any of our own expectations to the mix—whether they be of what their children do or of how well they do it. Because, expectations really just cloud the situation. It’s the individual’s needs now that are important, not anyone else’s expectations of the future.
The other piece that that brought up for me was that with unschooling we don’t measure our children against the norm. We help them meet their needs wherever they are, no matter how asynchronous those needs may be.
My kids went to school for a few years before I discovered homeschooling as an option. My eldest did have labels at school. I didn’t share them with him. They were my conversations with teachers and principals and that kind of stuff. Even as I ended up with gifted and learning disabled, that whole asynchronous thing, it really truly fell away when he was home. Because the things that he could do more easily, he could dive into and do that. And the things that were more challenging, he could take the time when he wanted, when he was interested, to dive in.
He wasn’t forced to do these things. He wasn’t told that there was something wrong with him because he couldn’t do those things or because those things were more challenging. All that kind of stuff really fell away and he could just do what worked best for him and pursue what was interesting for him.
So, as far as the whole label discussion went, I thought it was really interesting. The labels can be helpful for parents seeking more information. They were useful for me. It was through researching online those labels, that I found, came across, homeschooling. But really, I find them helpful for parents when maybe they don’t understand enough about their child that they can learn more about certain things. Maybe better help them understand their child’s perspective or their experience. But bringing the label into the relationship with the child, whether they are positive or negative labels, can definitely have negative consequences.
EMMA: This is one of the main things in the book I really loved because, as I was working before I had children as a clinical psychologist, labeling was something that came into my work, and I’ve always felt that I preferred to set the labels aside. I don’t think they’re particularly helpful. I’ve experienced that in my own personal life and also at work and now with my own children. I just think that one of my reasons for choosing to home educate and to unschool is that we have the freedom to meet our children’s needs exactly where they are without having to sort of be pressurized to resort to using labels.
So really, reading this section in the book where Scott describes the history of how learning disabilities itself has come to be conceptualized and how really it’s socially constructed and it changes over time. And how there’s debate and disagreement among professionals and educationalists about actually what learning disabilities means and how we identify it. I really enjoyed this part of the book.
And also how he was saying that learning disabilities and how we label someone as being gifted, it’s all actually open to interpretation, it’s a very subjective process. I think that’s something to keep in mind, whether your children are in school or whether you’re homeschooling. It’s very much about how we view our children’s behaviour. We can view that through a labeling lens or you can choose to set that aside, which I think is probably more beneficial and liberating for both parent and child.
PAM: You’re so right about how it adds a filter to everything. Because when you see it first through that filter and then your child it does add a layer to move through for your connection with them. I learned so much about what those labels mean just by being with my child without those labels. Because that is who they are.
I was doing research to help him and his teachers at school, which led me to homeschooling, which was great! But within six months or so of homeschooling I completely dumped those forums, those places of information, because they were no longer adding any value to our relationship. Me just being directly engaged with him and helping him in whatever way—it didn’t matter where that fit in, in the picture of labels and everything, that was completely irrelevant because it didn’t help me anymore. I was able to step right out of that world and just be with him and with my other kids too.
I felt that was a really cool point. And so much of it is just about how they are in that environment, in the classroom.
EMMA: The whole book really, Scott presents us with his own personal experiences and his journey through being learning disabled. I thought it was so moving at the beginning where he describes having been labeled and really feeling cast off. I think he says somewhere near the beginning, “No matter what I what I want to achieve, I am imprisoned by my label.”
He brings up this idea of fixed intelligence and that labels really are lending themselves to this idea that there is something fixed about the child and very difficult to move. And there is actually a lot more flexibility, that children do change. Adults change too over the course of our lives. If we use a label, it can limit us and our relationships. I think that really came across in what he was saying.
PAM: It really fixates you, because it’s like, ‘Oh! I’ve got an answer!’ And then you’re not open to seeing everything else. Like you said, even as adults we all grow and change. If you think you’ve got an answer, it’s kind of like another box—oh, they fit into this box. Then you’re not seeing all the ways they don’t, you’re only seeing all the ways that they do.
EMMA: He quoted some research studies as well. Some were in schools where teachers were told you had a fixed theory of intelligence you were more likely to diagnose students as having a learning disability just based on one single poor performance. It was quite easy once the teacher or parent believed that their child had a learning disability to continue to sort of treat them that way.
He talks in the book about self-fulfilling prophecy and how it can work either way. If we believe our children are in some way learning disabled, we then have lower expectations. He even says there was a study where they were in a classroom. And even if a teacher didn’t actually use the label explicitly, in her nonverbal behaviour she was communicating to that child and the children in the class that she had lower expectations, in the way they gave feedback. So I think it’s really important behind the label, in how we’re thinking about our children. And that lens that you mentioned earlier on, that we need to be really mindful.
PAM: Yeah, we talk about that a lot, I know already a few times on the podcast and especially in the Q&A when we’re answering peoples’ questions. Your kids can feel, even if you don’t outright talk about your expectations, whether it’s behaviour or things that they do, they can feel it.
It comes up so much on watching TV or playing video games. You say yes, but they can feel in your body language that you’re concerned with how much they’re playing or watching. You don’t have to be explicitly talking about these things, once you’ve absorbed that filter and you believe it and you see it as that limiting box or whatever, that comes across in your language, in your choice of actions and reactions. It definitely does still come across to the kids.
Do you want to move on to your first quote?
EMMA: Yeah, sure. Part of what I really liked about the book was the personal narrative that weaved it’s way throughout. I think it really brought it alive. I really do enjoy reading research and understanding the historical context of intelligence and disabilities and giftedness. It was really nice to locate that within Scott’s personal experience.
So my quote was from the chapter about Engagement and Passion. He gives a bit of a narrative about him and his granddad. He was someone who was really an inspiration to him. He motivated him to really engage with learning the cello. He said,
“‘So, I was thinking of learning the cello,’ I announce as I enter the room. He looks up with an expression of intense concentration and puts down his bow on the music stand. He motions for me to sit on the sofa next to him.
‘That’s wonderful. When would you like to begin?’ he asks. I look at his cello. He sees me looking at his cello. I suddenly feel an overpowering urge to play it. To just take his bow and do exactly what he does.
‘Go ahead,’ he says, motioning me to sit down. I feel giddy. … With each step, I get more and more immersed in what I’m doing, and start to forget where I am. It feels so natural. Something about the instrument, and the classical music structure, seems to gel with me. My heart is racing, and I feel intense excitement over the new object of my exploration.
After about fifteen minutes, I snap back to reality. I look up to see a full smile across my grandfather’s face. ‘Scott, that is incredible,’ he says, breathless.”
I just really like that interaction, that interchange, because it highlights something for me that’s so important about learning and relationships. That connection and what inspires us to be engaged and passionate about the things we do, I think that’s something that’s really explored in the book as well, which I thought was really exciting.
It also ties into my interests with attachment theory and seeing how we really learn in the context of relationships and those people that inspire us. One of the people that he’s written about is Gordon Neufeld. He’s a developmental clinical psychologist. He explains how attachment plays a key role in our learning process. We want to be like the people we’re close to, and be close to them, and to learn from them. It’s something that happens really naturally in relationships.
There was some recent research that was being carried out in the UK. They did a survey of 1585 school-aged children from seven to 18 and they asked them who their three most inspirational people were. And over half the children said that it was a family member, their mum or dad or perhaps a sibling. After that it was a friend or a teacher. But family relationships and people that they were close to really had a big role in inspiring children. I think that’s something that’s really important in unschooling: our family relationships and having that close connection with our children, and how that can inspire all kinds of creativity and learning.
PAM: I really loved all the stories that Scott wove in there. He really brought out how important that side is. You could see how much he enjoyed learning outside of school, so it was a really great contrast between all the school-based stuff that he was talking about, and seeing this learning in his life.
I got goosebumps half the time reading those because it sounded like the kinds of interactions that unschooling parents often have with their kids. We would be supportive like his grandfather. You’re just so excited for him, seeing that he can enjoy these moments. It was really great!
There was one piece that I wanted to bring up too as you were talking about how important these relationships and family connections are. Because so often, when we bring our kids home, I know I got the impression that people thought we were spoiling our children or being over-protective of them because we’re not making them go to school. But I love this point that it’s really this kind of environment and relationships with our family that allows learning to thrive.
It reminded me from when I was reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Finding Flow. He describes flow as the joy of complete engagement. And how, when you’re in the flow of an activity, it’s such an amazing way to learn because you’re, “…completely focused. There is no space for consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted.”
Scott talked about that right there when he described that, how 15 minutes just disappeared before he came out of the flow. In that book, Mihaly talks about, here’s a quote, he explains that, “The family seems to act as a protective environment where a child can experiment in relative security, without having to be self-conscious and worry about being defensive or competitive.”
I love that with unschooling, we are focused on creating that emotionally safe place for our children to explore and learn. And it’s not that we are spoiling them or being over-protective. We are creating a really strong environment in which learning can thrive.
I just love seeing, within the research that Scott mentions and in these other places how important the family is, and a safe environment is for our children. That really brought that out and I love that!
EMMA: When you were talking it reminded me that it’s also how Lily learned to read, in relationship. Every time we read, she kind of comes and snuggles up with me. And it happened really naturally, sort of emerged, I think, because she is inspired, and she enjoys being together, and it’s just something that comes up naturally. It’s that interchange that I think is captured in this section of the book.
PAM: Yeah, that—feeling safe and comfortable. Because when you’re not worried about being judged or meeting someone else’s expectations, you can really just sink into it and go wherever your brain wants to go. You can ask the “stupid” questions because you know you won’t feel judged. It will be a quick little question, you’ll get that answer, and you’ll be able to stay in that flow and keep going and keep going.
I think that is such an amazing environment, and that Scott could find that with his grandfather, and I loved all those vignettes. I loved that that’s something that we try to create often for our children, with unschooling.
PAM: My next quote is from the same chapter, the Engagement section, chapter on passion. Scott writes,
“Go to virtually any preschool or elementary classroom, and you’ll witness something rare: excitement. Whether it’s engagement in painting, make-believe games, or learning why the moon disappears, there appear to be very few young children with deficits in motivation. Children love learning. They want to figure out what this new, shiny world of theirs is all about.”
I love that! It is so true and it is definitely something that unschooling families see in their children. Children really do love learning. It’s something that our formal education system actually interferes with.
Scott goes on to explain that studies show intrinsic motivation decreases steadily starting from about third grade. At that point, they can’t wait to get done with school for the day because it’s boring. He says that,
“Rather than focus on how to make people more motivated for the possibility of external rewards (such as money, grades) we should focus, instead, on creating the learning conditions, experiences, and positive expectations that will make it more likely that students will both want and like to engage in school and the world.”
That sounds exactly like what we’re doing with unschooling. We see that our children want and like to learn. We work so hard to help them not lose that motivation. It’s because what we’re doing is, instead of making them follow a curriculum, we allow them to engage in the things that they are interested in. So their days aren’t boring. They continue to be interested in what they’re pursuing.
We’re creating those good, strong learning conditions where they can follow their interests, sink into flow, engage in the experiences that they’re interested in. It was really cool to read that stuff and say, you know what? Yes! You completely understand how they start to get bored at school and why with unschooling we see something so totally different. We don’t see our kids losing that motivation. We see them pursuing the things that they love with interest. It’s so cool!
And then he shared that one of the most prominent and well-studied factors influencing intrinsic motivation is the contextualization of learning—meaning that having real-world context is key to learning. And that is exactly what we find with unschooling. Our children are learning the facts and skills as they encounter them in the real world, when they have meaning for them, when there’s context. Because they’re pursuing something, some aspiration, some goal, some thing that they want to do, and they’ve come across something that they don’t know or a skill that they don’t have and they have a reason to pursue it right there in that moment.
I think that is super interesting. He explains that intrinsically motivating tasks satisfy the basic human psychological needs for competence (the desire to feel capable), autonomy (the desire to feel in control), and relatedness (the desire to feel a sense of connection).
You’ve got that in spades with the unschooling lifestyle. You want to feel capable and we’re giving our children the space to do the things that they’re interested in and want to feel capable in doing. Autonomy—the desire to feel in control: they’re choosing what they’re doing, so they know they’re in control of their days and their moments. And that sense of connection: they’re following their interests, following those threads, those connections. It just kind of screams unschooling to me!
EMMA: It does. It made me think as well of how my daughter (well, both of my daughters have particular interests) but Lily is particular passionate, she identifies herself as being a gamer.
I was thinking about her experience with gaming in terms of competence, autonomy and relatedness. I think definitely with gaming she gets the sense of being competent in her abilities in her skills. She’s able to learn new things, she’s solving problems, and really gets a lot of joy and gratification from doing that. She can exercise her own choices in that: when she plays; what game she wants to play. Also in terms of relatedness, in being able to connect with others, sometimes across the world, being able to engage with people and share her interest. Just in that one example, it fulfills all three of those kinds of needs that Scott identifies as being an important part of the learning process.
PAM: Yeah! If you think about most things that our kids are choosing to do, in varying degrees, they consistently hit those three areas. Because we’re not stepping in and taking over the activity for them, so they feel capable to do the things. And even—I’m sure your daughter can get frustrated in games sometimes when things are challenging—but being able to continue to pursue that and figure out ways to move through those frustrating moments, that determination is just amazing. Because they want to learn what they need to learn to feel capable doing the things they are interested in doing.
And that lines up with the autonomy: to feel in control, to make those choices, to choose what they are dedicating their time to. That’s really interesting.
EMMA: And the intrinsic motivation side is so important. Just for them to be able to choose how they spend their days and how they want to engage with things or if they just want to daydream. Scott mentions how important that is. One of the studies that were mentioned in relation to intrinsic motivation, they found that choice and personalizing things was really important as well. That enabled children to have a deeper sense of being motivated and engaged with what they were doing. I think that, in terms of unschooling, we really focus on as well is enabling children to have choice and so that they can decide and they feel in control of how they chose to spend their time.
PAM: So often, I remember from my childhood and just the things the teachers would say to us: you can do that when you’re older, when it’s your life; we don’t cover that, you cover that question next year, or whatever. I’m not even trying to blame teachers because you’ve got the curriculum—that is the context within which they have to function in the classroom. So much of it is just about the environment and there’s only so much you can do within that particular classroom environment, within the formal education environment.
So that’s one of the things we see so differently with unschooling. You talk to parents of older schooled kids and their kids don’t like learning. They’ll say, “My kid doesn’t like learning. If they didn’t go to school, they wouldn’t learn anything.” It’s just such a different kind of child when you give them that autonomy to make choices, to pursue things that they’re interested in, and to develop a feeling of competence in the things that they’re interested in. It’s just a totally different kind of child, isn’t it?
Would you like to move on to your next quote?
EMMA: Sure! The next section I looked at, I’m really interested in emotional development because I think that’s one of the key pieces generally for children, whether they’re at home or they’re learning at school, is having that underlying emotional well-being and stability that emerges from within relationships.
The section I looked at, the quote was,
“The more we address the whole child, the more likely we are to see that child flourish.”
That was in Chapter 8 on Self Regulation. In this chapter, Scott really explores socio-emotional development in children between the ages of three to six. He looks at how this emotional well-being impacts on learning inside and out of the classroom.
He explores research which suggests that this emotional well-being has an influence both in the short term, in terms of how we learn, but also throughout our lives, in terms of the types of families we have, the types of jobs we do, just generally how we cope throughout our lives, is all influenced by the early years.
He mentions two researches called Clancy Blair and Adele Diamond who talk about self regulation and they say it refers to, “…the primarily volitional cognitive and behavioural processes through which an individual maintains levels of emotional, motivational, and cognitive arousal that are conducive to positive adjustment and adaptation, as reflected in positive social relationships, productivity, achievement, and a positive sense of self.”
They go on to say that many children actually start school with underdeveloped executive functions, poor ability to regulate emotions and to be able to plan. That they’re often at a disadvantage. I think that, from my perspective, from an attachment perspective, those kinds of qualities or skills develop from within a relationship between a parent and child and that unfolds over the course of the first six, seven years of life. So if children are going to school or nursery between three and six, then it’s kind of understandable that they’re not going to be developmentally ready.
Gordon Neufeld, the clinical psychologist, says that we’ve forgotten the idea of developmental readiness. When a child enters school something seems to be wrong with the child rather than the fact that they’re in an environment without the key people in their lives who would ideally be supporting and partnering with them and helping them to negotiate what are quite complex situations in group scenarios and learning situations.
In our society, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen very often. Children are expected from a young age to be able to manage without the parents. I think this chapter looks at some of these issues, which I think are so important, and which is obviously, living an unschooling lifestyle, is one of the benefits, you don’t have to have that push toward independence before a child is ready. You can continue to partner them and help them emotionally regulate or make good choices or better choices in their relationships or the things they’re doing so they’re not left alone to manage before they’re ready.
Scott does say in here that the research indicates that even small changes that can be made in the context of relationships or environment can have a huge impact later on in a child’s life. So it’s really beneficial to make these changes while you can, while the children are young. Rather than, if you leave children on their own, he describes how a big negative loop can arise where they aren’t functioning well at school and then that just grows and the gap widens as they get older. So I was thinking all that kind of thing was really important.
PAM: Yeah, I love the point that you made about unschooling families being there. Because the other piece is, remember we were talking way back at the beginning about dropping expectations, with unschooling parents you can be with your children and you also don’t have that context of, ‘I expect you to be able to do THIS on your own by THIS certain age’ for example. You’re there to support and help your child with whatever help they need and for as long as they need it.
That kind of timeline of expectation is also taken out of the mix. If there are certain situations or emotions that your child has more trouble dealing with than the “typical” child, that doesn’t matter at all because you’ll be able to be there with them and help them for as long as they need.
I think that’s something we also see in questions. ‘I thought my child wouldn’t be frustrated any more.’ Or, ‘My child gets frustrated with this situation, how do I fix it?’ And thinking that changing your reaction once or twice is going to, “fix it.” No you’re not trying to fix it from the outside, you’re just trying to help them figure out what works for them. And that may take six months, a year, two years, but it’s still just about being there with them and helping them as they’re trying to figure this stuff out, isn’t it?
EMMA: Yes, definitely. And each child travels on their own individual trajectory. I think sometimes we might be influenced by our own experience of being at school or just those narratives in our wider society about what we should expect children to be doing by a certain age. And often, that might be quite different from what our individual child is actually doing. But if that’s where they are then it’s our responsibility to meet them there and really support them and work with them until they’re developmentally able to manage those things themselves.
I think that unfortunately that isn’t something that happens, that is more difficult to happen, at school because it’s not set up for individualized care and support of children. They’re often in a classroom with a lot of other children so it’s more difficult for their needs to be met.
PAM: Exactly. You’ve got that one teacher, maybe one helper, for a large number of kids. So you can see how that negative feedback loop that Scott talks about is set up because they don’t have the support to help them figure out ways through it. So they’re just floundering and they’ll just continue to flounder. They’ll kind of be stuck there because they don’t know how to move past that point. Over time, that gap just grows and grows because they’re still floundering in that one area.
EMMA: I was going to say, Scott does talk in that chapter about interventions that they have tried in various schools. In terms of The Tools of the Mind Curriculum which has been developed by Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong that draws on Lev Vygotsky’s spatial cultural perspective and that involves looking at the environment and making sure it’s supportive, making sure the teachers are providing that scaffolding for the child, and really thinking about the emotional context. I don’t think that’s something that always happens.
Obviously, that’s great, but I think it’s even better if a parent can be doing that because obviously they know their child really well. The other aspect to it, thinking of my children, Rosa’s five now, and Lily’s ten, but up to about age six/seven, they were still breastfeeding and being carried. It was quite a nurturing environment and at a younger age, they wouldn’t have been ready to leave that behind. I think it is something that we kind of forget, that children do need nurturing. They do need to be supported and often school environments don’t necessarily provide that. So I felt great for Scott bringing that up and really exploring that in more detail.
PAM: Yeah, we were talking about earlier about relationship being so important for learning in general. It helps to impart that kind of information to the teacher and give them the space and the time outside the curriculum to also be scaffolding the child and supporting the child.
But you’re right, what they don’t have—you get a new teacher every year—what you don’t have is that trust and that relationship built up to meet the child where they are, that the child trusts that you have their best interests at heart. You’re not just trying to manipulate them in some way to meet your own expectations or goals.
I’ve found over the years that’s become one of the biggest and most important things is that trust and connection in our relationship, understanding each other, so that the help that I offered was literally helpful to them. It wasn’t generalized, ‘child X with this problem would probably benefit from Y action.’ Because I understood them better I was able to offer solid support that was more helpful for them and they trusted that I was doing that to help them not to accomplish one of my own goals.
You want to move on to the next one?
EMMA: This was a really interesting—I thought the whole book was interesting—but this was the section on Talents and Special Interests. Scott says here,
“But once anyone, whatever the age, finds his or her talents,” as he’s defined the term, “…the learning process can proceed extremely rapidly. Passion and inspiration can spark a drive that substantially accelerates the learning curve and also set off immense creativity. We are all capable of extraordinary performance. The key is finding the mode of expression that allows you to create your own unique symphony.”
EMMA: I love his approach because I think he embraces the strengths and potential that is available in all of us. It’s not just available to a select few gifted people, but it’s something we can all embrace and make use of and our children can benefit from that as well.
He really talks about the importance of identifying an area of special interest or a passion that really ignites your intrinsic motivation and your desire to engage. He actually explores in this chapter a bit some research by Mary Ann Winter-Messiers. She’s looked at children who’ve been labeled with Asperger’s Syndrome. She defines a Special Interest Area as passions that capture the mind, heart, time, and attention of individuals labeled with Asperger’s Syndrome providing a lens through which they view the world.
I kind of wish in that section they hadn’t mentioned Asperger’s Syndrome only because I think all children can benefit from having special interest areas. I think everyone has something they’re passionate about or can have a passionate interest in, but I thought what was really interesting was she showed what an important role these interests can have in these children’s lives. They were interested in things like transportation, music, animals, swimming, video games, fantasy, motion pictures, woodworking, art, there was like a whole range of things they were interested in.
But what they found were sometimes other people didn’t necessarily appreciate their interests and didn’t pick up on them. But the researchers in this study found if they actually talked to the children about their interests and engaged with them, that they really came alive and they blossomed and that many of their anxieties and inhibitions, maybe tics or other things that were difficult for them to manage, just fell away when they were engaged in talking about their special interest.
I think that’s just so important for all children, really. If we really take the time, which we do in unschooling, to find out what our children’s interests are, what their preferences are, and what their passions are, that that offers an opportunity to connect and it’s so beneficial for the child as well. I think that’s what really stood out for me.
PAM: I had the same kind of reaction, that they were talking about it through the lens of Asperger’s originally, but you understand it in that they study labels. So, that’s where they kind of started, it was understandable.
But it was so great, the discussion about those special areas of interest because, I’ve talked about it so many times, in my experience, those passions for any child, are a window to the world. Their whole point that instead of trying to coerce them away from it—oh, they won’t know anything else if all they’re interested in is trains or all those interests that you listed—the reaction is often to think that they are closing off their world by being so focused on these interests.
But it’s true, what they saw, that it’s a whole world for them, it opens up the world for them, because those connections, those interests, can go in so many different ways. I’ll share the links to those couple of maps that I made, Joseph’s video game interests and Lissy’s Harry Potter interests, and just all the different places focusing on those passions and diving into those interests with them and allowing them to just shine brilliantly following those interests and passions. It took them just amazing places.
So I really loved reading about all that because we see that in action all the time with our unschooling children, as long as you are open to it and help them dive in. I loved that there were some studies showing that it is really helpful for them to let them dive in. It is nice to see that they are finding the same kinds of things that we are seeing in our lives. That’s one of the things I loved about the book. So much of what he’s talking about we see in action with our children every day, so that’s really fun.
EMMA: And it connected with me as well. Peter Gray and Gina Riley, they did some research a while ago with some grown unschoolers. They found when they talked with them that over 70 percent of the sample felt that there was a direct relationship between the interests that they had as children and the occupation that they later went on to have as adults.
It emphasized to me that it might not just be something the child’s interested in now, although that’s all well and good, but actually can be something that they can take with them throughout their lives. It can become a meaningful career or occupation. A number of the young people in Peter Gray’s study described a seamless transition from their childhood lives to their adult lives, partly through being engaged in a special interest area, or a passion. I think that’s something that is really beneficial.
PAM: When you think about curriculum and the idea that they should know or hit on all these general things, often when I talk about unschooling, I talk about how a child’s curiosity when they are following their interests and their passions, can build such a wonderful “curriculum” for them, a personalized curriculum for them that gets them all the information and skills that will lead them more gracefully into their adult lives. Rather than, ‘Here’s a whole general 12 years of bits of information and skills on all sorts of areas, now pick one’ when all you have is a general idea of all of it.
You can see how that can be so challenging for someone to pick a college major or what they want to do for the rest of their life. But by following these interests and passions, the thread that moves through, it may look different. When I look back, there are some interests that I had as a child, that may not look like they’re not related but I can see the thread because I know what I got out of them, I know how I approached them, what was interesting to me in that particular interest.
I like Pamela Slim’s Body of Work book. She talks about that thread for adults that moves through our work lives and can help us chose the things that we want to do with our adult lives. But what I love about unschooling is how that thread reaches back through our childhood as well. It’s not separating children and adults as different people. We’re all people, just with varying levels of experience. That thread can go through our entire life, so that’s what I loved about this.
EMMA: And it’s never too late, as you said, Scott does say that you can pick up a passion or interest at any age and just go with it. It reminded me of John Holt. He learned cello when he was in his 50’s.
PAM: And me with writing! That’s something I realize now was a dream that I had when I was ten, eleven. That’s what I thought I wanted to be. That’s not where I ended up for a while. Because through school and wanting to do well and meet expectations I ended up in a different career—which I enjoyed too, and I took the pieces that I liked from it. But you can thread back.
That’s one of the interesting things when I meet other adults and have conversations, I just like to ask, “What do you like to do, what do you do for fun?” And so often they say, “I don’t have any hobbies.” That’s what I love about the question—it plants a seed for them that they can still be doing interesting things. You can still find something that is interesting to you and it just enriches your life day to day, doesn’t it.
In Scott’s last chapter he proposes his new definition of and approach to intelligence. And I love how closely that aligns with what we observe in our unschooling family. He defines it as,
“Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals.”
And I love that he means personal goals, not grades in disguise. Not goals somebody else has for you. He notes,
“As we have seen all throughout this book, when we look closely enough at people across a broad range of environments in which they are engaged and feel comfortable expressing themselves fully, we see these “gifted” characteristics in people all across the IQ spectrum.”
So in other words, if we help children find the environments, and the interests and passions in which they shine, well, as Anne Ohman would say, they shine!
We are careful to create that safe and engaged environment at home with unschooling so that they can shine often. I just really love that whole idea that he comes to the realization that IQ, as they’re measuring it at school, really is irrelevant, in that any person—if they find what they love to do, what they enjoy engaging in, those special areas of interest—you will see them learning and shining and just being engaged and enjoying what they are doing. You will see those characteristics.
When you can see them across all people, you kind of lose that label. There’s no distinction. The distinction is the context, the distinction is the environment. In school, you just have those who shine in that particular environment that have that gifted label. So I really love that.
What I wanted to do was run through some of his final recommendations that he talks about in that last chapter to show how well they aligned with unschooling.
He talks about how the self is a core aspect of human intelligence—personal characteristics that an individual has integrated into their identity, which is constantly evolving over our lifetime.
Self is a core aspect. Understanding yourself, that level of self awareness that unschooling children are given the space and time and support to develop, to understand themselves, not only just in the things that they are interested in, but in how they like to learn, how they like to pursue things.
And that, “constantly evolving over time,” I love that because that’s another thing that unschooling kids pick up over the years is an understanding of how their interests change and flow and how their understanding about themselves changes and just how they aren’t fixed. How their lives are a journey, for lack of a better word, but how they change over time and how that’s ok.
How it doesn’t make something wrong or right, that those judgements don’t add a lot of value, but just understanding themselves and being ok knowing they’ve changed. I do that now, I look back and I’m not mad about who I was five years ago but know I’ve changed and grown over that time and I can see that thread through it.
Understanding oneself is just such a core aspect of being human, I think.
EMMA: Peter Gray and Gina Riley, one of the things that they picked up from the grown unschoolers, one of the important things to them was being able to understand themselves. That was one of the things they felt was valuable about their unschooling experience.
How you’ve just described it really, they felt it enabled them to get a better, deeper knowledge of themselves, their interests, their passions, and how that was really integrated in their life in context.
PAM: Yeah, that’s cool, and how they can use that understanding to mesh to their choices in their world, to choose the things they pursue from interests, to work, to whatever.
Engagement and ability are inseparable, dynamically feeding off each other as we engage in the world. So engagement in our passions and interest, builds up the expertise base that allows us to reach higher and higher heights of performance, mixing and matching our individual characteristics to attain our goals.
Well, that’s just unschooling days. (laughter)
Virtually everyone draws on a robust implicit learning system to soak up the probabilistic rule structure of the world.
When we talk about how we live in the real world with our children and they learn what helps them along the way, that’s exactly it. That you can learn so much just by participating in the world, that’s implicit learning.
So often our kids learn things and they don’t really know how they learn them, they just kind of pick them up because they were just engaged in their days and how their world works.
If we rid ourselves of the notion of failure, there’s no problem in encouraging people to engage with a domain, any domain, any interest area.
That whole expectation, failure, judgement piece we’ve seen over and over again how that interferes with our learning, with choices, with everything. Unschoolers work really hard to not cloud our day-in and day-out picture with that piece, with judgements and expectations.
There’s an abundance of evidence suggesting we should encourage all people with a love for a specific domain to engage in what they love.
Does that sound familiar?
And encourage children to dream, to think beyond standard expectations, dare to be unrealistic. This promotes the importance of perseverance and questioning the established order. It also instills a mindset of lifelong learning and growth.
That is what we see with unschooling, that’s one of our main goals. Because learning is just part of our days. It’s not something you pursue on its own, it just happens as we’re pursuing our goals and interests. That is where you get the idea, you instill that mindset of lifelong learning. It’s just something I do when I’m living. Unschooling is life, is an idea you’ll see people sharing, because it just happens when we’re living, we’re learning all the time.
We talked about the growth aspect, how we see ourselves growing over time, that self-awareness. He talked about the importance of perseverance. We see that determination in our children just by giving them the space to pursue what they’re interested in. Because when you find those things you’re interested in, you will push through those challenges.
Quitting is absolutely OK because you may come across something that isn’t interesting enough to push through. And that’s OK, you’ve just learned something about yourself, about that interest, and you can move on and find something else that will be interesting enough to push through.
And questioning the established order, we do that right now just by choosing unschooling for our lifestyle. One thing I love about unschooling parents is that they’re open to their children’s comments and questions and they’re open to saying, “Oh, you know what? That probably wasn’t the best way to do that.” They’re open to changing their choices too. The parents are open to talking with their children and coming up with something that works for everybody instead of just forcing their ideas or their perspective on their child just because they’re the parent.
For me it just seems to all boil down to exploring who we are. He talks about it being exploring and aligning themselves with their self-identity. Everything just flows from there. From knowing who they are, from exploring their world, exploring what’s interesting to them. And that is just where unschooling shines. Day-to-day engagement with the world and with the things they find fascinating.
I know the cutting edge approaches that he talks about are still very school-based. Talking about the different curriculums, which is great, to try and bring some more autonomy and freedom into students’ lives in school. But when there’s the opportunity to take this a step further and to not have to work within that context, within that framework, that’s when his theory of personal intelligence really shines, I feel, right?
EMMA: Yeah, definitely. I couldn’t help wondering whether Scott has come across unschooling. Because so much of it does seem to fit perfectly with his personal theory of intelligence. He’s created a new paradigm where he’s moved away from thinking about intelligence in terms of individual differences. Moving away from comparing people to each other and really emphasizing a developmental approach where you really value and celebrate the individual and you look at their strengths and you look at their life and their history across time rather than comparing them to other people. Because I think that’s where problems arise for many people, and they maybe get left behind. Yeah, it’s really liberating. I was wondering what does he know, has he come across it yet.
PAM: Yeah, I always find that question interesting. Because I’ve come across it a couple times where so much of what somebody is talking about aligns well with homeschooling or unschooling yet that person does not like homeschooling, wouldn’t make that choice or whatever. Sometimes they talk about how you should change the system from the inside, change the system so that everybody gets this.
Before I discovered homeschooling, that’s what I was trying to do. I was giving presentations to the teachers about spirited children, about different ways to approach this. The teachers were open to it, they understood, but they didn’t have the time or the ability, really the time within the constraints of the classroom environment and the curriculum environment to be able to do this. So even though it made sense, they couldn’t do it.
My eldest was nine, almost ten before he left school. I would not have been able to change that environment. It’s still that way now and he’s 24. For me, I do think that by taking our kids out of the system and being an example, just living in our world. So now there are some people that my kids run into that know homeschooling exists, that it’s an option.
So, I can understand if they are really interested in staying within the system, but I think there’s so much value also in those of us who are choosing to live a different way as well. Our children’s lives are so much better, especially when they wouldn’t mesh so well with the school classroom.
Look at Scott’s experience. That experience drove him to this work. It was negative enough that he’s felt a need to show why that was wrong, why that environment hurt him, that those labels were a negative experience in his life. It’s been great inspiration for him to change it. But a lot of kids absorb those negative messages and don’t turn it into something positive like that.
It would definitely be interesting if he’s heard of unschooling, and so interesting to see that there are kids who have grown up who are living a lot of his ideas for this personal theory—living in that environment already. It would be cool for him to know that that exists!
Thank you so much, Emma, I really enjoyed our conversation! It was so much fun diving deeper into the book with you.
EMMA: Yeah it was great—thank you for having me as well.
PAM: It took a lot of time, didn’t it? It’s surprising—I originally read this book last year probably, and had copious notes, but still, even going through those and choosing quotes… It was a lot of fun but I know it took up a lot of time so I DEEPLY appreciate your time and effort in doing that.
EMMA: I really enjoyed it, thanks. I really loved it!
PAM: Before we go, why don’t you let people know where they can find you online?
EMMA: I’m currently writing my blog. It’s rethinkingparenting.co.uk and there’s some contact details on there if you need to get in touch.
PAM: Excellent! I’ll put that in the show notes plus all the other things that we mentioned in our chat.
We will talk to you soon. Thanks so much, Emma!
EMMA: Thanks! Bye!