PAM: Hi, everyone. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today I’m here with Zakiyya Ismail. Hi, Zakiyya.
ZAKIYYA: Hi, Pam.
PAM: Hello. I have run into Zakiyya quite a few times online in unschooling-related circles and have always really enjoyed reading her observations and insights. She also recently hosted the first Learning Reimagined Conference in South Africa. I’m super excited to chat with you. To get us started …
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family and how you discovered unschooling?
ZAKIYYA: Okay. My family, basically five people, hubby and I and my three kids. My eldest is 19. Then, I’ve got a 17-year-old. Those are boys. Then, I’ve got a ten-year-old daughter. How did we get to unschooling? Before we even had kids, we knew we’re not going to do the school thing. We knew we’re not going to do school even before we knew whether we were having kids or not, so that’s how committed we were to not doing school.
ZAKIYYA: What we were going to do instead of school was something that we were trying to work out. We thought we’d open up an alternative kind of school with what we thought would be useful. Thankfully, we didn’t. It wouldn’t have been a free, democratic school in any way. We explored quite a bit and we realized that even alternative school wouldn’t work, because nobody was going to come to it at that point in time in South Africa.
When the kids came along, we just sort of went along on our way. We checked out preschools. We didn’t like them. Every year, we were more and more confident about not doing the school thing. The boys were 17, 18 months apart. They played and they got along well and they were growing so beautifully and learning so much that I didn’t really have a need to intervene, so technically we were unschooling. We just didn’t know that there was a term like that until, you know, I think I can’t quite isolate it.
My husband embraces the principles of unschooling very naturally. It’s quite a bit how he grew up, directing himself and his education. For him, it was easy. I felt isolated, so I used to go online and look for support. In those days, it was Yahoo groups. Now, it’s Facebook. I found homeschooling groups which led me to unschooling, and I was like, “Oh. That’s what we’ve been doing. There’s a name for it.”
PAM: That is so cool. To be able to come, that you guys came to the idea that, even before you had children, just you knew school wasn’t going to be a good fit for you guys and for your lifestyle.
That is really interesting to me, because you know, I was so immersed in that culture and it wasn’t even a glimmer in my eye that there were other ways, so I think that’s really, really interesting to hear. I love those kinds of stories.
I love hearing what unschooling kids are up to. I was wondering what your children are interested in at the moment and how they’re pursuing it?
ZAKIYYA: Okay. You know, if we did this interview a few months ago, I would say my eldest, who’s now 19, I think recently, and especially last year, he was struggling with a lot of internal pressure and some kind of angst about what is he going to do and how is he going to find a space that works for him. The funny thing is, because he’s a gamer, he plays a lot of online, or one particular online game called Dota. My advice to him was, you know, “Maybe uninstall it. Take a break from it so you can get sometime to figure yourself out.” Thankfully, he never listens to me.
Then, like about six weeks ago, he decided, “You know, I love talking all the time, socializing, meeting new people, and I love gaming. I’m going to find myself a space in this world.” Which is exactly what he’s done, so now he is building a profile as a caster. In traditional sports, we would call it a commentator, but in esports, it’s a caster, so he casts and streams local games. He did a few competitions, tournaments, and he’s got a website where he interviews player, so he’s doing some journalism as well. He’s really happy because those two things about him that were the strongest, that’s what he’s doing.
My 17-year-old, he is also a gamer, but he plays competitively, so he’s in a professional team and they compete locally and they’re working their way up to become an international team, and he’s working his way to become the best possible player he could be in that space.
My ten-year-old is also a gamer, but not competitively, very socially, so she has a huge network of online friends in all kinds of time zones, so she spends a lot of time being up for like 24 hours, then sleeping for 16 hours. Very erratic, but it depends on who’s online and who she’s connected with to do things. She plays Overwatch and Minecraft. Then, she also collaborates on some fan fiction. She loves writing. She does a lot of writing, role playing. Anything that has a screen she likes, basically.
PAM: I really enjoyed hearing how they’re meshing the things that they’re finding interesting into the way that they engage with the world. That’s really cool. I love how your daughter’s finding her connections, and she’s just going with them. Like you said, she’ll stay up for hours and hours. Then, she’ll sleep for hours and hours. That’s really interesting.
ZAKIYYA: Very. It’s challenging for us, but she’s my really, truly free child, my fully unschooled child, because although we, for me especially, embraced the principles of unschooling when it came to academics, I couldn’t let go of so many of my control issues in terms of sleeping and screen time, etc, with the boys. But, when she came along, because she’s only ten, I think seven years later, I figured a lot of those things out, so she’s really free.
It’s interesting to see how different she is and how she processes the world and her own self concept and how much she protects her autonomy. If I overstep the lines with my boys, they feel used to it from patterns of behavior when they were kids. They don’t see it immediately or they make space for me, but she says, “Thanks, but I have my own thoughts. I don’t want to do that.” She’s been really firm, and she’s immune to what the societal norms are about sleeping and being awake, so she just really goes with her body and her rhythm.
PAM: I love that, and that’s such a great point too, because, you know, we came to it a bit later, when my kids, my older two anyway, were older. My youngest only had just a few months of junior kindergarten. I love the way you said your older ones are more used to it, and they’ll make some space for you. Yet, your youngest is so free that’s she’s really comfortable just being herself and pointing that out. I noticed that as well. That is so cool.
ZAKIYYA: I think that is sort of one of the foundations. You need to start as early as possible, because then you really embrace your own autonomy and free will. It’s an indication of just how hard, so they had just a couple of years of my control, and just how hard it is to also unshackle themselves from those control issues. That’s why I think we need to be sympathetic with ourselves, because we’ve had like 30 years of it before we said, “Okay, let’s get out of that.” So, yeah, it is interesting.
PAM: I think that’s why, I know for myself, my youngest will soon be 20 next month or this month when this episode’s out, and I’m still learning. I am still discovering those pieces that are still buried deep in there, even just for my own growth now, but I’m still finding those pieces because there’s just so much more of them for us. I know my kids are still discovering pieces.
I really like that idea of “more free.” I’m trying to think between my youngest and my two elder kids, because they still get some conventional messages, but I think the less they’ve had on them, they’ve got that really strong free core that really helps them deflect those messages more quickly, I think, than those of us who’ve absorbed them for so much longer. Right?
ZAKIYYA: Exactly. 100%.
PAM: That’s very cool.
You wrote a really amazing essay called, An Immigrant Deschooler in a Native Unschooler’s World. In it, you nailed something that I had noticed but hadn’t yet been able to articulate about how unschooling children do not look at their lives through the lens of learning. I’ve made comments here and there, but you really brought it altogether.
You wrote: “They view their learning as they do their breathing, that is, they do not view it at all.” I was hoping you could share your perspective on unschooling natives, immigrants, and settlers?
ZAKIYYA: Okay, so just as we were talking earlier that we come with all this programming, with this baggage, with our personal histories, which are formed by our families, our cultures, the movies we watched, etc. That’s a lens with which we see the world. We can’t escape it. We can try. We can work to improvement, but there’s neural networks within our brain that will always be there, that we can always work towards building new neural networks, but that is the lens.
Our lens comes from schooling, so how we did in school is what gave us social currency, what was our prognosis for how successful we’d be in the future, etc. We also associate school with learning when they actually have very little to do with each other, so when we drop the schoolishness—I like that word, I learned that from Akilah Richards at the Unschooling Liberation event we held recently—when we drop the schoolishness, we still hang onto that learning like that’s a value that we hold very, very high.
I think so much of how we view the world and what we do, what the kids do, etc is what the learning value is in so many things. In their world, which for them, they don’t have that lens. They, growing up freely and embodying what makes them feel alive and passionate about, so in their world of freedom, we definitely are like immigrants.
We carry our excess and our way of processing what’s happening, some of it with fascination, some of it with indignation, but they are natives of this world because they’re born into it. It’s natural for them to just learn. They’re not focused so much on living. They’re not focused on who they are going to be in the future. They focus on who they are today.
The settlers, I think, are when I look at so many families that are struggling with trying to get their kids to conform to some kind of idea of what their parents think their kids should be. I see so much of extinguishing of the child’s nature. If they’re not sporty enough to be more academic, or the other way around, etc.
It’s just reminds me of—because I live in South Africa and we’ve got this very interesting history 20 years into democracy, you know, that kind of thing, where there’s also been a lot of cultural silencing of traditional African culture—I look at that and it reminds me of when settlers arrived to other lands and imposed. They didn’t bother to learn what the lay of the land was. They just imposed their ways on the people and the land. It reminds me, that kind of parenting model, I think, reminds me of the broader political, social context that we find ourselves in. I think that that parenting model and that political model, I think, are related in many ways in terms of the power dynamic that comes from the two.
PAM: I was really fascinated when you talked about that, because you can really see the foundational power dynamic that runs underneath both of them, can’t you? Parenting and politics. It had me thinking, too, when we’re migrating as parents coming to unschooling, I know, in my writing, I used learning as that transitional lens.
First, we’re all typically looking for teaching, for schooling, right, that whole schoolish kind of mindset. Then, to try and transition, because learning is part of that equation, we’re just dropping the assumption that teaching means learning, right?
Okay, start looking for the learning everywhere, but then, it’s such a great point that the next step is, “You know what, you don’t need to look for the learning anymore.” Once you start to see that it’s ubiquitous, that it’s everywhere, that it’s in everything, it is still an important next step to stop looking or needing to see the learning.
It reminded me so much of some conversations where, if my kids were feeling down about something or whatever, and I would try to point out the learning, because that is something, like you said, that we value as an accomplishment, rather than breathing, as you were saying. When I would try to say, “Oh, but you learned X, Y, and Z, and look how much you know compared to other people interested.” They would look at me like I grew a second head or something. “That doesn’t matter at all. It’s not impressive. That’s just what I do. That’s just my days.” That need even to compare to other people is completely gone, so I always found that fascinating the few times I would find myself in that conversation with my kids. Their reaction was completely different from someone with my lens, my perspective, would be, so I really enjoyed how you brought that out in that article.
ZAKIYYA: Thank you.
PAM: That leads really nicely into the next question, because I really wanted to chat about the idea of a “successful unschooler.”
I read a comment that you wrote on Facebook on the topic, and it reminded me of something I’ve talked about before, that unschooling isn’t about just being a different path to raising a conventionally successful adult. You mentioned “the inevitable question of access to higher education and employability” that is so often asked by people who are first curious about unschooling. That’s understandable, because that’s our lens that we’re coming to it with. We have such a tight grip on that conventional definition of success, but if we hold onto that for too long, it can get in the way of our unschooling journey, can’t it?
ZAKIYYA: Yeah. For sure. I think that’s one of the worst things to focus on or not clarify in your mind is what successful unschooling looks like or what a successful person looks like.
I think the measurements for what unschooling looks like, I mean, I also get that pressure from other people wanting to see what the kids are doing, not out of interest but as a way of measuring how the unschooling is working. There’s a difference.
So, we do tend to think about how we can unschool and then still meet certain measurement criteria like get them into university. Are they getting into university, etc. Somehow there’s so much social currency attached to university degrees, even though so much of research is coming out or evidence at least, showing that corporates don’t like graduates so much anymore because they find them not being able to critically think and look to follow orders rather than take initiative. There’s so much on that.
Then, people still feel like, “Yeah, but, you know, if you just get their degree.” I’m like, “Okay, is that social currency that we’re talking about instead of employability?” There’s those two things. One is everybody wants to be able to make their way in their world and earn money, but it shouldn’t be the overriding thing. I think you’re only really being successful if what you’re doing is meaningful to you and it’s authentic and you’re not being forced into it by social norms or even the economy.
I think, for me, what successful unschooling looks like and overlaps into other successful person that has unschooled looks like is one where we let this process help us find ourselves and find our spaces and do what’s meaningful to us. We’re able to be independent in that space that we found, so that we’re not needing financial support eventually from parents or the state or anything. I think that the meaningful, authentic part is, for me, the defining criteria, rather than how much you can earn or what social currency you’re going to get out of that.
PAM: Yeah. That’s what it really boils down to for me as well, to finding, as you mentioned, yourself and what’s meaningful to you.
It’s so much more important, because sometimes when I share what my kids are up to, I do it with a little bit of trepidation, because it can look sometimes like conventional success, and people who are looking at it through a newer lens will see that conventional success and say, “Oh, look, path. A, B, C, unschooling, here we go.” It looks conventionally successful.
Yet, even the way that they’re approaching it is very different, right? It’s because that happens to be something that was very meaningful for them, so they chose it. It was something that they wanted to do. They didn’t choose it because it looked good. They chose it because it had meaning for them, but that’s not something you can really say, you know what I mean?
When you just say, “Oh, my kids are doing…” because you’re introducing. “What are your kids doing? They finished unschooling.” You say, “Well, this, this, and this.” They go, “Wow. That’s great. I want that kind of success or at least for that possibility to be there.” They’re still holding onto that as a goal, but it’s so different from the inside, right? From them making those choices just because they’re meaningful to them and knowing that they can choose to step out of it too. You know what I mean?
ZAKIYYA: Yeah. That’s another big one that they’re there out of choice and they can leave out of choice is a very different thing from, “I have to do this.” Absolutely.
PAM: Yeah, from feeling like, “Okay, I’ve made this career choice and now I’m kind of stuck here.” They don’t feel that stuckness. I’m sure they will ponder the question, but they’ll be pondering it from their own what’s meaningful to them, if it’s still meaningful, what other areas they might like to explore rather than the question that, “Oh, I’ve had this success. I can’t give it up because I’m worried about how I look from the outside.” Does that make sense?
ZAKIYYA: Yes, very much so. Absolutely.
Earlier this year you hosted the first Learning Reimagined Conference in South Africa. I would love to hear how it went and was hoping maybe you could you share something that you learned or a new insight that was sparked for you from the weekend?
ZAKIYYA: Okay. Yeah. It was the first of its kind. We were quite excited about getting everybody that we’ve only known online and gathering and exploring these ideas as a group and creating, sort of showcasing a kind of temporary learning community.
I must say, it really was an amazing weekend. I’ve been to two unschooling conferences in the U.S. before. I looked at those and my partner looked at and attended the Home Education Festival in the U.K. that they hold every year. We both took what we liked, and then we created our own very African one.
We expected, we had a number in mind of what we think we would get, and we got more than double that amount of people wanting to attend to the point of we had to close registration in the last week because it was full.
ZAKIYYA: That was an insight. That was news for me. I really didn’t realize just how much of an interest there is in looking at alternatives.
Then, the second thing I thought was interesting was we had a list of the kind of things that we would discuss in the open sessions if we need to. What I found was that so many of attendees had moved past those points, so they weren’t talking so much in detail about, “Okay, how do we get the learning to read?” Or, you know, the kind of newbie questions new unschoolers ask. They were all very new also or a lot of them were, but the questions were really the larger macro issues which got me excited.
Like, “Okay, how does this impact what kind of society we then have, if we have a world where not everybody has to go to school? What does that mean? What kind of implications are there for the economy if we’re not all trying to get a part of school, university degrees, corporate?” Really rich discussions about reimagining the world and reimagining community. That was really, that was awesome.
I think our speakers also—we had many from India. In India, the word unschooling is not as popular, but it’s what, that’s how it looks. They quite moved on a lot more than we have in the sense that they’ve really worked towards building learning communities and that’s something that interests me here about building a collaborative learning community. Not just a community, you see the learning thing—I can’t get away from that lens, eh?
But, not just, “Let’s get together and go ice skating” kind of thing, but how do we learn together, pull our resources, and share our skills, and grow this community and the people around us so that we can? We increase and maximize the options available for us to create the kind of space we want to live in that’s meaningful and authentic. There were nights that we had those discussions, that we could have some of those discussions, at the conference.
PAM: Yeah. Even in your title, I think, with reimagined, right? Learning reimagined. Maybe that was part of the reason.
It sounds like you guys had some really, really rich discussions. I do really like the idea of, if we’re replacing school with something, those kinds of learning communities, I always kind of imagined maybe something around libraries, just a place where people can go to connect.
Certainly, here in North America, it’s just the way the community is built. That congregation area really is for kids is school and the school building, right? Yet, they don’t have—within the constraints of classrooms, etc—they don’t really have time to connect. They’re discouraged from socially connecting with each other anyway.
I really love the discussions around the ideas of where we can encourage or facilitate those kinds of connections between people who are choosing not to go to school. I think that’s really fascinating. I know when we first began unschooling, there really weren’t. We would travel to the States for conferences to meet other people because there were so few of us locally, geographically. Most of the connection, as you and I have found, certainly at the beginning, was online, right?
PAM: It’s really great that you’re starting, you’re facilitating, and you’ve found such a great reception to the idea of getting together and just talking about those kinds of ideas. That was awesome.
ZAKIYYA: Yeah. Although I’m a longtime unschooler, we didn’t really make it so much of an unschooling conference. I think we put out a lot of the flow of this talk, etc, was just to highlight a lot of issues and ask and let people ask their own questions and lead with their own questions, with their own answers, and to leave with the way that they’re more comfortable and feel more confident about creating a path that works for them as families as opposed to just saying, “Well, unschooling works. Let’s just do it and we’re going to show you how.” We just kept unschooling out of it. Many of the people that were considering it who saw how our interactions with children allows free play took more to the unschooling. I think we showed more rather than tell and I think that was what was so powerful about it.
Also, like you say, traveling, I think it’s really important for people to get together even though that online community is so great. That’s something that you need to do regularly, just be in the space with other people who get what you do and how you parent and how you educate. It’s fundamental. It gives you a kind of energy that you can’t get online.
PAM: It’s very refreshing and inspiring, isn’t it? I know I would come away from those conferences just refreshed and inspired.
ZAKIYYA: Yes. Energized.
PAM: Energized. Yeah, exactly. It is so nice, because you get to see the interactions versus, like you were saying, you could read about those interactions from parents sharing online, etc, but when you see them in action there, it’s a visceral experience that’s very exciting. Speaking of …
Since you’re gathering people in South Africa, I was wondering if you could share with us a quick overview of what it is like to unschool there. What are the legalities you guys are dealing with? You said that you’re actively building a community there. I think you have a space there now. You mentioned having Akilah recently, so I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that too.
ZAKIYYA: Okay, so I think from when I started when I was the only unschooler I knew, I think now we’ve really grown as a community of unschoolers. There’s lots of unschoolers. When I say lots, I’m still talking like under one percent. You know what I mean, right?
ZAKIYYA: Right on the edge, about to fall off, but there are. So, Johannesberg is where we are located. There’s a beautiful community. It’s actually, to be honest, it’s quite big in the sense that there’s almost like more than one unschooling community. It’s big enough to have its own little subgroups, so people with younger kids get together separately. Or, there’s just some groups that just hang together that don’t necessarily join the other group, but it’s big enough to have more than one group.
Then, there’s Cape Town and Durban, I know, also has quite a few communities or families. So, there’s enough to have maybe art gatherings or enough to have socials. Let’s put it that way. Not big enough to do something significant like build a learning co-op or something like that. I think we’re not very far from that.
Then, we also have unschoolers’ camp in November every year. This year, I think, is year seven. That’s been growing from five families to I think last year was about 20 families, which is from across the country. It’s kind of far out for everybody, so it’s really only accessible to people who can afford to travel, have the camping gear, etc. Yet, that’s growing beautifully, so that’s our highlight of the year. We get together as a huge, diverse community to the point where other campers come and ask, “So, what are you people?” because of all the mixed ages, mixed races, mixed race couples, and you’re all mixed at playing. There’s just, “Who are you guys?” It’s quite funny. That’s our highlight.
Akilah was around recently, so I asked her if she was open to doing an event. We had a discussion on unschooling, liberation, and learning. It was a Tuesday morning and there were about 20 people, which isn’t huge, but I think it was quite big enough. There were at least 60 people who could have been there but had to be other places. It’s big enough to have these kinds of things, and it was great. This event was great, other than the content, which is awesome.
There were lots of new people who didn’t know each other and then lots of people hadn’t met, so it was great that we just brought this community physically that we all got to meet each other. The venue is called the Reimagined Learning Center. I don’t know if there’s a relationship, but that’s what their name is. It’s a new sort of democratic, well, not democratic, but maybe self-directed free school. It’s a really magical setting with meandering pathways and tall trees, so it felt like this is our space that this community could congregate to, so I’m really excited about that possibility.
I do put in a lot of effort into trying to build a community here and really for very selfish reasons. I like the company. I don’t want to be alone. I like having to sit with a couple of parents and we’re not talking about how our children are not doing this or not performing but we’re celebrating who they are. I love having that opportunity to do it. For me, that community is really about helping us, building this community is about helping us find more people to hand with, really.
PAM: It’s so nice to have those easy-going conversations, isn’t it? Where people aren’t complaining but they’re just celebrating their kids. It’s a whole different perspective.
ZAKIYYA: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s so nice. I don’t know how kids feel about their parents talking about them, about how they’re not performing. I feel really uncomfortable in those situations. I just usually stay quiet, because I don’t want to get into any mommy wars or anything.
The community I’m trying to build or trying to find for myself, I think, is so fundamental. It’s what keeps me sane and happy and also gives us a sense of comfort. Not only me but everybody else. We all get together and we talk. I think we all leave feeling a lot more confident about that it’s okay that we’re doing this path that nobody else understands. It’s okay. We’re good. I think just that in itself is a good enough reason to build a community.
PAM: That was part of the motivation when I started up a conference here in Canada, too, that ran for a few years. It really does help build that—that sense of community. We were talking earlier about how you feel refreshed and energized. It’s that energy that you can take with you for your other days where you don’t have that immediate, quick contact, but it’s an energy or a lightness that you can just bring with you and energizes your more regular days, I think.
ZAKIYYA: Yeah. Absolutely.
You wrote an article for the most recent edition of Families Learning Together Magazine about your family’s extended trip to India. In it, you mentioned a moment that you were proud of during your visit to the Taj Mahal. I was hoping you could share the story with us.
ZAKIYYA: Sure. You know that deschooling. That’s why we call it deschooling immigrant.
We were at the Taj Mahal and this is such a momentous occasion, something on everybody’s must see list. When we got there, my daughter looked at it for a few minutes, thought, “It’s a really beautiful building.” Then, she was really totally bored with the history of it. She couldn’t understand or had little interest in it.
Out came her phone and she was playing Pokemon Go. I was not very comfortable with that. I just thought, “This is the Taj Mahal. Why would you play Pokemon Go when you’re at the Taj Mahal?” You know, my son also was like, “Mom, really. We need to do something about her.” So, there was all this discomfort. I was doing what she was doing. She was focusing on Pokemon Go. I was focusing on her playing it. Neither of us were focusing on the Taj Mahal.
I went to have a word with her and she looked up from her phone like really excited. I think she caught something very cool. I looked at her face and I just realized she’s having a blast. She’s playing Pokemon at the Taj Mahal. How many people can do that? I’m so glad I had that insight and I saw her face and I looked at her and I was like, “Okay. That’s awesome. I’ll walk with you.” Because what I was going to do was have a word with her about how we experience these places through my lens of how we should learn about the world. I’m so glad I didn’t.
I was really proud of myself that I could let it go, that I could then enjoy not only the Taj Mahal, but I also enjoyed how much fun she was having playing Pokemon Go there, which I wouldn’t have done a few years ago, so I quite proud to see my own growth there.
PAM: Yeah. I thought that was awesome. That’s why I wanted you to share it, because I mean, first, your point that because you were focused on her, you weren’t enjoying the experience either, right, so neither one of you were. Well, if you had talked to her, anyway.
That was a great point, but the growth that comes out of that is realizing that our lens, the way we define enjoying something, doesn’t need to be their lens, right? They have their way that they enjoy things, and even for us to decide that this is something that they should enjoy, that should be important to them.
ZAKIYYA: I know. That’s so disturbed that I still have those thoughts.
PAM: Oh, believe me, I know. It was fun.
A few months ago—I think I’ve mentioned this once before on the podcast—when I was speaking to my eldest, we were talking about trips and traveling and things like that and he could still remember and point out the games that he was playing in those moments. For him, he’s like, “Oh, I remember when we went to Disney. I was playing this game and I was at this part and it was awesome. Then, when we were at the beach here, I was playing this particular game.” He was taking in all those moments, but they were becoming so meaningful. He remembers that trip to Disney. He remembers that trip to the beach at Cancun. He remembers all. What he doesn’t remember is us fighting about it, right?
ZAKIYYA: Oh, you located it.
PAM: Yeah. It’s not a negative experience. He remembers them through his lens, right? I thought that’s just such a beautiful point for us not to put our lenses and the way we want to experience things onto them. It’s okay the way we want to experience them. We can dive into that, but also, it’s just so exciting to be able to support them the way they’re enjoying the experience too. I thought that was a wonderful insight you had.
ZAKIYYA: Yeah. The learning never stops.
PAM: I know, right? Life.
You have also created a Facebook group called Unschooling as a Tool for Decolonization. I was wondering if you can you explain what you mean by that and how unschooling can be a powerful option when we explore decolonizing education.
ZAKIYYA: Okay, so you know decolonizing education is a really huge topic of discussion amongst everybody in South Africa. We’ve had so much of student protest, etc, around that issue.
For me, I think we started this discussion earlier because I think, for me, how we learn, that we focus on text and reading and writing, that to me is a very colonial thing as well. I later discovered how colonial it is. I was also really concerned primarily about whether my son could read and whether they liked books and liked reading.
That’s actually one way of learning and one way of interacting with the world or interacting with other people’s imagination, but it’s just one way. That’s something that comes from our colonial education. There’s so many other ways of knowing, so many other ways of being. There’s so many stories. We’ve prioritized one small subset of knowledge which really speaks to a very capitalist kind of power.
In the meantime, other knowledge systems, indigenous knowledge systems, the diversity that comes with the cultural knowledge of communities is dying because of our emphasis on schooling. Why I think unschooling itself is a potentially powerful tool for decolonization is that, it also can’t be. There’s lots of unschoolers that come into the group worried that their children don’t like reading and look for ways to help them to do that. As an unschooler, we could also say, “Okay. All knowledge is fair game. Let’s not prioritize only with knowledge. Let’s not prioritize only with reading.” Whereas, if, for you, dance is the way you want to express yourself, then that’s how you do it. If storytelling, it’s a big part of African culture and Indian culture, I later discovered, on my trip I discovered.
So, why don’t we allow those kinds of activities to come into our world if our children like it? Nothing to be imposed on, but we’re not privileging some ways of knowing some bits of information over others. So, when we talk about the freedom to choose, the options we can choose from is all options and not just looking at one version of history, but looking at all the kinds of histories that could be there.
Asking questions like, why is the history—when we talk about the history of, let’s say, Germany and the Holocaust—why is there no mention of the social movements that actually opposed it? We’ve silenced what people’s struggles were. In India, as well. Going to all the castles, we heard about the kings and what they did etc, but there’s no history of how did the people relate to it? We can ask. We can say, “Well, to us as unschoolers, history’s about all the social movements and how people relate to events around them. We’re really not interested in or we’re not going to focus or prioritize what the leadership was doing.”
We can reclaim how we want to understand the world and we can take it away from colonial power and create. We can’t go back to what there was, because we’re disconnected from it, but we can create something that’s new and meaningful, and something that’s for a better world, and I think that’s the important thing, that in everything we do it has to look like we’re working towards a better world.
PAM: Yeah. I really, really love that perspective on it and the idea that we can not just revisit our assumptions about learning, etc, but our really deeply held assumptions about the more superficial things that we’ve learned—like deeply held assumptions about how human beings can be in community with each other. As you say, the social movements and how we relate to one another but on that deeper level than just our day to day, because we are so caught up in that day to day engagement, but unschooling really does allow us to step back and look deeper at it, doesn’t it?
ZAKIYYA: Yeah. That’s the blank slate. “Okay. What is it? What do you want to know? What kind of a world?” Yeah, we can explore all that.
PAM: That deeper blank slate.
I loved when you mentioned the lens of reading and writing as being the one way or the “best way” to learn things and to communicate between people, because we talk about how kids are going to learn that because it’s so prevalent in our society. But I super appreciated—certainly with Michael, my youngest, because when he left school he wasn’t reading at all. In junior kindergarten, they hadn’t really started that a lot. I got to see for the next eight years or whatever, I don’t know, was he ten, 11-ish when he was reading fluently.
That’s another thing. They define reading as it looks in the real world, right? To them, reading is picking up a Harry Potter book and reading it through. It’s not, “I’m reading because I’m doing early readers.” There isn’t that world, but to see his mind at work and how not yet having that fluent reading skill did not get in his way at all. I got to see so many different ways of learning things and sharing things and communicating things. It wasn’t a hindrance in his life at all, and that was a really interesting thing for me to see.
ZAKIYYA: Yeah. That is interesting.
It’s actually amazing how much they can do without being able to read or read fluently, how they figure things out, other patterns of knowing. I saw this with my daughter as well. She was about five when she said, “You know, I don’t think I’m going to learn how to read. I don’t want to.” I just said, “Well, there’s four other readers here, so you’re welcome to ask us if you need us.”
If my eldest had said that, I would have said, “Oh, this unschooling doesn’t work,” but with her, I knew that there’s no way she could avoid the reading. It’s going to come to her whether she wants it or not and it did. She doesn’t like reading for fun. She said to me, if I tried reading to her, after the second paragraph, “You know, mom, I’d really prefer my own imagination.” What was I supposed to say? “No, this guy’s imagination is better because the publisher published it”? So, I left it, which is really a good thing to leave, because now she just writes very deeply and very imaginatively. A lot of her expression comes from her writing rather than reading.
She said she wishes she could do art, but she says, “I’ve accepted I’m not good at it, so I’m going to move on.” No judgement, she’s just accepted. “This is who I am.” Defined it and I was grateful that I had managed to let go of my beliefs and not worry about that she “has to” read and “has to” enjoy and that’s the only way to explore the world, etc.
Yeah, so that’s how I see how we decolonize ourselves, because we just chip away at all those little things, challenge all those little assumptions that we hold dear. Once we challenge all those things, that’s when it opens up a space for us to look at new ways of doing it.
PAM: Yeah. That’s a beautiful way to look at it in the bigger picture, too. There’s just so much that we can release and that we continue to notice that we can release, right?
PAM: Well, I want to say thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Zakiyya. It was so much fun.
ZAKIYYA: Thanks. Yes, it was. Yeah, and I appreciate you reaching out and wanting to chat to me, as well.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome. Before we go, where’s the best place for people to connect with you online?
PAM: Great. I will put links to those in the show notes. Thanks again. Have a great day!
ZAKIYYA: Thank you, Pam. Okay, you too. Bye.