Learning to say yes

I wrote a few days ago about unlimiting video games. Since then I’ve been struggling paying attention to allowing playtime to be unfettered by my own ingrained judgment about “waste of time” playing versus “quality” playing.

This means my nearly-six-year-old is totally overdosing on iPad games. This is Not Easy for me. I have strong Achiever inclinations. For him it’s frigging fantastic, and I have to keep trusting that this is a freedom that he actually needs. We’ve downloaded Minecraft (the easier iPad version), but he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of it yet. But he’s happy to spend hours playing Angry Birds, Minion Run, Cover Orange, and that (sorry guys) hideously strident Talking Tom mimic-the-talking game. He still hasn’t stopped asking me cautiously whether it’s ok to have screen time. I have, however, become more successful at resisting my (frequently strong) urge to complain about his game choices.

Interestingly, the more I notice and intercept said Urge to Complain, the more I’m able to remind myself to respect his choices – to give him a bit of sovereignty to do justwhat he enjoys. And if I’m able to be glad that he’s playing and enjoying himself, I’m suddenly freed up to see the fun of it, and to ask questions that are actually relevant to his experience of the game, rather than relevant only to my judgment of it.

Also interestingly, I notice he’s responding in kind. I feel ridiculous even noting something so obvious, but since my response to “Can I play on the iPad?” is an unconditional Yes, of course I notice there’s a whole lot less agitation and urgency and irritation and refusal to engage with me when he is playing. There’s less nagging on both sides – I don’t have to nag to get him to stop or do something other than what he wants to; he doesn’t have to nag and wheedle for a bit more time, more turns. He also doesn’t ignore interruptions in the same way as before – perhaps because they aren’t the dreaded signal that Time is Up.  When there’s something to do – say, lunch or bath or swimming lesson – which necessitates an interruption to the game, it no longer sets off a nuclear meltdown. (I’m not saying he’s turned into a magically obliging saint; but the discussion around why and do I have to now feels relatively short, and reasonable and constructive.) There’s a whole lot more Yes of course from his direction when I present reasonable requests – mealtimes, helping with stuff around the house, taking into account what I want to do. Seemingly because what he wants to do is being satisfied.

Still, I can’t say this is easy. It flies in the face of all the ‘limits’ and ‘self-discipline’ and ‘compliance’ ideas that I’ve been steeped in since forever. It’s hard not to give way, after several hours, and with the afternoon tiredness setting in, to the long-practised reflex thoughts that it’s enough now (enough for who?) and surely he has something better to do (better in what sense? in whose book?) and it just can’t be good for him to be engaged with technology the entire day (what kind of good exactly?). It’s hard to fend off the gritted-in-deep aspirational me that longs to be have the model outlier child who wants to spend hours building trains (engineer genius in the making) or constructing circuit boards (technology genius in the making) or playing the violin (musical prodigy in the making). It’s hard not to wonder that maybe one should be more Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about this. (One shouldn’t;  here’s why.)
But yes, here we are, a few weeks into saying yes. And it’s feeling good.

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Perfectly pitched outrage here from The Matt Walsh blog.

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You are not alone

Since I have started this journey of reading, obsessing, thinking about, talking about unschooling matters, almost every day has brought a surprise. Some of the surprises have been in the ways my child has responded to certain changes at home – often with more maturity and common sense than I would have predicted. The other surprises have been the voices starting to come out of the woodwork. Each morning brings a new message – someone who read the blog, who is on a similar journey. Someone whose kids are at a fairly alternative school, but who is also more keen on exploring a greater unschooled adventured. Someone who is homeschooling alone and wanting to make contact with others veering in the unschooling direction.

This, to me, is the best part of blogging. The comments, the contact, the connections you can forge. Blog writing for me is never about standing on a soapbox in the wilderness. It’s more like sending out a message in a bottle. Two weeks ago, I was concerned that the only person I knew with a similar vision to mine is living on another continent. Since then, I’ve realised there are definitely more people out there who have some sense of an alternative approach to education.

Please, if you’re reading this and you know anyone who is homeschooling, particularly unschooling, pass on the link. Please leave your comments and get in touch. The big myth about home ed is that it’s about locking your kids in an isolated glass tower, keeping them away from The World. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. My ideal home ed vision is one in which we have a broad community, where your unschooling kids can come to my house for a few days to make bread with me in our fire oven, and mine can come clamouring over to yours to help paint the wall, and we can get together in parks and forests and at the beach and at museums and aquariums (aquaria?) where kids can nose around and explore. With each other and their curiosity, instead of pencils and worksheets.

And if you’ve just come along and bumped into this blog – hello, welcome. You are not alone.

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Play without agenda

The last two weeks have blown apart a lot of my preconceptions about parenting and education. One of them: The Importance of Educational Activities. You know what? I have learned something big. Kids need to Just Play. A lot, and what they want – not what you think they need – to play. Just play, not complete educational tasks dressed up as games, not “skill up” through teaching apparatus dressed up as toys. Just play.

I loved Peter Gray’s article, Children are suffering a severe deficit of play. To quote Gray, an evolutionary biologist who has made a study of the way humans (and other animals) have evolved to learn:

“Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people such as my radio host, my debate opponent, my President, my Education Secretary — and maybe you. Learning, according to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed activities.Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary. But here’s an alternative view, which should be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.”

Having just read Gray’s book, ‘Free to Learn’, I’ve just become more familiar with this idea. The tough part is that we are not limiting play to the idyllic outdoor play. Kids  love playing outdoors as much as anything, but play also takes place around technology. I absolutely loved Penelope Trunk’s blog post on Why Limiting Video Games is Delusional. It made total sense to me. That said, it also scared me a bit. The prospect of unlimiting my child’s “screen time” (previously rationed out in 45-minute slots) filled me with slight nausea. What if the addictive juggernaut of video games and iPad and Playstation just caught him in its grip and never let go?

From conversations a friend who has done just this (unlimited video games) and from other accounts I read, the pattern seems to be: at first, the kid OD’s on screen time, until they realise it really is an unlimited resource. Then he will settle down. He’ll still play and watch a lot, but more driven out of their own interest in particular games, fields of interest, or the desire to explore something. In their own way.

Oh, Kolya’s face when I told him the screen time would be unlimited. He still hasn’t stopped checking with me to make sure there isn’t a catch. “Mom, can I have scr… – ” and he stops, to check I’m not going to say no. (And I have to breathe deep and keep trusting myself and my beliefs in order to say yes – because it’s not all that easy watching your kid leap into a screen world again, when it’s something that doesn’t appeal to you at all, which video games don’t. Although I have to admit that “limiting screen time” seems pretty idiotic and hypocritical from someone who can spend eight hours a day at a computer.) That said, there are some rules: he does have to switch off if we have other commitments to get to, or if there are other kids round and he’s playing stuff that’s not easy to share, or if they’re not interested in playing (or their parents don’t allow it).

The challenge, though, is finding games that are actually pitched at a level that is complex enough and fun enough to be interesting for him, whilst not so complex as to go over his head. Nearly-six is a tricky age when you can’t read yet, so we’re having to find games that aren’t reliant on fluent reading skills. I found that searches for apps turn up irritatingly education-obsessed reviews. Thankfully, some sites have reviews for kids BY kids, which is a better indicator of what’s actually enjoyable – not just “recommended”.

This is still a rocky road for me – I still catch myself making feeling irritable or disappointed when K has actually spent hours at a computer and still wants to switch to yet another screen. I have to catch myself not going back on this newly-instituted freedom before he’s had the chance to exercise it and genuinely find his own limits and interests within it.
I also loved this article I came across today: Cracking the ice cream maker whip. It’s exactly the point. Take away the patronising notion that kids need to be tricked into learning. They don’t. Take away the heavy judgment that if an activity doesn’t have an immediate goal or outcome, it’s worthless. There is much value in play. Enjoying yourself, being present and absorbed in something just because you like it – that is something that needs cultivating. All the rest will follow.

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The myth of grading

My career involves writing textbooks. That’s right: I get a school curriculum for a given subject, do book plans, year plans, lesson plans, research subject content and work it up into books that actual teachers use in actual schools. And yet, here I am, blogging about unschooling and seriously considering homeschooling as an option for my kids. What gives?

The irony is that it’s probably my familiarity with curricula that makes it possible for me to question whether or not we need them. And it’s my familiarity with textbooks and how they’re produced that makes me fairly confident that it’s entirely possible for a child to learn without them. My other discomfort is with the prevalence of the ‘What Grade are you in?’ theme. It’s as though from age 6 to 18, a child’s place in the world is almost entirely circumscribed by their school grade, which is, in many ways, a completely arbitrary and meaningless. With incredulity I hear adults ask my 5-year-old whether he’s “in Grade R”. I know the Grade R curriculum. Kolya and his peers outstripped most of the Grade R curriculum checkpoints at least a year ago. Does that mean he has technically “done” Grade R? Does it mean he skips it? What is this constant “grading” about anyway?

The language around school grades suggests – at a very deeply entrenched level – a linear, teleological progression. It suggests (as you move from what this country calls Foundation to Intermediate to Senior Phase – and what other countries call Junior Primary to Senior Primary to Junior Secondary to Senior) that children inch “upwards” – that age brings “higher” levels. And yet, this construct is completely false.

Sure, a 5-year-old is not (usually) making complex geometric calculations or identifying iambic pentameter or doing detailed still life sketches. And we can (ideally) take for granted that the 15-year-old can read and tell the time and tell the days of the week. But I’m not sure that the one set of demands is – in a real sense for each of those children – a ‘higher’ or more accomplished set of skills than the other. I’m also not so sure that any of those skills emerge as a result of passing a successive set of graded classes.

I know, I know, it seems I’m being awfully picky about semantics here. But kids grow up with this incessant focus on what Grade they’re in. An adult will ask a child their age, followed by the question what grade are you in at school. You’re identified by your grade. Kolya is not yet 6 and his little free-range Montessori doesn’t even do grades, and he’s started asking me what grade he’s in.

When I was at school, it was fairly taboo to socialise across the grades. Very few kids did it – your close friends tended to be from the same year group, even though the random cut-offs of each year group meant that you were, at any given time, closer in age to either a bunch of people in the year behind you or a bunch in the year ahead of you. Montessori groups kids in 3-year bands, which is a bit of an improvement, but the language of grading is so entrenched (as is the obsession with counting years of age), that children are constantly looking to that numeric value.

It’s an obsession that does not stand us in particularly good stead over the long run: teenagers tend to gain increasing arrogance and self-importance as they head towards the top-of-the-heap end of the school grade hierarchy, only to be flung back into first-year obscurity when they start university, college or any other course (or disorienting displacement from the comfortable grading narrative when they enter the job market). Then, as you move further into your 20s and 30s, the number-obsessiveness turns on you; younger is better and older is worse – you get the sense that aging will make you less attractive, less interesting, less relevant, less important. We spend our lifetimes number-calibrating who we are and where we are. Silliness.

In the universe of new moms, you see this over and over again. From early on in a pregnancy, doctors cause havoc with their curves of average heights and weights and measurements. For millenia, babies were simply born. Nowadays, it’s taken as read that you need ultrasounds to determine the size of the baby, and whether “everything is ok”; that a birth is marked by a kilogram mass and a length measurement; that feeds are measurable in millilitres. Don’t get me wrong – I do see the value of modern technology, and knowing that ultrasound scanning is possible, I would find it difficult to turn it down. But at the same time, there is much we need to keep in perspective in order not to allow our very whole and rich human experience to get eclipsed by obsessive numerical valuing.

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Words of inspiration and encouragement

I’ve been reading and thinking so much about education and schooling and homeschooling and unschooling over the last couple of weeks that I feel my head might explode. Thank goodness for the broad international community online, or I would feel almost entirely alone out here with all these not-very-popular ideas.

It always helps to hear that there are others that have walked this path and examined some of these ideas too. So, in case you are feeling alone, here are some quotations of inspiration and encouragement:

“It is hard not to feel that there must be something very wrong with much of what we do in school, if we feel the need to worry so much about what many people call ‘motivation’. A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing.”
― John Holt

“It is not the teacher’s proper task to be constantly testing and checking the understanding of the learner. That’s the learner’s task, and only the learner can do it. The teacher’s job is to answer questions when learners ask them, or to try to help learners understand better when they ask for that help.”
― John Holt, How Children Fail

“Thank goodness my education was neglected.”
― Beatrix Potter

“Once upon a time, all children were homeschooled. They were not sent away from home each day to a place just for children but lived, learned, worked, and played in the real world, alongside adults and other children of all ages.”
― Rachel Gathercole, The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling

“To confuse compulsory schooling with equal educational opportunity is like confusing organized religion with spirituality. One does not necessarily lead to the other. Schooling confuses teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.”
― Wendy Priesnitz

“Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.”
― Roger Lewin

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Read this book.

Unsurprising admission: School didn’t do it for me.

I didn’t enjoy school. Every single day of it, walking into the gates felt like walking into a prison of sorts, and every single day, walking out felt like a return to freedom. The freedom was somewhat tainted by an associated burden: the burden of creating the impression that everything was fine at school, that I was happy, that I had friends, that I was OK.

Unlike some kids, academically I found school easy. Too easy. Most of it was unbelievably boring. I sat through classes with a kind of neverending anticipation: would today be the day that a teacher brought something new and fascinating for us to ponder? Would today be the day something would actually happen? Would today bring some sort of opportunity to break out – someone from overseas, who would fly you to a new, different, exciting place, somewhere you could actually discover some sort of talent or passion and pursue it, grapple with it, get your teeth into it and wrestle with it? I must have had a very persistent sense of optimism, because day in, day out, week after week, year after year, nothing much came up to break the tedium.

So instead of learning to challenge myself, I learned to game the system. I learned to get 90% on my essays, by presenting offbeat views in the format I knew the teachers wanted. I learned that every question has a “model answer” and it’s the job of the student to anticipate what the teacher wants to hear, and feed it back in just the right form, peppered with just enough of a personal angle to get extra points for “originality” without so much of a personal angle that you lose points for straying from “the point”. (To be fair, I didn’t always get that right.)

When I was seven, a drama teacher brought her little charges, dressed in furry rabbit suits, to perform their staged adaptation of Peter Rabbit. I was outraged. Why wasn’t I in a rabbit suit? Why wasn’t I on that stage? I promptly demanded to go to these drama lessons and beyond. There again, however, the anticipation seldom matched what actually happened in the lessons. Diphthongs and tripthongs, enunciation and projection; Reading With Expression; and learning “age-appropriate” bits of poetry and prose off by heart. It was all about Being Good. If you were Good, you’d get higher marks for the Eistedfodd or exam. You’d get honours (Good) or distinction (Better) or merit (devastating). If you were the best, you got the highest number from the adjudicator, and (possibly) a cup.

That was what you had to look forward to outside of school. On the inside,  I learned that the most interesting thing on offer was maths, so I got good at maths. I learned the most freedom-infused thing on offer was art, so I immersed myself in art.

There was the three-month trip to Israel, where I learned and enjoyed more than in the entire rest of my school career put together. There was a single weekend away where I learned about mountain plants, and learned to mentor younger kids, again, an experience that eclipsed about three years of schooling that went before it, and about three after.

There were two or three school plays, that taught me the heady, crazy feeling of being involved on a project that consumes you night and day and demands that everything else gets juggled and shifted around, that involves an immovable Opening Night and the politics of a massive extended family of cast, and all their personal dramas, and the thrill of working closely with other people and singing and dancing and playing together.

High marks weren’t difficult to attain. Nor was adult approval. I wasn’t particularly aware of seeking it out, but I was a voracious reader. Adults dish out approval to kids that are Good Readers. Readers also develop a strong command of language, a decent vocabulary and a feel for logic and narrative. That makes it easier to talk to adults. But in most of the books I read, I noticed that kids had friends – real, full-on, confide-in-you, share-your-dreams, adventure-with-you, get-into-trouble-with-you friends. In real life, I found, friends were the people that went to ballet or drama classes with you, that frequently seemed either irritated or irritating, secretive, teasy or just plain difficult to understand. In my fantasy childhood, there would have been a band us who would have dreamed up crazy plans, gotten lost together, explored wild places together, built things, invented things. In my actual childhood, there was simply nowhere that could happen. We were stuck at school, and then we were stuck in the safe, sanguine, insulated suburbs. We were stuck in routine, in uniform and uniformity, in the confines of a spectacularly dull curriculum. So there we were. It was a long, dull and somewhat lonely walk to matric.

Last week, I read an unexpected book: Free to Learn, by Peter Gray. I’d been chatting to a friend about unschooling, and she recommended it. Gray’s perspective on education is wildly refreshing. His critique of American schools struck every chord of my recollections about school, and his portrayal of the alternatives struck every chord of my wishes and desires about what school could only be – if we could let it. How much more children would learn with a sense of freedom and self-direction and openness to possibility. Amazingly, it is backed up by a lot of solid data and research, which I’d never seen before. It’s not the vision of a fringe lunatic. It’s a studied vision, backed up with solid research, not just anecdotes and wishful thinking. Studies have actually proven that observation and grading interferes with the development of skills. Repeated experiments and research have shown that incentives (such as marks and certificates) annihilate creativity. That given the space and time and resources, kids actually learn more and better from each other than they do from teachers. It’s astounding, revolutionary stuff. It left me feeling that everything I thought I knew about education was, basically, an error. Teaching is a misnomer. Learning does not require teaching. It may require some assistance and guidance. But not teaching as we know it. You’ve got kids? Read this book. You’re a teacher? Read this book. You have any interest in education? Read this book.  Just – read this book.

[note: This blog post also appears on my personal blog.]

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