Monday, April 30, 2018

Feedback vs Criticism: the Importance of Learning with Consent

When it comes to self-directed learning, one of the biggest concerns brought up by those not practicing it is the perceived lack of teaching: people can’t learn things on their own, goes the common thought, they need to be measured and tested, they need that feedback! Of course, people can learn things on their own sometimes, and self-directed learning is by no means an entirely (or even mostly) solitary pursuit. But I do want to discuss the meaning of feedback, and when it is and isn’t helpful.

I saw a thread on Twitter by Annalee Flower recently that explored, in the context of writing, just what good feedback actually is and pointed out what I really think is the heart of the issue:

“The thing about feedback is, it can only be constructive if it’s consensual. Presuming to tell someone how to improve their work when they never asked you is presuming a position of authority.”

I think that quote applies whether we’re talking about writing or anything else, and no matter the age of those involved.

Constructive feedback must be consensual. If “feedback” is not consensual, it’s rarely if ever helpful.

Though the terms could be used interchangeably depending on context, for the purpose of this post I’m going to separate the two, and use feedback when I mean consensual and helpful, and criticism for the opposite.


In the decade I’ve been blogging, I’ve had a host of people edit my work for me, at my request or with my agreement, and I’ve also had people appoint themselves as my retroactive editors without my consent, once a piece of mine has been set loose into the world.

I’ve had people who’ve never talked to me before send me a tweet pointing out a small typo and saying nothing else. I’ve had strangers send me long emails literally breaking down a post of mine piece by piece to point out every perceived grammatical error (often only some of which are even “errors” to begin with, instead of deliberate stylistic choices). Or send me even longer emails telling me all the ways I’m wrong while assuring me they’re just being helpful by sharing their oh so valuable criticism.

All of the above are examples of people criticizing my work, to me, without my consent. People who, as Annalee Flower put it, are “presuming a position of authority.” This is, by the way, entirely different than criticizing a piece of work on your own social media channels, with your own friends, or on your own blog. It’s also different than someone respectfully disagreeing with me, saying “well actually, I think it’s more like X…” or “I think you left out some important context” or anything else of that nature. When I put something out there, it is with the full understanding that it will likely be interacted with, shared, and disagreed with. The thing I take issue with is when someone comes to me not on equal footing, but attempting to correct me.

If someone writes a blog post responding to one of my posts about how they think I’m wrong, that’s fine.

If someone sends me an email “editing” a post of mine without my consent, that’s arrogance.

The latter stands in stark contrast to all the countless editors, both professional and amateur, who have helped me with my writing over the years, with my full and grateful agreement. Almost to a single person they’ve been part of my improving skills, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without their feedback.

I’ve used my own experiences as an adult to illustrate the differences between feedback and criticism, but as is almost always the case, the same goes for both adults and children. We all deserve to be treated with respect, and a part of that is considering how consent plays into all of our interpersonal interactions, regardless of age. In this culture where hierarchies are built into every area of our lives, the presumption that adults hold authority over children is taken as a given. Depending on your definition of “authority,” that could be true to an extent: children aren’t capable of doing many things independently, and to develop properly they need adult care and guidance. But then, so too do adults need others to function best. Adults have varying needs and sometimes require quite a bit of care from others. Authority, to me, implies some level of force or coercion, and when adults feel that their position is not carer, guide, or friend to children, and instead a figure of authority, they’re giving themselves permission to work upon children instead of working with them.

When adults have embraced their position as shaper-of-child, they take for granted that they have the right to criticize at will: to correct, to lecture, to direct, and to inspect. It never occurs to them, just as it never occurs to the people who email me about typos, that their shouldering of authority might not be welcome, and that it is up to the individual they’re attempting to act upon to decide whether or not they want feedback.

If instead we start acting with consent in mind, trying to create respectful relationships, figuring out what each person wants and needs, and attempting to come up with solutions that work best for all involved, you’ll start to distinguish between what’s actually helpful feedback, and what’s unwanted criticism.

We all have a right to figure things out on our own without someone constantly peering over our shoulders; to make mistakes without having every single one of them pointed out in real time; and to choose when and from whom we receive feedback.

As I touched on previously, feedback can be immensely valuable, and is most definitely important for children at least as much as for adults… But there are ways and ways of going about it, and as with anyone else, if children feel heard and respected, if they know they have a say in their own lives and get to make their own choices, they’ll be far more likely to seek out and accept feedback from people whom they trust. The voice of someone who respects you will always be more welcome than that of someone who thinks they always know best, and that you should be grateful for any criticism they throw your way.

It’s okay to set boundaries, to reject unsolicited criticism, and to only pay attention to the people who respect you enough to figure out if you want their help before deciding you need it. It’s okay for children to do all that, too. Criticism and feedback are not the same thing, and it’s time to stop pretending that people should be grateful for the former.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

What Makes Unschooling Successful? Advice From Grown Life Learners

I’m delighted to be sharing some words from fellow grown unschoolers today, something I’ve been wanting to do more of for a while now. For this post, I asked people to share either something they think their parents did especially well, or an aspect of their experience they found especially positive. The ten responses gathered below are thoughtful and insightful, a collection of anecdotes and advice that I hope will be helpful for parents and carers still in the earlier stages of this journey. I’m always really fascinated seeing what others who grew up with a similar philosophy as my family have to say, and I hope you find these tidbits similarly interesting and helpful.

“[My parents] carefully respected my privacy, especially in my teens, and let me and my brother spend a bunch of time playing video games, reading comics and watching cartoons even as it seemed like the whole world was freaking out. ‘Oh my god, your kids do WHAT all day??’ They just ran with it and looked for the good in whatever we were doing.” -Nola A.

“My mother was completely judgment free about how I spent my time, never criticizing me for spending hours on my computer every day. This allowed me to cultivate many of the interests I hold most dear to this day.

[She] frequently offered my brother and I the chance to go to school if we wanted to, and supported me when I decided to shadow at local high schools as a teenager. I ultimately decided I wanted nothing to do with high school, but many of my unschooling friend's parents had a lot of difficulty when their teenagers expressed interest in high school. Having parental support through considering what school had to offer empowered me to make my own informed decisions about continuing to unschool.

Going to conferences and connecting with other unschoolers was one of the best decisions my mom made. Having the support of other young unschoolers got me through some of the most difficult times in my life. It made me realize I wasn't alone. Meeting grown/older unschoolers at conferences gave me a way to imagine myself as a successful adult- a thing that can be hard when you've never met anyone like you. Around my fellow unschoolers was maybe the first time I ever felt like I truly belonged anywhere other than with my family, like I was entirely celebrated for being myself, and like no one would question me or my right to exist.” -Emmett D.

"The best thing my parents did was let me sleep when I needed to. That meant the world to me." -Rachel H.

“Follow your kids' interests and provide them with resources to find more info. We were all into community theater so our mom would get us books about the plays we were in. When we did Annie Get Your Gun we learned about Annie Oakley, things like that. The trick was to NOT choose the topic for us, but to notice the topics we were already interested in (the plays we were acting in already) and then give us the tools to expand from there.

Relatedly, a story about why you shouldn't force kids to learn. I was late to start reading. My parents were new to homeschooling at the time and my mom got concerned and tried to push it, having me do this horrible reading workbook every day which I absolutely despised. It did not work, I made no progress, I hated it, and my mom probably hated it too, so eventually she stopped pushing it. Pretty much immediately I spontaneously started reading random things I'd see without any prompting. So we all learned that I am incredibly stubborn and that kids learn better when they're not forced to learn.

Make a learning experience out of EVERYTHING. My dad is especially good at this. He actually built the second largest home owned aquarium in the US in our house (huge conversation piece), which requires a lot of upkeep and for many years we'd help him do the iodine testing. That's how I learned, at like 7 years old, that saltwater life (as well as humans) need a very specific amount of iodine - not too much, not too little - to be healthy. He had to do the testing anyway, so he involved us, explaining why he did it, how the chemistry of the testing strips worked, etc.” -Jennifer L.

“The very best thing my mother (specifically) did was pushing us to do everything on our own. Calling to make doctor's appointments, doing our own laundry, taking us to the grocery store and having us weigh the produce (okay, we weren't forced to do that one!), etc. She never hesitated to step in to help if we asked or were really frustrated, but she always had us try before doing things for us. I think this is something a lot of parents are missing (I work in a daycare). Things like having your 2 year old put on their own pants after using the potty, for example, are more important than many would imagine. It not only teaches children real-life skills, it also builds self-confidence and mastery without constant praise (read Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn) or inflating self-esteem (which is different than true confidence).” -Casey H.

“Some things I really appreciate that my parents did during our unschooling years:

1. Made sure we had library cards and made going to the library a regular thing.
2. Honoring season rituals and other ways of marking time. I loved the abundance of unstructured time but having a rhythm to the week and season and year is grounding.
3. My parents were able to afford high quality art supplies and we always had access to lots of 'making' supplies which was really wonderful for satisfying creative play.
4. They gave us tools and helped us learn to use them to do stuff on our own: make our own snacks, do our own laundry, dress ourselves, etc. We learned a lot of skills participating in regular housekeeping and self care activities. I have really appreciated those practical skills as an adult.” -Anna CC

“My parents were good at seeing when I seemed to be lacking direction, and asked if more structure would be helpful. They didn't push anything on me, but helped me set goals and gave gentle reminders when I wasn't doing the things that were most important to me for long periods.” -Julian B.

“The best thing my parents did for myself and my sisters by unschooling us was encouraging us to devout our time to what we were passionate about.

I spent my high school years drawing and painting and reading books. I'm in my early twenties now, still working to put myself through college, but I have 5 years teaching experience as an elementary grade art teacher in museums, centers, and public school systems. If I hadn't been unschooled I wouldn't have had the time to devote myself to my art, which is one of the major reasons I've received the scholarships I have for programs and college.” -Ashley H.

“No ‘screen time’ limits. Instead, we used television, movies, the internet, etc. as limitless resources. These were topics of conversation, which turned into interesting tangents about all sorts of subjects, which turned into questions. Depending on the question, we would either talk with each other about our ideas and opinions, or look up the answer online (or both). Limiting resources would limited possibilities for one thing to lead to another this way.” ZoĆ« B.

“Over time, my mother's education mantra became 'the parent/teacher opens the door - it's is the child/learner's decision whether to walk through it'. In other words, I was allowed to try any subject (academic or practical) that I wished, and was often supplied with opportunities for new experiences. It was always my decision whether to participate however, and there was never any pressure on, or judgement of, my decisions.” Flora G.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Why Assigning Books or Reading Time is a Bad Idea

This post was originally shared on Patreon back in October. I can't emphasize enough how big a difference my monthly Patreon income, small as it might be, makes in my life. Seriously, by investing $1 or more a month in me and my work you can have such an impact. And you also get extra posts, like the one below, most of which will never end up on this main blog, some of which will end up here many months after their original Patreon publication date. So please consider becoming a financial supporter, and whether you do or not, I hope you enjoy this taste of what I share with Patrons!

I don’t think children should be assigned specific books. I also don’t think children should be assigned specific reading times or amounts. Basically? I don’t think that reading should ever be compulsory.

Some of the biggest pushback I get when I say this is from people who fondly remember the works they were introduced to thanks to assignments in English class: If I hadn’t had to read Pride and Prejudice I probably never would have. I’m glad to hear of people discovering Things They Love, in whatever way they do. However, I find the underlying assumption that coercion is the best way to force someone to love something to be troubling, to say the least.

Compulsion is not the best way to create passion. This one should be obvious, really. For everyone who loves a book they were assigned in school, there are probably at minimum two other people who hated it, and decided they’d never go near that author again (or never touch another classic, or in some cases just avoid reading altogether). Humans as a whole do not react well to being forced to do things they don’t want to do, and often develop a strong resistance to the subject or thing they are being coerced into doing.

Compulsion shows a fundamental distrust of the child. “I know what’s best for you to do, so you should do it and like it.” Nowhere in an assigned reading list is there room for a child to make their own decisions, to explore what they’re most drawn to. And there’s little more room for a child to set their own pace, their own priorities, and their own goals within assigned reading times or logs, which turn what should be something joyful into a chore. Every piece of a child’s learning that is taken out of their hands is another signal to them that they are incompetent, untrustworthy, and incapable of learning on their own, which is such a sad message to be sending children.

Sharing really is caring. Enthusiasm is often infectious. If there are books that had a big impact on someone in their formative years, or that seem culturally important, or that they think a kid will like, it’s great to suggest reading it, to borrow it from the library and leave in a stack of books-I-think-you’ll-like, to initiate a read-aloud...It’s definitely the role of adults in children’s lives to expose them to things, to make suggestions, to share passions. But all that can be done without bringing coercion into the mix.

Developing a personal relationship with stories. As someone who really, deeply loves novels, who comes from a family of readers, I feel very strongly about the importance of individuals developing their own unique relationships with literature and more broadly with the written word (or spoken word! Audiobooks are great if that’s your jam). As all of us who love books know, they can be truly magical, but only if they remain an enticing option, and not the brussel sprouts of the learning world: do it because it’s good for you, not because it tastes good.

Ultimately, no one has control over what another person will like, or love, or be curious or passionate about. All you ever have is influence, and when used both enthusiastically and respectfully, you have the power to introduce exciting and beautiful things into the lives of children… Without compulsion.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

My Favourite Novels of 2017

I think it’s fair to say 2017 has been a difficult year for a lot of us, both on the world stage and in our personal lives. And for me, no matter how much I’m struggling with depression, no matter how bleak things are looking, books are a source of comfort, a way to grapple with difficult topics in more removed settings, a strange glimpse of other possibilities… And I wanted to share some of my very favorite novels from the past year. They’re all sci-fi or fantasy (because that’s what I love best), but within those genres they vary wildly, from historical fiction with just a sprinkling of magic, portal fantasy that’s just as much literary exploration of identity and abuse, a fast-paced murder mystery in space, and a series of linked short stories that act as a damning critique of the way women are too frequently used and discarded in the superhero comic genre. I tend to read both young adult and adult fiction without distinguishing much between the two, and I believe this list contains about a 50/50 split (I’m not sure how a couple of the titles were marketed). I hope you’ll find something here to love as much as I did!

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
A murder mystery on a generation starship starring clones with missing memories, this is the definition of a page-turner. I think I finished it in under two days. The pieces come together for you as the reader at the same time as for the protagonists, giving you a genuine chance to solve the mystery, and skilled use of flashbacks serve to propel the plot forward instead of feeling like a frustrating diversion. This is very much a plot focused story, and the characters, though some are intriguing, never have all that much depth. But all in all, a very enjoyable read.

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire
A beautiful little novella about a ghost who just can’t seem to forgive herself for either her own death or that of her sister--so she sticks around, takes in very old cats, and works at a suicide crisis call center. But when other ghosts suddenly start disappearing, she realizes she needs to help her fellow undead, and in the process learns how to finally forgive herself. Fast-paced, but also wistful, lyrical, and moving… A lovely story.
“The world is full of stories, and no matter how much time we spend in it—alive or dead—there’s never time to learn them all. They just go by so quickly.”
― Seanan McGuire, Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day

All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Continuing with novellas (this year I read quite a few good ones), Martha Wells’ new sci-fi adventure is definitely worth checking out. This is the story of an AI who, unbeknownst to its owners, hacked it’s “governor” program in order to gain independence, a limited freedom which it mostly uses to watch soap operas. Because robot or not, Murderbot (as it named itself) has some serious social anxiety, and is generally much more concerned with being left alone than with murder. But when the small exploratory team on a remote planet that it’s assigned to protect start encountering strange problems, and the signals from nearby settlements go dead, Murderbot puts itself right in the path of danger for the people it’s reluctantly started to actually like… Funny, sweet, and full of suspense, I can’t wait to read more about the surprisingly charming Murderbot in future installments of this series.

Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
It’s been a long time since such a quiet, slow novel pulled me in so easily and completely. When I say quiet, I definitely do not mean dull! Over two decades before the start of this book, the US government became aware of the “Deep Ones,” a small community of people who, as they age, transform into aquatic beings who slip into the ocean depths to spend their remaining millenia. Spurred on by malicious rumours and fear of their strange powers, the government rounded them up and imprisoned them in concentration camps far from their ocean home, where due to neglect and violence both, one by one they died. This is the story of one of the only two survivors, Aphra, who’s reluctantly drawn into an investigation of the potential use of magic by the Russians. Far from a spy novel, this is instead a thoughtful and very real-feeling exploration of prejudice, trauma, family, and recovery. An excellent debut novel by an author I will now be following closely.

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel that’s such pure fun! A historical adventure of a romp across 18th century europe, this story follows Monty, an unrepentant rogue, his best friend Percy, whom he just happens to be hopelessly in love with, and Felicity, his peskily sensible younger sister, as he savors what will likely be his last taste of freedom on his Grand Tour. But things take a turn for the dangerous when he sort of accidentally steals something precious, and the trio is forced to go on the run. While grappling with their feelings for each other, and how to find their place in a world that’s often very unfriendly to our characters (who are queer, multiracial, disabled/chronically ill, and have the wrong pursuits for a woman), this story is ultimately sweet, hopeful, and all around delightful.
“God bless the book people for their boundless knowledge absorbed from having words instead of friends.”
― Mackenzi Lee, The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
An achingly sad novella, one that almost reads like a cautionary fairy tale on what happens when children aren't allowed to be themselves, when parental expectations become so huge, so crushing, that they break something, perhaps irreparably, in the small humans at their mercy. It's an exploration of abuse, and what it can do to someone. It's also a strange story about a strange world, one filled with mad scientists and vampire lords, a red moon and endless moors. One where blood and fear are an everyday companion. With that in mind, it says something that the part of the book which takes place in our world remains the most disturbing. It also says something that Seanan McGuire is the only author to show up twice on this list. She is an absolute master of the novella format, and I will read every single one she writes with great joy. Highly recommended, if you're up for something thoughtful, dark, and moving.
"It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the lofty shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own."
― Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
I’m sure I’ve said before how much I admire originality in my fantasy novels, seeing as I read so many of them, and this one here? Does not disappoint! On the surface, this is a story about a young woman, Jane, grieving the death of her aunt and surrogate parent, who accepts an invitation to a mysterious mansion. But things quickly start becoming more surreal, and more strange… How different would things be if you made a different choice? Or a different one? Or a different one? Many paths unfold, possibilities both bizarre and terrifying, as Jane seeks to better understand herself and her place in the world. Highly recommended.
“People tell you that what happens to you is a direct result of the choices you make, but that's not fair. Half the time, you don't even realize that the choice you're about to make is significant.”
― Kristin Cashore, Jane, Unlimited

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
This linked collection of short stories is surreal, furious, and sad. There are no happy endings here, as what unites the women protagonists is that they were all either the wives or girlfriends of superheroes (or supervillains) or superheroes in their own right, and that now they’re all dead. Taking direct aim at the “fridging” of women in the superhero genre in order to further the stories of men, this combination novella and anthology is disturbing and captivating.

Buried Heart by Kate Elliott
This is the only book on the list that’s not the first in series or a standalone. Instead, it completes a series which began with Court of Fives, about young athlete Jes, though in this novel the athletics are in short supply. Civil war has broken out as various colonizing Patron factions vie for the throne, and revolution is brewing as the Commoners look to take advantage of the disarray to once more claim control of their own country. Jes’ growth through the previous two novels has been a pleasure to watch, but that pales in comparison to this final instalment, where we see her truly come into her own, and finally realize she has to start picking sides and taking stands. Seeing the surprising roles her whole family play in the rebellion was also one of my favorite parts of this book, and it felt very fitting, because such big themes throughout have been family, loyalty, and doing what’s right. All in all a very good conclusion to a very good series, and as always, I can’t wait to see what Kate Elliott comes out with next.

Honorable mentions, aka beloved series published previous years that I enjoyed re-reading this past year: The Fall of Ile-Rien series by Martha Wells, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, The Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Passion Doesn't Require Purpose

This post was originally published on Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows supporters to pledge a monthly amount of their choosing (as little as $1) towards my work, in exchange for perks including an extra post each month... Like this one! If you want more like it, please consider becoming a patron

I have a confession to make: I really love makeup.

No, wait, that’s not right. Not the loving makeup part: that’s entirely accurate, but the confession part. While I can sometimes have twinges of embarrassment or uncertainty around interests of mine that are often ridiculed or seen as shallow (like makeup, which I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with the gender it’s most often associated with…), I’m not actually in the least bit ashamed about it. I try hard to live the idea--which I know to be true--that all interests have merit. The things that are important to me matter, and don’t require justification. What I should say is this:

I have a confession to make: I really love makeup, and I don’t plan to ever make a career out of it.

I’ve often seen people, in an attempt to convince others of the merits of children’s interests, point out that the kid who loves video games might become a game designer; the teen who’s obsessed with Anime might become an author of graphic novels; the child who can’t get enough of baseball stats could become a professional athlete… All of these arguments seem to be based on the underlying idea that each of these passions are worthless on their own, but gain greater status in being seen as a step to something useful: a step towards a career.

To be clear, I’m not trying to put down individuals for using these arguments: I’ve said similar myself at times. And if pointing out that interests can lead to financial gain in the future helps a parent relax about video game time, or mollifies a concerned grandparent, I’m certainly not going to say there’s anything wrong with that. But when that’s the go-to justification for “letting” children pursue their interests, I feel like we’re internalizing some harmful ideas about worth--the worth of our own and others’ interests, and by extension the worth of ourselves and others as people. If you see your worth as being tied to your actions, to the way you spend your time, as is true for most of us, then if you think time spent doing some things is worth less, isn’t that going to affect the way you feel about yourself? And if you look at others and think “what a waste of time,” isn’t that going to affect how you think about and treat them?

If we fall into the trap of believing that our purpose is productivity, and further that “productivity” has to be about financial gain (or steps towards that goal), then it seems to me we’re undervaluing important work, dismissing joy (focus, excitement, creativity, play) as a worthless goal to pursue, and missing out on a lot of the most enriching parts of life.

Is money important? We live under capitalism, so of course it is (and we often need it to pursue the things we love most… Makeup isn’t free, after all). But we need to let children, especially, and also ourselves, explore all the parts of life we find ourselves drawn to, all the hobbies and interests that catch our eye, without needing to come up with a reason why we’re “allowed” to enjoy it.

I don’t want to be a makeup artist. For me makeup is an important and exciting form of self-expression, something that makes me happy, allows me to be creative, and is a skill which I can greatly enjoy improving. What I get from it might not be as tangible as money, or recognition, or approval (though I’ve greatly enjoyed sharing this interest with others), but it’s important nonetheless.

If it enriches your life, or the lives of your children, it has value. It might not be something that you’d choose--I fully respect your right not to wear lipstick--but we each find delight in different things, and that diversity is a good thing.

Forget what an interest may or may not lead to in the future. Look instead at what joy it’s bringing, right now, right in front of you. That’s where the learning, and the fun, is happening.

Monday, October 30, 2017

What I Learn: Unschooling as an Adult

I talk a lot about learning in a general sense, but sometimes people want to know a bit more about my learning, my experience as an adult unschooler, and how that works. How do I decide what to learn next? How do I find the information that I need? How do I learn? I addressed the question somewhat in a recent patreon post, but as was pointed out by someone, if your background is one where learning is something divorced from your own interests and daily life, it might not be as obvious as my suggestion that “learning is as simple as living life while curious.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that, and so I figured maybe I could try to use some actual examples from my own life to illustrate the various ways I learn about the things I care about most. While the more conventional understanding might be that a curriculum comes first and then it’s followed in order for learning to happen, that’s obviously not how I approach things. So instead, I thought I’d look back on the past year or so, and try to condense it into something like a portfolio: this is what I’ve been doing, and these have been some of the helpful resources I’ve used. Makes sense? Okay, time to dive in!

Media studies aka I watch a lot of TV shows and documentaries
TV watching might have a bad rap (documentaries not so much), but as I’ve discussed in other posts, I actually interact with the shows I watch (as do many people!): I watch them with others, and I look at the content critically (not in an I Only Watch Good shows way, because some of my faves are trash, but with an eye for what is well and badly done story-wise, what biases or unspoken assumptions are at play, etc.). And on the flip side, I watch documentaries not only to learn about their topics, but for the beauty, the experimentation, and the art inherent in a good doc.
The how: watch lots of things, read reviews and discussions online, watch video reviews and deconstructions, talk about TV and documentaries with others.

This is an art and form of self-expression that I cherish, and I’ve been learning more about it, building skills, and amassing my own personal product hoard over the last couple of years. I admired others for a while before I took the plunge myself, and it can admittedly be overwhelming. There has been lots of Googling, reading of reviews, Instagram inspiration, and trial and error along the way… But mainly? There’s been YouTube!
The how: YouTube tutorials, product reviews, hauls, lots of experimentation and practice.

White supremacist hate groups and ideology
With the belief in the old adage that it’s important to understand your enemies, current events should provide a pretty clear picture of why I started digging deeper. White supremacist hate groups have been around for a long time, but greater exposure in recent times has lead to a resurgence, and understanding what’s behind it has seemed deeply relevant.
The how: News articles, short form journalism, documentaries, long-form journalism, conversations with others.

Starting in the winter, I made the huge stride (for me) of actually exercising regularly! Yay phys ed I guess?? It involves working through some anxiety (not about the swimming itself, more about being alone with my own thoughts being difficult), building up stamina after not being physically active for a long time, and finding the meditative moments in leisurely treading water, the swirl between my fingers, and the sound of my own breathing as I float on my back…
The how: Buy pool membership, go to pool, swim.

Cat behaviour
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty obsessed with cats. It started when I was a toddler, and I really never grew out of it! But instead of being content simply with cuddling and fussing over the three cats I share my home with, I wanted to understand more about their behaviour and motivations, the ways I can better communicate with and train them, what research is saying about feline cognition, and just generally how to be a better cat guardian and friend to cat kind.
The how: reading and watching anything I can find by cat behaviorists, keeping up to date on new research, spending lots of time observing and interacting with cats. 

Literature appreciation aka I read a lot of novels
Since I first picked up a novel as I was learning to read, I never really stopped reading. I am very much in love with the science fiction and fantasy genres, and I’m usually in the middle of one novel or another. Over the past couple of years I’ve even set myself yearly reading goals through the book social media site GoodReads: in 2016 I read 50 books, and my goal for this year is 60 (I’m a little behind right now, but still well on track to make it).
The how: Get a library membership and go there regularly, request they purchase new books in my preferred genre that are getting a lot of buzz, read books, read book reviews, write book reviews, talk about books with people.

Self-directed education
The obvious one, really, so much so that it seems a bit superfluous to go into it more than this…
The how: Read articles and essays on unschooling/self-directed education and current events that influence both mainstream and alternative education, watch education documentaries, maintain a Facebook page on the topic, write my own posts and essays on my blog and other places, talk about education.

This collection of interests is not an exhaustive one: there have been plenty of other spurts of curiosity and research and dabbling… But it is a good overview of the things I’ve been most focused on in recent months. The more you do things and learn things just because you’re interested, you’re curious, you care, the easier it becomes. A habit formed of questions and Google searches, a process of letting go of the need to prove the worthiness of a task in favor of just enjoying it. Self-directed education might start out feeling complicated (and it can certainly be difficult, as many things can be, even when we love them), but it doesn’t have to be that way. Learning can be reclaimed, and enjoyed on its own merits, free from unnecessary complication and curriculum. It can be simple.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why Not Leave Education to the Experts?

My mother used to get asked, sometimes, if she was a teacher. Considering my sister and I weren’t going to school, the assumption ran that surely she must be a teacher. Surely she wouldn’t consider something so drastic as to take her children away from the hands of educational experts, and into those of a mere layperson. That remains one of the biggest fears expressed about school-free education: the belief that experts will know best and do best, and so to take away those experts seems to be doing a great disservice to children. Of course, I could talk about the fact that teachers often find a big gap between the more idealized educational practices they learn in university compared with the reality of what they’re actually allowed or able to do in the classroom; the impossibility of fostering any type of truly individualized learning in a class filled with dozens of individuals; the fact that teachers are as prone to biases and prejudice as anyone else, meaning that marginalized students are often served especially poorly… But I don’t really want to get into that. What I want to explore instead is all the ways that unschooling functions without school teachers, but not without teachers; without institutionalization, but not necessarily without structure.

“One person can’t possibly teach everything.”

I agree! But the idea with unschooling is not that the parent becomes a teacher, but instead that they act as a mentor and partner in their children’s learning. They’re not expected to know everything their child might want or need to know, they’re expected to help their children find the answers to their questions. They’re not there in order to “teach” different subjects, and instead work to find their children the resources needed in order to fully explore the things they find interesting and important. Parents or other trusted adults are not expected to be super-people, knowing and doing more than is humanly possible in order to single-handedly provide an education. They’re facilitators, co-learners in a quest for greater knowledge. 

“You’re just isolating them from learned people.”

Unschoolers usually find it very important to make connections in their community with various different people who have a variety of different skills. Learners volunteer, find mentors or teachers to guide them in their chosen pursuits, even take classes. They take advantage of book clubs at the local library and free lectures at a university; they use the wealth of information to be found online, including video tutorials and complete courses, long-form journalism and blogs covering an interesting topic. Experts and skilled amateurs alike make their knowledge and skills available to others in all sorts of different ways, meaning that self-directed learners can always find some way to learn about whatever it is they want to learn. Unschooling doesn’t mean eschewing all “experts,” it just means seeking them out only if and when they want to… And it also means that many unschoolers have access to more experts with more in-depth knowledge in their field than children in school do.

“But surely an actual teacher is best equipped to guide a child through their education.”

If you take it as fact that all children should and will learn the exact same things, at the same time, in the same way, and with a similar aptitude and amount of interest, then maybe. But as we all know, that isn’t the case, and as much as many teachers might want to allow for more individuality in learning, the reality of high stakes testing and large classrooms makes such a thing completely impossible. It’s also important to note that while the term “self-directed” has been co-opted in certain circles to mean learning the same things from the same sources but going at your own pace, that’s not what actual self-directed education is. If your goal is not for everyone to reach the same point (just at different speeds) and instead you seek truly personalized education, consisting of what is most wanted and needed by the learner and their community, then you quickly realize that maybe a teacher doesn’t make the best director. Maybe the learner themselves, the owner of their own unique mind and body, is best equipped to shape their own learning.

When you take out classroom management, and teaching to a test, and whatever the bureaucrats or textbook producers in your particular region have decided is the one body of knowledge all children should have, you make way for much greater diversity between individuals in the shape and content of their education. It’s a reality shift, one that ultimately looks to create not conformity, but a diverse society where varied skill sets, different strengths and weaknesses, unique quirks and passions, can exist without shame from the earliest of ages. If we want a world where everyone is valued for their own unique selves, why do we try and educate every child in the exact same way? Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate those differences instead?

Leaving education to the experts doesn’t seem to be working out too well, so maybe it’s well past time we stop relying on them, and look to the learners themselves show us the way forward.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

In Defense of "Screens"

One of the most controversial topics I ever touch on is the issue of “screens.” There are a lot of strong feelings on the topic, but it probably won’t surprise anyone that I fall squarely on the side of more options rather than less, fewer limits rather than more. Seeing as this topic is a big one, though, I wanted to take some time to explore why I feel the way I do, how electronics fit into unschooling, the importance of self-direction, and some reasons why screens might not really be so scary. I hope that, whether you agree with me or not, you find some thoughts worth considering and links worth reading in this exploration of the important place screens can have in a child’s life.


When I think about the distinguishing features of unschooling, one of the first things that comes to mind (I would think unsurprisingly) is that learning is self-directed, which means the learner themselves is deciding what activities to pursue. When self-direction is the goal, a myriad of options are usually given by the adults in a child’s life, a variety of tools made available. Unschooling, to me, is all about providing more options, more choice, more freedom in learning. So I find myself puzzled when some choose instead to narrow options, allowing children to “self-direct” only in a range deemed acceptable by concerned adults. While it’s undeniably important for adults to provide help, support, and guidance, choosing to cut out--or severely limit--one of the biggest available windows into the wider world seems counter-intuitive.

My sister and I are part of the first generation to grow up with easy access to the internet. My family got our fancy dial-up service when I was 5 or 6, my sister a couple of years younger, and we delighted in Neopets and other online games, the ability to make our own pages and blogs, to search out any questions we had (though admittedly there was a far smaller database of information to be had 20 years ago), to chat with friends, and to find communities of people who shared experiences and interests that I didn’t have access to in my daily in-person life. My life was intimately shaped by this new technology in overwhelmingly positive ways, and it most certainly lead to friendships, real world connections to local groups and events, and important discoveries--like my love of blogging and my sister’s love of fiction writing.

Sometimes people, in their advocacy for a screen-free childhood, say some variation of can’t you feel what it does to you? And I can. I feel it opening up possibilities.


While some people are convinced that there’s solid science on how awful screens are for children (no thanks to the prevalence of scare-mongering pop-science pieces that show up with startling regularity), the reality is a lot more complicated, and there is no scientific consensus that Screens Are Bad. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics backed off of its hardline--and severely outdated--guidelines on screen use for children last fall, as evidence of the positive aspects continues to build. For the most part, the fear around screen use seems to be the same old fear that crops up any time something new comes into popular usage, and while there’s still plenty to learn about how current technology affects us, the decisions people are making around “screens” seem to have far more to do with fear than science. This article, though a few years old, still does a very good job of addressing the “history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook.”

Even when it’s accepted that all screen use might not be bad, the narrative remains that while some people might be fine with “screens,” others will become hopelessly “addicted” if not rigidly controlled. To start with, I’m really uncomfortable with how casually the term “addiction” is thrown around: in the same way an overly controlling boss isn’t “OCD” and a friend who gets upset faster than expected isn’t “bipolar,” a child who spends more time online than their parent would like isn’t “addicted.” It’s important to note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) includes “video game addiction” only in the section reserved for subjects which need further study, and while the DSM certainly isn’t infallible, that’s a good sign of how little evidence there currently is to support the addiction argument. Undoubtedly almost any activity can be taken to unhealthy extremes, but to single out any one activity as being more dangerous without sufficient evidence seems unreasonable. And while parents certainly want to help their children make good choices, their children will eventually--sooner rather than later if they’re in their teens--be making ALL of their own decisions, so shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to learn self-regulation? And if the goal is self-regulation, doesn’t it make sense to let children get as much practice at making their own choices as possible, before they’re out on their own for real? As one of my favorite quotes from Alfie Kohn says, “'The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” Or put a different way by Mimi Ito: “The longer parents play time cop, the longer it takes for kids to learn self-control.”


It’s undeniable that the internet provides access to a repository of information unlike any other in human history, and with that in mind, deciding children are better off screen free seems extremely limiting. But even beyond that, “merely” playing on computers (or gaming devices, or phones…), one of the biggest targets of anti-screen rhetoric, is also a positive part of many people’s lives. In a truly excellent piece by Peter Gray, he references studies showing some of the effects of gaming: “Repeated experiments have shown that playing fast-paced action video games can quite markedly increase players' scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including tests that are used as components of standard IQ tests. Other studies suggest that, depending on the type of game, video games can also increase scores on measures of working memory (the ability to hold several items of information in mind at once), critical thinking, and problem solving. In addition, there is growing evidence that kids who previously showed little interest in reading and writing are now acquiring advanced literacy skills through the text-based communication in online video games.” He further elaborates on the social aspects of gaming, pointing out that “Other research has documented, qualitatively, the many ways that video games promote social interactions and friendships. Kids make friends with other gamers, both in person and online. They talk about their games with one another, teach one another strategies, and often play together, either in the same room or online.”

The image many have in their minds of lone individuals glued to their screens like zombies, cut off from all interactions with others, just doesn’t reflect reality in the majority of cases. Whether it’s gaming, TV shows, social media sites, blogging, or anything else, “screen time” is usually “social time” in one way or another.

A frequently expressed “socialization” concern in regards to school-free learners is that they won’t share common experiences with their schooled peers, and yet I’ve often thought that shared culture--shared arts and media--is a better point over which to bond than shared institutionalization. While culture is experienced in different ways, both online and off, it most certainly includes TV shows and video games, web comics and YouTube channels, social media sites and blogs. Finding people who love the same things you do is one of the great joys of the internet, and is often the spark for friendships online and off.

On the other side of things, parents of school-free learners often express concerns over negative content in popular media: racism, sexism, homophobia and the like. While that’s certainly a big issue, I’ve always thought the best way to learn to think critically about the media we consume is to interact with and interrogate it, to have thoughtful discussions about what is done well and poorly in any given show or game (or book, for that matter). I’d never suggest that adults leave children to fend for themselves, without involvement or guidance, and instead I think parents can help their children learn to think about what they’re playing or watching by playing and watching it with them, and having those discussions from the time a child is young.

Some of the most frequent questions I get about my unschooling experience are about passion: What were your passions? How did you discover your passions? What did your parents do to help you find your passions? And my partial answer to the last of those has to be that they didn’t treat my interests with fear and disdain. They let me have my own interests--my own passions--even when they didn’t understand or “get” them.

You can’t choose what someone else cares about. It doesn’t matter if they’re your children; their minds are their own, and if you’re serious about self-directed learning, then their interests must be allowed to be their own as well.

Right now, I love makeup. Love it. I spend hours watching YouTube tutorials and unboxings, reading product reviews, sorting through my makeup collection, putting on my makeup… For me it’s a form of artistic expression, something I can get lost in, by all judges a true passion. Yet to many people this would seem like a mind numbingly boring pursuit. They’d find it shallow and pointless.

On the other hand, I’ve never been very into video games: I find them uninteresting, and even when a game initially seems interesting, I find it bores me incredibly quickly. But that doesn’t mean I see them as a lesser pursuit, or see my interests as in any way superior.

It’s often hard to see, from the outside, what someone else is getting out of an activity or interest that we don’t share, but rest assured that they are getting something out of it, or they wouldn’t be doing it. And if you try and get involved, or talk to someone about the things they care about, you might just start to see why they’re so passionate.

Or you could just dismiss it out of hand, miss an opportunity to get a window into someone else’s world, and crush a budding passion.


Sometimes I spend too much time scrolling endlessly through Facebook, or watching YouTube videos, or reading a really long piece of investigative journalism. I consider the time spent to be “too much” because my leg falls asleep from sitting too long, or I regret staying up as late as I did, or I wish I’d gone out to the garden while the sun was still up. But as an adult--and as a teenager who didn’t have “screen limits”--those decisions are mine to own and the consequences are naturally occurring (as opposed to punishments, which some parents name “consequences” in order to make themselves feel more justified). Once again I return to the concept of self-direction being crucial to unschooling, and to be truly self-directed is to sometimes direct ourselves into choices we regret. That’s just part of learning, no matter what age we are.

I also see a big difference between parents intervening in an actual problem, and parents creating arbitrary limits in order to feel some control over possibly preventing future problems (which may never manifest). There’s a difference between saying “you’ve been playing that game for a really long time, let’s go do something different now” and an inflexible rule that children are only allowed two hours of screen time per day. And there’s a difference between deciding not to let a 2 year old spend time playing on a tablet versus deciding that the bulk of childhood should be spent without access to a whole category of play and learning.


In deciding that screen time is automatically damaging--or at the very least suspect--and casting almost any other activity as better, a whole bunch of unneeded conflict arises: suddenly it’s screens versus books, screens versus outdoor play, screens versus family time. Electronics become the forbidden fruit, made more tempting by its exclusion from a list of acceptable activities. In pitting activities against each other in such a way, the supposed “good” activities can be made to feel like a chore (something I explored recently in my post Summer Rules?). A child is told they have go outside for an hour before they can go online. This then becomes an interminable hour where all they do is kick at leaves and wander around restlessly, unable to think of anything but how much they want to talk to their friend who’s only online for a couple more hours, because they live on opposite sides of the globe in a very different timezone…

Then there’s the matter of how frequently hypocrisy comes into play, when a parent spends all day inside on their phone and the computer, yet kicks their children outside and admonishes them to “go play!” instead of allowing them to spend a similar amount of time on their respective devices. If you want to instill a joy of the outdoors (or reading, or anything else you deem important) you have to show that you take joy in it, yourself. As Lori Pickett said in a wonderful post on screen time:
Whenever you make it about “give up this thing you really love,” you are probably going to lose. Even if you win on paper, you are still losing in the ways that count. You’re losing credibility. You’re losing their attention. You’re losing their trust. 
You are sending all kinds of subtle, between-the-lines messages about what’s broccoli and what’s candy. You’re sending those messages every day when you choose how to spend your free time, too. Before they learn how to velcro their shoes, kids know when your words don’t match your actions. 
We have to change our entire approach and start saying, “If these things are really important to us — as a family, as a community, as a society — then we need to start enjoying them, together.”

Whether people are delighted by the technology available to us or concerned by its rising prevalence, the reality is that it’s here to stay, and has become a vital tool in virtually every sphere of life. Children growing up today need to understand it because they need to have the skills to navigate this world. There’s beauty in balance, but what balance means to each individual is something they have to figure out for themselves, and while caring adults should be ready to offer guidance to the children in their lives, ultimately those children are their own people, and need to to be making their own choices--or at least moving in a direction of increasing freedom of choice. Self-direction is such a powerful thing, and when adults can move past their fear, there’s such a wealth of learning and fun and connection to be had with those oft reviled screens. So many opportunities! Almost limitless options. Personally, I’m grateful to have always had so many “screens” in my life.

*I put screens in quotations because I find it a very reductive and misleading way to talk about a whole range of different devices.

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