Becoming Courageous

How to develop the courage and confidence it takes to unschool.

Deb's presentation at the Always Learning Live Symposium,
December 30, 2011, in Albuquerque

I’m Deb Lewis and I’m the wife of David and mom to Dylan. I am sorry to tell you they’re not here with me, David is working and Dylan is home with our cats. Dylan was born in Alaska but we have lived in Montana most of his life. He’s nineteen years old now and he never went to school.

We live in a small, rural community, population about 3,100. It is locally famous for being the home of the first college in Montana, before Montana was even a state, and for being the home of the Montana State Prison. Two extremes: The great potential and the terrible failure. The college closed in 1917. The prison, on the other hand, received a 3.8 million dollar improvement in 1979 and is the major local employer. There are six bars and fourteen churches in Deer Lodge.

We also have correctional facility for young adult offenders serving short sentences, usually for drug or alcohol offenses. It’s called the boot camp and it’s fashioned after military boot camp. The boot camp crew preforms community service and can frequently be seen sweeping city sidewalks or distributing free firewood to the needy. The scene of young men in prison uniform and ankle chains, under the instruction of a drill sergeant serves as a cautionary tale to the young.

I offer this snapshot to give you a sense of the attitude toward education in our little town. People are proud to remember we had the first college in the state and so much potential but the prison serves as a constant reminder of just how wrong things can go.

And with so many churches homeschooling isn’t unheard of. If you’re a homeschooling family in Deer Lodge it’s widely assumed you’re also a religious family. And some of the assumptions that go along with that are that Mom is the teacher and there is an emphasis on academic excellence.

When Dylan was four years old he announced he didn’t want to go to school. It was on his fourth birthday and an aunt said to him, “Next year you’ll be going off to school.” We didn’t realize right away that he thought he would have to leave us and live somewhere else. But even after we told him he would go for a few hours and then come home every day he still didn’t want to go. We said “Ok” and we knew he could change his mind. When he was five and some of his friends were starting school he still didn’t want to go.

We said “Ok” and knew that by the time he was seven, the age of compulsory schooling in Montana, he might change his mind.

Well, he didn’t change his mind. So we went about exempting him. That’s not difficult in Montana, so we didn’t have much stress or worry about the legality of keeping him home.

The most common question from community members when they found out we were homeschooling was, “OH! What church do you go to?” And I always had the feeling, much like in school, that there was only one right answer to that question, depending on who was asking. My biggest concern when it came to the opinions of community members was that I didn’t want to be thought of as one of those commandant, fundamentalist mothers making her kid sit at the kitchens table until he finished his cold, cold Latin roots. But we dealt with that fairly well. It was a mild irritation some of the time.

The really difficult thing was the misunderstanding, scrutiny, commentary, criticism and opinions of family members.

We have a really nice family. I’ve known my husband’s family since I was ten years old. They’re wonderful people. My family is less wonderful but they’re still ok. They’re more passionate and vocal and love debate but they’re not nosy or meddling. So it really annoyed me that they didn’t agree with me.

And to make it a little harder there were other children in the family, close to Dylan’s age, all going to public school, all of them successful. You know those Kindergarten and first grade success stories can be a lot of pressure. We heard so many stories about how great school was, and how spectacular the children were, how much they were learning.

And our kid just played all day?

No matter how I tried to convince them of the rightness and brilliance of what we were doing, they didn’t get it. And they didn’t get it because what we were doing was so different from what they knew and what they had always believed, and from anything they’d ever thought about.

People know these things about kids: They need to be educated and to be educated they need to go to school. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

So when we said we weren’t sending Dylan to school we might as well have been saying “We don’t intend to educate him” and what that implies is “we don’t care about his future.”

So while it hurt me at the time I am glad now that there were people who loved Dylan enough to be concerned. And it was love for him, I think really more than opposition to us. I want to think of it that way. It comforts me now to think that if we had been really abysmal parents there were people who loved him and would have stood up for him. So I’m kind of glad now that I didn’t kill anyone.

But I tried long and hard to come up with the right arrangement of words that could put my thoughts and understanding into their heads. I was one little voice trying to change and re-arrange years of established thought.

Have any of you heard about the research of Victoria Horner, the Opaque Box stuff? She built an opaque box with a treat inside and if children performed a certain sequence of actions they could retrieve the treat. I think it was a sticker. The children had to tap the lid three times with a wand, shove a rod through a hole, poke the wand down a hole in the top of the box and then open a hatch in front and stick the wand inside the box and retrieve the reward.

After the researcher demonstrated these actions the kids copied her and got the reward, the sticker.

She did the same experiment with Chimpanzees. The Chimpanzees did the same thing the children did. They were shown the sequence and preformed the actions to retrieve their reward. It was a food reward in their case.

Then she came back with the same box only transparent. You could see the box had a false top so that meant the first three actions, the tapping, shoving and poking were completely unnecessary for the retrieval of the treat. It was just a bunch of hocus pocus. And yet, the children still tapped the lid, still shoved the rod, and still poked the wand down the hole in the top before opening the hatch and getting the sticker.

The Chimpanzees looked at the box and went straight for the treat.

So what does this tell us? (For one thing, that it’s easier for a chimp to learn something new than for your sister in law.) It tells us humans are pattern seeking animals and once a pattern is firmly established it is not easily altered. And the idea that school is necessary is a very firmly established idea.

So how do you bravely unschool in the face of family opposition?

If any of you are dealing with this you’re obviously doing some things that work because you’re here.

Three things especially helped me:

Getting over the idea that I needed to convince other people I was right;
Being and staying informed, and
Being honest and direct.
I thought I was defending myself and my decision but it turns out what I really wanted was to convince my family members they needed to trust me. They didn’t need to do any such thing. It would have been nice, since I loved them so much, but they didn’t need to trust me and I didn’t really need them to trust me either. You don’t need your family to approve of all your choices.

Be informed and stay informed. Read good unschooling information when you find it. Read stuff that supports what unschoolers already know. Alison Gopnik wrote a book called, The Scientist in the Crib and one called, the Philosophical Baby. They’re not unschooling books but they report on research that finds babies are learning in ways adults never imagined. She has an interesting talk at Ted too about what babies know. And in it she says that a baby’s consciousness is like a lantern and wherever that light falls they draw in information from all around them.

And she has done some research that suggests direct instruction makes children less likely to make new discoveries. Her team gave four year olds a toy that required two actions to make it play music. In one group a researcher played around with the toy and tried different actions, some that ended in the two that made the toy play and some that didn’t. When the children played with the toy they found the most direct way to get the toy to play music.

With the other group the researcher acted like a teacher and demonstrated actions to make the toy play music. Some of the actions were not required to produce music but the children copied the teacher exactly and didn’t discover the most direct way to make the toy play.

There was another study from MIT by Laura Schulz where four-year-olds were shown a toy. One group received instructions on how the toy worked and the other group didn’t. The group that received instruction didn’t play with the toy as long and didn’t find the other interesting things the toy could do while the group that didn’t receive instruction played with it longer and found more of its interesting features.

MIT has a baby lab. Isn’t that a little creepy? I pictured rows of cages with babies in them.

They’re trying to create computers that can learn and they’re doing that by studying how babies learn and trying to replicate that. They call it reverse engineering of the brain. But in the mean time they’re finding out all kinds of interesting things about babies, about what babies know, what babies can predict and what babies can understand about other people. It’s amazing, and in many cases it’s proving unschoolers are right.

The Victoria Horner research I mentioned earlier also reveals the potential problem of direct instruction of children.

There was a study a few years ago by Shannon Pruden from Temple University in Philadelphia that found babies could quickly learn the names of objects they found interesting but not of objects that didn’t interest them. And if they heard only the name of a boring object but could see an interesting object, they attached the name to the interesting thing.

Unschoolers have been thinking about the importance of interest to learning for years.

Another way to be informed is to read mainstream stuff about education and child development and parenting so that you can have the same information your relatives have. You can’t logically and honestly refute a claim if you’re not familiar with the claim. Find the problems with the mainstream ideas. Work it out in your head before you’re confronted. Maybe, don’t do this if it makes you nervous or insecure. I always felt better having a chance to think about new information before being confronted with it at a family gathering.

And you can be brave by being honest and direct. The temptation to omit or cover or hedge can be strong when we’re feeling judged and insecure. Consider that the more unspecific you are about what you do, the more shadowy and untrustworthy you can seem. People often know when they’re being “handled” even if they’re too polite to say so. You will seem more trustworthy if you tell the truth. They might still think you’re nuts but they won’t think you’re covering up some misconduct or ignorance.

You don’t have to explain the philosophy of unschooling to give a brief explanation of your plan. Be clear about what you’re doing and what you’re not doing. You can borrow Sandra’s words and say something like “We’re creating a rich learning environment for our child. We won’t be using curriculum or teaching. It won’t be anything like school or school at home. “

If it’s not worth explaining to someone say so. Offer books they can read if they’re interested but don’t waste your time or theirs with information they’re going to ignore.

The reason for being plainly honest besides the obvious one is because you won’t have to keep track of the omissions you’ve made or the half-truths you’ve told and you won’t have to repeatedly explain why your child didn’t fill in the workbook from grandma. You will also reduce the number of weird questions your child will have to answer, like, “How are you coming with your studies?” Or, do you like having your mom as your teacher?” And you won’t be doing that thing that can happen in emotionally unhealthy families - making children feel like they have to lie or cover up something that’s going on at home to protect their parents.

There were two things that sometimes tempted me to not be honest: The desire to avoid conflict and the desire to be right.

You might think avoiding potential conflict will feel better but it won’t. You might dodge a bullet at a family picnic only to find yourself under fire again at the next gathering. You’ll find yourself worrying when the next confrontation will arise and how you’re going to skirt it. If you answer every question with honesty you never have to be nervous about the next question because you already know the answer. Take the chance of being uncomfortable for those few minutes of honesty. It’s worth the discomfort for the peace and confidence and integrity it will build in you.

Resign yourself to the possibility that people still won’t understand and may still be critical. And take comfort in knowing that time will soften even your most vocal family critics. If they have children, they will notice problems in school, sorrows in their children, joy and learning and intelligence in your child, peace and happiness in your family. The critical comments will get quieter the more your lifestyle proves itself through the happy growth and learning of your children.

You can read about the Laura Schulz research here:
The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery (PDF)

And an article here:
Don’t show, don’t tell? "Cognitive scientists find that when teaching young children, there is a trade-off between direct instruction and independent exploration."

The Alison Gopnik research here:
Children’s imitation of causal action sequences...

And an article by Alison Gopnik about her research and the Laura Schulz research:
Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School

The Victoria Horner/Opaque Box research is here:
Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens)

An article about the Shannon Pruden word acquisition study:
Babies Learn Words

Photos by Tim Mensch, taken during this presentation, on December 30, 2011, in Albuquerque.

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