Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Function Over Form

A few days after writing "No Rules", I finally realized (explicitly because I think the realization was already there implicitly in the text) that it is more important to be responsive to your kids' needs, your needs, the situation at hand than it is to abide by any rule or ideological paradigm.

Because I tend to be a fairly ideological person, this is a theme that I have to constantly revisit and relearn. Now, in unschooling, we are facing the same issue--but somehow, this time it's a lot easier for me to choose function over form. By many people's standards, that means I am no longer a real unschooler--I could care less about that. It also means that I have to foray into the world of mainstream education and hear crap touted about the importance of early reading and early intervention and other conventional ideas that really rub me the wrong way.

What is Unschooling?

Unschoolers really like to argue about this question. On the defensive, they say things like, "unschooling is not ignoring your children." I would argue that for some people, it may be. My neighbor came to me last year and said her kind and amazing and polite (my adjectives) son had been kicked out of another school, she was tired of drugging him to keep him compliant in the classroom, she was interested in unschooling, but she was worried that as a single mom working from home that she couldn't give him what he needed. My advice was that keeping him out of school where he could ride his bike and get bored and read books and watch movies would be a more positive experience than failing and getting punished at school. In this instance, I would say that she could ignore her son (to work) and it would still be considering unschooling.

Conversations like these--whether they are started on the defensive, a state many unschoolers seem to maintain because of their counter-culture lifestyle, or started because people love to crouch this movement in light and love and peace and rainbows and glitter and then judge other people when they don't--are a useful way to talk about ways to optimize the unschooling philosophy, but for the purpose of defining unschooling, they are not useful.

Unschooling is, just as suggested by the word, not school. In not being school, unschooling is not restricted by place (ie. it does not happen in a predetermined spot like a school building or at the kitchen table) and not restricted by time (learning is always happening). Disciplines (literature, history, math) cease to exist--this is not a new idea, Foucoult wrote about this. Learning moves from an exclusive reading-and-writing-based model to whichever model works best for the learner who is considered a learner (or even just a person) not a student, because there are no teachers. Learning happens for the sake of learning itself not to get a gold star or impress anyone or to beat another student. There is probably more that can be said, but hopefully, you've got the basic idea.

So, there is my form, the outline by which we have lived most of the last nine years. It has been fascinating. The things these kids have decided to pick up, the things I have learned about learning just by watching them, and the ways they have challenged me to move past my presumptions has been amazing, and I wouldn't change a thing about it.

Dyslexia and Unschooling

While reading about dyslexia, I couldn't have been happier that we have embraced such a different-than-most lifestyle. On any list describing a dyslexic person, insecurity is pretty near the top, and in every case, it is insecurity based on the fact that the dyslexic person, although they were incredibly intelligent, just couldn't make it in the reading-and-writing-based learning model that is used at most schools.

My kids have never had to face this. They have learned most things through observation, through watching videos, through experimentation, through being read to, and they have expressed what they have learned through mimicry, through conversation, through play.

As I continued to read, I decided that my older two children have all of the tendencies of dyslexics (and they have a 50% genetic predisposition for it), and if what I am reading and the many people I have talked to about are correct, the dyslexic brain does not learn to read naturally. Its bits (let's go with bits because I can't remember the technical phrase) are positioned in such a way and its processes are run in such a way that it does not have the ability to decode language in the same way that an average brain does. At the same time, the positioning of these bits lend themselves to strengths in areas like narrative reasoning, predictive abilities, and three-D imaging.

Unschooling is based on the idea that humans are natural learners. A baby who learns to roll and crawl and coo will turn into a toddler who will learn to talk and walk and jump, and that toddler will turn into a human who is interested in the world around him, who will tell stories and ask to be told stories, who will figure out how things work and build his own ideas.

Before the rise of the city-state (and if I've gotten tipsy around you anytime in the last ten years, you'll know how I perilously idolize hunter-gathers even though I try to argue myself out of it), it would have never dawned on anyone to read anything because humans were living in preliterate societies. There was no dyslexia because there was no reading. There may have been ways to distinguish whether or not someone had certain qualities that eventually down the road could have predicted dyslexia in their ancestors--or maybe all of the brains were dyslexic because the formations that favored reading hadn't evolved yet--clearly, I don't really know because I'm not an evolutionary brain scientist.

Although I'm not an evolutionary brain scientist, I am a mother, and we figure shit out, and I've figured out that in my opinion, my older two are not going to read naturally--their brains just aren't wired for that. (I can hear the unschoolers cringing here.)

Because the unschooling philosophy is so firmly entrenched in the idea that all people are natural learners, the community largely fails to acknowledge learning disabilities--unfortunately, I haven't read enough on any learning disabilities but dyslexia so I can only comment on that. I've heard many stories about parents who, rather than assigning their kid a label and intervening, wait until their kids learn to read haltingly at fifteen and never fully comprehends how to do it (mind you, illiterate kids are buried in schools all the time at a much higher cost, I would argue). This is where I break with this philosophy in order to favor function over form.

I agree that all people are natural learners, but I don't agree that reading is necessarily a natural pursuit. (Take any of the disciplines that I discarded above, and I will argue to the death (maybe) that learning about them is natural--even something like civics which didn't exist before the rise of the city-state is natural because people want to know what is going on around them--even if they can't read about it, even if they have to catch a documentary or listen to the news, even if they only want to know a smidgen about it, but I digress).

So, My children cannot read. They're only 8 and 9.5, and in most unschooling circles, that wouldn't be a problem. In fact, many homeschooled kids (and even kids who go to school) don't learn to read until those ages or later--I'm touching on so many counter-cultural ideas that it is tempting to go off on a explanatory tangent, but I'm trying to keep my train of thought--if you want me to extrapolate on something, just ask in the comments.

Many dyslexics are smart enough to memorize enough words that they can read for the gist of content (especially when they rely on their advanced narrative reasoning skills and predictive ability). However, many of these readers will always struggle when they encounter a new word, from what I understand, or when they have to read something that is very de-contextualized. I know too many adult dyslexics who cannot fill out the paperwork at the dentist, who cannot send a text message without grievous errors, who choose their professions because they absolutely couldn't do anything reading-and-writing centered or even anything that remotely included reading or writing.

I want my kids to grow up in an environment that plays to their strengths, to their interests. I want their challenges to be ones that are organically selected rather than ones that are arbitrarily forced on them by a set of state standards. However, we living in a reading based society. I want/need to ensure that they can read and write. This is critical.

It sounds simple when you write it. Of, fucking course, reading and writing is critical. But the schools aren't treating it critically when they only employ, for example, one special ed teacher who doesn't have the training to diagnose dyslexia, and many unschoolers don't treat it critically either.

In short, there's my philosophy, and there's where we're departing from it so that my kids can learn a critical skill. I would go on and on about the effing cost of the so-called-best programs and the well-trained tutors, but someone is calling my name.

However, I want to just say that although I have decided that I don't think two of my kids have brains that are naturally wired to read, I think that most kids can learn to read easily and naturally when they're ready. As I said above, by foraying into the conventional education arena for answers, I have to hear ideas that I don't like such as that "no kids learn to read naturally". Uh, I know tons of kids who have learned to read naturally, quickly, and fluently with no instruction (most at an age that is significantly older than the reading age that is pushed at most schools), and I hate hearing such disparaging comments about it. I think that sentiment underlines some of the fundamental issues I have with the whole teaching-learning model that most of us currently embrace.

But oh, well, live, learn, don't get too crazy about any one ideal, and carefully consider your koolaid...


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