A Few Changes

There are ebbs and flows in most things and that includes our new adventure. We made a few more changes on the path to getting unschooling right with Aidan and Vie this past week. Things weren’t working quite as well as we liked and so we needed to do some tuning. The changes have given us all some new energy.

If you remember, we started our path in unschooling with a bit of structure in when we did unschooling; i.e., we had a daily schedule. On the flip side, we gave the young adults a lot of freedom in their choice of “projects” and helped them understand that they were responsible for their unschooling (with help and support of course).

Shortly thereafter I made my first mistake and realized that I was giving the young adults freedom in unschooling pursuits, but not in their schedules. So, I reined that in and allowed them to set their own schedules for when they got up, worked on unschooling, etc. as long as they hit an average of about 20 hours a week.

After working this way for about two months, the pendulum is swinging back a bit in the other direction. While we are still giving Aidan and Vie schedule flexibility, we are adding back more structure to their unschooling work. And I’m taking a little break while Deb, who recently finished working remotely, takes over.

Many things were going on, but I think the biggest factors leading to these changes were overexposure to technology and what I’d probably call dwindling motivation in Aidan and Vie to take unschooling seriously. It got a bit too easy for them to slip into letting technology drive what they did vs. driving it themselves.

In fairness, they are 13 and 11. Having the responsibility for directing one’s schooling path, while an awesome opportunity for pre-teens, can also be a daunting and at times complex task. We adults are still working to get it right.

I had already come to a good understanding of how Aidan learns, which is very different than me. That led to some learning on my part, which I also wrote about. While Aidan did continue to work on his recipes, more and more of his time was spent watching videos on YouTube, not just of cooking, but really anything he could rationalize as unschooling. He’d track his unschooling time meticulously and then switch to watching more YouTube videos – not unschooling related – and not keeping track of his technology time as we had asked.

Vie also tracked unschooling and technology time and focused. The challenge with Vie was in what the topics of focus were. We went from a project comparing digital art tools and another focused on making videos of walkthroughs of Vie playing a video game, to creating a video game, to just wanting to play video games as learning. Topics would change almost weekly and get more abstract.

Each time Vie would change topics, I would spend a number of hours researching the topic, learning the tools (e.g., Adobe Flash gaming engine to build a video game), etc. It was getting frustrating to me.

Vie and I had a good discussion about gamification, Gabe Zicherman’s TED talk How Games Make Kids Smarter, and how Vie wanted to focus on being a video gamer. While I was hesitant, I was open-minded towards trying it. My requirements were simply that Vie describe what the particular video game offered in terms of learning content, and then after playing the game, how would you know that you learned something; i.e., how do you know you were successful at learning what you expected to.

As we went along, it was getting harder and harder to get Vie and Aidan to tell me what they were working on. They weren’t doing the few things I asked them to do. For example, Vie wasn’t writing up what was learned from gaming. I was also getting a lot of “Dad, we are responsible for our unschooling so why do we have to tell you what we are doing?” It is certainly a creative argument that I would probably raise – they are my young adults after all 🙂 – but it wasn’t helping me help them.

What I was coming to realize was that Vie and Aidan, in different ways, really didn’t want to unschool. That didn’t mean they wanted to go to school. They disliked that idea even more. They just weren’t very interested in [any]schooling. Period.

We had set them on this path of unschooling. Here I’ll emphasize unschooling and not home schooling. In Grace Llewellyn’s great book on unschooling, Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, the book is targeted toward young adults who want to do this and may need help convincing their parents. We had a bit of the opposite situation, so the book didn’t help as much.

I went online looking for some help and guidance. What I found surprised me. I found tons of advice on tactics for helping learners with different subjects, what tools and resources are most helpful, where to go for all sorts of supporting material, etc. I also found strategies for helping learners develop curricula for their unschooling. I even found information on how to help your learner learn a subject they think they dislike, such as math. What I didn’t find was anything helping with getting your learner to want to unschool. Most of the information assumed that that wasn’t a problem. While I can’t say I did an exhaustive search, I did expect to find some information fairly quickly.

Adding to the mix, more and more, particularly with Vie, most of my suggestions and asks were getting met with arguments. Aidan didn’t generally argue, he just often “forgot” about requirements and rules.

I was getting frustrated. I felt like I was giving them lots of room. I was open-minded about what they were working on and how they were doing it. And yet, I felt like it wasn’t working. While I felt that Vie and Aidan were taking advantage of the situation a bit, I felt like I was failing in making unschooling work. And I hate to fail. I know, I need more Type-A Detox. Failing is an opportunity to learn something. While that’s true, and I do embrace that philosophy, it was “different” for me when my kids schooling is on the line.

After one particular night where we caught both the young adults on their computers well past their bed time and against our rule of no technology after bed, and then learned that it was a pattern, we decided we needed some changes. My trust in them was a bit broken. And I needed a little break. This was Deb’s very good idea.

Fortunately, Deb had recently finished her part-time remote work and had time to step in more deeply. We had a family meeting and talked about what we needed to change. We talked about how we needed to add back more structure to the unschooling.

Deb started with having Vie describe to Aidan what middle school was like. Vie had a fairly typical unpleasant middle school experience, full of rules and consequences, lots of behavior management and little actual learning, bullies, and micromanagement of time to name a few. It was a brilliant move. Aidan had had an awesome experience at University Cooperative School, but didn’t have a larger context of what most schools were like. And this got Vie to remember all the reasons why the middle school experience was so bad, hopefully creating some appreciation for unschooling in both cases.

Deb adding back more structure around what they were working on along with a little more structure around daily activities to go back, at least a bit, to a routine. We also limited technology in a few ways. Vie and Aidan needed to write up short descriptions of what they wanted to do online and why before they did. They also needed to use their computers in the main room of the house; no more sneaking computer time late at night. We explained that in time, if they were working well with this structure, then we could try relaxing it a bit.

Deb is also adding in some structured time for conversation – talking about things in the world, why things are the way they are, etc. to spark broader interest and questions. It was a great idea. It’s already led to discussions on economics, body chemistry and biology.

This last week has been a lot more manageable after the changes, even with the serendipitous intervention of having no Internet for 5 days now. While it’s been inconvenient for all of us to not have internet access, and while it’s been frustrating getting the cable company to make a visit to fix it, it’s been interesting to see the household effects of no internet on top of our added structure. Stepping back and taking a break (from technology) may help Aidan and Vie get some perspective. It works for adults too. It already has in my case.

In reflecting on recent events and doing some more research (thanks to the Wi-Fi at the Shack), there are a few insights I had that I’d thought I’d share.

Systems and Goals
Awhile back, Deb found a great article on systems and goals. I had intended to do something with this in a future blog post, but the opportunity for application in our current situation was powerful. Essentially, the author James Clear makes the argument that systems are more valuable than goals. We all grow up – and continue into the work force – setting and achieving goals. Goals aren’t bad. But systems can be more useful. Systems are structured ways for consistently working toward a goal.

As an example, you may have a new year’s resolution to lose some amount of weight or get fit or save some amount of money. Many people abandon these after a short time. The goal doesn’t easily lead to day to day energy and focus on the goal. In contrast, if you simply start going to the gym consistently a few days a week and put in place some structure to make that easy, then you will eventually lose weight/get fit. More importantly, you don’t just achieve the goal. You now have in place tools that will help you consistently achieve that goal in the form of a system.

In our case, I was focusing on the young adults having projects and goals (of their choosing). I did not have in place enough structure (a system) for them to make consistent progress. I think adding back structure to our unschooling will help Aidan and Vie develop more systems for working toward achieving any goal.

Executive Function
Adults have the ability to visualize and plan for the future, think strategically, and see how they need to tune near term actions to better help them with their longer term strategy and goals. It’s called “executive function.” This ability is not well developed yet in pre-teens. Immediate gratification trumps longer term, and more substantial, benefits. We probably all have examples of this coming into play in our early teen years.

Unschooling gives responsibility to the learner to determine what and how they want to learn. They develop a love for learning and with some guidance, they can learn anything. The challenge I see, now, is that without developed executive function skills, it’s hard to expect a pre-teen to be able to do this well. I’m sure in time they may naturally get there, but I also see the role of a parent is to be a significant “flywheel” in this process – something that makes it go better, faster, stronger. At times, I think this means that we need to add more structure and help edit goals and systems a bit.

I’m still getting past my ego and inability to make this work smoothly so far, which is tough. We came into this so optimistic, thinking it would be a wonderful, easy experience. At least I did. I was naïve. It’s hard. Though, it may not be nearly as hard as dealing with some of the negative side effects of schools (over reliance on homework, bullies, less attention to individual learning styles, etc.) over which you feel as though you have little ability to effect change.

However I can’t think of anything more important and so we will keep learning, tuning, and refining what we are doing. We’ll also keep sharing our journey. Maybe it will keep some folks from falling into some of the holes along the way that we did! It is all part of the journey and I think we will all be stronger for it. Pura Vida!

“That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.”

Nietzsche

Type-A Detox

I learned something very valuable this week from my son Aidan here in Costa Rica on our new adventure. You might even call it “my second mistake.“ It was about unschooling, parenting, and patience. Mostly though, it was about myself. It was simple. I even knew it in my head logically – I just didn’t embrace it. I might not have even paid enough attention to learn something if I hadn’t had yoga and a quiet chance to reflect.

There are other paths to learning and to achievement than the “Type A” way (here is where you can say “duh”).

I’ve been pretty successful, and fortunate, in my education, my career and my life so far. For as long as I can remember I have driven myself to learn new things, to do more, to push myself to do things better, and to take on big challenges. I like it when things are hard. I like competing with, and working with, people who are better than me because I learn more. I like trying lots of new things. I get bored when there isn’t a lot going on. You might call me Type A (though by Seattle standards I am probably in the middle).

The places I’ve chosen to work, particularly startups and Microsoft, really reinforce this Type A approach to things. I found that working with others like me creates a great energy to push the envelope, It was well and good while I was in those environments, but it isn’t as helpful now as I work with Vie and Aidan in unschooling. They are not Type A.

Aidan also has a different way of learning than I do. I tend to just go try things. I learn by doing. Aidan likes to see how things are done first – for example, watching a YouTube video. Neither is better than the other. They are just different ways of learning.

I had the hubris though of thinking that making progress, accomplishing goals, and even learning was better in a Type A way. I hadn’t actually realized just how ingrained in me it was. One of the more insidious things about being successful as a Type A person is that it can blind you from other ways of being – ways that can be equally as effective. I was unconsciously expecting Aidan and Vie to do things like I do. Debbie had even been coaching me with gentle hints, though I didn’t really embrace them either. It’s time for me to detoxify myself from Microsoft and this Type A way of doing things. It’s not working and when something isn’t working, you need to change it.

How did I come to this rather obvious realization? It started with Aidan and his unschooling cooking project. In the last few weeks, it’s been a little difficult getting Aidan to be “diligent” about unschooling. He’s been watching videos of Master Chef and lots of YouTube videos of cooking different things. He had recipes he was working on and I didn’t see him working on those directly, either through cooking or writing up the recipes.

When I learned how much he was watching videos, I lectured him about watching too much “TV” and not “doing” enough on his recipes. I asked him to give me a breakdown of how he was going to spend his unschooling hours this week and that they couldn’t involve “TV.” Can you believe it? I was expecting him to be a Microsoft Project Manager.

I went to yoga afterward and in the part where you do a bit of meditation, I thought about all of this. I had the blindingly obvious insight that I was expecting Aidan to be me and not Aidan. He was learning his way, which was more about learning through study, and he was doing it in an exploratory path, not necessarily a goal-driven one.

When I came back we went out and had coffee by the pool and talked. He was indeed watching all of the videos so he could learn how to do the different techniques needed in cooking his 10 recipes. He also got “distracted” by other videos of interesting recipes and techniques. I’d now reframe “distracted” to mean that he was exploring the wide world of culinary arts his way – by sampling techniques, looking at different approaches, seeing interesting ways others put together recipes, etc.  In other words, he had a perfectly acceptable, but very different, way of learning compared to me. I told him that I was wrong and I didn’t appreciate his approach to things as much as I should have.

Compounding all of this, Aidan is also a very social learner. He loves working with others (I like that too, but I can just as easily focus intensely and work on my own). One downside of unschooling in another country is that he doesn’t (yet) have easy access to others he can work with.

So, after our coffee chat, I suggested that we cook together. He had been learning to pan fry steak so he could create one of 10 recipes for his project: bacon wrapped steak with pineapple chutney. Aidan had come up with this all on his own. What followed was pretty inspiring, confirming unequivocally that there are other effective ways.

Aidan had watched several videos on pan-frying techniques and had practiced that. Recently he had been watching a number of videos on the best way to cook bacon wrapped steaks. It involves searing the steak in a pan and finishing it in an oven.

When we started making steaks for all of us, I just helped him get organized and then acted as his sous chef. He did all of the actual cooking. He just did it. There was no hesitation. He had a plan. He was very thoughtful about differences in steak thickness and how to adjust cooking for them. He carefully monitored all of the steps. And the steaks came out perfectly. They were perfectly seared, moist and flavorful. The bacon too was cooked perfectly. They were the best steaks I’ve had here anywhere, including in restaurants. Vie raved about them. And Aidan did it in one try.

Aidan was indeed learning. I probably would have spent a lot more time cooking and “burned” through several steaks. I probably would not have benefitted from seeing multiple diverse approaches. I now appreciate his and other approaches far more – not because I saw the results, but because I was reminded of the process and understood it. The University Cooperative School Aidan attended had a great tag line that I love (and should have channeled more): “Childhood is a journey, not a destination.” The same holds true of learning. Intellectually, I knew this. Behaviorally, I didn’t embrace it. I still have much to learn myself, especially about unschooling.

I’ve talked about how change is difficult, particularly when there is complexity. Change is not safe. I was proud of what we are doing here because we are not playing it safe; we are changing everything. Or so I thought. Well, now it’s time for me to embrace more change as I help Vie and Aidan unschool their way and not mine. As a (hopefully former) Type A parent, maybe this is just another way of being “intentionally off path.”

Thanks, Aidan, for the very gracious lesson. Pura vida, bud.