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Category Archives: Psychology and Sociology

Learning by doing

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Joshua, 2 1/2 years old, learns to use a sewing machine to sew a felt pouch for his toy fire engine

Joshua will not be going to school, for reasons I have explained earlier. He will not be “home schooled” either. When I told a young lady about this today, she appeared horrified and muttered “You can’t do that, it’s illegal!”. I hope she thinks about it a little more, but shock is a good start.

What is Joshua doing in this video? He’s learning, and loving it! He didn’t have to be bribed, threatened or praised, he just wanted to do it. That is how children learn. We are not here to educate them, but to provide them with the resources, guidance, safety and autonomy they need to explore the world on their own terms. Joshua will be “educated” that way. It works. Some call it “unschooling”. I prefer the term “natural learning“.

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Posted by on July 20, 2012 in Life, Psychology and Sociology

 

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Reflections on Ivan Illich, #1

I am currently reading 2 of Ivan Illich’s eye-opening books, “deschooling society” and “tools of conviviality”. I’ve been highlighting many passages from these books, and making occasional side notes. I think I should share some of these here on this blog. So here comes the first, in the context of my first clinical psychology placement coming to an end.

I find it amazing that, to learn to become a psychologist, we must sit down and endure the pedagogy of other psychologists–despite their common lack of teaching skills–while being completely restrained from observing them in the exercise of the very skills they are presumably trying to teach us.

From such a model of skill transmission, only one learning outcome is guaranteed: the factual knowledge that certain lecturing psychologists have slightly less of a soporific effect on their audience than most!

 

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Why Joshua won’t be going to school

This post is long overdue, the main reason being the depth of the topic. I find it difficult to know how to present my thoughts in a way that will be coherent for the readers. However, as I have had many opportunities to talk about this with friends and acquaintances, I think it’s time to put the fingers to the keys!

Mass schooling is a one-size-fits-all approach to education that is not intended to meet the needs or build on the strengths of individual students.

Mass schooling takes away from the parents their sacred responsibility to rear their children.

Schools are psychologically toxic environments for all their participants. Even those who appear to thrive in them tend to develop pathological perfectionism, subservient attitudes towards all authority figures, and/or a disdain for others whom they perceive as threats to their success. Dissent, that essential characteristic of all healthy societies, is punished in schools throughout the world.

Mass schooling “kidnaps” the children from their parents for 12 years to teach them things they aren’t likely to need in the future (history, geography, science).

Mass schooling forces children to learn certain things at certain times and in certain ways, and to regurgitate this information in certain formats. It deprives them of the opportunity to learn things when they’re interested in them.

Mass schooling is built on a number of faulty assumptions:

  • Children will not learn what they need to learn unless they are coerced or manipulated into doing so
  • Children are naturally inclined to be lazy and avoid learning tasks
  • Children are only interested in eating junk food, playing video games and engaging in other forms of entertainment.
  • You need to be professionally trained and qualified as a teacher to produce meaningful learning within a child
  • The curriculum devised by the education department represents the best possible educational approach for all children

Mass schooling saps away children’s creativity, and does so by design (see Sir Ken Robinson).

Mass schooling severs the emotional bond between parents and children.

Mass schooling immerses children in the most artificial environment on the planet, where they only get extremely limited choice as to whom they spend their time with, when they’re allowed to speak, what they’re allowed to say, and how much they’re allowed to develop their interests and talents.

Mass schooling is not an ideal environment for socialising, as most friendships there are transient and have little emotional weight, while the risks of segregation and bullying are very high.

Mass schooling attempts to force learning upon students, whereas learning is a natural, self-directed activity that almost defines humanity. Schools do this at the worst possible time of people’s lives: after their most active developmental learning period (4 years old); during the most turbulent and confusing period of their lives (puberty); and before they are mature enough to appreciate the value of education.

I could go on like this, the list of reasons continues to grow nearly weekly.

 
 

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Dissent in Australia society

I’m becoming aware that Australian society is threatened by people meeting and talking about more than trivia. Children are institutionalised at an increasingly younger age, and kept isolated from meaningful dialectical intercourse with peers and adults alike until they are nearly unable to even question this order of things.

The purpose of this is to discourage dissent. Dissent threatens all institutions, and nearly all institutions exist to serve the interests of the elite few who control them.

Even compulsory schooling, nursing homes and urbanisation cannot fully smother the basic human need to engage in meaningful discourse with each other. To discourage the rise of dissent globally, society has devised appropriate tools. The television and the multitude of screen-based technologies that have spawned from it have become the ultimate instruments of ubiquitous delivery of propaganda. They ensure that conversations between all people under 45 are focused on pleasure-seeking topics like sport, video games, sex, alcohol, movies and music, while people over that age have moved to loftier subjects of discourse, namely wealth, health, then death.

The strongest form of common dissent consists of shaking one’s head, mumbling something about bloody politicians, and switching channels to something less anxiety-provoking, like the latest sitcom, whose premise is almost universally that of deriding all forms of human interaction.

Dissent is discouraged in many ways, some overt, most covert. Children especially are discouraged from questioning the status quo. We patiently tolerate their boundless curiosity while they are below school age, but as soon as they set foot in that sacrosanct institution, dissenters are treated as dissidents, heretics, or simply mentally ill. Teachers pretend that their punitive or therapeutic approach is intended to benefit the deviant child, but the truth is that they are only protecting their own position, their institution, and the society within which it has comfortably established its fiefdom.

We are not just discouraged from thinking outside the box, but even from believing that thinking has any sort of causal effect on society.

Children who get bullied at school are referred to psychologists so they can receive coping skills, with the rationale that these skills will be crucial when the child finally emerges, from her 12-year abduction by the schools, into the “real world” where adults will inevitably laugh at her freckles and shun her during lunch breaks.

The only reason the myth of the “big, bad, competitive world out there” has become our reality is that children have been indoctrinated with it, and taught how to act out a scripted role in a play that has no end, no producer, and no spectators. The simple act of expecting the worst of others brings out the worst in us, thus turning us into the abject reality others have been led to expect.

Thus warned against the ill intents of nearly everyone we will meet in the world of adults, we keep all our social interactions at a safe level of superficiality. We refrain from expressing doubts, in case they are reported or scorned. We hide anything that might be perceived as a weakness, be it feelings, fears, hopes or disagreement, that no one may take advantage of us.

Thus, Australian and Western societies in general have managed to establish a self-preserving culture of conformity, not necessarily through obedience, but through passive acceptance of issues that seem unimportant in virtue of their inconspicuous absence from the public discourse.

Turn off all screens for a month; meet someone new each day, discuss philosophy and art and religion; start questioning conventional and institutional wisdom, and you will crash against that society. You will begin to feel the awkward, uncomfortable and intensely frustrating sensation of swimming against the current of a rapid river that is fast carrying us to a destructive end. You may even be accused of being a conspiracy theorist!

But you will also begin to feel liberated, as if you were awakening from a deep sleep. There is a price to pay for taking either of Morpheus’ pills. Which will you pay?

 
 

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Pro-schooling propaganda and poor journalism

Today a provocative article was published by Ian Townsend on the ABC News website. The title is:

Thousands of parents illegally home schooling

As is customary in cheap journalism, the title deals the first underhanded and disingenuous blow: home schooling is an illegal activity! This is effectively the message that will be taken by anyone who is just reading the headlines.

Since I didn’t just read the headline, I’ll go on with the rest of the article, and explain why I think it’s a piece of propaganda and poor journalism.

The sub-heading, perhaps the next most likely piece of writing that most people will read, states:

“As a new school year begins, more than 50,000 Australian children will be home-schooled and in most cases, their parents are doing it illegally.”

Where is the source for these figures? They are not discussed anywhere in the article. This might just pass as poor journalism, but it’s also part of the propaganda, because the message once again is that, if you know a family who is home-schooling, they’re probably breaking the law. Since the article only talks about home schooling in Queensland, such assertions are even more unwarranted.

The first paragraph demonstrates poor writing:

It is compulsory to send children between the ages of six and 16 to school, or register them for home schooling, but more parents are opting out of the traditional school system and keeping their children at home.

If parents decide to register their children for home schooling, aren’t they also opting out of the traditional school system and keeping their children at home? Let’s simplify the sentence to show why it’s flawed:

It is compulsory to register children for traditional or home schooling, but more parents are keeping their children at home.

Do you see how little sense it makes? As originally written, this paragraph again makes it sound like parents who home school are doing it illegally.

The next section starts with the heading “Underground education“. The propaganda continues. By labelling such movement as “underground”, the author not only points out the illegality of their actions, he also associates with them a number of sinister behaviours such as drug dealing. It conjures images of parents secretly locking their children up at home, looking out of their windows to make sure the police isn’t coming, and living isolated from the rest of the country.

In this section, the author decided to use Cindy as an example of an “underground home schooler”. The reason he chose her is pretty simple: she purportedly said some words that discredit home schoolers in general: “I’m not very organised and disciplined”. Again, the reader who is already suspicious of home schooling will probably shake her head in disbelief, muttering “How can you possibly home school your kids if you’re disorganised?”.

The next paragraph is proof that the author has not done his homework on the topic, and that he doesn’t understand the real issues involved. He states that, due to secrecy and suspicion (again, this is in the domain of the home schooler, giving an impression of paranoia), it is difficult to get data on “whether home schooling produces a better or worse education“.

First of all, there is plenty of evidence that home schooling, when done properly, leads to better-adjusted children who are better prepared for the work force and for the demands of adulthood, than children who are traditionally schooled, even when that traditional schooling is excellent. The author suggests that there is not enough information, therefore the “underground home schoolers” don’t even know if what they’re doing is any better than traditional schooling. Another blow against home schoolers.

Secondly, what does it mean to “produce” an education? How do you measure the goodness or badness of an education? What home schoolers argue is that each child has unique developmental and educational needs and abilities, and that mass schooling, due to its one-size-fits-all approach, cannot possibly enable that child to thrive as it would given the ideal environment and opportunities. The criteria by which you will judge the quality of a child’s education are likely to be rooted in an ideology that is external, and probably not beneficial, to the child.

Finally, the last section “Why home school?” is by far the worst of all. It starts with the results of two unreferenced surveys, asking registered home schoolers why they chose to home school. The author then chose to list the major reasons in an interesting order. Even though religious reasons were not the highest reason in either study, he decided to list it first in both of them. It’s hard not to believe that he did this with the increasingly anti-religious Australian in mind, further fuelling the reader’s mistrust of home schoolers.

Interestingly, the most oft-given answer related to philosophical reasons, but none of these reasons were explained by the author, and he even failed to report an exact figure (“nearly half”). Instead, he chose to quote from a Stanford University sociologist and prominent critic of home schooling, Rob Reich, who essentially proclaimed that all home schoolers are paranoid.

To top it all off, the author chose to conclude with the wise words of Hanne Worsoe, acting manager of the Queensland Home Education Unit:

Standards exist for a reason and they’re about the kids not about the parents and their ideas about what they should do, that’s why we live in a civil society that provides that capacity to represent children and to monitor their educational needs. If people aren’t registered I’d say you’re breaking the law, and if you’re doing the right thing by your kids you’ve got nothing to hide.

I could write another entire post on this quote, but let’s just write a dot points:

  • “Standards exist for a reason”: does it matter if that is reason is valid?
  • “Standards are about the kids, not about the parents and their ideas about what they should do”: in essence, Hanne, you’re saying “we know better”, even though you don’t even know the kids’ names? How condescending, how arrogant!
  • “That’s why we live in a civil society”: please explain the connection between civility and compulsory schooling, because I don’t see it.
  • a civil society that provides that capacity to represent children and to monitor their educational needs“: Society needs to represent children? How does it do that through compulsory schooling? Why can’t parents represent their children through their choice of how to educate them? Why do they have to be monitored externally?
  • if you’re doing the right thing by your kids you’ve got nothing to hide”: Again, how do you know what is “the right thing”? What you really mean is “if you’re doing what we want you to do, you’ve got nothing to hide”.

So, the mistrust and stigmatisation continues: home schoolers are no more than paranoid criminals who secretly take their children away from the schools where they belong, to foment rebellion and anarchy.

What a load of codswallop! You can do better than that, Ian Townsend!

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2012 in Life, Psychology and Sociology

 

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Principled living

Whenever I write an article or a facebook update about some parenting principle I have just learned about (from experience or research), I invariably receive warnings about how this may not work for all children, and I should just “wait and see” what it’s like to have 2 children etc. The assumption seems to be that the lessons I am learning about parenting can only apply to Joshua, our 2-year-old son, and to no one else. If I were discussing specific rules and techniques, then this reasoning might be true. However, I’m talking about principles, not techniques.

Principles vs. techniques

A principle is a general idea that can guide decision-making for specific problems. A technique can be thought of as a set of steps or a procedure for addressing a range of problems, and may or may not be based on principles.

When principles are used in daily parenting, they require much thinking, evaluating, reasoning and judging, because they do not offer a clear-cut answer to each problem. However, they are essential for ensuring consistency, order and predictability in family relationships. Principles inform parents about why something should or should not be done, not how it should be done.

Techniques, on the other hand, are packaged kits that promise to resolve a host of problems (e.g., time out). When a parenting problem arises (e.g., a temper tantrum), one can simply summon the power of the technique without having to wonder whether it is appropriate for this particular case (not all temper tantrums have the same cause). They tend to focus on how something is done, not why.

I’m talking about principles

When I share ideas about parenting, I am always talking about principles, never about techniques. Principles cannot be reduced to a simple sentence like “rewards are harmful”. They are always tightly related to a host of other principles, and are infinitely complex. In fact, in attempting to model reality, principles can never be “complete”, because reality is infinitely complex. This means that we can always learn more about the principles behind good parenting, and behind everything else for that matter. We may also need to “unlearn” some things we have accepted as principles, but that are not accurate.

If we refuse to learn or unlearn, we are doing ourselves and our children a great disservice. It is not good enough to keep doing what has always been done, even if we “have turned out alright, haven’t we?”. Learning that something we used to believe is not true is not a statement about our intelligence, our abilities, or our fitness to be a parent: it is a natural and welcome step on the way to self-improvement. Of course it is never comfortable to question our beliefs and assumptions, because they have become our familiar companions. Thankfully, our worth is not measured by what we know or believe, or even by what we do, so we don’t need to feel inferior if someone points out that one of our long-cherished assumptions is inaccurate. Who knows, we may even end up feeling grateful that they had the decency and courage to say something respectfully when it was needed.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2011 in Life, Musings, Psychology and Sociology

 

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Our own version of parenting

Joshua just turned 2 last week. He has pretty much been the centre of gravity in our lives for these past two years, and it’s very hard for us to remember life without him. We love him, we cherish him, and we shower him with love and attention. We also treat him very differently than most parents do.

Happy Birthday, Joshua!

 

 

 

Both Anne-Marie and I grew up in an era in which punishments, rewards, praise, and a generally authoritarian parenting style were the norm. Hence, this is the style we automatically gravitated towards when Joshua was born. But it felt wrong. What we had learned since our childhood, about the worth of souls and the equal respect everyone deserves, shouted in our ears that there was something fundamentally harmful about this style of parenting.

Over the years we have both developed an inquiring frame of mind. We question things that are generally taken for granted, and we ask ourselves tough questions. For example: when I use my angry voice with Joshua, what am I trying to do? What is he likely to learn from this interaction? What are the likely costs? Are the potential benefits worth taking the potential risks? Am I being honest in answering these questions?

What we have learned from our daily interactions with Joshua, is that he loves learning, and he loves doing it his way. We also learned that he hates being controlled (don’t we all?). This shouldn’t be news to anyone, I’m sure. What surprised us, however, is that he is able to self-regulate to such a degree that would make many adults pale with envy, but that self-regulation requires guidance. What do I mean?

Self-regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to decide for oneself to do something unpleasant or unrewarding, or not to do something pleasant. For example, Joshua only eats as much chocolate as he feels like eating, which means he will often leave a half-melted, sloppy chunk of Cadbury Twirl or Milky Way stuck somewhere in the sofa. That amazes me! I usually eat as much chocolate as there is available, or until my body tells me I’ve already eaten too much and I feel quite sick.

Another more striking example is when Joshua wants to do something, but something else needs to be done first. For example, he wants to go to the park, but he first needs to get changed into more suitable clothes. Initially, he used to throw short tantrums about being taken away from what he really wanted to do (feeling controlled), and this only got worse if we use physical force like carrying him or restraining him while he gets changed. Then one day we discovered something astonishing:

You just have to explain.

Here we were, talking to a 1-year-old who mostly could not understand what we said, telling him calmly while looking in his eyes that it was important to wear a long-sleeve shirt so that he could be protected against the mosquitoes. The effect was instantaneous: he calmed down, and agreed. Did he understand the reason we were giving him? I don’t know! But we’ve tried this again and again, and it works every time. I’m not exaggerating here. It works EVERY SINGLE TIME. Joshua has never, ever had a tantrum that lasted more than a couple of minutes, and he hasn’t had one at all for well over 6 months. There are times when he gets very frustrated and throws his hands or smacks his head in desperation, but he calms down when we give him a hug and reassure him that he’ll be alright without watching Bob the Builder right now, and suggest another activity that we know he enjoys (usually reading a book or playing in the sand pit).

Is it easy to give an explanation to a child every time we want him to do something he doesn’t want to do? I can tell you right now, it’s not easy: it requires you to think, and to be honest. You don’t want to start inventing reasons for doing things, not only is it disrespectful towards your child, it also damages the mutual trust between you that is so essential to a caring relationship in years to come. Sometimes you have to agree that, perhaps, Joshua doesn’t really need to brush his teeth tonight, perhaps he won’t grow cavities overnight, and perhaps he won’t conclude that he can “get away with” not brushing his teeth ever again. Physically restraining your child and forcing the toothbrush down his throat will not give him the ability to self-regulate his own tooth-brushing: it will make him hate it even more.

The alternative? “Joshua, you need to brush your teeth a little bit tonight, otherwise bugs will attack your teeth and make them hurt.” I know this may sound ridiculous, but if it does, ask yourself why it sounds ridiculous…

Trusting children

We need to trust children more. They have amazing innate abilities. Contrary to popular notion, most of the time they DO KNOW what is good for them, but we so often prevent them from doing it, just because we think we know better. Each time I decide to stop Joshua from doing something, I ask myself (if I have the time) “what is the worst thing that could happen if I let him do that?”. Sometimes the answer warrants some immediate action, but it rarely does. Most of the time the worst thing that could happen is spilled milk, or some pepper in his mouth, or a little fall and a bump on the head.

Does that mean I give him no warning? No! I explain that there is a risk, then let him choose whether or not to take it. As you can imagine, initially he usually takes the risk. If he spills milk, that makes him upset, I don’t need to tell him it’s a bad thing, or get angry. He doesn’t like spilled milk any more than I do. So he goes and picks up a towel, and wipes it off. Then I ask him to put the towel in the wash, which is something else he likes to do. If he spills pepper in his mouth, he will gag a bit, frantically flap his hands on his tongue, and eventually lick the back of the lounge, while we’re all having a good laugh (and so is he). Will he do it again? Perhaps, but probably not. If he falls, there’s no need to scold him for that, physical pain is a natural deterrent and works wonders at preventing risk-taking behaviour in young children (I can’t speak for adolescents…). Also he will learn to associate a warning from his parents with a possible risk of getting hurt.

And after these experiences, I can refer to them in future explanations of why some action is required or to be avoided, and he seems to understand. “Joshua, last time you jumped up and down on the bed, you fell off and hurt your head. Please be careful this time.” Interestingly, Joshua rarely hurts himself. I’m not sure if he’s more careful than other children, or if it’s a result of our parenting, but he tends to self-regulate his own boisterousness, to our great delight 🙂

No punishment, no praise, no rewards

Now we’re pushing the issue a bit further, going directly against the tide of conventional wisdom. We don’t punish Joshua for anything he does. Ever. We don’t spank him, we don’t scold him, we don’t withdraw privileges from him or any of these methods of behavioural control. We believe that improper actions carry their own costs, and when the costs are not obvious (or are cumulative over time), we explain that to him to dissuade him from doing these things. You’d be amazed how much a 2-year-old (who can’t yet speak) understands, especially if the tone of voice and the facial expression are right.

Punishment dealt by parents prevent children from learning that their own actions carry negative consequences. Instead, it teaches them that parents are the source of negative consequences. Walking towards a busy street becomes undesirable not because of the danger of passing cars, but because of daddy’s slap on the buttocks and insults. It also confuses them regarding their worth: “Does daddy only love me when I do what pleases him?”.

OK, punishment is bad. But what about rewards? Surely it’s important to reward good behaviour? We have used rewards a few times with Joshua, and it works amazingly well at getting the desired results in the short term. However, they’re appalling at helping children develop personal responsibility and self-regulation. Just like punishments, they distract children from the natural rewards that come from certain behaviours. Rewarding a child for reading prevents her from learning that reading is pleasurably in its own right. Children only tend to do what is enjoyable and interesting to them anyway, so why should they get rewarded on top of that, especially with something that usually has nothing to do with the activity? And if we’re not here to give a reward when he does something that we usually reward, will he still do it?

Consequently we don’t reward Joshua for anything, and he thrives in his own discovery of the intrinsic value of reading, dancing, drawing, going to the toilet (no such thing as “toilet training” in our home!), eating, helping mum with the washing, cooking an egg, pouring his own bottle of milk etc.

Finally, we don’t praise Joshua. Although we occasionally let a “good boy” slip out, that is only an automatic phrase that we parrot from our own upbringing, and we are consciously doing it less and less. There is no value in praise. Why should we praise Joshua for sharing a toy? Is it impossible that Joshua may learn by himself that sharing is a good to do, without being rewarded/praised for doing it? I certainly don’t want him to share his toys in order to get praise from us, because that would be missing the point entirely!

We learn best when we understand the principle first, then develop ways to put it into practice. Rewards and praise are based on the opposite idea: that we should do the things first, then we’ll eventually figure out why it’s good to do it. I challenge that. In most cases it’s far better to let children learn by letting them make mistakes and discover what happens.

If Joshua snatches a toy from Ben, instead of scolding him by saying: “That’s not nice, Joshua, you need to share!”, I’m not explaining anything, there is no way he can learn the value of sharing from that. If, instead, I say “Joshua, Ben would like to play with that, could you let him play with it?”, he may or may not choose to do it. If he does, I refrain from saying “thank you Joshua, nice sharing!”, because that’s using praise as the reward for the action. Instead, I could say: “Joshua, look at Ben playing with this toy, he looks really happy!”. If Joshua chooses to keep the toy, instead of saying: “That’s not nice Joshua, you need to learn to share!”, I can just not say anything at all, or point out that Joshua is keeping the toy.

I’m afraid that, as parents, we often interfere in natural learning processes, which interference creates a dependence on further interference in the future, delaying this natural learning. When safety is a concern, a minimum amount of control is required, but that can be done respectfully, without anger and certainly without punishment. In most cases, however, safety is not an issue, and children will learn what they need to learn simply by interacting with each other, and having us around them to answer questions and give explanations when required.

I will have much more to write on these topics in the future, so stick around. I will also explain why we will never be sending Joshua to school.