Cultivating the unschooling mindset
Of the many reasons for unschooling, two are prominent in my mind: 1) to cultivate a love for learning and 2) stay out of the way so my kids can find and follow their interests. The question is really how – if I’m respecting the kids enough to make their own decisions, how do I, as a parent, matter? I’m firmly on the side of unschooling – but not unparenting. Regardless of how much freedom my children have, it’s still up to me & Trish to guide them, directly or indirectly. It’s the how that’s tricky and probably freaks out a lot of people. (Ignorance is bliss – it’s easier for many to just send their kids to school and save themselves the trouble.)
I’m always reading for knowledge & inspiration (plus the occasional escape too). Most of my non-fiction reading is oriented towards creating the life I want – work from home, move abroad, bust out of the rat race, etc. I’ve recently found a book that’s directly related to unschooling and offers some insight and advice on cultivating the mindset I really hope my kids will have: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck.
I first read about the book in a NYT article last month (If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow). The premise is simple: there are two mindsets. The fixed mindset views abilities and talents as carved in stone, creating a need to prove yourself repeatedly. That’s what school teaches, with constant tests and labels (positive & negative). The growth mindset is that your qualities and abilities can be developed through effort. If you don’t do something well, it’s an opportunity for learning and growth. It’s really the basic belief that you can learn. Maintaining the joy of learning is what this is all about.
That’s pretty much the whole book – after going into some details about the two mindsets, the rest of the book is filled with examples nicely illustrating the concepts in business, sports, relationships and – most importantly – in education. Like everything else, it’s not black and white whether someone is of one mindset of the other – most people have a combination of both, differing by ability and experience. The ‘dumb jock’ stereotype might be the perfect example – someone who has a fixed mindset in a classroom, but a growth mindset on the field. That really makes a lot of sense to me now, with a kid playing a game for fun (without judgement) and improving vs being repeatedly judged in a classroom (or at home or elsewhere).
As soon as I started reading the book I thought about unschooling - the growth mindset is what I am hoping to instill in my children; it is the unschooling mindset. What’s also great is that she dovetails completely with Alfie Kohn (Punished by Rewards; Unconditional Parenting). Praise does not motivate people to learn. Cheap self-esteem boosts (like a Good Job for just going down a friggin’ slide) don’t either. Kohn teaches that praise, rewards and the like don’t promote lasting change and often make things worse. Praising a kid anytime they say Look at me for something is a constant external, qualitative judgement that slowly saps their self-satisfaction and replaces it with the need to have external approval. Think a kid raised like that will be affected by peer pressure?
Does that mean we withhold praise? Of course not – Dweck puts it nicely:
It just means we should keep away from a certain kind of praise – praise that judges their intelligence or talent. Or praise that implies that we’re proud of them for their intelligence or talent rather than for the work they put in.
Dweck performed many studies that showed that rewards and positive labels (ie You’re smart) didn’t work as well as praising the effort. Telling someone that they’re smart for doing well on a test makes them feel fine – until the next test. And if the next test result isn’t as good, well, they’re not that smart. It also reinforces the idea that some people have abilities that allow them to achieve effortlessly. Praising the effort or how the result was achieved reinforces the idea that effort was the why, and that it’s how anything can be learned. Who wouldn’t want that kind of an attitude in their children? For many people, it would turn the words You can be anything you want to be into something more substantive than an oft-repeated platitude.
Dweck notes that praise for an achievement results in reduced effort moving forward. I totally believe this, because once upon a time that was me. Until third grade, when I was in a tough, progressive school, I thought I wasn’t very smart since good grades were effortless to others. I wasn’t the one with the quick, confident answers in class either. Smartness was desired, as everyone in my family lionized intelligence. In 4th grade we moved and I started Catholic school. I was a year ahead in math. My grades sky-rocketed and so did my ego.
By freshman year, I firmly believed that some people were smart and some weren’t (total fixed mindset), and looked among my high honors (positive label) classmates to determine who was ‘really’ smart and not just there to fill out the class. The not-so-anonymous classmate who wrote in my yearbook ‘High Honor D!ck’ was right on the money. So was the teacher who later called me a prima donna.
I prided myself on effortless studying (fixed mindset) and after junior year, everything fell apart after I started wondering Why am I doing this? (much thanks to Dead Poets Society) School made no sense, learning wasn’t fun, and I wasn’t motivated to even do the little studying I’d done previously. With more challenging classes, this resulted in lowered grades but not the expectation that I should be getting good grades. The effort required – the learning process -was totally irrelevant. Did that mean I tried harder? I did, in a very half-assed fashion. I was not used to the actual work anymore. My self-worth dropped with my grades, I plunged into depression and eked into the college I had picked primarily based on its reputation and the pedigree I’d get. I’d rather forget the next 4 years.
Mindset has shed new light on my own experiences and how to guide my children towards fulfillment & satisfaction. The little things we say and imply make a big difference in how our children view themselves, their abilities and learning. Inadvertently, we can put serious limits on their growth. I would highly recommend all unschooling parents (and educators in general) read it and consider it deeply.
Additional inspiration for this blog and most of my thinking along these lines started in February with the NYT article Eureka! It Really Takes Years of Hard Work.