-- By Marie Goodwin
When I talk to anyone contemplating homeschooling, the conversation always takes a turn into the realm of fear. Other topics, like laws or whether to use a curriculum or even thorny issues like finances and priorities, seem to be relatively easy to overcome -- or at least assuage for the moment. But there is always a part of the conversation, arriving after a thoughtful pause, that opens up to the dark forest of one's fears. Parents fear they will not do enough, not be enough, not know enough. Fear that the child will be doomed to a life of isolation, illiteracy, or incompetence. They fear being different or setting themselves apart. They fear that college will not be possible. They fear being judged by their friends and, most especially, their families. They fear being lonely on the path. Sometimes all of this is rolled up into a big anxious ball of "Oh, it's nice that you can do this and I agree it is important, but I can't do it. I just can't."
I know how it feels because I've been there. I've walked it too. I continue to walk it. I do not know anyone who has removed their children from school (or never sent them in the first place) that hasn't felt this fear at different times, in different ways, as they made their path in this world along the edges of our culture. These questions and concerns were stronger for me when my children were very little, before I knew teen and grown unschoolers, all of them successful and thriving. These fears still surface every now and again. They've been surfacing a lot over the last two years. Here's why.
Right after my daughter's tenth birthday, she came home sullen from a playdate with some friends. She has many friends. These friends happen to go to school. It didn't take very long to get to the bottom of why she was so unhappy. "I'm stupid." she said, the tears popping up into her eyes. "I can't read, and all my friends can. They are making fun of me, and they don't even like to play with stuffed animals and do imaginary play anymore. They make fun of me!"
My heart broke in about a million pieces right there in the kitchen. It was true that she was a late bloomer in reading. We tried over and over again to introduce it to her: the alphabet, easy-reader books with great pictures, fairy-tales. We read to her all the time. But she always flat-out refused to even try when we asked her to work on reading or writing. I consulted a couple of specialists I knew at around age eight, when she still didn't even know her alphabet, and they told me just to back off. She would read in time. The unschooler in me agreed. She would read when reading was important to her, and not before. And man, was she determined not to read...stating that, "Reading is the colonization of childhood!" (I mean, really, what eight year old says that?) So I had her vision checked at a doctor's appointment (it was fine) and then I backed off.
But two years later here she was, crying to me, asking me for help. That day she agreed to begin making an effort to read. Her self-esteem was in the dumpster at this point, and I realized we had some repairing to do. She is a super-intelligent, artistic, creative, out-of-the-box thinker with a memory like an elephant. Surely she could read if she put her mind to it.
But she couldn't. She couldn't remember sight words. She couldn't track the lines. She tired after one or two pages, saying her brain hurt.
We had her eyes checked again, this time by a pediatric specialist. She needed bi-focals. (The earlier doctor's visit had only included a checkup on her distance vision, not mid- and short- range vision.) That helped the situation a little, but still did not solve the major problems. She made up words that didn't exist in the reading; she read things backwards -- from right to left -- and wrote them that way too. She could not figure out lower case "b" and "d" and "g" and "j" and so many other combinations. I felt like we were in deep water and not swimming very well. She was starting to give up hope, and I was extremely frustrated. I often felt that she was just being stubborn or refusing to do the work she needed to do to read, even though she wanted very badly to read. How could a kid who could remember a park we went to when she was 18 months old not remember how to spell the word "horse" or her best friend's name? How could a kid who lectured me at age eight about "the colonization of childhood" not be interested in books?
So I started to research. A lot. And the more I read and talked to specialists, the more I realized... she has dyslexia. And not just a little. She is very dyslexic.
I also found out that I had been doing pretty much everything wrong to help her. In fact, I was probably making it worse. Cue: all my fears of failing. Pretty much every one of them. I could hear the wolves howling in the darkness of the Forest of Uncertainty and I was really afraid.
What you have to understand about dyslexia is that it isn't simply a learning difference that makes learning to read and write harder for some kids and that's the end of it. It does make reading and writing harder -- that's for sure -- but it impacts virtually every aspect of a child's development: social, emotional, intellectual, physical. These impacts are rooted in brain connectivity between the right and left hemispheres and are often hereditary. And this isn't bad! It is just different from the norm-as-dictated-by-industrialized-schooling, and it is estimated that one-fifth of the population may have this difference. There are significant upsides to being dyslexic and there are significant challenges.
The upsides often include:
The challenges are many, varied, and often subtle. On top of the reading and writing issues that most people know about, dyslexic kids have fairly important struggles in their social lives as well. This I didn't know before I began researching, and so much began to make sense once I understood it.
Dyslexic kids often suffer from a negative self image because they are teased by their peers about all of these issues I've just mentioned, and this cascades into other areas of their life even into adulthood. Kids who go to school suffer the most from these social issues because peers and teachers often think they are lazy or dumb, and this often causes acting out in a variety of different ways. At least my daughter was buffered from the full brunt of these difficulties because she's at home, but she got a good dose of it regardless.
Understanding these nuances of this learning difference, I began confronting the issue head on and involved Sadie in every part of the discovery. I explained how she learned differently and invited her to consider both the positives and the hardships of this kind of learning style. She and I researched people who were dyslexic in the past and what they achieved -- Leonardo da Vinci is now her hero. I read up on programs and tools to help her jump start her reading and her engagement with books. Using these tools she is now reading. It is still hard for her and it will always be, but she is able to read. It feels like we have a path now through this uncertainty. In truth, however, this is always going to be a challenge for her in some ways and a gift to her in others. We are focusing on the gifts.
I feel like one of my biggest fears about choosing this path to unschool my children hit me head on. I have a child with a learning difference (and one without) and she did what so many people fear will happen to their kid -- she struggled with reading. This is a bogey-man that is so often held up to people choosing homeschooling. "You aren't an expert! What if your child never learns to read!?" they say. But you know what? We were able to give Sadie years of stress-free learning when play was the best way to explore the world. And she loves to play, even now. We then identified the problem when it became a concern, and she is working hard to learn in her own particular way. She is a painter and is beginning to learn the violin. She designs clothes for her dolls and stuffed animals. And best of all, the hard-ship she's had to endure has given her a very strong backbone. She knows who she is and is not afraid. And even though my fear came true, we walked through the forest of that fear together as a family. And now it is something beautiful.
Nothing in life is certain. I cannot guarantee you that, if you choose unschooling, it will be a effortless path of all light and joy. You are going to have to walk the rocky, uphill path through woods of uncertainty. You are going to have to confront your own fears and help your children do the same. There are no certainties anywhere in life, and we all know this. Meeting and solving big and frustrating problems as a family is a gift that you give to each other. You are a team, and if you are lost in the woods and the wolves are howling, don't you want to have your team by your side? I know I do.
by Marie Goodwin
I find myself immersed in a reading stint focused on feminism and intersectionality lately. The last election cycle provided an across-the-board, bi-partisan gut-punch to the radical underpinnings of feminist work and everyone knows it; many are writing about it. Too many to list. As a college student in the 80's, I read many of the radical feminist thinkers and took them under advisement as I began to make my way as the world moved into the 1990's and beyond. But it hasn't been until relatively recently (say in the last ten years: "recent" for a fifty year old) that I've wedded the radical underpinnings of feminism to the critique of neo-liberal capitalism, thanks to The Ascent of Humanity. (And, really, how asleep at the switch do you have to be to study feminism in college and NOT understand that. See my earlier "DeSchooling" essays….) And only since I read Radical Homemakers, by Shannon Hayes, in 2010 did I connect it all, very deeply in fact, to the environmental movement and depth ecology.
Right now, feminism is fervently awakening to (or, to some a little older and more radical, rediscovering) these same ideas. Feminism's long-term future, I believe with all my heart, lies in radically critiquing deeply held economic systems while wedding itself creatively and inextricably to the enormity of the environmental catastrophe we find ourselves situated within. Even so, so much of the public conversation about feminism is STILL mired in semantics: about who is and who isn't included, drawing lines about who is "woke" and who still slumbers in a patriarchal soup of bullshit. This conversation, while Rome is burning, grows ever more wearisome. I have zero patience for the semantics discussions when there is so much work to do.
Yet here I am ... about to have a semantics discussion.
Ah. Semantics. What do we call the thing we are doing? There are few words more encumbered with emotional baggage, divisiveness, and posturing than the words "feminism" and "patriarchy" in our culture. Some feminists have given up entirely trying to define and use these terms and seeks to critique culture using other labels for themselves. I don't disagree with their reasoning, and it doesn't make them less "woke" or a less potent activist. At this point the term "feminism" -- with its important history and all that encompasses -- is too narrow a frame for me. And increasingly this is true of others that I speak with on this subject.
Feminism is now, as never before, entangled within the very broad ideas of changing cultural stories, specifically in radical economics, radical politics, and in environmentalism, with the clanging-bell urgency of our need to reclaim, as a species, our place as earth protectors for future generations. Perhaps it is time to think of feminism as, in the words of Thomas Berry and more recently Charles Eisenstein, one branch -- one avenue -- into our cultural exploration of the "the new story" (and "new story activism"). Perhaps "patriarchy" can be most simply described as "the old story," circumventing the male/female divide that so many hear in the word "patriarchy" (at least speakers of Indo-European languages.) New Story activism includes social justice, of course; an entire book, Blessed Unrest, attests to all the ways that this movement is growing strong world-wide and how social justice movements are, inextricably, linked to environmental movements. And most feminist activists I know would agree that they are a part of the "blessed unrest" -- perhaps one of the originators of this wide-spread global awakening.
My intent here is to try to use these terms to frame "feminism" in its broader context and encourage my allies everywhere, men and women, to adopt words and deeds that reflect this. This "reframing the conversation" is especially important today; the word "feminism" has been co-opted with alarming and increasing regularity by women who participate fully in the corporate world-destroying machine of neoliberal capitalism. It is now considered "feminist" by large swaths of the population to kill, starve, or poison other women and their children in the name of progress if you are a powerful woman in "developed" nations and making good money at doing so. It is considered "feminist" to bully and attempt to guilt others to vote and behave politically according to your definition of feminism, because -- you know -- "There's a special place in hell…." So perhaps embracing the radical roots of feminism and aligning your inner wordsmith to a larger frame is needed right now, especially if you are uncomfortable with the Time-Magazine-version of co-opted feminism "light." And right now, the biosphere -- our beloved home -- needs all the voices, especially women's, to stand on its side and say "NO MORE!" rather than fighting incessantly about whether the social-media target-of-the-moment is actually, in fact, deserving of the title "feminist"… (take your pick: Amy Schumer; Beyonce; trans-women; stay-at-home-moms; blah blah blah).
This semantics game is wearisome, folks.
We have much bigger fish to fry. Our children's children's lives, alongside the place that we all call home, are dependent on us figuring that out.
by Marie Goodwin
I have a bone to pick with some members of the unschooling community, and this bone-picking is a long time coming, frankly.
When I first started down the unschooling route, oh so many years, I spent a long time foraging for information on on-line forums (Mothering.com, for starters), joined boards, and finally jumped into the world of Facebook mostly to join unschooling groups and see what my ex-boyfriends were up to (I jest about the last one. Kinda-sorta). I thought surely, here, I'd find my tribe: tolerant, kind people walking a barely-lit path with their children, just like me. We would be comrades. Our kids would grow old together, even if I never met my virtual friends and mentors in real life. I took it as a given that these people would be patient and kind, answer my questions with helpful grace, and give me a high five with my little successes, which is what unschooling is entirely comprised of… day-to-day little successes. For many many years.
I was, with a few wonderful exceptions, wrong.
What I encountered from the get-go was a litany of dogmatic, mean-spiritedness, snark, judgement, condescension, and rude-ness, especially to newcomers asking simple questions. I mean, this is the internet. You get that no matter where your interests land, especially on Facebook. But I did expect better from unschoolers. I don't know why, but I did.
So I stopped going to such places and asking questions. I had a few friends on-line and in-real-life with experience. In the areas where I didn't have experience, I either asked them or I figured it out on my own. I wanted on-line community because the world is a vast and interesting place, but I was … well… disappointed. Disappointed in the Kool-aid drinking about who was "in" and who was "out," disappointed in the snark and testiness at newbies, disappointed in "leaders" who seemed to encourage this type of behavior in their on-line groups and pages.
And you know what? I get it. I get sick of defending our right as a family to walk this path -- this really freaking lonely path -- to outsiders. I get sick of every damn mainstream voice in the media and in our community saying what we are doing is crazy and won't work. I get REALLY sick of all the questions, asked over and over and over again: "How will they ever get into college?" "Don't you think they'll be weird?" "What about [*#&&%, #&@*@, &&@#^&*] socialization?" I am sick of it too.
But, unschooling parents, please, for the love of everything that is good in this world…. STOP BEING RUDE TO NEW PEOPLE ON-LINE.
You are not helping. You are not being cute and awesome. You don't look cool. Most importantly you are not engaging people to think more deeply. You are chasing people away who might be curious about this lifestyle, thinking, "Well, who wants to participate in unschooling if THAT is what you get for asking a simple, damn question?"
Why am I bringing this up today?
A "famous" unschooling mom [famous = someone who has been on mainstream media and had to endure mainstream bullying by mainstream talking heads; they are not famous because they are more skillful or better unschoolers in any way] posted today that her oldest had "graduated" from high school by taking some equivalency exam from a distance learning site. He had passed with high marks. Of course. But when I posed a question to said famous unschooling mom, asking quite simply what was the program that that her family had used, two of her followers replied with some snark to me, saying [I paraphrase], "There is no program. It's called unschooling dummy. Look it up," with a couple of other commenters dog-piling on at my [gasp] stupidity at asking about the "program" she was using. Stupid me. They told me.
This type of stuff is common. I see it on unschooling Facebook groups almost daily. I see people get (and have been myself) really defensive over the tiniest question directed at this lifestyle. But I also see how such emotional discharges damage the really revolutionary work that we are doing in this world. If we are going to actually make a change in the way education is constructed and delivered in this country, we are going to have to grow this movement outward to people not yet in it.
And being nasty to newbies when they ask simple questions is not going to get us there.
by Marie Goodwin
My daughter loves animals. Her room is awash in the stuffed variety, but we haven't been able to have live pets of our own in our house because of my husband's allergies.. No dogs or cats. We do have four guinea pigs, but they can't live with us; so we house them in a friend's basement. Sadie is filled with remorse over our animal-free home, and she is on a mission to correct it.
A hamster... how allergic could daddy be to a hamster?
She has, for months, worn us down. Yesterday, Chris begrudgingly agreed provided that the hamster stay in her room and the cage is kept fastidiously clean. Today, she woke up and started the "Great Hamster Habitat Project."
She pulled boxes out of the garage and, all day long, cut and taped and glued and marked and cut some more until she had created a multi-level home of hamster complexity. Nevermind that the hamster will chew through the box in a nanno-second; she is undeterred in her imagining and creating of the home that she wants to provide for the new addition to our house when the time comes. She cares not one whit that the hamster will live in a plastic habitat like all the other hamsters of the world, because THIS house has a chair and table for her new sister, Ms. Star Hamster (formerly known as Cupcake Hamster.) This house has chutes (and ladders), hiding holes, and secret entrances. This house is fit for a hamster princess.
At one point this evening she looked up from her cutting and taping and said, "I know you love this project I'm working on, mom. You know why I know? I'm not even a LITTLE interested in screen time while I'm creating this....", thinking that is the only reason I would be happy with a day filled with cardboard creativity.
It helps, I'll admit. But it isn't the only reason. What I find important in this work is her ability to delve into something with every ounce of her being and stick with it for 12 hours. Not many kids I know can or will do that... and certainly not for the idea of a pet, the reality of which has yet to be realized.
by Marie Goodwin
My kids spent the day yesterday creating finely crafted imaginary characters from scratch. From the time they woke up until dinner, they poured over books with names like "The Monster Manual" and rolled oddly shaped die to determine the various characteristics of who they were to become. They rolled also to determine magical objects that they would carry with them on their journey. Important stuff.
And, of course, they argued. They are siblings, after all. Older brother, as a DM ("dungeon master" for those of you lacking initiation), holds wayyyyy too much power over little sister, and little sister is honor-bound to rebel. Little sister also has a control fetish that she gets from both of her parents. She wants all of her personality traits to be powerful and strong. She wants to be everything: charasmatic, magical, cunning. She want to have all the best magical spells and objects at her disposal. But it is all up the roll of the dice, and sometimes she rolls numbers that make her "less than." And her brother won't let her roll again. And he's being kindof mean about it, so eventually she storms off in frustration.
After the arguing got to this fever pitch out there in the kitchen, I asked them to bring their books and papers into the living room for a chat. We talked about inequal power, in games and life; how that feels to both parties. How problems might be solved when unequal power is at play and how language and emotion can either exacerbate this particular problem or ease tensions with others. There is a skill to avoiding conflict in these types of situations, and it is important to learn how to navigate this because sometimes you will hold the power and sometimes you will fall under someone else's power. How do you choose to walk in the world?
We talked about how no one is perfect; sometimes your charisma score just isn't that high and you have to make due with intelligence and cunning, and maybe a magical item in your bag. What you lack in yourself is usually made up by your gang of other creatures and beings that make up your tribe. Their strength covers for your weakness, and vice versa. We don't have to be strong in every facet of our lives. We just have to surround ourselves with good friends who know our weaknesses and are willing to step into the fray when we can't help ourselves. And we too must be willing to accept and hold up our friends and allies when the time comes. There is no other path to completing the journey ahead.
They went back to their imaginary world and finished the character sheets before dinner. The table is still strewn over with books, markers, and paper as well as the candles they burned for ambiance on a dreary late-November day. Now, the next morning, they are sleeping and most likely dreaming of elves, magicians, paladins, and dragon-born because this is where their creative energies sit right now, learning from games what it took many years for me to learn from life and never learned in school. If only I had taken D&D more seriously in 8th grade...
by Marie Goodwin
My attachment to books is legendary. My grandmother used to relate how I would arrive at her house with a bag full of books and curl up in a corner chair at her house for much of the duration of every visit, absorbed in words. My parents tell similar stories of my love of books, but also recall how I seemingly abandoned my love of all things literary for horses (and then eventually boys). What they did not know was that I brought books with me on my trail rides, and would always find a cool shade tree under which I would read, allowing my horse to roam and graze nearby.
This love of reading was useful in school, where I was encouraged in this pursuit above all other types of learning. It became habitual to seek the answers to all of my questions from books – the internet was not yet invented – and this too was encouraged by both my parents and teachers. It never occurred to me that doing was the best way to learn something. Reading about a problem was sufficient, and provided the two essential pillars of my young life: getting good grades and adult approval. Of course I was learning by doing all the time: how to care for my horses (and a whole host of other animals that I raised at one time or another); how to manage a garden; how to drive a car; how to care for younger siblings; how to work low-paying jobs in the adult world. I did not, however, consider this to be real learning, important learning, profound learning. Neither did the adults around me, seemingly. I was encouraged to think about college as the single most important preparation for adulthood, where more book learning would prepare me for a career, as yet unspecified.
College offered more options for Real Work, but at first I did not take advantage of them. I chose a strictly literary major, ancient Greek. Ancient Greek is a dead language. It can only be read and dissected through learning the nuance of its complicated yet beautiful grammatical structure. Some advanced students learn to write it. I spent much of my college life holed up at my kitchen table translating Plato, Euripides, Aeschylus, or Sappho. People around me went on years abroad to various European cities, held semester or summer internships, learned to play or perfect instruments, went to New York City for art exhibitions. I translated, sure that my pursuit of literature was a true path to knowledge. My friends were merely entertaining themselves with diversions.
The limits of my philological talents were readily apparent to both me and to my advisor, an archaeologist whose passion was fieldwork. He suggested that perhaps my passion for the subject might be best channeled into archaeological pursuits, not literary ones. And then he did something that changed my life, although it did not seem earth shattering at the time. He contacted a colleague of his and had me apply to a program at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, a program usually reserved for graduate students. I suspect his influence was the single factor that convinced them to accept me.
At the end of my junior year, for the first time in my life, I boarded a plane and flew to Europe to experience a place that I had read about and to work in a field that I knew only from books. That summer program at the American School revealed a world to me for which I thought I was prepared, but in actuality I had not expected or understood: the smell of Greece, the landscape; the enormity of the Parthenon coupled with the obscurity of the ruins around Sparta; the grace of ancient temples and houses alike; the sight of paint still adhering to buried tombs of Macedonian kings, their portraits as life-like as any portrait created by Renaissance masters; intricate Hellenistic and Roman mosaics, still in situ, still gracing the floors of time-obliterated houses, evidence for the grace and sophistication of a long dead culture.
We traveled the country for nine weeks, and every day was a new site, a new insight. I was overwhelmed by the experience and returned to the states exhausted. When I resumed my studies that next fall, I found the focus of my work changed. My literary pursuits were now a means to answer questions – a million questions – that I had formed in Greece. All of the reading I did now was informed by this sense of place, of having been there. For the first time in my life, at the age of 21, I realized that doing is the primary way to learn, and that only reading about a place, a thing, has substantial limits.
My senior year was rigorous, in particular because I was taking advanced Greek from a legend. He was eighty years old, walked with a cane, chain-smoked, and could free-translate the most difficult passages of Thucydides with ease. To say this terrified me is an understatement. I was his only student that year, and every week my philological weaknesses were laid bare for both of us to dissect. After a particularly hard session with him, he asked me what I thought of Greece, and when I told him of my intentions to return the next summer, he asked me why I would bother. He, in his almost 65 years of studying the subject, had never been and never wanted to go. He preferred to know Greece from the language. The modern country of Greece would inevitably disappoint him, he argued. I sat and listened to him, stunned silent.
I began studying archaeology more seriously during my senior year and prepared to return the next summer to work in Athens. When my work in Athens began, my “real work” realization the year before was underscored by the vast difference between reading about archaeological theory (imagining it as glamorous and intellectually stimulating at every turn) and the day-to-day reality of archaeological fieldwork. Archaeology is dirty, hot, hard physical labor, rarely glamorous, intellectually stimulating only in short bursts.
This lesson illustrated again how reading can and should inform our interests, but that it is only in doing that we learn a thing completely in all its nuanced complexity. It is in doing that we integrate our mind and our body and allow them to work together, the mind informing the body and the body’s experience informing the mind. The idea of learning by doing is a simple one, and yet it took me twenty-one years to fully recognize its importance in my own intellectual growth. It is, however, one of the foundations of learning that I wish my still very young children to view as vital; that doing is the best way to learn. Books can provide a foundation for learning (and surely books provide rich entertainment), but doing a thing is essential. And fun. And contributes to our communities and to our lives.
Years later, I was told that my crusty, old professor had passed away, alone, in his office – probably reading Greek. I wondered if he ever regretted his decision not to visit Greece, the history of which he had taught for the last fifty years of his life. He was a marvelous teacher, his mastery of the language complete. I had to wonder, however, how he could fully understand the place when he had never known the smell of oregano and thyme growing wild on the hills around Athens, or the sound of the cicadas in full summer, a sound that surely Plato considered a backdrop to his life. Was he able to imagine the sun setting in Athens, the rusty shadows slowly enveloping the enormity of the Parthenon? I could not imagine never knowing Greece in this way…or learning entirely from books ever again. My transformation was complete.
This essay was first published in Open Connections Magazine, April 2008.
I met my muse in a startling manner seven years ago this fall. I was taking a wheel-thrown pottery course, and (like so many do) I found that it looked easier to do than it actually was. My hands did not obey my brain’s orders when encased in slippery clay and slurry. I had a bad habit of pressing too hard with my right hand. For the life of me, I could not get the feel of the centered clay, so any pot that I pulled from my slightly-off-kilter hump would look lopsided and, well, just plain bad. I really wanted to learn this skill, however, so I took two separate “beginners” classes over a period of about six months. As the months progressed, I began to get frustrated and considered abandoning my hopes of becoming a potter.
My muse came to me in a dream, in which I saw my hands on a hump of clay that was spinning on the wheel. My clumsy attempts to center were gone. Instead I carefully and effortlessly felt the clay as it centered, and then I pulled a pot carefully but with skill. I could feel every motion – the cold clay, the smooth centered wet mound in my hands spinning, the rubbing of the wheel on the edges of my hands, how my fingers were pressing delicately to thin out the sides – everything finally made sense. I woke the next morning, eager for my class later that day, sure that I could now center my pots correctly. And I was right. I could, from that day forward, center my pots with ease, although admittedly, there have been many other potting challenges since then.
How many times have you been able to solve a problem from a vivid dream as I was, or thought of the perfect response to a question in a conversation – two days later? How many of you have had “ah-ha” moments about a home renovation dilemma while cooking dinner, or the solution to a simmering problem after not thinking about it for a week or a month?
This is your creative mind at work, but it is only one step in the entirety of the creative process. Granted, it is the step that gets the most attention in people’s imaginations or storytelling (think Newton’s apple), but it is only the last step in a three stage mental process that defines the core of what we know about creative thinking.
The Three Steps of a Creating Brain (1)
The first step is data gathering. When presented with a problem, humans tend to first search out information about the issue. We read books, magazines, journals, and Internet articles. We interview people who know something about the issue. We do a lot of talking to others and ourselves about the problem at hand. We move three dimensional objects in space, or draw out the problem in an effort to visualize its solution. This part of the creative process requires a specialized skill-set: being open to conflicting information, the ability to take in and process information from varied sources, as well as the ability to listen without judgment. Young people are naturally good at these skills and readily apply them to all problem solving experiences. Adults, however, seem to unlearn these creative skills as they mature, tending to approach varied problems from reiterative perspectives as well as self-censoring themselves based upon past experiences or the judgments of others.
An important aspect of our ability to be fully creative is whether we have enough “background information” to make sense of the task at hand. Do we understand the language well enough to know exactly what the problemto-be-solved is? Do we have skill-sets that allow us to tackle some parts of the problem? Have we had experiences in our lives that inform us about parts of the problem? If we have too little experience or understanding, our mind cannot be creative to its full potential. If we have too much information, the problem is simply solved and boring. There is a space of opportunity, where our skills match the problem at hand, and that paring of ability and challenge allows for a state of mind called “flow” by neuroscientists.(2) Flow is that time when one is completely absorbed by a problem, and time seems to stand still or move slowly.
Why is it that young people are so good at gathering information and processing it in novel ways? Why is it that they enter “flow” with such ease? Preadolescents have a different brain wave constitution than adults. Their brain activity is rich in theta waves.(3) Theta waves are rare in adults but occur frequently in that in-between state when we are just falling asleep, that jumble of images, memories, and ideas (what my son calls “the twitching time.”) Puberty changes the brain structure dramatically,(4) and the theta waves are no longer dominant. So the brains of young people are naturally filled with this creative jumble of images, ideas, and connections that are so rich during the adult theta wave pre-sleep state, allowing them to make associations that are unconventional and novel.
The second process of a creative mind at work is the digestion of the information. Only a small part of this process is done consciously. We are unconsciously working on problems most of the time, our brain searching neural pathways and networks for connections as we eat, sleep, talk, play, and generally live our day-to-day lives. Even if your conscious mind is really struggling with the issue at hand, your brain is at work on more subtle levels, looking for creative connections. Your unconscious mind uses memories as well as emotions to try and find new and unlikely associations. Quite often, if the problem is particularly vexing, unconscious mental space is needed to allow the brain to do “its job.” It is helpful to engage in unrelated activities, such as thinking of other things, or slipping away from problem solving mode by meditating, sleeping, exercising, playing with your children…doing anything that keeps your mind relaxed and at peace.
The third process is when the insight comes to you.(5) There can be big “ah-ha” moments, or slow, processinfused “ah-ha” moments (i.e. those that come to you as you work through complex problems one step at a time, so there isn’t one big solution, but several small ones that work in conjunction.) There are few feelings as good as when you have creatively solved a problem that is vexing to you or you have found your creative voice in an artistic manner. For me, it is one of life’s great joys.
When asked to define creativity, most people focus on artistic achievement. That is only one specific aspect of the overall view that neuroscientists promote as creativity. For them, true creativity is defined by using a new approach to a problem, whether that problem is novel or common. Howard Gardner, the author of the seminal book on multiple intelligences entitled Frames of Mind, (6) suggests that everyone is creative in their own way in areas of interest to them. Creativity, however, needs to be used and encouraged early in life, thus building confidence over time in one’s own creative abilities. Young people, as well as adults, need opportunities to learn to listen to their creative thoughts and instincts in order to develop flexible thinking skills – skills that are important to thriving and contributing to our world.
Creative thinkers tend to exhibit many of the following traits: they feel free to challenge all assumptions about a problem, including core beliefs (morality, “givens,” scientific or social “laws,” etc.) Most creative thinkers have a fine-tuned sense of intuition and they listen to it. Everyone makes mistakes, but creative thinkers take pleasure from their mistakes, seeing them as opportunities to learn and fine-tune their problem-solving skills. Creativity requires working within community, and creative people know how to listen to others’ ideas without dismissing any as impossible or implausible. When you find people having fun with their work, you will often find creativity at its finest. It is easier to be creative when your whole being enjoys the work at hand. And finally, creative people tend to have a supportive environment around them; positive people, whom they trust and respect, necessary supplies, and aesthetically pleasing habitats are examples of this.
So often, however, we stifle creative thinking by employing “creativity killers.” These come in many packages. It is hard to be creative when you are watched and hovered over. Another hindrance to creativity is the feeling that you are being evaluated and will ultimately fail. Similarly, feeling like you will fail, and in failing, that you will be judged (or lose face) removes all joy from an activity and focuses the participant to merely “get it over with” rather than spend time creating. Creativity is also stifled by being told how you “must” do something rather than being able to explore things on your own. Feeling a pressure to perform, whether that pressure is internal or external, also hinders creative thinking. Finally, time limits that interfere with “flow” take away our ability to work through problems thoroughly and at our own pace. Encouraging the positive traits of creative thinking while reducing the “creativity killers” in your life and in the life of your child can maximize the creative process for your family.
And now, since I do not have a grand finale to this article readily available in my mind, I will move on to another unrelated task and hope that one comes to me before I have to submit this article to editing. I have gathered all of my information and processed it over several days before writing this article. Perhaps I will be granted an “ah-ha” moment in an hour, while picking my son up at an activity, or in a day or two. Perhaps it will come the day after the deadline for this article. That’s more like my luck! I will acknowledge and banish all of the creativity killers lingering in my mind, and then sleep on it. Perhaps if I go out and play with my children and enjoy the beautiful fall day with them and meditate on their innate and quite active creative minds, maybe then I will find some inspiration. We’ll see.
1. The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. Nancy C. Andreasen. Plume (2006.)
2. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. M. Csikszentmihalyi. Basic Books (1997.)
3. Creativity and the Brain. Kenneth Heilman. Psychology Press (2005.)
4. The best description that I’ve found of what this brain restructuring is and what it means to teens is in The Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pierce.
5. Ibid. 3.
6. Frames of Mind. Howard Gardner. Fontana Press (1993.) An updated work is Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons, by the same author (2006.)
First published in Open Connections Magazine, October 2007
Sadie has wandered late to words. She's taken the path of nature and imaginary play, and turned her nose up at the stories others might give to her in books. She's not yet interested in other people's stories. But lately, there is a tint (just a vague, almost invisible ruddiness) of interest in writing down some of her thoughts and questions.
We took a walk the other day, mostly to calm my mind about the state of our country and the world, which seems to be fraying at the seams of ignorance and anger and self-righteousness lately. I asked the kids to bring notebooks and use the world as a source for some writing and deep observing, and then sent them off on their own. Mostly so I could hear myself think and listen to the wind and the birds and the water.
Sadie, who used to sob when confronted with the written word, handed me this.
I Move with the Water
When I hear the water I feel like I am calm,
like I could live forever.
It makes me feel like I might fall into a deep trance;
and I fall deeper every time.
It is see-through.
The reflection is amazing.
The water and the music it plays heals my soul.
It is a race against time;
every drop is in the race and
I am in the race too.
I move with the water.
It's not The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, but I couldn't be more happy that she is finding her voice and letting us all know what is inside waiting to come out.
I am reminded of my unschooling mantra, which I find myself remembering daily these days: Let go of attachment to outcome and they will arrive just where they need to be.
Photo by Berit from Redhill/Surrey, UK (Creative Commons)
It shocks me how much I don't know. I sometimes wonder how I am a functioning adult at all, frankly. For instance, I have enormous gaps in my knowledge about world history, like most Americans do. We still seem to be able to adult and get on with our lives, not knowing when the Glorious Revolution happened (1688, I looked it up) or when, exactly, Charlemagne lived, ruled and destroyed pagan cultures (742-814. I looked that up too.) I got a job when I was 23 years old at the Museum of Modern Art, despite not knowing anything about art history past the death of Alexander the Great. I learned right quick, I can tell you that. I've never hunted for my own food, and wouldn't know how to dress a deer carcass if my life depended on it, but I greatly admire those who can (and do.) Until I traveled in Asia, I knew little about Asian geography, religious traditions, art, and the various histories. I can't trigonometry my way out of a paper bag. And my inner-feminist is ashamed to admit that I've never changed a tire, and I have no plans on doing so. That is why AAA exists.
The list is endless.
As I have aged, I have learned many things and filled in some of the gaps. I'm generally pretty curious and like to dive deep into learning subjects. Unschooling the kids has actually provided me with incentive to look things up and be curious about my own blinkers and the rather broad empty spaces in my own learning.
I know you are nodding your head, fully commiserating with what I'm saying. Right? After all, who doesn't have gaps in their education? So much to know…! You understand that there are things you need and should learn, but somehow you don't get around to it. But you can still function as an adult. Hold down a job. Feed your family. Should it become truly necessary to learn some particular thing or another, you know you can learn it. It might take a little time, but isn't that what life is about?
Now what if I told you my children have gaps in their learning too. Big ones.
"She-who-will-not-be-tamed" (a.k.a. my daughter) has steadfastly refused to learn some things in her ten years of life: she did not know her alphabet until she was seven, maybe eight. She's beginning to read now, at age ten, and the only reason she is even trying to do that at all is because her friends who go to school make fun of her for being behind. (Sigh.) Yesterday, through sheer force of will, she finally learned to ride a bike. She was too embarrassed about doing it in front of people who might see her or judge her as being "behind" at the grand old age of ten, so she made her dad take her to a parking lot at 10 pm so she could practice in peace. She learned in two days and she is as pleased at her accomplishment as anything I've ever seen her do. Yet, she is not an intellectual slouch or lazy in any way. And she is fierce in her determination when she sets her mind to something. She was the earliest "deep-end" swimmer at our pool - ever - and she could at age three or four name and quote facts about rare animals the world over. She is sometimes better at math than I am. And, most importantly, she has stories and philosophical questions inside her waiting to come out. She can play for hours uninterrupted in her room, lost in imaginary play -- even now, on the cusp of teen-dom. In this age of plugged-in childhoods, I don't know many kids like her. She is glorious.
My son, by contrast, learned things pretty much as expected by our culture -- alphabet by age three, bike at age six, reading at age seven, tie-shoes at age eight, Harry Potter at age nine, cursive at age ten, Minecraft at age eleven, D & D at age thirteen. (The last one is a joke.) But he has huge gaps in his knowledge too, just not ones that elicit concern from "professionals," random strangers, and old-school relatives. On the flip side, he knows things that many adults have never had exposure to their whole lives. Ask him about Norse, Greek, or Roman mythology. You'll see.
The difference is that my son learned a few key skills according to the arbitrary measure we have instituted for all children, skills that we've enshrined, somehow, into the culture as "holy." Thou shalt read by age eight or else! Thou shalt ride a bike by age eight or you are pitiable! Thou shalt play baseball (or be sporty in some way) if you are a boy or take ballet/dance if you are a girl. Though shalt know thy multiplication tables by 4th grade or you will end up a pauper on the street! And if a young learner in our culture deviates from that path, they are suspect in some way. They are slow. They are a failure. And as parents -- for the most part brought up in school culture -- we see ourselves as a failure alongside our child if the path is not strictly followed. And the whole thing is even more crazy because our culture is just plain wrong with all these expectations as it is in so many other areas as well.
I want to encourage you to step away from your preconceived ideas about when children should learn what and how they should learn it. Step away from the idea that you, the adult, needs to be in the driver's seat. Let them guide you. If they resist you in some way in your attempts to introduce things to them, take that as a strong reminder that you are there to assist, not push. Facilitate, not direct. They are interested and capable human beings developing in their own time. You might have a child or two who is happy to go along with "the program" and learn things "on time." But you might have a "she-who-will-not-be-tamed" on your hands, and she will push back, fight, and resist your attempts to colonize her childhood with your concern-trolling over her inability to read at age eight. She doesn't care. She won't do it. And you can't make her. So don't try. Learn to let go and deftly navigate the waters of uncertainty. Place the importance of the relationship above the dictates of cultural norms. Do this every time. For everything.
Someday she will come to you and say, "I want to learn to ride a bike." And she will learn. Faster than fast. And, at that moment, you will realize that it all didn't matter -- these agendas we have for our children in this culture. The pressure and angst you felt for years over this and that was all for naught. You will see that we are all works in progress and that they learn when they are ready, and, truth be told -- without exception -- everyone has gaps. Everyone. Even your children.
Some days, this is what unschooling looks like.
A table strewn with craft supplies, everything pulled out of the shelves. Where is that one perfect thing needed to finish the project? Nothing is put away. Chaos reigns. It is a mess that some people I know cannot tolerate even for a moment. However, to tell you the truth, I don't mind the mess at all because the house is never more joyful than when this is happening.
Today, the project was costume creation for a game created A YEAR AGO at our annual trip (with 10-15 other families) to Assateague Island National Seashore in May. As the weekend for the trip this year approaches, Eli is in high design mode, and Sadie is his muse and the costume-wearer. There is nothing that cannot be achieved with duct tape, foam, paper, cardboard, markers, scissors, and uninterrupted time. The key here is "uninterrupted." Hours and hours of plotting and planning, laughing and excited agreement. And no hovering mother trying to micro-manage stuff getting picked up, or better ideas for how to do things.
On days like today, I've learned to step aside and let all of the plans for the day take a backseat. On days like today, they become acquainted with the words "creative flow" and the phrase, "necessity being the mother of invention." On days like today, rain or shine, more learning happens than can ever be achieved in some well-lit room with 25 other well-behaved learners in desks listening to an adult. On days like today, they rarely ask me for help at all. On days like today, they forget the meaning of the word "boredom."
On days like today, despite the chaos in the kitchen, I am truly my most happy as a mother.