Learning in the Negative Space

 

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I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of negative space and the beauty that can be found there.

Artists and photographers often make use of negative space to starkly highlight what is represented in the image or create subtle second images receding in positive space. Take this illustration for example, entitled, “The Philosopher,”  by graphic illustrator Tang Yau Hoong:

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The human cognitive process is trained to first take in the positive space, meaning the space that is filled with a familiar representation. So most people first see a question mark. But the artist has also created an image of a man’s face, visible within the negative space if we look a little closer. The negative space, no longer seen as a void in the image, takes on equal importance and often greater meaning.

So what does “learning in the negative space” mean?

The conventional way of understanding and measuring what children are taught in the school environment relies heavily on what is visible, recognizable and obvious to adults. In this way, the information that teachers impart to their students is “teachable.” The student’s grasp of this information, in the form of testing, is therefore recognizable as either right or wrong. With the implementation of standardized testing, there is no longer room for a child to look at a question in a unique way, see it from a different angle and provide a creative or alternative answer. This approach is ALWAYS seen as a wrong answer.

When our society talks about learning, we are no longer able to see the beauty or value in the negative space. Institutionalized learning has all but abolished the white canvas of possibility, and systematically dismisses the individual thinking that blooms around the edges of information. Abstraction is no longer valued, play is on its way to extinction, and creative expression is regarded as superfluous. Instead, we are marching our children down a sparse and sterile hallway of fact-filled, unfulfilling days, promising that if they trudge along like good soldiers, the key to freedom will one day be brandished, unlocking the door to a bright and successful future. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Real learning, for both children and adults, takes place in the negative spaces of our lives, and is often imperceptible, immeasurable and a direct result of a seemingly unrelated representation (the positive space).

My daughter spends a lot of time and effort making Brazilian friendship bracelets. She learned how to make them by reading craft magazines and watching videos on Youtube. Anyone watching her would see the obvious: a happy and focused little girl weaving a bracelet with colored string. Some might say, “she’s not learning, she’s playing.”

Not visible to the eye, but equally important is what’s happening in the negative space. In the weaving process, my daughter is employing complex algorithms that she learned on her own and by her own initiative.  Algorithms are essentially how computers process data. (“Using doubled strands start the bracelet with a loop and arrange the colors in a mirror image: colors 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1.”) She is also developing  hand-eye coordination as well as a sense of how colors work together.

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Information in the classroom is presented as linear and is broken down, sorted and categorized into subjects which are addressed within short time-frames with little room for deviation. Learning in the negative space happens when we take the root of a piece of information and have the time, interest and freedom to explore where its many branches lead and how they ultimately intertwine.

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Artist: Priya Nair

 

My son can often be found exploring the farthest reaches of the world. He recently discovered the small island of Jan Mayen off the coast of Norway using Google Earth. He’s pretty obsessed with Geography, which in school would most likely be taught as an isolated subject according to grade level. But discovering Jan Mayen also led my son to venture out onto the branches of geology, meteorology, volcanic science, the arctic whaling industry and Dutch history.

I’m pretty certain this small volcanic island, visited centuries ago by seal trappers and largely uninhabited, didn’t make it into the standard school curriculum. But it exists–in all its glory– in the negative space where my son’s curiosity brought it to life (for anyone who’s willing to listen).

If we give our children the time and freedom to explore around the edges and borders, to push the limits of learning and venture into the negative space, the void becomes a beautiful repository of infinite possibility.

 

 

 

 

 

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Your Unschooling Story is Extraordinary

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photo courtesy of Kirsten Schroeder

Our family just spent several days on a small nature reserve close to the Senegal/Gambia border with about fifteen people we didn’t know. As there were no distractions at night , our evenings were spent eating communally and sitting around a blazing camp fire talking and singing under a dome of stars.

The subject of our children’s education came up fairly quickly and I found myself in that uncertain place within myself, not wanting to give too much information for fear of being judged. I tend to tread lightly when talking about our learning and life choices, offering the initial response, “my children are educated at home,” a truthful answer which gives people the option to dig further if they are curious about the how and why, or change the subject if they aren’t.

This was a particularly open group of souls concerned with preserving the local environment and the rituals and traditions of the Senegalese people who live on this small parcel of protected wetland. In my experience, people who are already thinking and acting for the greater good are usually receptive to alternative ways of living. But none of them were familiar with unschooling. The questions they asked were genuine, respectful and came from a place of open curiosity and admiration.

It was the first time since we made the decision to unschool our children five years ago, that I was invited to share our story, rather than defend our choices. And as the details slowly unfolded, I found myself talking freely and confidently about the many ways in which our children learn without school. Since none of this resembled the rehearsed answers I usually pull from my arsenal, I found myself making connections I had never thought of before, such as how my children have gained communication skills by being invited to sit in on business meetings, how their time spent in nature has given them the appreciation and motivation to become future environmental actors, and how the many films we watch as a family have given them a diverse exposure to languages, cultures, lands, music, creativity, cinematography, story-telling, images, and the various ways we express the human condition.

One woman, whose children are now grown, admitted that she’d always wanted to homeschool her children, but that her husband had been adamantly against it and so she had backed down. Another woman loved the idea of how we embrace apprenticeship as a valuable means of gaining knowledge and experience. Although she isn’t in a position to homeschool her daughter for several reasons, she told me our story had inspired her to incorporate community and life experience into her daughter’s learning. I was told by several people, “your story is so inspiring.” Really?

Many years ago, I took a class in creative writing which focused on drawing from everyday experience. On the very first day, the teacher, a seasoned writer,  said, “the details of your lives are extraordinary and you need to write about them.” I don’t think any of us felt particularly extraordinary because we all looked around at each other in bewilderment. Someone said, “I wouldn’t know what to write about, my life is pretty boring.” The teacher asked him to tell the class the first thing that had happened to him that morning. “I brushed my teeth?”

“No, dig deeper.”

After a few seconds of reflection, he said, “Oh yeah, I did get woken up early this morning because there was a parade or people passing by my building. When I went to the window, I saw it was a bunch of senior citizens protesting for their rights. So I  cheered them on. One of the women blew me a kiss.”

I imagine that some of us feel the same way about our unschooling lives, that not much is happening, that our days seem “normal” or routine,  or that people probably wouldn’t be interested in the details. But we are wrong. Our individual unschooling stories, as they are being lived and told, are themselves an expression of the human condition. The choices people are making all over the world to embrace learning as something innate, individual, joyful, fulfilling and above all, personal, is and will have enormous impact on the future, not just in terms of liberating our children’s learning experience, but for how we will approach and solve small and large problems in every area of life and ultimately how we will relate to each other.

Our voices need to be heard. The beauty of unschooling is that, while we can share information and offer guidance, our experiences are unique. Each how, why, where and who is different, which provides for richly textured and inspiring stories. Tell yours, as an unschooling parent, teen or grown life learner. Dig deep, make the unexpected connections and then share, verbally, or in writing. Send your story to publications dedicated to promoting interest led learning. Life Learning Magazine, The Homeschooler Post, and Otherways Magazine are just a few that welcome submissions. Start a blog if you haven’t already. Or simply document your experiences for your family.

Tell your story, because its full of courage, risk, determination, overcoming obstacles and embracing change for your children and yourselves. Tell your story, because it’s extraordinary. Not everyone will listen. But those who do will not be left unchanged.

 

C is for Curriculum

 

When we pulled our two children out of school a few years ago and decided to homeschool, I was filled with giddy optimism. “Now THIS was going to be fun,” I told myself, as I rolled up my sleeves and began to set up a school in our home. (Yes, I took it that literally.) Blackboard? check. Textbooks? check. Desks and chairs? check. Alphabet on a string? check. Pencils, paper, paint, posters, rulers, maps, stickies, smilies, markers, doilies? check. Curriculum?

Curriculum?

Anyone?

For the love of doilies, I didn’t have a curriculum.

And that’s when panic set in. How on earth were my children supposed to learn? How was I suppose to teach them if I didn’t have an age-appropriate, time-tested, topic approved, standardized school curriculum? What time were they supposed to learn math? First thing in the morning or after snack time? (oh god, did I have any juice boxes?) Were they supposed to learn to write in lowercase, UPPERCASE, script or cursive? At  what point did history officially begin? with colonialism? the neanderthals? the big bang theory? oh no, wait, that’s science.

I quickly found said curriculum online. It was described as “co-ed, easy to use and teacher-friendly.” That was a relief. Since I had a boy AND a girl, that meant I could teach them both the same things! Phew!  I felt armed, confident, guided.

It lasted two weeks. Two weeks of feeling utterly defeated as a would-be teacher and a parent. Two weeks of  tantrums and tears. When I finally stopped crying, the seeds of our unschooling journey were planted. We haven’t used anything resembling a curriculum since. It was a long and sometimes confusing process filled with discovery, doubts, and missteps, but ultimately I came to understand that my children could not be neatly molded within the framework of a guided curriculum. When we finally left them to discover the world on their own terms and at their own pace, our children’s curiosity began to bloom right out of the pot and spill out in tendrils that criss-crossed and intertwined in ways I couldn’t have imagined. There was no way to separate geography from history, language, landscapes, culture, or art. We found fractions in the kitchen, patterns in nature, and science washed up on the beach. These things had been there in plain sight all along, only I hadn’t been able to recognize them as learning opportunities because I had been taught that they didn’t belong in the realm of education. Knowledge was something that had to be taught, acquired, instructed. And in my own personal case, paid for.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for us in the beginning was that neither of my children had any interest in learning to read. Experts from all fields–educational, psychological, developmental–were telling me that a child could not progress in their learning if they didn’t first know how to read. At the time this made great sense to me and resulted in a not-so-subtle campaign to get them on the reading bandwagon. Not only did it backfire on me, but it temporarily squashed their love of being read aloud to, so I backed off and let them navigate and explore their passions instead.

In the end, it was the exact opposite of what the “experts” had claimed. Because they wanted to learn more about what interested them, both my children began to put letters and words together in order to get there. Following their passions motivated them to want to read and write, not the other way around. Incidentally, their passions–geography and drawing for my son; horses and languages for my daughter– were nowhere to be found on the easy to use curriculum.

Which brings me to the glass of water. The one that some see as half-empty and others as half-full. Most people, when we talk about our no-curriculum life, like to point out that by a certain age, children should know a minimum of basic things. These basic things somewhere along the line were agreed upon and became universal– we need to fill our children up, drop by drop, to this level, at this age, with this information. And therein lies the half-empty glass.

What most people don’t understand is that while a standard curriculum may provide universal structure, it has crippling limits to children’s unique talents and capacities. The “basics” may get covered, but when children are allowed to learn without limits, to play, discover, fail, explore and experiment, the glass is not only half-full, it has the strong potential to overflow. The problem is that the realm of formal education doesn’t like overflow because it can’t be controlled or contained. It can’t be measured and tested. Overflow doesn’t fit the factory model generated by standardized learning.

In the absence of curriculum, C can no longer stand for conformity, or containment, or control. It now stands for curiosity, creativity and occasionally chaos. Oh, and most importantly, clown.

What Did You Learn Today?

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It’s a question I dreaded as a child.  Most days, having just walked in the door from school, I couldn’t answer it, especially under pressure. With few exceptions, I either didn’t remember, wasn’t interested in, or couldn’t easily express the information. The question made me anxious. So my response was usually a vague, “I don’t know . . . stuff.” 

I’m amazed at how many well-meaning parents and other adults ask children this heavily loaded question, which is really a quiz in the guise of “how was your day?” What is really being asked (perhaps with genuine interest) is, “what facts and formulas did you memorize, what topics were covered, and how much of it did you retain?” The fault lies not with the question itself but with the context. Asked within the framework of school, if every child were identical in their capacities, interests and development, then each child in the same class on any given day would be able to give a similar response. Which ultimately makes both the question and the answer impersonal. The “you” in “what did you learn today?” is collective by nature.

But what a lovely question it becomes when asked individually, with no right or wrong answer, in the context of meaningful learning born of curiosity. Instead of an inquiry, it becomes an invitation. Tell me. What did you see, hear, touch, taste, create? What mystery did you unravel? What gift did you unwrap? What questions fell upon you? What notions did you conceive? What answers did you light upon? Tell me. I really want to know.

The way my two children live and learn couldn’t be more different from my own childhood. Because they are unique and are given the freedom to pursue their interests and passions, what they each learn reflects how they individually look at and learn from the world. They will take away completely different things from the same experience. After watching the breathtakingly beautiful film, « Samsara », they both wanted to learn more about Tibetan Mandalas. We watched videos, researched their history, how they are created and the cultural and spiritual significance behind them. My daughter was intrigued by the creation process: the geometry, the colors, the method, the design. She wanted to make one right away, color it and appreciate it as a work of art. My son was drawn to the idea that after a painstaking period of patient creation, mandalas are immediately wiped away by their creators, the colored sand gathered and scattered to the wind, signifying the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and non-attachment to the material.

After finding an online mandala creator, they both designed, printed and hand colored their own. It took two days, several sharpeners and an entire pack of colored pencils worked down to stubs. The one above is my daughters. We’ll hang it up in a special place to admire.

It was hard to light the match– because it really was beautiful– but we watched the one my son created scatter and float away in weightless cinders. He remembers every detail.

 

 

 

 

Artisans and Grandmothers: The Value of Apprenticeship

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I love that the french word “apprendre” means both to teach and to learn. I like to think that when we share our knowledge, passion or life’s work with someone, there is an exchange in which both parties learn from each other.

Whenever we visit France, I’m always happy to see that apprenticeships are still alive and well. Carpenters, metal workers, mechanics, glass-blowers, bakers, butchers, gardeners, “chocolatiers”, artisanal cheese, bread and wine makers, even shoe-makers still hold an important place in society as revered artisans.  As my husband says, when we purchase from an artisan, we make an investment in a quality product as well as the artist, and we ensure the continuation of their art form. These artisans learn by “apprentisage,” by experience, often from a family member or local master, and pass their honed trade down to others–generation after generation. I like to keep this in mind when I’m eating a crusty hunk of artisanal french bread spread with salted butter from the farmer down the road. I am literally tasting tradition.

This past week, my daughter asked my mother-in-law, who is visiting from France, to teach her how to embroider. They spent entire days together, heads and hands bent over tangles of colored thread, practicing patterns, experimenting on heavy and light cloth. They designed, embroidered and sewed a handbag in one afternoon. My daughter learned so much during these past few days, with intense focus and joy, immersing herself in an activity she sought out and soaking up every crumb of knowledge from her grandmother. Tomorrow, they’ll be moving on to knitting at my daughter’s request and her grandmother’s delight.

This is a form of apprenticeship. And it’s a big part of our children’s learning experience. There is often a misconception that life learners don’t learn from others, that instruction is banished in favor of independent learning. Somehow when I tell people that my children are self-directed, autonomous learners, they envision solitude and even isolation. While it’s true that they often learn by doing internet research, reading books and exploring nature on their own–all solitary activities– they spend an equal amount of time interacting with others in order to further their passions or deepen their learning.

When our children are interested in learning something which requires an expert, we don’t hesitate to call on friends, family members, even people we hardly know to ask if they are willing to share their talents and work one-on-one with our children. Without fail, they are always graciously willing, even flattered to say, “Yes!”

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Like my husband’s cousin, the painter

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or our friend, the Reiki Master

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or an Italian Pasta Pro

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or a mud brick maker

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or a sailor

The value of learning directly from someone else, which I call apprenticeship, can’t be replaced by an internet tutorial, a crowded classroom or an instruction manual. Why? Because it’s a wholly human exchange involving our tactile, auditory and sometimes olfactory senses, our power of observation and our basic good will. And often a good sense of humor.

We all have something to teach and learn. Whether we learn a formal craft from a true artisan in a workshop or how to sew from our grandmother on the living room sofa, we are given a great gift. And we can thank that person by saying “yes” to someone else.