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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Life Learning Yearning Brady McBrown

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(Based on the cadence and rhythm of “The Great Henry McBride,” By Dr. Seuss)

“It’s hard to be down,” said young Brady McBrown.

It’s impossibly possible to fake a frown.

When a fellow wakes up to a free day ahead,

he must kick off the sheets and spring from the bed.

No classes, no lessons, not even a bell.

No teacher to dictate, or lecture, or yell.

I’ll learn when I yearn and whiz when I wish.

I may look at a book, or cook up a fish.

 

There are so many things that would be so much fun.

It’s terribly hard to decide on just one.

I might go to the museum, perhaps, who knows?

I’ll take in the Monets, Manets and Van Goghs!

I could become a curator, a Master of Arts.

Or dig treasures from dirt and piece back the parts.

Yes! That’s what I’ll do. I’ll dig up a crown.

King crown-digger upper, Brady McBrown!

 

But now I’m not sure. Legos could be clever!

I’ll stack up a tower that goes on forever.

I could be an architect, maybe build a whole town!

Crown-digger, town-builder, Brady McBrown.

But why only two things? Say, I could do three!

I could put on my swimsuit and swim in the sea.

A deep sea diver! Yes! That’s what I’ll be!

Crown-digger, town-builder, diver McB.

 

And science is fun! So I’ll do that!

I’ll mix up a potion in a great big vat!

I’ll point to the map and pick a new place.

I’ll zoom in to cities and back out to space!

Or add up some numbers, divide them by ten.

I’ll count all the bird seed, then go feed the hen.

Then study some stars and the patterns they form.

Oh no! Those clouds! I think there’s a storm!

The rain’s pouring down like cats and dogs!

The puddles are filling with tadpoles and frogs!

I’ll stomp and stamp and jump in the muck!

Til my clothes are quite caked and my shoes are quite stuck!

 

The rain won’t stop me.

There are gifts to be known.

There is play to be played.

And seeds to be sewn.

On a day like today, with dreams in my head,

I can hardly wait to leap from the bed!

On a day like today, with dreams in your heart,

Today is your day! Where will YOU start?

 

photo credit: Redbook, Suessblog

Give Them a Voice: Children as Unschooling Ambassadors

We are the only family in our community whose children don’t go to school, so it’s only natural that we get asked a lot of questions about our learning philosophy by educators and parents. The fact that we live in a predominately french ex-pat community means that these questions are often pointed and direct. Many times they aren’t even questions but statements such as, “well, they’re still young, but eventually they’ll have to go to school if you want them to succeed.” I get that one often.

I can’t blame them. Homeschooling is extremely rare in France and isn’t considered a viable educational alternative. Most of the parents I’ve spoken to had no idea homeschooling was even legal in France. So from this deeply ingrained cultural perspective and the strict institutional approach to pedagogy and therefore future success, I can understand their deep skepticism for homeschooling.

But the discussion tends to get really uncomfortable when I get to the part about how my children don’t follow a curriculum, don’t use text books and sometimes spend ENTIRE DAYS doing nothing but watching documentaries or playing in the mud. I might as well have said they gamble all day and run a brothel at night. The idea is that inconceivable.

I used to dread these conversations, especially when we were just starting out on our unschooling journey and I was grappling with my own insecurities about how my children would learn and what my role as a parent would be. I was often flustered and unable to articulately talk about interest-led learning and the natural curiosity that leads children to discovery and passion. I could write about it, but face to face encounters were another story. Every question felt like an attack and every remark a judgement. I felt an overwhelming need to convince others–family members, friends, strangers–that we were doing the right thing for our children and by association, that I was a good parent. As a result, I often came across as defensive and maybe just a little judgmental myself.

Then one day something changed. We were talking with the father of my son’s friend who asked, “but if you don’t follow a curriculum, how do they learn crucial subjects like math, science and history?” Before I could open my mouth, my son, who is ten, started explaining that math is found in everyday experiences like cooking, making change at the grocery store, and in analyzing rhythms in music. He explained that he learned fractions by building lego towers.

My daughter, nine, piped up and said she learned about diameter and circumference in a horseback riding ring. As for science, they observed nature–the stability and structure of hives, birds nests and termite hills; the life cycle, survival techniques and predators of insects. They learned about oceanography through TED science talks. History, my son explained, is Geography’s inseparable twin brother. They go everywhere together. In other words, my children started answering for themselves. And when they did, people listened.

Because my children spend time with people of all ages and are given the freedom to participate in “adult” work and conversation, they are exposed to a wide variety of topics, debates and ideas. With few exceptions, no one has ever told them they were too young to understand something being discussed in their presence. As a result, they are at ease holding a conversation and possess the vocabulary to express themselves articulately. In addition, they are largely in charge of making their education happen, from exploration to choosing a topic, doing research and/or seeking out mentors and materials. So it makes perfect sense that they would be able to handle a tough question about their learning experience.

Who better, in fact, to talk about what unschooling looks like than the very people who are doing it? While I am certainly a facilitator and advocate for my children’s passion for learning naturally, I was educated within the school system, which is perhaps why I still struggle with explaining “unschooling” in a tangible way, at least to skeptics. I had been answering these questions for my children thinking I needed to protect them from uncomfortable questions or harsh criticism. Once I realized that my children held no such fears, it became obvious that I was only protecting myself, which is proof that I still have a few hurdles to navigate on my own path. They, on the other hand, are quite confident about their journey. They perceive obstacles as challenges rather than barriers. They view questions, when phrased respectfully, as genuine invitations, to be answered with abandon, not restraint.

If we can trust our children to know what they need to learn and learn what they need to know, then it makes perfect sense to give them the floor when it comes to talking about those experiences. As long as they’re comfortable doing so, step aside and let them answer. As ambassadors for passionate learning, they clearly take the stage.

Here is one of my favorite inspiring examples of a learning ambassador:

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Hackschooling-Makes-Me-Happy-Lo

 

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.

A Plea On Behalf of Unschooling Newcomers

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As a relative newcomer to unschooling, I like to read up on blogs and online discussion groups dedicated to unschooling/homeschooling topics. Since we are the only expat family in our community whose children don’t attend school, I sometimes need support, even if it’s virtual. It’s comforting to see so many people out there asking the hard questions and seeking information. It’s even more encouraging to find so many others willing to share their experiences in a genuinely thoughtful, heartfelt and open-minded way.

What I find surprising is the amount of judgemental mudslinging going on out there. Some of it makes me cringe, and I can’t help wondering about the impact this might have on unschooling newcomers or those considering life without school.

I think we can all agree that, among the myriad of possible reasons we believe our children are better off without school, one of the biggest is that our educational system likes to break down and categorize both our children and what they learn. So why then is there so much sorting and categorizing going on within the online unschooling community?

My fear, in reading some of the exchanges, is that if rigidity exists in how we define our learning philosophy ( i.e. homeschooling, interest-led, unschooling, radical, etc.) that rigidity may create dissonance. And if someone is looking for answers or support within that community, but doesn’t necessarily agree with every aspect of that particular philosophy, they may feel either ostracized or pressured to conform. Which to me looks a lot like a subtle form of bullying.

There is a natural insecurity involved in stepping outside the educational box for most of us. Are we doing the right thing for our children? How will they learn? What does unschooling look like? Some may wonder, ‘what will others think?’ Those are the general questions that get asked and the responses vary greatly. The spectrum naturally exists, as it should. As to where each of us falls on it, the marker may fluctuate according to our individual needs and those of our children as they grow. Our diverse lives should shape our diverse learning philosophies. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a fair amount of the opposite. When a particular philosophy begins to define our lives, the whole notion of unschooling risks losing credibility and begins to resemble a fad, complete with trend-setters and gossip columns.

If we were each to fit neatly into an unschooling category further defined by what we eat, whose philosophy we follow (or don’t) and whether or not we have textbooks in the house, wouldn’t we then be classifying ourselves and each other? And isn’t that the exact thing we are trying to get away from by choosing to be autonomous parents who trust their children to learn passionately with our guidance and love?

And if we are willing to offer this respect to our children– often against social, familial and sometimes spousal opposition– shouldn’t we naturally extend the same courtesy to our fellow unschoolers? They deserve to be trusted to come to their own decisions and forge a unique path to unschooling without coercion, criticism or judgement. If we can do that for each other, the opposite ends of the spectrum have a good chance of coming together to form an endless circle. That’s a nice image in my book.

(Originally published in 2013 at SenegalEase.blogspot.com)