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The Four Educative Drives
Big Toe doesn't like it when you play slow
Recently I wrote about biking, reading and unschooling. In it I made the claim that unschooling is the balance bike of self-directed education. Unschooling is a process that creates a relational community of trust and love and allows young people to believe the truth that they are trusted to self-direct their own education by embodying that trust. The article described how when it came to my daughter learning to ride her bike, she rode it across the park once and then decided not to do it again for two years and instead to put the stabilisers back on and potter around a local car park. My claim was that in allowing her to do that, in not pushing her too much, in accepting her resistance, I created an environment in which that trust was embodied and therefore that that would create positive feedback for all future learning that she is self-directing, such as learning to read. But surely you can’t just allow your children to drift through life putting things off. Must you not challenge them too? Push them outside their comfort zone?
My daughter’s main love is football. She plays for a local girls team and it is one of the highlights of her week going training with all her friends. And she is reasonably good I think. During lockdown we played for hours in the front garden kicking the ball back and forth. My observation was at the start of the season she was one of the better players with one of the most powerful shots, but over the season a lot of other children have got better and maybe a few have surpassed her. There is one young girl in particular who has been scoring lots of goals and has both an extremely accurate and powerful shot.
We check in with my daughter regularly to find out what goals she has that she wants to actively progress towards. A few months ago it was learning to ride her bike, reading and playing more football with me. Whilst there was definitely an aim of explicit skill progression attached to biking it is hard to know how much one could separate the wants of getting better at football and having a space where we can play football together alone - read every time we go to the park with one football, two footballs, heck even four footballs my younger brother still gets in the way, conflicts arise and I can’t have an hour of dedicated time to play football how I want without him interfering. But I try to clarify her aim with her and she says she does want to get better at playing football.
I’m extremely competitive. As a child it was borderline outrageous. I lie. It was fucking outrageous how competitive I was. I could cry at the memories I have of young Timothy playing football on the playground, which ironically were mostly me crying then, in anger, as I couldn’t cope with the unfairness of other children just being normal children and not being ultracompetitive too. She is like me. Every time you play with a football it has to be competitive. Why would you bother if there aren’t teams, goals, a pitch marked out, rules, and people trying properly not just wandering around with the interest levels that they genuinely have. “When you play football you have to play matches! And why can’t you take this more seriously?”
I stated above that over the season I believe she has been surpassed by other children who have dramatically improved. This is not an essay on how to improve and be the best, how a child could fixate on progress like the Williams sisters. There maybe is a time for that mindset. But it is also fine for you to let your talents relative to other people ebb and flow. I was a late developer at football.I played football for my county at fourteen, when I had a sudden spike in my ability. But if you state your aims being that you want to improve then you do need to adopt a mindset of sorts, and a process to actualise that somewhat. The girl with the powerful and accurate shot is important to this piece because she has a mindset and that drove a desire for a process. Specifically a consistent practice of doing shooting drills in the garden with her sister. Matches are key to becoming a better footballer, but skill acquisition is also fundamental. Knowing this myself, being reminded of it by watching this girl improve week after week and knowing from talking to her that she is in the garden doing shooting practice I suggested we go to the park and do shooting drills so she could improve.
“No Tim, when you play football you have to play matches! And why can’t you take this more seriously?”
Should have seen that coming.
Unschooling as a philosophy seems like it is totally hands off. They direct their own education?!?! But as I keep pointing out it is more about demonstrating trust, and you can’t have trust in a vacuum and so it is extremely relational, and being relational it can respond to different people with different needs and personalities in individual ways. She won’t let me do football drills with her. We have to play matches. Have to pick our teams. Have to pick which kits we wear.And so we play a match one on one.
Now though I think she would be better off doing a shooting drill where she took two touches maximum and then shot at goal trying to practice both accuracy but also being able to shorten the distance between the first touch and the shot, she has already got the jumpers down, the goals are ready, the pitch is marked out. She’s going to be Man City. I’m Nottingham Forest. All we need now are the players.
But what’s that? Big Toe is going to play? Big Toe loves defending. He loves a tackle, but what he loves more is people who play quickly. He only comes out for a tackle when he sees someone playing slowly taking three touches before a shot.
And he does fly out for a tackle, getting his big toe on the ball almost every time as soon as a third touch is taken. Every time she plays slowly: here comes Big Toe. He commentates on himself constantly: Is Big Toe going to be needed for a tackle? Big Toe loves a tackle. Big Toe hates when people play slowly.
Big Toe played football for about an hour that day and she did about an hour of drills on shooting with two touches maximum. In some sense it feels like this isn’t unschooling, it’s just parenting.I guess one definition of unschooling is the process in which we just "parent" everything. Parenting is relational, rooted in trust and love too. Children today go to a school to learn the things that society thinks are important - some of them often are, reading, writing and mathematics spring to mind, and some of them are not, at least not to everyone to the same degree. Parents don’t have too much input into this black box that is the education system, and often believing there is no other way to learn how to read than school don't desire too, and yet outside of this institution they just parent and how they parent may not look at all like school for school has very little direct input in the other direction also. It should also be noted that unschoolers often note that children can be "schooled" by their parents if they are raised in relationships that are coercive and authoritarian. However, it is equally true that there are respectful parents who treat their children with trust and offer great agency to them at home who engage in the schooling system for a variety of reasons.
In the circles that I roll in there is a distinction between homeschooling and unschooling. Homeschooling replicates the aspects of school such as following a maths or an English curriculum at home whilst unschooling does not, but outside of that they may not appear too different.And some parents send their children to school and yet parent in ways that demonstrate a lot of trust in their children’s innate individuality and provide a lot of agency in the home. There is no perfect way to parent, there are many different parents providing different experiences to their children from different philosophical positions, all of whom should be proud of what they are doing and how they are living, therefore, I will repeat for clarity: at their core unschooling and good parenting are both relational ways of being in the world that are rooted in trust and love.
Before we had an education system we relied on the informal learning system. The informal learning system is a decentralised system and is often extremely hard to spot happening in the moment. It’s there when every child learns to talk. Indeed most jobs now rely on, not the degree you have already, but informal on the job training. Sometime during the Victorian era it was posited that the informal learning system was not producing the results that modern society required and an idea to replace it with a standardised model that could ensure that the necessary results were achieved was posited, and education as we now know it was born. However, the learning system still provides most of the learning that society rely upon. Formal education is the tip of the iceberg and the informal system the body of the iceberg, where job skills, social skills, language and cultural knowledge is transferred through pathways that are hard to see. James Scott argues
The more highly planned, regulated, and formal a social or economic order is, the more likely it is to be parasitic on informal processes that the formal scheme does not recognize and without which it could not continue to exist, informal processes that the formal order cannot alone create and maintain.
This parasitic nature can be seen in the persistent relationship here in the UK between class and socioeconomic status and educational attainment; the education system is so parasitic on the informal learning system that it is effectively measuring that and not itself.Not only is the formal system parasitic on the informal learning system it is becoming more and more apparent that the ends of standardisation (exam results) and the standardised means (the factory model) through which standardised outputs are deemed possible are failing more and more young people. Contemporary unschooling says not only are we philosophically opposed to standardisation as means and ends, but the technological capabilities of the 21st century allow us to break free from such rigidity easier than ever before. Unschoolers trust that the learning system is enough, after all it was all we had for almost all of our evolution. Parenting is one aspect of the informal learning system that we still have, coincidentally an aspect providing a vast amount of social input into society and the learning system, and hence why I see similarities and blurred lines between how I “unschool” and how I “parent”, but to unschoolers we often (re)claim these moments as education; maybe because the word education in our minds is contested and we need to fight to demonstrate our philosophical position.
The Alliance for Self-Directed Education states:
self-directed education is education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the learner, whether or not those activities were chosen deliberately for the purpose of education.
They claim that the four educative drives that children are innately endowed with are playfulness, curiosity, sociability, and planfulness. The means of the standardised education system crush playfulness and curiosity, and whilst sociability is allowed it is only within certain narrow parameters (mixed-age relationships are not valued for example), and the process of working towards a set specific standardised end, takes away the agency of planfulness from young people and ascribes it to adults.
As I write this my daughter woke up and came downstairs to proclaim that I should put the £1 I spent on ice cream for her yesterday in her money jar. When she realised the sleepy flaw in that logic she moved into the lounge and started counting the money in her money jar. Now she is sat at the kitchen table recounting it with me after first counting it on her own.
She is demonstrating curiosity and playfulness, she has moved from doing it on her own to with me to fulfill her social needs and she has a plan for spending it on ice creams because we are currently in the middle of a heatwave here in the UK.
She is self-directing her education right now, learning how to manipulate maths, coins, and place value systems. Piling the five pences into stacks of four to make counting in twenties easier of her own volition. Telling me off for focusing on this essay as she counts them, rightly so I might add, because I am not meeting her social needs in this moment.
But I as the parent am helping her to moderate her planfulness. Helping her fit her plans for ice cream with our wider plans for the day. Helping her think about remembering each pound she has counted but starting the next pound that she is counting anew rather than holding the previous pounds at the forefront of her working memory to reduce cognitive load. Helping her realise that although she might not enjoy the aesthetics of mixing copper pennies with silver coins the ice cream man will not object. Moreover if you need five more pence and that is all you have aesthetics be damned. Because self-direction requires planfulness but for young people planfulness requires, to some degree, knowledge, and that is likely to be the one thing that they might lack.
Unschooling is a philosophy that is very much not hands off. But in comparison to an education system that is so rigid and tightly controlled anything from the informal learning system looks as if it is sipping cosmopolitans on a beach in nothing but a towel poncho. And so that is what unschooling looks and sounds like to most people. But unschooling does not mean freedom to do whatever you want with no external consequences, boundaries or considerations necessary towards others. A.S. Neill said, “freedom not licence”. It is free because it is relational and rooted in trust and love, but because it is relational there can not be licence. You are beholden to maintain the relationships with those you live with and that requires compromise. Sometimes that compromise might be in not pushing your child to ride a bike, or do football shooting drills despite you thinking it is in their best interest because they have directly told you not to. But sometimes it might be a compromise for them as they have to listen to you offer them your theory of what might be in their best interest, like try to remember to defend as much as they attack whilst playing a football match. But sometimes, and most often, you leave it floating around in the middle based not on direct instruction but on play, fully relational.
The job of the parent is not to bring the child up to be the person that they want them to be. The job of the parent is to partner with the child to allow them to become the person that they want to be, to guide them more than direct them, to facilitate as many forks in the road instead of forcing a straight path toward predetermined ends. I started this essay talking about how our approach to both reading and biking has been seemingly hands off and wondering if there is space in unschooling philosophy for challenging and pushing children.
Planfulness is the element of the four educative drives that whilst inherent within children is most benefitted by the wisdom of elders. Cultures exist to provide pathways towards adulthood to take the wisdom of the tribe and distribute it across time and space to members through the informal learning system. Rituals are vehicles to turn action into motivationwhilst signaling to members the parts of a culture's informal learning system that has been most valued over time and most worthy of attention. Planfulness benefits from these traditions by taking the cognitive load away from members trying to grow within said culture. But we can't assume that because we have elders we can do away with planfulness altogether and survive on tradition alone. Planfulness is an inherent drive because it is what refreshes culture. And planfulness must therefore be cultivated within children. That is why I work, and my children attend, a learning community where there are clear processes to help people plan their projects and tune into their intrinsic motivations. It is why we ask to check in regularly with what goals my daughter wants to achieve so we can learn that she wants to work towards improving at football and partner her in achieving that aim. But planfulness has to be cultivated which means listening to not only her goal, but also how she wants to get there. We can try suggesting drills, but we have to respect that she does not want to. We have to listen to the fact that she wants to play matches and then when we suggest playing with Big Toe because our wisdom as elders knows this will help her progress towards her goal we have to listen to her again. Is this working for her?
I would like to make clear that at this point just in case I have been misunderstood. The point of Big Toe is not that we have coerced her into doing the drill that we think she wants to do. We have partnered with her to find the method (playing matches) that best works for her towards working towards her goal (getting better at shooting and scoring) in a way that she does not object to, but enjoys. If she had said, “I don’t want to play with Big Toe, it’s annoying, then I would have dropped it.” But the point is, as partners, as facilitators who value play as fundamental to learning, Big Toe is a shared arena of play that we can both enter into and enjoy, and first and foremost that is the most important thing. That I think it might help achieve some aims that she has stated she wants to work towards is almost immaterial compared to that. Because unschoolers don’t push and challenge our children for the sake of improvement, we playfully challenge our children for the sake of play itself.
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This phrase was originally late bloomer. Then I thought, maybe it is late developer. I googled both with footballer and late developer seemed more like the recognised phrase. Interestingly I thought I would just link to the top article on google so I read it. The skill that I possessed that made me the midfielder I always though was not technical. I was always extremely fit, getting up and down, box to box. But I always thought that my footballing brain developed at this time, which interestingly this article seems to suggest would be the bit that would be most likely to develop later on.
Whilst I remember people picking their teams back in the day I am sure that the insistence that you pick kits are a consequence of too much FIFA. A further consequence is that once everyone was in the corner crowding the ball as young footballers do and then the ball popped out into the middle of the box. She was in goal and suddenly no one was really in front of her, with a cheeky grin to her coach and me she set off on a run the whole length of the pitch, just as she would with the goalie in FIFA, luckily to have her shot saved otherwise we would never have heard the end of it.
If we had chose to send our children to school and she asked me to play football in the park would I have done something different to this? I suspect not.
Reading, writing and mathematics are also of relative importance to different people in different ways.
As parents almost always have been through it does pass influence on culturally by shaping the minds of future adults as children, hence the need for so much deschooling.
Let’s leave radical unschooling out the equation. As with everything, nothing is so binary anyway and each individual situation will be individual. Some families we know are hardly any different to us bar doing fifteen minutes of both phonics and times tables every morning before the rest of the day looks like the free play that we would associate with learning, and they would too. It is also true that some homeschool families are deeply distrustful of a state school system that is authoritarian and coercive, whilst seemingly perpetuating those conditions at home with their children.
Scott, J. C. (1998)Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press: New Haven.
There is of course a feedback loop on process here where middle class families are aware of what the education system is measuring and desires and so provides a home environment to cater to that. So the informal learning system has in a sense been corrupted by the prestige that society places on the education system. However, in another sense this is totally normal. The informal learning system should always seek to optimise itself towards the goals that each specific cultural context values, in our case that happens to be GCSE’s and A Levels, and to a certain extent staying on the path to them by behaving in ways that the education system prefers.
Stolen from Ran Prieur who keeps a blog that can’t be hyperlinked. And yes I used this quote in a previous essay because I think I can’t stop seeing thoughts I have had about education over the last few years slightly anew though this lens.