You don't learn to ride a bike, you just get on it one time and go.
Unschooling is the balance bike of self-directed learning
My daughter is seven. She can’t read yet. We unschool her, and her younger brother for that matter, and so we are comfortable with that. Sometime around the age of seven or eight early childhood moves into middle childhood, the brain develops dramatically and the desire to master things becomes more intense. I believe we are getting to that stage as I see signs of that drive for mastery starting to develop in multiple different arenas.
We have, in essence, unschooled her since birth, and in a sense my parents for that matter, which is far less comfortable.Sometime around the age of sixty as early childhood moves into middle childhood, the brain starts panicking and the desire for grandchildren to master things becomes more intense. I believe we are getting to that stage as we saw signs of the great panic recently, in the big “When will she shall start learning to read?” conversation.
It seems the first stage of learning to read in an unschooling house is panic. Not from the child but from those outside of the child wondering when these immensely vital skill will be learnt; they will won’t they?! Eventually?! Often the parents themselves have doubts, maybe it is the grandparents. Definitely an incredulous friend who can’t fathom a process of such trust.Reading is such a fundamental skill that unlocks so many of the doors to such a broad part of our highly literate and textual society that the idea that your child/grandchild has seemingly no interest in learning to read yet can be scary. I get it. And as they get older, and it appears to not be happening as you first thought it might, well I guess that will feed the fear.
I learnt to read before I went to school. This is not a flex. I think it is important to remember that there is a reasonable part of the population who similarly could read before teacher led instruction, demonstrating that it is not wholly necessary. It is also important to recognise that historically my experience of learning to read before going to school is not an anomaly. In the UK two thirds to three quarters of the working classes were literate in the 1830’s and schooling only became compulsory in 1876.From 1650 to 1795 American male literacy rates rose from sixty to ninety percent and by 1840 were somewhere between 91% to 97%. In Massachusetts on the eve of compulsory schooling literacy sat at 98%, over a hundred years in to public schooling it is now 90%. These historical literacy facts confound the mantra of phonics, phonics, phonics, drills, drills, drills.
So maybe panic is not necessary, maybe there is another way to learning to read. Of course that is easy to say but hard to put into action, as with most things. Here might be the part of the essay to explain what actions we actually take with regards to supporting her learning to read. I have already noted that I have started to see the brain developments start to create drives to master things; screens, for example, are shifting more and more to be seen as tools for learning history, myths, riddles and mathematics than pure entertainment. Similarly with reading there is clearly a goal of being able to read being pursued. But it is not the actions and strategies that she is employing that convince me of this, but the conversations around reading that demonstrate an innate desire to progress. But oftentimes it is slow progress, until it is not. Self-directed education can feel like watching the Wizard of Oz. Most of the learning happens hidden behind the curtain and it is not until the finale, until the child says, oh you know I can actually do that thing, that it is all revealed.
The grass is slick with morning dew, as it was back then. From back here it looks so different to how it did up there, but the feeling is so reminiscent. Every physical wobble is psychological, setting off another pulsing tension pumping back through the arms, stiffening them as if a ratcheting adrenaline tourniquet is slowly tightening as the impending moment looms large. The cramping, tightening feeling radiating around my radius tastes the same as before, bone dry, but looking down I don’t see a few freckles, goosebumps like bubble wrap, wisps of blond hair and four white knuckles, but a prominent pulsing ulna artery disappearing under the curve of a leather seat.
Back then, from up there, time was eternally present, but from back here it is all about the moment that is yet to come. However, time feels like a broken clock to me. It seems both stopped still and solely focused on coming together and being right sometime in the future. The moment will come, it has to. The moment of letting go is both physical and metaphorical and it has to come, otherwise she’ll remain tethered to me.
To breathe readiness into the world would be to unbalance it, so she takes one more deep lungful and holds it, focusing. So it’s all on me. But I can only do what she needs me to do when she is ready for me to do it. And she can’t move her diaphragm and her feet. The wheels and pinions in my watch have barely ticked over but the gears in my head are whirling in time to her pedals. Time is slowing down, but my legs are picking up. We are really moving now. From above we must look like a sine curve slowly petering into a straight line. I think I feel it, I’m sure I feel it; a straight line. I feel it again for a third time just to make sure and then I let go and she flies.
That was two years ago roughly and she biked across the local park fifty metres on her first attempt, she swiftly proclaimed she could ride her bike and then promptly went on the swings and never really rode again for a couple of years. Sure we tried to get her to get back in the saddle, literally, but to no avail. We would go regularly to the local library car park on a Sunday evening when it was desolate, but she insisted that we put the stabilisers back on and wanting to honour her request I conceded thinking it would be temporary. Months later she was still more interested in chasing me round whilst riding with the safety net of stabilisers than taking them off and flying again. Then summer leafed over into autumn and the wet British weather closed that chapter of her biking adventures in the library car park.
Why did she not just carry on biking when she could now do it? I don’t have an answer to that question. I think that potentially the addition of a younger brother to our family meant that she craved sometime alone with me in which her need for loving and fun attention outcompeted her want to seriously practice the skill of bike riding. However, I must admit I am speculating.
When I was up front learning to ride it took me a comparative infinity; a whole day of my father assisting me, plenty of bumps and pain; definitely not a one attempt and I am off affair. People have been biking for hundreds of years now, and though a bike without pedals was invented for adults in the Victorian era it wasn’t until the last couple of decades that the clever idea of a balance bike for young children has taken off. See we have known to decouple the two key skills of balancing and pedaling for a long time. When I was a child that was achieved through the use of stabilisers - learn pedaling first, balancing last. But it appears that we had our logic back to front. The balance bike gives children the ability to whizz around practising the harder skill of balancing first before adding pedals laterand from my anecdotal evidence collection of sampling the age of children who I have only just dodged as they bike directly at me in the park it appears to be a much more effective system
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
I always think of unschooling as a process of trust. It puts the prerequisite skill of trust before learning so when learning is ready to happen learning just happens. If you want to know how to follow your motivations and teach yourself you need to be able to trust yourself, but that starts with seeing trust reflected back at you by those around you. If you are off balance in this regard you will not be cognitively clear as to what you want/need to do.Unschooling is the process of saying to those around you I trust you to get the balance right. An unschooling household or community is the balance bike of self-directed education; once the child trusts the environment to allow them to pursue their own path they will pedal off learning.
This past couple of months she has stated a desire to ride a bike again. The original bike she had “is too small for me now and too heavy” she states. There is probably some truth in that statement. We could have pursued a path of if you get on the bike and ride it then we will buy you a new slightly bigger, lighter one, but if she wants to ride and we need to buy a new one soon anyway why not buy the bike, instigate further excitement in the bike riding idea and push for her to properly learn to ride before the summer is out. When they excitedly name the bike you know that your bet that they will spend the whole summer in the saddle is going to offer you a hefty return.
I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to put those stabilisers back on. It was even more frustrating to keep being rebuffed when I asked to take them off week after week. But the deschooling process I needed to go on was of recognising that my want to have her ride her bike again is not as important as her need to be validated and accepting whatever reason that she has that is obscured from me and letting that go. Letting her put the stabilisers on had little effect on her learning to ride the bike. She could already do it. She already had put the hours in on the balance bike. She had the prerequisite skills. But letting her put the stabilisers back on was letting her whizz around on the balance bike of unschooling: it told her you can learn this on your own terms.
There is a possibility that if I had pushed her and made her bike without stabilisers she might still have learnt on a similar time frame as her demand avoidance could have kicked in and the library car park would have seemed much less inviting.She was inevitably going to learn to bike, but she now owns the process of learning to ride a bike.
She got to rock up to the local park and say to me you don't learn to ride a bike, you just get on it one time and go. And importantly that is another piece she has placed in the puzzle of life that tells her that that is the case for everything; you don’t learn to read a book, you just pick one up one time and go.
Unschoolers make up an extremely small percentage of the population and therefore the research available on how they learn to read is somewhat limited. Peter Gray’s research shows that similar to myself some start learning to read before school age and the age that people start learning to read can start as young as 4 and be as old as 14. It seems that the age at which unschoolers start to read roughly fits a normal distribution between these two ages. But a consistent theme that pops up in numerous places in the research is that unschoolers, especially those who start to read later in life, often go from not being able to read to being able to read in a matter of weeks.This may seem absurd in a society where the expectation is that, bar some extremely bright kids who learn before they start school, teacher led instruction is required and children must spend hours, often daily in school, learning to read.
But as we have already noted literacy was widespread before compulsory education. So how did people in the Victorian era learn to read without school? Dr Harriet Pattisonbelieves that contemporary education is caught in a feedback loop around learning to read that is misconstruing and narrowing the possibilities of our understanding around how reading is acquired. Anna Sfard thinks learning is understood through metaphor. The metaphor of acquisition says that learning is about skills, constructing knowledge, building it up block by block; this is the metaphor that phonics and most reading pedagogy rests on. There is a second metaphor however, that of participation. This metaphor suggests a group endeavour and an ongoing activity. Drawing on Lave and Wenger we can see that I, others who learnt to read before school, the various homeschoolers in Dr Pattison's research and most literate folks before mass education, were held in literacy communities of practice, coming to reading not as a cognitive skill but as a social practice. The metaphors that we employ are important, they not only shape our understanding and practice but also, if we are not careful, make us myopic to other potentialities, other ways of being. When Sfard introduced the idea of the metaphors of acquisition and participation she said that
too great a devotion to one particular metaphor can lead to theoretical distortions and undesirable practices.
Viewing reading as participation is important for unschoolers. We can make claims such as reading is not a skill but an object of emotional attachment; words can not be graded as hard or easy but are contextually meaningful to individuals; reading is an apprenticeship relationship; silent reading demonstrates that meaning can be encoded from text without speech being involved; reading is not a series of increasingly complex cognitive competences but can be obtained through a narrow contextual interpretation, memorisation of a Dr. Seuss book for instance, that can then be applied more generally. None of these claims make sense from a metaphor of acquisition, but viewed through the lens of participation they do. That is not to say that acquisition is not important. We do some phonics, as did most of the homeschoolers at some point in Dr Pattison’s research, but it is to say that they should be used, and most importantly viewed, pragmatically, only if it is interesting and useful to the individual child. One unschooler summed up their relationship to the metaphor of acquisition best
A method is only a method if it stands in contrast to the rest of life.
When my daughter refused to ride her bike for two years we could have focused on the skills that she was missing out on learning, the joy that she would have had on bike ridesif she just stuck at it. But that would have been to see learning to ride a bike through the metaphor of acquisition alone. Just as “reading an instruction manual, rather than asking them to try and sound out a word has enabled a positive participation in a literacy experience”, so too playing in the car park with the stabilisers on is valid if viewed through the lens of the metaphor of participation.
When she got on her new bike she rode pretty much the same fifty metres across the field as the first time. Then she got off the bike again and walked for the swings. Fuck, I thought, not this again?! But this time to be fair she was following her younger brother and after a few seconds must have realised that she didn’t want to swing, she wanted to bike. So she got back on, experimented with her new eight gears, found the one she liked and then she rode around the park for an hour. That evening we had football training. We normally walk, but no. She wanted to bike. So she rode there and back. All in all she went from not riding a bike to riding five miles on her first day.
The skill of riding a bike is not as complex as the skill of reading, but watching her go from nothing to five miles reminded me that yes, that is how she will learn to read. On her own terms. Yes, she will carry on playing phonics games, letter bingo, read alongside us, do more of the gamified reading programme on the computer she enjoys, slowly reading more and more words until the tide can’t be held back any longer. The skills and knowledge that she is picking up now is the balance bike of reading, they are balancing her, orientating her. And when she is ready she will just pick up a book one time and read.
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Probably more deschool than unschool to be fair. Deschooling is the process of aligning yourself more with an unschooling philosophy.
I am continuing to footnote everyone trust comes up as a tenant of unschooling practice.
The Victorian Reading Public by R K Webb: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-2273.1957.tb00935.x
Separating School and State by Sheldon Richman
The metaphor doesn’t stretch to the fact that the point of the wizard of oz is that the finale was all a facade and learning is the opposite. The point is that, like Dorothy, you think one thing is going on (often not a lot) and then realise it was in fact the opposite (God, they can already do it!).
In fact a friend of my daughter’s who could cycle at age three progressed from a balance bike to a bicycle and slightly struggled. A friend of the parents’ who worked in a cycle shop recommended taking the pedals off so he could use the bike as a balance bike for a few weeks to get used to the slightly heavier weight of this normal bike, become accustomed with balancing it and then put the pedals back on. It worked a treat apparently and he got on it a week or so later and just rode off as well.
We see this at the learning community I work at all the time with young people coming to us from school. The process of deschooling is extremely important for them to get back into balance. Often all they do is play with no broader aims as they go through that process for a couple of months.
I actually believe that that the logic is almost back to front here. Children come into this world expecting to be held in a community/culture that trusts them to self-direct, it is our cultural interferences in “schooling” them that break that inherent trust down. But in this instance in referring to my daughter’s brain development at age seven as the frontal and temporal lobes grow massively, her cognitive and emotional capabilities and she has a desire to master things and wants to self-direct from her perspective she is looking back (not literally) at the previous six years of her life and seeing if she has the balance bike skills down. If she has had an experience of an environment that trusts her to follow her own path she will feel confident in following her intrinsic motivations, which in essence creates a positive feedback loop.
That is not to say that you should not opt for the former option in some circumstances. Unschooling is a relational process and at each step you have to gauge the relationship and see if some pushback would be better employed. I am thinking about how to write an essay on pushing back to instigate the learning outcome you want to see, know that they want to achieve, but that they can’t connect the dots from your idea to their wants because their childhood view is myopic, but all doing so in a loving relational way that deepens the relationship between her and I.
My bet would be that she probably wouldn’t have kept asking to go to the library car park after a while if it felt forced upon her. Maybe that is not true however, maybe she would have pushed through and the joy of riding would have outweighed the initial imposition and she would have been off. We have, sadly, an unfortunate case of Schrodinger’s unschooler.
Reading is a much more complicated skill to grasp than riding a bike which ultimately comes down to balancing and pedaling and maybe steering. What that actually means when they say going from nothing to doing it in a few weeks will vary from individual to individual and none of them are starting from literally nothing. Most people can read their name before school age and pick up a number of words on the way, so “nothing” is relative, but my reflections from the literature is that it normally means moving from a generally low comprehension to being able to read fairly fluently in a matter of weeks.
Rethinking Learning to Read by Dr Harriet Pattison.
On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One by Anna Sfard: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1176193
Situated Learning by Lave and Wenger
Riding bikes is not really my thing I prefer to walk. If I had have been an avid biker like the guy who lives opposite us who goes biking every Saturday in his lycra I would have created very different conditions for participation in a community of biking.
From Rethinking Learning to Read
Another masterful essay that balances the academic and the poetic. So many points here that resonated as teacher and father. What I like particularly about your writing is that it challenges, educates, reaffirms and plants questions that need further thought once you've read it. All in equal measure.
One term I found really interesting was 'unschool', particularly with my teacher head on. I'm used to 'home-school' but this was new to me and is something that I need to mull over.
"Yes, she will carry on playing phonics games, letter bingo, read alongside us, do more of the gamified reading programme on the computer she enjoys"
Which phonics games and reading programme is she using?