The pieces of my life's mosaic are many.... family, parenting, unschooling, social justice, community, faith, ethical issues and the environment. This blog will reflect a bit of everything, I imagine, all mushed up together, just like life is. The "glue" in my mosaic is the bit that's not always visible, but definitely holds it all together: the love, joy, peace & faith without which life would pretty much fall apart. The spiral signifies the ebb and flow of life around a central point, which for me is God.

Friday, October 28, 2011

2011 Australian Unschooling Conference

Well here I am at the 2nd Australian Unschooling Conference. What an absolutely wonderful privilege! I feel so blessed to be here in this place of inspiration and beauty! I promised last year a summary of what is was about, what I learned, etc, but never got around to doing it. It felt overwhelming to go back through lots of notes and try to put it into a succinct summary. This year, however, I'm flying solo at the conference, so I'm spending my evenings in solitude, after full and exciting days at the conference. My intention is to write a blog post every night, summarising a bit of what happened during the day. So for those of you that would love to have come but couldn't make it, this is hopefully the next best thing!
Today was, in a word, fantastic!! The location is superb (the Whitsundays at The Great Barrier Reef), the weather is balmy, the people (including the kids) are awesome, and the talks were inspiring. There was nothing inherently new for me in what was said, but it was great to have my lifestyle and philosophy validated and just to be with such an awesome tribe of people. :)
The first person to speak was the organiser of Australia's "Camp With Wings" - an annual camp for homeschooled/unschooled teens (14-18yo). It was pretty inspiring listening to her, and I can imagine my 11 year old wanting to go in a few years time, probably with some of his local friends. Its a great camp for kids who don't go to school to connect with others from around the country and to expand their horizons as they build new connections. I found it helpful to have a few questions answered in the discussion time, such as "Do they have to attend the workshops?" to which I was delighted to hear a "No!" The camp is a spin-off from the American "Not Back To School Camp" but they've really made it their own, with a great Australian feel to it.
Next up was Beverley Paine, one of our local advocates for home education in Australia. With her children all now adults, her words are certainly validated by experience. She spoke of their life's journey from home-school-at-home, to alternative schools, to natural learning.... I think many people would feel encouraged by their story, because it's how so many start out. It was interesting to hear about how Beverley, at age 13, was already starting to question things like education and parenting! A passion she still has today.

The next blessing came from Dayna Martin, author of Radical Unschooling: A Revolution Has Begun. Dayna's authenticity and passion are infectious. She's actually pretty down-to-earth for an American lol (will I get charged with political-incorrectness for saying that?) Here's a few morsels of Dayna wisdom for you, mixed in with some of my own thoughts:

  • There are hundreds of ways to do things. For instance, there isn't just one way/rule for doing multiplication, like is taught in school. If we allow learning to happen and unfold organically, we'll be surprised at the creative methods our children come up with to work out the answer to something!
  • If we bring more of what they love into their life (rather than less, in an effort to "balance" their lives), they will naturally use the tools of writing, reading and maths along the way. Learning is a side effect of their passions, and is often invisible for a time until they come out with a comment, or pick up a book, and we suddenly realise that all this learning has been going on as they've been going about their fun lives!
  • A child who has not been forced to learn to read or do maths will not resist learning those things because they will see their usefulness and won't have any baggage to get rid of! If they weren't useful skills, they wouldn't come across the use of them in their lives, and none of us would need to know any of that stuff! But because they ARE useful, our children will want to use them, unless they've been forced to do so in an isolated context, removed from the tasks for which they're so useful.
  • You can never know by "examining a child's mind" (aka testing) what they truly know. Testing is an assault on a child's freedom. I know I certainly wouldn't want to be constantly tested on what I know or don't know!
  • The natural age at which children are ready to learn to read is anywhere from 5 - 15! And the time frame in which unschooled children learn to read is usually longer than children who are forced into the school's timetable and expectation. It's not uncommon for an unschooled child's first book to be something like Harry Potter. They might learn to read at a later age, but there's usually been so much invisible learning going on that they skip all the readers and phonics workbooks and move straight onto real books. Many, many children learning naturally at home learn to read from playing computer games etc.
  • Unschooled children don't know less than school children, but they will know different things; things that are relevant to their life. They are not learning the same information as every other child. They are learning deeply what interests them, and following their passions with joyful abandon.
  • Don't limit your world; expand it!
  • Examine your intention when you are wanting to introduce something to your child's life. If there is a pressure or expectation that they should learn something, they will pick up on this and often resist it or be turned off. Better to offer an opportunity, or share a link, or show our children something because we genuinely love it, or think our children will, not to try to manipulate them into "learning something". BE AUTHENTIC! And delight in their authenticity, too.
  • This life isn't about keeping our children happy 24/7. It's about allowing them to feel the full range of human emotions, but with our support and encouragement. If they feel frustrated because they can't do or have something, etc, we can listen with empathy and support them, offer solutions etc, but sometimes we just won't be able to make the situation different for them. This is very different to when parents intentionally make things difficult for their child so they will learn a lesson.
  • As unschooling parents, we might not be standing at the kitchen table filling our children's empty brain cavities with information, but we do need to be available to them if they ask us a question, or want us to help them with something, etc. There are times when we genuinely can't do it straight away, but it can help to write ourselves a note as a reminder to help them with it later.
  • We are culturally conditioned to think we're "slaves" if we're bringing food or drink to our children when they're engaged in a game or whatever. But it's about perspective, how we see things. Doing something for our children that they could do for themselves is an act of love, if we choose to see it that way.
  • We also need to engage in some healthy self-nurture. If we don't care for ourselves, how will our children ever learn that that's important? Unschooling parents can tend to let the pendulum swing to the complete opposite end of the spectrum in comparison to an authoritarian parent-led life, to the point that we feel driven to always fulfil our children's needs & desires at the expense of our own. Let happiness and joy be your guide. If you're feeling overwhelmed, listen to that. There is no need for guilt. In fact, it's often through being in a place of overwhelm or frustration that we realise what we really want in life (by feeling the impact of experiencing something that we realise we DON'T want). So the hard times can give us helpful insight and be an impetus for change.
  • Because we are so close and connected to our children, we often feel their pain very deeply. But it is important for us to hold our own joy in the midst of their upset, whilst being compassionate towards them. If we get upset and angry when they're upset and angry, it usually just makes the situation worse. We musn't try to make them be happy so that we can be happy. We can "hold the space" for them (similar to how a doula holds the space for a labouring mother). This is a concept I'm still trying to understand, but I've learned a bit from reading here: We can take the judgment out of the equation. Istead of "anger is bad, happy is good", it just IS. We don't have to control our children to joy.
  • We can be with our children 24/7 but not really be "present" with them. It's great to find ways of playing/being with them where we can be authentic. Eg. if your child wants you to play Barbies with them, and this is something that you find very difficult, but you go along with it anyway, the child will tend to sense our lack of presence and interpret it as meaning we don't want to really be with them. Better to be honest and say, "I really want to be with you, but I really don't enjoy doing..... Is there something else we could do together?"
  • If we're finding it difficult connecting with our children because the house is out of control and we can't let go of all the "I-should-be-doing-that" thoughts, it can help to go to a park or a beach or wherever to play with our kids.
  • So many parents judge their children's passions and interests as obsessive or addictive, yet on the other hand people drug children in schools to make them this focussed on one task!!! It can really help to move away from a place of judgment and fear and instead to delight in their focus (and perhaps even use the time to pursue a passion of our own, or just relax on the lounge with a book). Humans, by nature, learn in big chunks of time, which is in stark contrast to schools, where they are expected to change focus every hour or two. When children have total freedom (and an engaged parent), their balance will be beautiful. They will deeply engage in something if they're passionately interested in it at that time, and take it to deeper levels than we ever thought possible, and they will also know when they need to take a break etc. However, if we have set it up that they can only have "2 hours" (or whatever) on that game, they will be sure to sit there for those 2 hours and not risk losing even one second of it.
  • When our children are deeply engaged in something, instead of fearing or judging it, and trying to pull them away from it, we can look up resources about that game or activity etc, and fully support them in their interest. There was lots of talk about Minecraft, one of the current games that many young people are playing. Today a bunch of boys were gathered in Dayna's cabin with her 13 year old son, and they were making a Minecraft "app", using proper computer programming, maths etc. It was a great story because it exemplified everything Dayna had been talking about! They were deeply involved in taking their mutual passion for Minecraft to another level. If this interest had been "controlled" by time or judgment, this programming experince would never have happened. It's so wonderful to see kids and parents revelling in the joy of a life lived passionately & freely!
The other talk today was by one of the dads, Rem. He has recently moved from a life caught up in the corporate world, to a life running his own business from home. He quickly admitted that he has much to learn in terms of making that really work successfully, but he's certainly enjoying a greater level of involvement in family life, and a closer relationship with his kids. He talked about how most men live a life where "success" is very sequential. They go through school, get into the best uni possible, get the best job possible, work their way up the ranks and ta da! Success. They often see school and education in the same light: they seek out the "best school" for their kids, send them off and read the report cards. So for men who have wives that are strong enough to buck the system and keep their kids at home, and particularly for men whose wives are drawn to the unschooling philosophy, it can be a great challenge to accept this! He talked about the importance of finding a supportive unschooling community of friends. He also talked about how Dads can feel isolated and left behind even within their own family, and how it's really important for them to make the most of the opportunities they do have at home. He talked about a car trip they did where he had to make some business calls. He told the kids that either they could stop the car so he could talk on the side of the road in peace, or they could be quiet so he could talk while his wife kept driving. They decided to be quiet!! Then, when they got there, he still had more business calls to make, but by this time he was walking barefoot along the beach whilst talking.
It was funny hearing about how he started to embrace unschooling. When the children were younger, he really trusted his wife to "successfully homeschool the kids" because she had an early childhood degree. But then, as they got older and she started to learn about unschooling, they had been arguing a lot, and finally, when he was travelling overseas one time for work, his wife handed him the book "The Reading Bug". He read it in a hotel lobby and rang his wife in tears (she gave us that tidbit) saying that he really got it now. She got up and spoke about how she'd learned (and is still learning) to trust her husband's own journey, and to provide him with helpful resources along the way (but not too many!), rather than try to control his learning (in terms of understanding unschooling) and getting frustrated when he isn't "getting it" or embracing it. In her book, Dayna likens this to "unschooling our husbands" (treating them with the same trust and providing them with resources but without manipulation or expectation - just like we do our children). This resonated with many of us, being an all too familiar situation, where the wife is miles ahead in terms of reading and understanding this unschooling paradigm (because it is her domain), and the husband is struggling to keep up, and fearful of this thing he doesn't understand. It's so important to give each other space to grow.
Well, that's about it for now!! Congratulations if you've made it to the end. I'm looking forward to another exciting day tomorrow, and will hopefully write more about it tomorrow night.


  1. Fantastic post and so much work put into it. I can tell your mind is swelling with ideas. Thank you so much for letting me come to the conference with you! I've got a few things to commit to God re: our home ed lifestyle and I know that His way for us is best and nearly always out of the box and not always what we would think. It's an exciting life. And more and more I am grateful for it, especially when considering the freedom and choices and pioneer ground to tread. God bless, see you tomorrow night!

  2. Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, Karen xxxx For a couple of things - one for coming back and blogging after all this time of being away from this lovely space and 2, for filling me in so very well of what's happening up north. I'm so sorry i'm not there with all of you lovely people. I'll definitely be tuning in here every day to see how it's all going. Please say hi to everyone for me - especially Beverley Paine and Jo Issac if you meet her. Have you met some lovely friends of mine - Melinda Booth from our natural learners group (and her kidlets - Ptolemy and Perdi) and Estelle who used to live down here but has now settled up in the Atherton Tablelands. and Julie Irwin from Moruya? What about Lauren Fisher? Oooh, wishing so much that I was there right now xxx

  3. Thanks Karen, what a fantastic summary of the days events and the wonderful information shared. You're right not much new there but a great reminder of things I've picked up along the way. I'm so grateful that you have made this commitment to share the conference and all you gain with the rest of us. Pip xx

  4. Awesome post beautiful! So happy you are having fun and can't wait to hear every morsel! Hugs and smoochies xoxoxox

  5. A great read Karen - thank you for taking the time to write it. I SO wish I was there right now! Keep 'em coming!

  6. Reading this was like coming home - thankyou so much Karen xx

  7. Thanks for taking the time to write out what you heard in the talks - it sounds very inspirational!!

  8. There is sooooo much going on here and as I absorb it physically I'm soooooo grateful that you have taken notes and are sharing yourself with them through this blog. A THOUSAND TIMES THANK YOU! It really conveys what it is like to be here. BEAUTIFUL oxoxoxo