Training is Tricky

Sue Patterson, who has taken up the Unschooling Blog Carnival along with Cydney Romano, has been bugging me to write a blog post about their next month’s theme, which is “Animals.” I’ve been uninspired in spite of the fact that our family has a new dog, Persie, a small, female mixed terrier we rescued in late December from the city animal shelter. (She is named after Robin Van Persie, the soccer player, by the way.)

I think my lack of inspiration might be because the connection between unschooling and animals is almost too obvious. I mean, animals and unschooling seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Yes, of course, you can have one without the other – but boy, oh boy, are they good together!

Still, I don’t feel very inspired to write about all the great things kids learn from interacting with animals. I thought I could write about Rosie’s years of intense involvement with horses. Or, maybe Roxana’s deep, deep love for all things related to cats would be interesting. I could talk about Roya swimming out in the ocean among the dolphins and where that kind of experience has brought her today. These interests led from one thing to another and resulted in a tremendous wealth of opportunities for learning all kinds of things.

But, right now, we have a new one-year-old dog and we’re taking her to “puppy school.” So I’m immersed in thoughts of “training” and positive reinforcement. And I can’t help considering how this kind of dog training compares to how our children grew up. People sometimes talk about unschooling their dog. I think by that they mean they are kind and generous and give a lot of freedom to their pet and the dog learns without formal training. The instructors at our puppy classes might be a little surprised to discover how sweet a dog can be and how much it can learn if given appropriate and accurate feedback, but not formal behaviorist training. But I think this approach applies to some breeds far more than others. Our instructors are very into positive reinforcement – training dogs to do tricks using treats as rewards. I keep imagining training our children that way, thinking how silly it seems, and then I remember that this IS the way many people think of raising children. Well, many use negative reinforcement (punishment) and the more enlightened use positive rewards instead of negative consequences. This is the reason for gold stars and stickers and free pizza for reading 15 minutes a day and so on.

Of course, dogs DO respond to incentives, and so do people. Our instructors’ dogs are trained to do over 200 tricks. Could I, or would I want to, say the same about my children? If want my dog to sit and stay on command, I can train her to do that. It takes time, but it isn’t at all hard. I just have to keep rewarding successive approximations of what I want her to do and, eventually, she’ll do it when I tell her to do it. This is behavior shaping and it can work on people, too. Why not train our kids like we train dogs?

The answer is that we want more from our children than instant obedience, we want them to learn to use judgment and take initiative and, well, think for themselves. Training them with rewards may seem positive and at least better than using threats and punishments. It may seem easy and may get short-term results. But, good strong human relationships do not develop between parents and children when parents treat children like pets who need to be trained.

And yet, people do respond to incentives and behaviors do have consequences. Sometimes people say they are using “logical” or “natural” consequences to teach their children. These are typically euphemisms for a form of punishment – a way to “negatively reinforce” certain behaviors. This is the flip side of reward training. If a child leaves a toy outdoors and it begins to rain, the parent may call it a natural or logical consequence to leave the toy outdoors to be ruined. I call it mean and that is exactly what the child will think of it.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Relationship-based parenting is living in a household with each person giving and getting what they need, including support and encouragement and information. Parents take responsibility for being kind and generous with their children while their their children are growing into kind and responsible people, themselves. The parents do this by BEING kind and generous and responsible with their children. Children learn what they live with. Parents should also give good, clear, and accurate information to help their kids understand how the world works, but they can do that while being kind and helpful, they don’t have to create opportunities for negative lessons to be learned. “I brought your doll in out of the rain; I dried her off and I think she’ll be okay,” versus “You left your doll out in the rain after I’d told you 10 times to bring her in. It is your responsibility and I warned you so I left her there and now she’s ruined.” The first parent has just helped her child along the road to learning thoughtfulness, care of property, and kindness. The second parent has modeled irritation, impatience, and cold-heartedness. Which will the child learn?

Children are not pets to be trained, but young humans to be loved and guided with compassion and kindness. My dog seems to be enjoying her puppy school training sessions. She’s excited and eager. But my children would have felt manipulated, insulted, and controlled and would NOT have responded well.

Do you remember “Silly Pet Tricks?” I hate to mention it, because someone might take me up on it, but I can easily imagine a tv reality show called, “Silly Kid Tricks,” where parents are taught to use positive reinforcement to shape a child into doing some foolish-looking behavior. Let’s not go there. Let’s love and share and model and live our lives with our children and avoid trying to manipulate them into doing tricks for us.

Careful Planning and Instruction? No Thanks!

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) got me thinking back in the 1980s when they were strongly against early academic, and especially early reading, instruction. I took their arguments to heart, and my own young children freely played their way through their preschool years and were not given any type of early instruction. Instead, we created a rich and stimulating environment in which they could learn through play, experimentation, exploration, investigation, collaboration, and doing what brought them joy. And they learned. A lot. There was no stopping them. After that, school was a big disappointment. The very idea of school is that someone (usually some committee of experts) decides what, when, and how children should learn, and eventually the requirements filter down to a classroom where a teacher tries to inspire, cajole, or flat-out force the kids into learning it. WHAT a difference from the way my children had been learning until then!

My own thinking about learning was firmly rooted in the radical ideas of John Holt and A.S. Neill, both of whom I’d read before I ever had any children of my own.  Both argued for supporting children’s learning without curriculum, lessons, or other imposed-from-above methods by offering real-life experiences and encouragement and assistance to a child pursuing his/her own interests. I had managed to get my children into an cutting-edge public school which had ungraded classrooms and an unusual amount of freedom for students. There were no tests and no grades. Classrooms had learning centers and children were free to move around the room, working on activities of their own choice for much of the day.

So what was wrong? Why did I continue to be so dissatisfied with the schooling my children were receiving? Even while I spent my time volunteering at the school, working in the classroom, running PTA events, promoting “teacher appreciation” and school spirit, I was disappointed with the way my children were being educated. There were good times and bad, but, overall, I thought it was stifling, and I could see that it was slowly, but surely, dulling the children’s initial bright-eyed curiosity.

And then we simply stopped doing school. We pulled the kids out of formal school and we stopped worrying at all about lessons, teaching, curriculum, assessment. We focused on creating a joy-filled and stimulating family life in which the children could discover and follow their interests. They watched, read, listened, played, built, created, explored, investigated, experimented and learned. They talked and wrote and sang at the tops of their voices throughout the day. We spent days outdoors at the beach, in the woods, hiking, swimming, and relaxing. We spent days cocooned in the house, cooking and playing games. Life happened. Learning happened.

Now they are grown. And, maybe surprisingly in light of our unconventional choices, they are quite successful in very conventional ways including work, college, relationships, and hobbies. All three are leaders in their communities. They turned out just fine, thank you very much!

The NAEYC, which inspired me so much at the beginning of my parenting journey, seems to have moved in a different direction. In their position paper, “Where We Stand on Learning to Read and Write,” they state, “Children do not become literate automatically; careful planning and instruction are essential.”* I could not disagree more. Children DO become literate automatically in the same way they learned to walk and speak automatically, if they are given the opportunity. Careful planning and instruction are totally unnecessary and can do far more harm than good. What children (of all ages) need is a rich and stimulating environment with caring adults who engage with them and support them. A rich and active home life with attentive parents and books, games, music, conversation, and socializing among people of all ages, is ideal. Ideal!

Yes, in today’s society, most children will continue to go to school. But it is NOT ideal for young humans to learn in crowded classrooms with 20 or 30 other same-age children and one adult providing lessons decided on by committees who don’t even know these particular children. It could be made better, however, if the NAEYC and other professional organizations would put their focus back on how children naturally learn. Children who learn in a rich and supportive environment do not need to be constantly assessed and tested, for example. Children naturally challenge themselves.  They don’t want to be bored or frustrated – they want to learn.  If adults are paying attention and are responsive to children’s expressed interests, they will automatically provide appropriately challenging activities. When curriculum is planned somewhere else and imposed on children, it is almost certainly inappropriate to any particular child and children will respond by becoming apathetic or either passively or actively resistant. Then schools are dealing with many recalcitrant children, and a vicious cycle is begun in which schools try one method after another to force learning and children become increasingly resistant.

The problem is a very basic one. It will take a paradigm shift to solve it. The entire education system is based on a faulty premise and my family, and many others like mine, are the proof. The faulty premise is exactly what is stated in the NAEYC “Children do not become literate automatically; careful planning and instruction are essential.” This is just wrong and the more careful planning and instruction are utilized, the more difficult it seems to become to get children to learn.

Children do not need to be cajoled or forced to learn. The urge to learn is as natural to human children as it is to all other animals, and their learning can be equally joyful, intense, satisfying, and successful. Education “experts” are on the wrong track as they write and rewrite learning objectives, learning standards, or new “student learning outcomes.” They redesign curriculum and they test and test and test again, hoping against hope that the newest educational fad will be the one that works.
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*Here is a link to a summary of the NAEYC paper. I’m not recommending it, just citing it as the source of the quote I used. <http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/WWSSLearningToReadAndWriteEnglish.pdf&gt;

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