Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part IV: Play…Where It All Breaks Down

I think this will be my last post under this heading, because a) I am finding that the structure I have created here – the sense that I need to finish what I’ve started before I can move on – is slowing down my posting, and b) increasingly, this entire blog is pretty much on how I understand my pedagogy as unschooling, so the bracketing of these posts feels unneccesary.

That said, I do want to address this theme here, because it’s significant. I think that I told the story, in an earlier post, of students looking at me as if I had just landed from another planet when I assumed that puzzles were fun. This happens to me in almost every class; I say, by way of reassurance and encouragement, “You’re just playing! Let yourself play!” and they mutter and scowl and it is quite clear that I am out of touch.

So I began asking my students, in office hours and on walks across campus, what they do for fun. This is by no means a representative sample, of course, and I make no claims whatsoever to generalizability. But, as far as stories go, these are instructive and, again, heartbreaking.

There was the conversation that went like this:

Me: What do you do for fun?
Him: Fun?
Me: Yes, fun. What do you do in your spare time?
Him: I dunno. I guess I sit.
Me: You….sit??
Him: Yeah. Sometimes I sit.
Me: Okay. What else?
(He thinks, apparently in earnest, for a few minutes.)
Him: I really just go to work, I do my schoolwork, I go to bed and then I go to school. And then I do it again. But sometimes I will just sit.
Me: What about on weekends?
Him: I work on weekends.
Me: What about at night?
Him: I go to sleep after I do my schoolwork.
Me: TV?
Him: No, I don’t have one.
Me: Video games?
Him: I don’t like them.
Me: Do you read?
Him: I like to, but I really only read what I need to for school.

I’m not making this up. Then there was the woman who was struggling to pass my class. She came to me because she did not know what she wanted to do for her final paper.

Me: Okay, well, what are you interested in?
Her: What do you mean?
Me: I mean, what interests you?
Her: Like about the class?
Me: Well, ideally, but really anything…what are your interests?
Her: I don’t really understand.
Me: What do you *like* to think about?
Her: Um…I don’t really like to think.
Me: But you think all the time! What are you thinking about when no one’s telling you what to think about?

She is quiet. Then she says, avoiding my eyes,

“No, I don’t really think.”

Me: Okay. What do you do, then? What do you do in your spare time?
Her: I don’t have spare time. I work and go to school. And I run.
Me: You run?
Her: Yes.
Me: You like to run?
Her: Yes.
Me: What do you think about when you run? I mean, what’s on your mind?
Her: Nothing. I listen to music.
Me: Okay, but when you’re listening to music, your mind is still doing things. What’s running through your head?
Her: Just the music. Maybe the lyrics?

This went on for another ten minutes. I’ll spare you the details. But I will share one more, with a student who was struggling to understand the reading.

Me: What do you normally do when you don’t understand what you’re reading? I mean, if you’re reading something you enjoy, but you don’t understand it…what do you do?
Her: I don’t read if it’s not for school.
Me (seeing where this was headed): Okay, but when you weren’t so busy – when you were younger, what did you do?
Her: I never read.
Me: I see. You don’t like to read? Did you read anything in high school you liked, even a little?
Her: I never read in high school. I mean, we just had, like, little bits from books in our textbook. We didn’t have books.
Me: Do you remember a book from your childhood?
Her: This book for this class is the first book I’ve ever read, like cover to cover.

The point is not whether these horrifying stories are actually true. The point is that, at my institution – a place, like many across the country, where students go to school because they think they have to, exactly the way they go to work and, some of them, exactly the way they feed and bathe their kids – the narrative they tell is that all of it – school, life, every moment of every day, is gruntwork. I have dozens of stories just like these. This is the story they tell of themselves – of their lives, of their identities, of their practices.

I’m not interested in anything.
I have no time for fun.
I don’t think about anything.
I don’t like to think.
I don’t have any hobbies.
I’ve never read anything before.

I presume that at least some of these students browse the internet, watch movies on their phones or ipads, hang out with their friends, have sex and/or engage in recreational drug and alcohol use. (And obviously, the runner has thoughts.) But these are the stories they tell me. To their professor. One might think that they want their professor to see them as dynamic, multi-faceted human beings. Instead, they appear to want me to see them as overworked, exhausted…utterly depleted, living lives of ascetic drudgery.

And here I am, trying to follow their “interests.” Trying to get people to “play” when they’re telling me they don’t want, like, or have time to play.

I don’t believe that real learning – intellectual, cognitive, conceptual, experiential growth – can happen without playing. I’m unconvinced that it’s really possible. Memorization, sure. Retention, maybe. But that’s not learning. So the question, for me, becomes: does “play” have to be fun for them? Does it have to be pleasurable? Do they have to experience it as leisure?

Because at any given moment in my classrooms, students are “playing.” Some of them are laughing and moving and clearly enjoying themselves. Others are not.

If you sit in a chair and phlegmatically stick Legos together, halfheartedly hoping something comes out of it by the time you get to leave and go somewhere else, and hating every minute of it, are you playing with the Legos?

Sometimes I am trying to force my students to play with Legos, simply because they won’t tell me what they want to play.

They won’t tell me, many of them, because they really don’t know. Sometimes, I guess, I need to go Montessori rather than unschooling – surround them with stuff (going the opposite way, of course, of Maria Montessori’s calling everything “play” instead of “work,” since I’m dealing with schooled adults).

I’m often tempted to have my next class write their own syllabus. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. Maybe they don’t need to read anything. Maybe they don’t need to write anything. What is it that they want to do that will help them learn?

But for those who don’t actually want to “learn,” then no amount of ownership or play or autonomy will help. For those students, I have to find a way to make the classroom a different kind of space, or I have to just let them go without learning. They fail my classes. They find a professor who will help them memorize some stuff….maybe they’ll even retain some of those facts for years to come. And maybe that makes them feel “smarter,” more successful, better equipped to be a citizen in this world.

But I maintain that they’re not any “smarter.” These indicators of educational success are deeply, grossly, offensively problematic. They’ve spent their money and their time, both of which are at a serious premium for students at my school, and they’ve got nothing of value to show for it.

This is the tragedy here: we take the worst advantage of the least privileged students. It is precisely those who think that education is about a degree for a job, those whose alternatives would be low-wage jobs at best, who need to learn to play, to be creative, to think imaginatively, to free their intellects and trust themselves. It is, exactly and always, the students who don’t know better whom we are supposed to be teaching better than this. Otherwise, the “democratization” of education is a joke.

In 1956, C. Wright Mills wrote, “…in the hands of ‘professional educators,’ many schools have come to operate on an ideology of ‘life adjustment’ that encourages happy acceptance of mass ways of life rather than the struggle for individual and public transcendence” (319).

It’s nearly six decades later.  We need to transcend, people. Trans-fucking-cend.

Reference

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

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7 comments on “Unschooling at Home and at Work, Part IV: Play…Where It All Breaks Down

  1. soloenespana says:

    That is the problem with your model right there… If you were to truly unschool them you should have the power to set them free –
    Not just a few hours a week, but for years! They have been destroyed by the public school system, and they don’t know what they want. They don’t take your classes out of interest but to get credits. If you had real unschoolers in your class you would know what I mean 🙂 you projects is admirable, but far far too late in the life of your students.

  2. I burned out as a teacher because I thought my classroom would be more open and flexible like the way you portray yours. I was lucky enough to get a principal for years who let me pretty much do my own thing…until the recent push of standardization broke me. I can’t tell you how much I’ve cried over the years asking kids a simple question like, “What do you think?” Even by grade 3, they’d look at me suspiciously wondering what was the catch? It’s so heartbreaking. Education will only get worse until it implodes.

  3. Lori Dunlap says:

    Yes, this is a sad, scary, and true report of what our educational system does to our kids. I used to direct several programs within the MBA program at a major research university, and had very similar discussions with students. These were graduate students in their mid-20s who had never considered what really interested them or how they could contribute to the world. They were there because their parents told them to get an MBA, or because they couldn’t get a job and staying/going back to school bought them some time. Most had no clue about who they were.

    You’re right on with this assessment: “These indicators of educational success are deeply, grossly, offensively problematic. They’ve spent their money and their time, both of which are at a serious premium for students at my school, and they’ve got nothing of value to show for it.” It’s well past time to transcend.

  4. fungalspore says:

    Great post. I admire you taking the problem to the kids. I spent most of my teaching life getting the kids to think I was so dumb that I needed their help. Actually, it’s not so far from the truth come to think of it! Have you read the book Excellent Sheep?

  5. fungalspore says:

    Reblogged this on A Dominie's Blog and commented:
    Neill always talks about hearts not minds in education. In this blog we can see that without hearts we hardly have minds at all. Read through to the dialogues and tell me: do we really want to leave the education of our children to the state?

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