‘Changing Our Minds’ by Naomi Fisher -some thoughts

I have filled this book with dog-eared pages; proof that I loved it a lot.

Even though I have lived and breathed this unschooled life for well over a decade now, meaning there was very little in the book that as a family we haven’t already lived through, I found it to be a very validating read.

I particularly love Naomi’s no-nonsense and direct authors voice. Everything was explained in such a straight-forward way, with many excellent responses to criticisms of self-directed learning, that in the moment, my own brain cannot always come up with on the spot.

As a person who collects quotes (quodophile? quotationist?) and enjoys sprinkling them into my writing probably more than is necessary; I will share some of my favourites from Naomi’s book:

A self-directed education is not simply a different route to the same outcome as school.’ Our unschooled children are spending their days very differently to their schooled peers. This means outcomes will be different! Naomi goes on to say that assessment of an unschooled/self-directed children’s education cannot be done accurately with school-based tests.

Exams. It’s probably best I don’t start on exams and how ableist and elitist they are. Deep breath, Sarah. They are not a good measure of an unschooled life, but I’d also argue they are not a good measure of anything remotely useful full stop. They are meerly hoops to jump and I am really glad we haven’t spent 10 whole years training our children’s hoop jumping muscles.

We all know that most of what we learn to pass a test is forgotten a week later. Having said that, I like to think I haven’t also left my children completely floundering without the basic academic skills they need should they wish to pursue a wide variety of options. It’s just that instead of shoving it down their throat on the daily, we have had an ethos of respectful consent coupled with a strengths based lens that is appropriate to my children’s individual developmental pathway.

Here’s another quote I loved: ‘There is no way that an education based on control and pressure can genuinely prioritise well-being. Strategies such as teaching children mindfulness without addressing their lack of autonomy just gives the message that they need to change to cope better. It doesn’t encourage them to think about what they need, nor does it give them the power to change their life.’

Hallelujah! Yes, I have been thinking this and mulling it over ever since my eldest tried school aged 10 years old and had to endure ‘meditation’ lessons. Just for the record, I think meditation is an amazing practice. It is something I have been learning to do regularly thanks to a lovely friend who teaches it, and it has been extremely helpful in supporting me to cope with the underlying anxiety I have felt since my dad died. But, I have always felt that meditation and mindfulness in schools is nothing more than a ‘sticking plaster’ to paper over the gigantic cracks in the system. In my opinion, it is also dangerous to insist that a child partake in meditation. For a child with unmet trauma needs, you may be forcing them to sit with highly uncomfortable feelings in a place (school) that is often not safe for them to express those feelings.

The third and final quote I am going to pull out is a little more controversial. Naomi says in a chapter entitled, ‘Differences – Being yourself’, that: ‘We need to recognise the Neurodiversity in all of us and accept unusual behaviour whoever it comes from.’

Of course I agree, and yet it is far more complex than that. Personally I am not keen on the binary of language which separates us all into neurodivergent or neurotypical, and I am fully on-board with the Neurodiversity movement celebrating all of our wonderful differences and our ‘neurobrilliance’. I am also very aware of the debate about the medical Vs the social model of disability, and I find the Biopsychosocial model Naomi refers to in Chapter 8 a useful way of looking at any difficulties our children may be experiencing.

However, I also think that mainstream society has a long way to go before we are at the point where everyones unusual behaviours are accepted unfortunately.

That’s just the reality. And whilst I do want to build a beautiful new world where everyone just loves each other, that is not the air we breathe on a daily basis. Unless we forever live in an unschooled bubble, our children will rub up against the mainstream of society at some point.

I do agree with Naomi that the ‘business of diagnosis’ (p.136) needs to be reformed though. We definitely do need to stop seeing individuals as ‘disordered’. The current process of acquiring a diagnosis is often traumatising and not everyone can afford the more humanising private route.

Society as a whole must start taking responsibility and realise that environment is an essential part of the jigsaw. When Naomi states that: ‘When we decide that children who do not fit into the school system must be disordered, we enable the system to continue unchanged while ignoring its own dysfunctionality,” I literally punched the air in agreement. Having spent a decade teaching in schools, and now recently doing so again, I can safely tell you that this is what was happening all those years ago, and it is still what is happening today. It literally blows my mind that nothing much has changed in schools.

And yet there is still an issue here which is not satisfactorily addressed by Naomi; or maybe it simply goes beyond the scope of the book?

To say that we should all recognise that Neurodiversity is in us all, could be quite invalidating to someone whose struggles are completely disabling. The fact is many people are not that bothered about changing the systems in place because they don’t suffer under them in the same way. There is just something about this take on Neurodiversity that feels a bit like people who raise their children to not ‘see colour’ because we are all the same deep down.

I have fallen down that trap myself when my children were very young. But we do all know better now – we know that being anti-racist for example is an active, day in, day out job that you have to continually work on. And wasn’t a part of ‘Black Lives Matter’, the ability for black and brown people to stand up and say ‘this is me and I am proud of who I am’? I apologise if this analogy is inappropriate. As a white person, I am very much on a learning journey where anti-racism is concerned.

How wonderful it would be to see all of our differences and be accepted completely. I am sure that is indeed the end goal.

But in the meantime, neurodivergent young people need a really good understanding of their neurotype (which may or may not include a formal diagnosis); they need to learn in a way that is strengths-based, but which also supports their areas of difficulty; they need to be trusted; they need to be taught how to advocate for themselves. The environments they are in need to be affirming spaces, where people understand neurodivergence and where they will be listened to and believed.

And whilst I don’t really like labels, I do think a label might be a really important part of that process in current times. Maybe not so much years in the future when we are all living beautiful, community based lives which are not based on capitalist ideals. But for now, I have come to think that step 1 is to actually be able to live well enough in the society we currently live in, and advocate from there, hacking a more beautiful and kinder existence for all as we go.

I will leave you with a quote from Harry Thompson – PDA Extraordinaire: ” ‘I find it impossible because I am an Autistic person living in a world in which I am not accommodated’ is far from ideal. But it is a whole lot better than ‘I find life impossible because I am worthless, useless, stupid, lazy, weak and defective normal human being.”

Overall this is a really great book and well worth a read, but I wanted to address the part on ‘difference’ in particular because I have noticed this vibe in the self-directed movement of believing it to be some kind of panacea for all ills of society, as if mental illness wouldn’t happen if we were just, well, nicer to each other.

Unschooling/self-directed learning is brilliant. It is foundational to a rights respecting learning environment and I will advocate for consent-based self-directed learning for the rest of my days. But it’s an island surrounded by very murky waters, and it’s only fair that our children know what’s in those waters.

So much love to you,

Sarah x

P.S. I know the photo I have included is a bit shit, but it’s an authentic, unstaged photo with dust and everything. Accepting me means accepting my crap photography too.

Published by Sarah Louise

Expressive Art Facilitator, Sea Champion @mcsuk, home educating parent of teens.

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