Teaching vs. Strewing: An Unschooling Conversation

This discussion appeared recently on the Christian Unschooling Facebook Group:

TRACI: This is just a random little unschooling question I’ve been wondering about. I have been reading/commenting in the unschooling realm for a bit now and I’m trying to understand the negativity towards the word “teach.” I asked in another forum and I was given the answer that if we teach our kids we are influencing their developing thoughts rather than encouraging them to think independently.

Okay… but wouldn’t that be a good thing, to share wisdom? I have mentors, wise friends, and family who influence me and share with me. I would dare say that they “teach” me. I wouldn’t consider influence bad and if I did … well then, wouldn’t the videos on YouTube that my son watches influence him? And the commentators/narrators of the educational programs he watches? Is it more that the traditional “teacher” has been known to teach textbook indoctrination in one direction or another rather than allowing open thought? So people go against the term?

Because while I might not be a traditional homeschooler, if one of the kids come to me and says, “Mom, will you show me how to make a basket?” (for example), I’ll teach them how. Is this where the “radical” term comes into play? Because I could be stepping back and making them go find someone else’s website to learn it from? I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week because of all the canning I’ve been doing. I would have never started canning had my sister-in-law not taught me how. I learn best by someone walking me through it. I don’t know what it is. When I looked at tutorials on the internet I watched them fifty times and still do the thing incorrectly. But if someone sits with me and teaches it to me in person I’m easy-peasy. So without calling anyone right/wrong for thinking so, can someone just help me to understand why “teaching” is bad … or if it’s just the term because it implies control?

KAREN: If you are seeking advice from someone and asking them to walk you through something, that is different to the way “teach” would be used in an unschooling context. I would say teach would imply more along the lines of the brilliant Joyce Fetteroll quote: “Teaching is putting information in; learning is drawing information in.” So “teach” would imply someone having the intent of putting information into a child’s head. Whereas when the focus is on learning, it is about the child learning from all sorts of situations (even asking someone to show them how to do something, or looking up information on Youtube or Google or wherever). That’s my take on it anyway, off the top of my head. 🙂

TRACI: So not volunteering, waiting for them to ask you for it? Okay Karen, that I can better wrap my brain around I think. I guess I’ve just always looked at teaching as information as being offered. There was a lot of stuff offered up (I know some would say force-fed in the case of some of my public school teachers) in school to me. Some I drew in, to use the terms you quoted, and some I either rejected or just ignored, LOL! But there were teachers who offered things that I never would have thought to ask, etc, and provoked my thoughts and interests too. My negativity towards school came more structurally and socially. I preferred “teaching” more on a university format. Classes and topics offered and the kids who want to learn what was offered could do so.

ADAM: I think the negativity comes from the association with the public schools. “Teach” in of itself is a neutral term. I think the difference is in the context it’s used in. If you force someone to sit down and learn something it is still teaching but a better term is indoctrination or forced knowledge. If someone wants to learn and they ask someone who does know it’s teaching as well. It all boils down to the context or the connotations involved. Then it boils down to your perspective on the terms.

KAREN: Traci, the way you are speaking about things being offered at uni that you may not have thought to ask for sounds quite a bit like the unschooling concept called strewing. Keep watching the Christian Unschooling website, because September’s topic is strewing! 🙂

TRACI: Oh yes, we do a lot of strewing around here. I’m talking more about … say, attending a lecture on campus and the speaker teaching/talking not just on what I chose to attend for, but also on a topic that I hadn’t planned on listening to but learning a lot in spite of it. I guess I don’t know how to explain it very well but intentional teaching on their part, unintentional learning on my part, but not resisting either. I know that we do that a lot here. Starting conversations with “Did you know that…. blah blah blah?” sometimes ending with my kids choosing to run outside to play and other times with them asking more questions about it. It’s not force-fed, but I’ve still initiated conversations and they’ve still gathered information, if that makes sense? Of course what is retained or the extent of the teaching is all dependent upon the student’s interest. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say is that I personally didn’t mind if it wasn’t my idea to learn something, as long as it interested me.

Adam, I was leaning towards it being a perspective thing, but the last forum I asked this question in wasn’t quite as understanding as this one. I think the answers came from a direction that if the child didn’t ask for information then don’t volunteer it. That’s the part that puzzled me because it almost felt limiting. I just want to offer everything on some scale. The kidlets can let me know what they like. (And even at a very young age they have, haha!) I just always think of the word in a positive light, mostly because after Savior, teacher is my favorite title of Jesus.

KAREN: I would call your example conversation. Some might call it teaching. But whenever it’s a natural discourse that the children are free to participate in or not, I’d say it’s still a kind of strewing. I don’t see strewing as just things, but also ideas, conversations and dialogue of all kinds, sending links to my kids by email etc.

TRACI: Okay. That makes sense. Any time one person “taught/told/showed” another person about a topic I always have referred to it as teaching. My dad taught me how to catch a softball. My mom taught me how to bake. My uncle taught me about WWII and military life in general. That’s always been the term I’ve used. We may have discussed it as conversation, but I wasn’t the one with the know-how so it was one doing the teaching and one doing the learning in most of the context that I’ve used it in. So some of it is just a language distinction. (Someone else could have used the word “show” or “demonstrate” or “told,” etc, instead of using my choice of language.) I get it.

Karen, would you say that your choice of “conversation” or “strewing” over “teaching” is based on the negative connotations that public school has given teaching/teachers? (Like what Adam was saying?) Or is it more just that you’ve always given teaching a different definition, more narrow than to encompass dialogue, strewing, etc? Or is “teach” just not a word that you would use a lot at all?

By the way, can I just voice how grateful I am for a “safe” place to ask a question like this? You wouldn’t believe how some can jump on a question (which could just be based on simple language barriers) and assume that I would be initiating some sort of coup against the child-led learning ideals in general just because I don’t understand something and ask for explanation. (Ironic considering the topic of unschooling, No?) So… Thanks for being here! ♥

KAREN: Ahhhh – see the “child-led learning” thing is part of why I don’t use the word “teach” much in terms of seeking to describe our unschooling life. To me, “teach” implies teacher-led. But I also don’t think unschooling is child-led. It’s a partnership. I’m often learning as much as my children are, even if I seemingly start off with seemingly more knowledge on the topic, so could therefore “teach” it. I just don’t think “teach” is a particularly helpful term to help people move towards understanding what unschooling is, because it can tend to keep us stuck in schoolish type thinking where I am the expert and my children are the vessels for me to put information into.

Do I have a negative connotation? No, not really. I loved primary school (didn’t like high school) and wanted to be a primary school teacher for a long time. But since discovering a whole new way of thinking about what education and learning and unschooling really are, I don’t choose “teach” as my primary term. I think it does tend to cause people to think of a teacher presenting information, and the learner passively receiving it.

TRACI: That definitely makes sense when you’re trying to distinguish and illustrate the difference between unschooling and brick-and-mortar or school at home. So fascinating. I remember when we were deciding whether to homeschool (vs public school, and at that point not realizing what traditional homeschooling looked like) and my husband and I both agreed that we wanted to really teach, versus the force-fed stuff that was going on in schools.

BETH: This convo has been sooooo good. Thanks for the great discussion. 😀

ADAM: This is definitely a great conversation. I like seeing the different perspectives on the subject. I also have to agree with you, Traci, that it’s nice to be open and ask any question and not get jumped because of a term you use. This group had been very edifying for me and extremely encouraging in our unschooling journey.

AADEL: I love this thread. I think a good description of what we do in unschooling vs what “teaching” is in public school is: we are being examples rather than forcing someone to learn. It is a deeper, more relational way of learning, kind of like mentoring and discipleship rather than just teaching with an agenda.

ELIZABETH: LOL … if I was never to bring up new information to my children, I’d have to stop talking! I love learning about and discussing different things and my kiddos are my captive audience. Well, at least when we’re in the car. :p

TRACI: It has been a good conversation. It helped me sort a lot of it out, particularly because I’ve always been convicted that parents should be the teachers … just doing it in a completely different way than following the government script or duplicating public schools. More like what Aadel was saying about teaching by example and being intuitive of the interests and needs of your children. Teaching naturally, just like we taught our kids how to tie their shoes, use the bathroom, etc. I don’t think of teaching as being part of a program, just as part of the natural cycle of life.

MARIELLEN: I definitely use alternatives to “teach” because of the negative connotations public school has given teaching. Also because it just adds to that “cult of experts” that our society has developed. A “teacher” isn’t necessary to learning and I’ve learned many things I wasn’t “taught” while not learning many things I was “taught.”

To me, the key with “teach” is who is using it. For instance, Heather has taught me a great many things. But I don’t say that I teach my children. If they say I taught them something that’s fine, but only they know if they’ve learned something from me or not. Make any sense at all?

LIANE: Exactly. The classic example held up for unschooling is that children learn to walk when they’re ready, at their own pace – but no parent is completely hands-off in the process. They watch for when their child is ready, they encourage them, they squat in front of them and coax them to come, they hold a hand, they even hold them up when they’re still too little so they can feel their legs under them, they applaud every little effort. And we don’t say, “no, no, no, careful how you do it, don’t teach them.” It’s just that a parent doesn’t sit there and say,”Okay. You’re such and such age, so we have to teach you to walk now.”

GRETCHEN: Great group, great conversation. Here’s my two cents – if the definition of teach (as a transitive verb) is according to Webster: to cause to know something (taught them a trade), to cause to know how (taught them to drive), or to accustom to some action or attitude (teach students to think for themselves) – we pretty much have to be dead to not teach others, merely by our (whole life) conversation. There is nothing inherently wrong or evil with teaching.

The idea associated with teaching that to me is so distasteful, and hasn’t yet been completely teased out here (Tracy and Aadel hinted at it with “forcing to learn”) is in the traditional model practiced in most public schools and most traditional homes. That idea/belief is this: When information is imparted to an individual, the onus for the teacher is to insure that the information has been processed (testing, etc.), and the onus for the individual is the other side of that coin – to show that due process has been given to the thought or idea.

The burden is real, and it is heavy for the teacher, and it is not always lifted when the student shows proficiency, because – well, what if the student forgets?

The burden is real, and it is heavy for the student, because she has to regurgitate the information on demand, and in a way that pleases the teacher.

In the unschooling model, the “teacher” / parent / adult still has the burden of sharing information or strewing (especially when our children are smaller and their exposure to the world and its offerings is limited), but we don’t need to continue to carry the burden of their proficiency and retention.

Also, the onus of “due process” is lifted from the receivers. For example, my 15yo daughter (the “teacher” in this example) gave me all sorts of information in her excitement over her new ghost mantis: how and what to feed it, how she needed to care for it, its lifespan, why she named it what she did, etc. No burden, no onus, no threat of a quiz, but I can tell you just about every detail she shared, because of the way she shared it. (And I could really care less about bugs.)

And while I certainly haven’t figured it all out yet, the unschooling paradigm seems to leave a whole lot of room for the Holy Spirit of God to do His work, and little place for me to take credit.

TRACI: So much deeper than I’ve ever dug in the idea of teaching. I guess considering that I came from public school I really carried little baggage with me associated with the role of the “teacher” because I came out of it all feeling like real teaching was an organic process, and public school was more like a manufactured synthetic version of teaching. It didn’t ever come to my mind as being anything to naturally carry a burden or take credit for. More accurately for me would have been a biblical responsibility to teach, share, and encourage children. A humble role, not one that assumes expertise; rather just being willing to be used by God.

CINDY: I’m reading “Deschooling Our Lives” and found this quote: “the practice of teaching and the act of sharing are very different. The first is a service, in which one person, usually unrequested, impresses a piece of information upon another person, defining what is right and evaluating the other regarding his or her ability to accept and repeat that view. Sharing is about offering one’s understanding freely, allowing another access to one’s viewpoint, for the other to use as he or she sees fit. One is a supportive relationship, the other is professionalized manipulation.”

LAURA: I didn’t read any of the comments, but I think teaching is okay if they ask to be taught something by someone, like canning or basket making or whatever, instead of it being forced onto them like in a school.

TRACI: Cindy, I haven’t read it, but is it really professionalized manipulation? Or is it just that the pure form of teaching, like the teachers of the Bible for example, lacked selfishness and agenda, and we’ve since been overtaken with both so the term “teaching” has taken on the role of manipulation while the actual problem is those manipulating? I’m not sure I could buy into such a good vs evil definition of teaching. It assumes a lot to me.

I don’t believe that teaching has to require brainwashing, indoctrination, or be unrequested. It seems like assuming that anyone who thinks of some knowledge or wisdom that a future generation can benefit from and actually “impresses” that piece of information upon said children is manipulative, professionally or otherwise, is condemning of humanity itself and makes a miserable case for the state of the world.

There are still non-manipulative people/teachers/bloggers/professors/authors who are pushing platforms (some of which we’re fans of in the unschooling community even) and informing others without first being asked to share. Is it possible that someone could take it upon themselves to give an unsolicited talk on civil rights with the pure hope that their kids will either spark interest in it or remember the importance of those rights? Is it possible that someone might feel that a teen would be better off hearing the facts about the way our government works before heading to the polls when they’re eighteen without actually doing so because some hidden government/educational rule says so? Or that a parent would teach right vs wrong for no other reason besides being obedient to the Lord to do so? I think so. I think that teaching can, in fact, be a supportive relationship. I just think that we’ve ruined it with our institutions, rules, and formats. Ironically, there are unwritten rules about not “teaching” in some circles (not talking here, but in other unschooling circles that I’ve been reading in), which makes me wonder how long it will be before things stop being organic there and start being tainted by efforts to stay child-led rather than information flowing freely.

AZA: This conversation is great and has made me think! Especially about the “cult of experts” Before I started homeschooling, I worked with people with disabilities, specifically artists with disabilities. I called myself an art facilitator. My job was to provide supplies and a space and company essentially. It drove the staff I worked with NUTS!!!! They wanted me to get in there and give instruction and teach them how to be artists! It was so hard to get people to relax and watch what happens.

And there were artists that became prolific and popular, just with a little bit of space and freedom. Once in a while some one wanted to know how to draw a specific thing and I would help them find the tools they needed. Once in a while some one was dying to learn to sew and I would teach them.

That is how I look at unschooling. I am a facilitator. And it’s funny, I have never called myself an art teacher, and even if I really taught, I would not have because I don’t have a teachers credential. So that word seems a little off-limits to me. Which is why I am fascinated by the concept of a “cult of experts” The idea that even if I wanted to teach I can’t because I am not a credentialed teacher. Huh. Funny.

CINDY: Traci, I just posted as “food for thought” because I had just read the quote before reading your question. 🙂 I’m not sure how much I agree or disagree yet, still thinking about it. It does seem like a very black-and-white kind of statement.

KAREN: The people in unschooling circles who don’t like the word “teach” being used in the context of unschooling, also don’t promote the idea of unschooling being child-led. It is, rather, a partnership where the parents re involved, interested, interesting, facilitating. It’s really just that the concept of “teaching” isn’t helpful for people who are trying to understand what unschooling is. It tends to keep people stuck in a schoolish mindset.

TRACI: Cindy, I know it was just a quote … just thinking out loud with your name attached LOL!!! I completely understood. And Aza, the word “facilitate” is a great one. I tend to mostly facilitate art and other stuff around here too. But occasionally I’ll say “Hey, this is a way to shade something” etc. So I do teach some too. It’s a mix ’round here. But I bet you are as credentialed as most teachers, LOL!

KAREN: I see that kind of situation as a bit of a mutual sharing of ideas. Sometimes you might show your child a way to shade something, but you know it’s ONE way, not THE way, so you’re kind of showing them sometimes, rather than teaching. And sometimes they’ll show you a way to do something, I would see teaching in this example as someone saying, “this is the way you shade,” rather than showing them one way, and seeing what they do with it. It’s semantics in a way. But it’s also the idea behind the word “teach” that tend to not help a parent move towards trust and unschooling, and tends to keep them seeing themselves as the holder of information that should be imparted to the children.

TRACI: There are some things that can be taught as purely as unadulterated facts though right? (I feel like the word teach/taught has been overworked in this thread, lol!) While art, music, and various other topics really have no “One way” to do it, when I think of teaching about history for example, I would think someone can teach the facts and then another person can still form an opinion (and they should) about the cause, effects, and should-haves. ‘Course maybe even the facts would be hard to teach for some without feeling like they shouldn’t be picking what facts to share.


[Editor’s note: These posts have been slightly edited for publication. Brief side comments that did not add to the discussion were removed; shortened words and abbreviations were expanded for clarity (such as US for unschooling or DD for dear daughter), and names may have been changed at the original poster’s request.]

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