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Learning to Be in Control of One's Own Learning
By Katherine Michalak 

Unschooled teen learns to balance her passion for learning with structuring her time.

When I was younger, my parents did the worrying about the structure of my days. When they enforced a study period, it was because they were concerned about the multiplication or history I didn’t know. But my only awareness was of that half hour of practice; I gave little thought to the reasons why or why not I should be practicing, and when I was allowed to play imaginary games for days on end I never thought about the alternatives. Whatever structure or lack thereof was healthy for my development was of no concern to my young self; I simply followed my inclinations and dealt with outside influences when they came, leaving the analyzing of my actions to the adults.

But in the process of growing up, I outgrew that oblivion. As my perceptions widened, I started consciously anticipating the results of my actions and becoming, in a way, my own unschooling parent, balancing guiding and being guided by the learning process in my own life.

"Since beginning to assume the guiding responsibility away from my parents, I’ve toyed with everything from following my every impulse to rigidly structuring my days, all in search of what exactly it means to be in control of one’s own life learning."

Since beginning to assume the guiding responsibility away from my parents, I’ve toyed with everything from following my every impulse to rigidly structuring my days, all in search of what exactly it means to be in control of one’s own life learning.

Inspiration is a key element in the learning process, and thus much of my observation has been of this phenomenon that seems beyond our control. Who can say why I picked up Peterson’s Guide to Western Birds ten days ago when I’d never before had the slightest interest in birds? Suddenly I was creeping around the garden, binoculars in hand, guide book lying on the grass, and upon identifying a new species running inside with exclamations of discovery, hardly able to contain my excitement. You could blame it on the extraordinary number of birds this fall, but as we all know, abundant opportunity doesn’t always spark interest and inspiration isn’t linear or predictable.

But though inspiration is uncontrollable, another influence in our lives – which I call inertia – is not. One definition of inertia is “the property of matter by which it retains its state of rest or its velocity along a straight line so long as it is not acted upon by an external force.” Used as a rough analogy in the learning process, inertia is the tendency to continue the present state of being, whether active or inactive. When curriculums or too many self-imposed structures make us forget that we love learning and temporarily avoid it, things we know we should enjoy seem difficult and unpleasant, and we must overcome the inertia of not learning. On the other hand, the hunger for learning, exaggerated by inertia, can become so insatiable that we find ourselves barreling between pursuits until we collapse in exhaustion and, again, think we don’t like learning after all. If we can moderate activity before we collapse then it will be more sustainable and maybe (hopefully!) burnout will never come, preventing the attack of inactivity-inertia.

Some people are better than others at maintaining extremely active lives and can afford to take advantage of activity-inertia. There are also those who have an unconscious built-in moderator. But for those who suffer from burnout, rising above inertia definitely becomes an issue.

As a Type A personality with a definitely finite amount of energy I’m in the latter category. I love following life’s unexpected leads, having the freedom to explore anything from gardening to singing to painting eight hours in a day while listening to disc after disc of an audio book, but when inertia goes unchecked I become distant with my family, agitated and obsessive. I’m always having to tell myself things like, “I know you’re in love with writing, but you’ll have grammar nightmares if you write for three hours before bed,” and “Bread-baking may be empowering, but it’s also draining.”

Of course, holding back the enthusiasm of the present can be difficult, even when I know the effects overindulgence will have. Every particle of my being longs for abandoned immersion in the chosen activity, and the price of that abandonment can be worth it if there’s room for recuperation time afterward. As an aside I’ll mention that in search of more energy for my interests I’ve come to realize how draining idle thinking about the future is. Do you ever catch yourself thinking more about the next bite than the one in your mouth? I think as much about the next book as the one in front of me and have to tell myself: “It doesn’t matter how many biographies you read in a month. Focus on the one you’re reading now!” If left to its own devices my mind is constantly gnawing on possibilities for the future – once I even caught myself moving the butter knife in my hand while walking to the table. I was imagining the act of spreading peanut butter, which I was about to do. Embarrassing but true, and it becomes a serious drain on what I can accomplish in a day.

"It's easy to think that we are true learners only if we forget about the process of learning by living and focus entirely on the passions this lifestyle allows us. But let's remember that one doesn't forget about the process of practicing a vocation, and far from being a means to an end, life learning is a vocation."

When I become aware of energy use, I start to wonder if moderating wastes more than it gains. Sometimes going with the current of activity-inertia seems more productive than moderation even with the burnout cycle. But then I realize that productivity isn’t necessarily the most important thing. Yes, moderation takes energy and discipline, but it’s more nurturing overall than running from activity to activity.

When I see learning as one of many forms of fulfillment (like food), when I care about how relaxed and peaceful I am on a daily basis and how relationships fare in the climate of my life, then the number of learning discoveries I make ceases to seem important. Suddenly it doesn’t matter whether moderation or abandoned immersion is the more productive approach, because quality of life is more important than productivity.

But even after deciding that moderation is the most nurturing approach to activity, I can still feel uncomfortable with the discipline it takes. What happened to letting the day unfold on its own? The truth is that since we learn by living, our days do unfold on their own even when we moderate, as long as we aren’t doing so from preconceived notions of how the days should be. When we make choices for fulfilling lives in the present, ones that aren’t rushing toward the future, we’re playing our part in the unfolding of the days. But this isn’t controlling them. We don’t create the choices that arise; they’re formulated by all the unseen forces in our that unpredictable inspiration, by readiness for certain experiences, by the circumstances of the world and the weather, and by many other perhaps unknowable influences. Our only responsibility is to choose between the options presented us, and this is more discovery than control.

So I may have become my own unschooling parent, just as all real parents guide their own lives as well as their children’s. But this guiding is just another dimension of learning, not something that controls it. It’s easy to think that we are true life learners only if we forget about the process of learning by living and focus entirely on the passions this lifestyle allows us. But let’s remember that one doesn’t forget about the process of practicing a vocation, and far from being a means to and end, life learning is a vocation.

It takes work to feel satisfied when the day is done, to feel exercised by activity but at peace with stillness. To feel full but not crammed!

Age 17 when she wrote this article, Katherine Michalak was school-free all her life and planned to live with her family indefinitely. She is loathe to leave her garden, her friends (er, family members), their beautiful home and the tiny town of Crestone, Colorado, nestled against 14,000 ft. peaks. College is not a high priority but writing is. She was a four-time contributor to the former Growing Without Schooling Magazine (founded by John Holt), wrote this article for Life Learning Magazine, and has had an article on human rights published in her local newspaper.

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