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Limited by Likes? A psychological perspective on online unschooling discussions

Limited by “Likes”?
A psychological perspective on online unschooling discussions
By Naomi Fisher

Have you ever written a comment on social media, or a blog post, and then had lots of people come past and “like it?” Or people comment “great point!” or “so true!”. You may have felt a moment of pleasure for each “like” and found yourself coming back to check for more. Perhaps if your friends were really impressed, they may have shared your post, and then the likes and comments came flooding in from strangers too.

“Likes” and positive feedback on social media are a way for others to express approval. Approval acts as a reward – it’s a positive reinforce, and an extremely powerful one. It means that on social media it feels good to post things which lots of people approve of or “like.”

When approval is used or experienced as a reward, it has a flip side. As author Alfie Kohn explains so eloquently, when the presence of something is rewarding, then the absence of it becomes a punishment.

Social learning theory (Albert Bandura) describes how behavior can be influenced by rewards and punishments. If something feels rewarding, then we often do more of it. If it feels aversive, like a punishment, we do it less. Humans are complicated, so it’s not always a simple relationship, but rewards and punishments can significantly influence our behavior. Bandura suggested that people learn through both observation and direct experience; in many cases, observing someone else being rewarded or punished is enough to encourage us to modify our own behavior.

“Groups are always at risk of replicating a hierarchical and limiting environment; thereby restricting what people feel able to say and do. Most adults were schooled for so long that we easily slip into a student role and defer to the group leader.”

The Student and Leader Roles

Over the last few years, much discussion about unschooling has happened on social media in groups. The public reward system of sites like Facebook makes social media groups into powerful places for social learning. They are rewarding places to agree with people and punishing places if you disagree. Groups are always at risk of replicating a hierarchical and limiting environment; thereby restricting what people feel able to say and do. Most adults were schooled for so long that we easily slip into a student role and defer to the group leader. On a social media group, if you’re susceptible to wanting approval, and most of us are, pretty soon you’ll learn to say more of the things that get you the “likes.” You learn the group culture.

To make it worse, some groups amplify the rewards and punishments. Just as schools give out certificates and prizes to favored pupils, some group leaders collect quotes that they consider to be the best and publish them elsewhere, and describe the contributors who are consistently on-message in glowing terms or even list them in the pinned post as the people worth reading. They may also use social punishments for those who disagree with their approach. Punishments typically involve being told to stop posting, being described as a troublemaker, being asked why you are even in the group, or having it implied you don’t understand unschooling. Eviction from the group is also used. Due to how social media works, this is all in public and so it acts as a learning experience and warning for the whole group. Group members learn that some hold the power in the group, and that they will use that power to punish or reward as they see fit. This creates a hierarchical group structure, with those underneath deferring to those who hold the power.

On the surface, what is going on seems reasonable. Everyone seems to be learning. It looks like a discussion is taking place. And many group members come to believe that the system is necessary. They agree that those who step out of line and disagree deserve to be punished and that learning how to behave (or say that you behave) in the approved fashion is important. Groups run along these line have been proliferating; many seem to agree that a hierarchical structure with clearly defined and named experts is the best way to keep an unschooling group on-track and focused on unschooling.

However if we dig a little deeper, it may not all be as positive as it first appears.

“So perversely, while some unschooling groups exhort their members to deschool, they themselves replicate the worst aspects of a classroom and those that are most destructive to learning.”

Group Hierarchy

Just as John Holt suggested that children at school become focused on giving the teacher the answer they want, group members can become focused on producing the answers that the group hierarchy approves of. Holt described schools as temples of worship to “right answers,” with no room for exploration and creativity. In a similar way, unschooling groups can become places where all that matters is appearing to say the right thing. Exploration is only allowed within pre-determined parameters, and many views cannot be expressed at all, even by those with years of unschooling experience. What matters, and what defines an “expert,” is agreeing with the hierarchy.

When a group is run like this, successful group members no longer ask themselves what they really think, they ask themselves what will get them most approval and recognition. Instead of reporting and reflecting on their whole experience, they just describe the parts that they know will fit within the group culture. This limits what they say, and it restricts what others read and can learn from. Disagreement feels aversive, and conformity feels good. So fewer and fewer people take the risk of voicing their disagreement.

A hierarchical group structure means that what is said within that group may not reflect what the group members truly think at all. It means that a group which appears to have many members contributing their diverse experiences and views may, in fact, only have people contributing a very select subset of their thoughts and experiences – just those that fit or that they think will get approval. Even “likes” themselves can be approved of or not; they can be monitored and groups exist where the leaders have threatened to remove people for “liking” posts which disagree with the perspective of the group hierarchy.

Learning Through Disagreement

Yet it is through disagreement that problems can be explored and knowledge can grow. When dissent is not possible, we are left with uniformity of opinion, the same ideas repeated in different ways, but never developed. Learning and real exploration of ideas requires being open to feedback, even or perhaps especially when it challenges the status quo. The atmosphere of social media groups often works against this feedback being either offered and heard.

It’s easy to see how newcomers can get the idea that things should look a certain way if unschooling is to work, and that the way to successful unschooling is to read the experts and learn the right answers, rather than developing their capacity to observe closely and to think creatively and independently. It’s easy to see why there are so few accounts of atypical experiences and challenges, when what gets the approval is conformity and stories of success.

So perversely, while some unschooling groups exhort their members to deschool, they themselves replicate the worst aspects of a classroom and those that are most destructive to learning. How can people really deschool while their eye is on the next gold star, the next sign of approval from the group leader who is, by any other name, the teacher? How can people contribute fully when they are aware that if they say something with which the group leader disagrees they will be swiftly punished by public humiliation? The reward of approval and a step up in the hierarchy is compelling, and so people get drawn into the system, only ever saying the right things, avoiding anything which might cause dissent. It becomes so natural that they never question whether disagreement really should be a punishable offence. Then sometimes they go on and set up their own groups, run along very similar lines, except that this time they are at the top and hold the power.

A hierarchical environment with public rewards and punishments is not one where learning can flourish. We know that is true for our children, so why have we forgotten it for ourselves?

Naomi Fisher is an mother of two who lives in London, England. She is a clinical psychologist, and has special interests in trauma, parenting, and autism. She juggles life learning with working part time as a psychologist.

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