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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Writing a Non-Directive Book - Notes on Unschooling Rules

A good friend of mine, Jay Cross, wrote a book called "Informal Learning." My immediate snarky response to him was, "isn't the style of your book inherently structured formal learning, and so doesn't that betray rather than role-model the experiences you seek to encourage?" He wrote back, about one of my early simulation books, basically the same thing. "If you advocate simulation and serious game based media, why am I reading a book about it?"

I have wrestled with the affordances and limitations of books. Books are spectacularly easy to create using today's tools (i.e. a word processor, a digital camera, a drawing program) and easy to share. It is also a piece of media with which we have all grown up - we know how to engage them.

Most Books are Directive
But books are, from a leadership perspective, typically directive. One is taken lock-step on the author's path. Books are, for the reader, passive. You can keep turning the pages, and you will reach the end. I walk away from directive speakers and writers with three sensations 1) I believe the writer or speaker is much smarter and more accomplished than I am, 2) I really don't know what he or she is saying most of the time, despite (or because of) all of the references made and jargon used, and 3) I have a vague feeling of depression and angst.

Even wonderful stories that are emotionally invigorating to consume can be frustrating to transfer to make one's own life better.

Can Books be Collaborative?
I attempted to write my last two books, The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games, and Unschooling Rules, using a collaborative leadership style rather than directive. (See my entry here about leadership styles.) The two books, superficially, look very different. The Complete Guide weighs two and half pounds and Unschooling Rules is just 8 ounces.


Many of my books have tried to challenge the traditional 'directive' affordance.

The Reader Controls the Flow
But both books are made up of independent entries. You can read both by opening to a random page and digging in. If you are intrigued by what you have read, you can bounce around in short hops, to nearby entries. If you want something completely different, you can move farther away in the book to new grounds. The reader has responsibility for his or her own journey, and I, as the author, have the responsibility to make that journey productive and worthwhile. Writing was more like laying out a city than constructing a strong story (Simulations and the Future of Learning, in contrast, was written as a first person narrative with story arcs, frustration and resolution pairs, and character development.)

The Star of the Book is the Reader, not the Author
Ultimately, though, the books are very different. True, Unschooling Rules can be read from front to back, while The Complete Guide is almost impossible. But more so, Unschooling Rules does not give the readers easy answers. (Well, it gives some easy answers and low-hanging fruit, but not too many!) It is not a comprehensive reference. Instead, it truly is (and necessarily so to be effective) collaborative with the reader. It leaves the reader invigorated, frustrated, but better positioned to create their own solutions. My goal is to reduce the number of false paths taken, call out some absurd assumptions made today regarding education and schools that get in the way, prod and inspires with fresh perspectives, take away some doubt, provide some places to start, and encourage action, but I do not take away the responsibility of the reader to create, implement, and ultimately own their comprehensive solution. I am there to help. The reader is the star, not I.

Are there Perfect Rules to Create Inevitability in Education?
The culture of all academics seeks to emulate the rigors of science, such as physics (see the impact of learning theories on National Science Foundation grants); the culture of government is to create a comprehensive set of rules to eliminate the need for judgement in employees. Even the culture of the Quality movement in corporations feeds this philosophy, with deviations from norms (i.e. students' different capabilities, backgrounds, or home environments) seen as problems to be eliminated. As a result, much research into school reforms wants to find the underlying rules and processes that, when executed exactly as prescribed (including normalizing children into students), creates inevitable success. (No wonder it is easy to predict The Gates Foundation will fail on its current path.) This approach is of no surprise given that school cultures also tend to paint parents as either drug addicts or workaholics who need to be managed and overcome, and teachers and students as slackers that need to be threatened to keep from goofing off.

A Compass, not a Map
Unschooling Rules is, of course, starts from a different place. It is a compass not a map. It tries to match technique with message. If someone wants to kick back and read a satisfying story, a devastating and irrefutable critique, or wants an exact solution to the problem to criticize or implement as they might a recipe for custard, this is not the right book. Rather, if readers wants to take ownership for the problem either individually or as a community (including a few easy wins to start the ball rolling), Unschooling Rules will be a great companion.