Collaborative Incubation: The Un-unschooling

“All who have meditated on the arIMG_8895t of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”


Unschooling can be so nebulous. It can morph into an extension of parenting, characterized by the idea that kids should be trusted to grow up without arbitrary boundaries and punitive policies. Free to learn, grow, discover, fail, love and choose how they want to spend their time. One principle that guides me is ‘structure time, not content,” (read more about the 7 Keys to Leadership Education here) and this helps keep things moving forward but at their own pace. I love that. Is there more to it? Is there a process of phases where at some point a student moves from de-schooling to unschooling to something? Or a process within unschooling that takes a student through a transformation? I’m familiar with Kelly Lovejoy’s 2004 Stages of Unschooling. The stages of unschooling are fine and well, but what I’m looking for are “phases of education” within the concept of unschooling – this is what I am seeking. I’m told time and again there is no such movement in unschooling. You just simply are unschooling (whether you are in Stage I, II or III according to Lovejoy), and your navigation through the education process is mapped out individually, according to interest, paced out by the student. #mindblown

messSounds great for my one, five and six-year-olds, but what about later? Even the basics of a good story will include a beginning, middle and an end, right? Why not assume that the educational process will have phases? Even when your body is physically learning (like an athlete learning a sport) there are stages (cognitive, associative, autonomous). The principle behind unschooling is that a child will not absorb information or learn  effectively when  coerced to do so. This is certainly true for my kids right now. Uninteresting concepts get no love, but if I can tie physics to skateboarding I have a good 5-7 minutes to work with! As long as I am thinking creatively and always trying to parallel their interests with enriching, educational experiences we are all happy. However, at some point they will need to create or follow a framework to dig deep. They will need resources, mentors, process, and rigor to feel like they are progressing toward mastery (of what, will be up to them). A transition from one phase to another. They will need to connect the dots, even the dots they don’t find particularly fascinating or interesting. One of my favorite bloggers, Lori Pickert, makes a good case for rigor with regard to the older unschooler to avoid burnout or rejection of unschooling altogether in this post. Here’s the segment that rings true in my mind:

Left to their own devices, not knowing how to take their learning further, many will just coast along, not knowing they are paddling around in water that’s infinitely deep. -Lori Pickert. Project-Based Homeschooling

Ironically, she is totally slamming the doubts I’m actually having. It turns out,  “unschooling” is too rigid a label for what we do, and plan to do in the future. This makes me laugh because “unschooling” is supposed to be totally free-form. However, anyone who has sought advice from a group of self-proclaimed unschoolers might walk away feeling less than worthy, depending on who’s dispensing the rhetoric. I feel like the admission that we will transition through phases distances us from unschooling, as presently defined. Maybe I’m wrong. While I ponder the idea, I’m examining these phases in my mind.

boards1Back when David was recording music, he made a living guiding bands from the beginning stages of a concept album to a finished product. During this process he was an intrinsic part of the creative process, but predominantly in a role as guide. He would influence decision making and offer his informed opinion, but in the end it was the band IMG_9566making the record. He was sought out for his commitment to a project, and while other producers would run sessions that seemed to live & die by the clock (charging per hour), David would work on a project-by-project basis. Sometimes he was a producer, sometimes he was a teacher, or a psychologist or a babysitter. He had to adapt to circumstances and lead eclectic groups of young lads through the phases of constructing an epic work of musical art: the concept album. He called this process “collaborative incubation” and basically breaks down into 3 stages:



1. pre-production

  • understanding individuals (psychology)
  • setting boundaries (what is sacred to each person)
  • seek to understand needs and roles
  • set expectations
  • study raw material; develop opinions on how production can assist
  • develop template tracks and agree on tempos
  • Plan pace and style of tracking for each contributor
  • arrange resources for session

2. production

  • focus on comfort for talent
  • win trust by demonstrating mastery of tools
  • set expectations
  • disconnecting artists from technical/critical thought
  • emotional content delivery (genuine passion is most important)

    playing with words

    playing with words

  • repetition of weak segments
  • positive exposure to experimentation

solder3. post-production

  • composite editing
  • mixing takes into cohesive tracks
  • mixing tracks into cohesive cuts
  • mastering cuts into cohesive album

Independent of the content of the phases, I see so many parallels in different “phases of learning” with regard to these different homeschool styles:

Traditional: elementary, middle & high school

Just Looking

Just Looking

Trivium: grammar, logic, rhetoric

Classical: memorization, argumentation, self-expression

Leadership: core, scholar, depth

Since “unschooling” lacks any resemblance to these styles containing phases, I’m going to distance our approach to education from “unschooling” and and write my own charter. Collaborative Incubation: Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production. The facets of the educational process of Collaborative Incubation can be loosely based on the recording process of the same name. When this dawned on me I was really inspired to look more closely at the connection.

P.E.M.D.A.S. group and the birdfeeders made by kids

P.E.M.D.A.S. group and the birdfeeders made by kids

We are currently in pre-production. Pre-production, as a philosophical approach to education as I see it, seeks to engage these fundamentals:

  • love of learning
  • difference between right and wrong
  • concepts of true and false
  • building and maintaining personal relationships (how to be a good friend, a good person)
  • enjoyment of stories
  • decisionmaking
  • computers, basic navigating of technology
  • family values and culture
  • personal identity: who are we, and what do we stand for?

    Dax graduates from Level 1 Swim Class

    Dax graduates from Level 1 Swim Class

  • personal accountability
  • responsibility
  • value of free play and free time
Chillin' at The Thinkery

Chillin’ at The Thinkery

I’m not sure how long this phase will last, or how exactly we will know when this phase comes to an end. I am assuming it will be age 9 or 10. All I know is that the success of later phases are completely reliant upon the success and completion of pre-production. Notice how the goals of this phase don’t include academic milestones or mastery of any kind of (adult) work. This is about self-discovery, self-determination, calibrating their internal compass, and most of all, it’s about modeling behavior we as parents wish to

Books are cool

Books are Cool

see in our kids.

Sure, we keep schedules relatively full of tools for academic learning (we read aloud, math in the real world, ask questions, seek answers, visit museums, check out books from the library, engage in group learning with our science class, talk about ancient Egyptians and early societies, educational games, etc.) but there is no requirement to drill information in. No curriculum with a schedule, no flashcards, no testing, no memorization, no narration/dictation/summarization, blah blah blah. We are star-gazing, though not yet memorizing constellations and names of interstellar moons. Strangely enough, both my kids happen to be reading and are able to comprehend basic math. GRAVY! This is pre-production.

Computer Games are Cool

Computer Games are Cool

Production will come once the kids are ready to dive deeper into topics and discover the connections between the information they have been taking in. This is where formal classes might be taken, and more structure can be provided. This, I envision, as being the “middle and high school” years for traditional school. I think this is

It Floats!

It Floats!

where there’s more practice at mastering an area of focus. David is most interested in developing the kids’ appetites for music composition around age 9 or 10; the beginning or transition to this phase. The arts, writing, performance, debate, sports (please not football, please not football), all those things that we aren’t really pushing right now; these things will take center stage in Production. In addition, I really plan to hand off much of the mentor role and take a more supportive role. David will likely become more involved in the day-to-day shaping of this phase, and I’m looking very forward to that! This is where we hope to instill leadership and real problem-solving capabilities. There is something to this quote from John Adams that solidifies the need for rigor and rubric in a “Production” phase:

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” -John Adams

This doesn't last long

This doesn’t last long

The Production phase will look something like this:

Sitting with friends on a quiet afternoon

Sitting with friends on a quiet afternoon

  • contributing to the team by studying, learning, helping
  • more distinct roles & responsibilities
  • goals more clearly set and outlined
  • more intense study, formal classes
We Love the Windsor Park Library!

We Love the Windsor Park Library!

Post-Production then, is basically continuing education. College, trade school, sojourn,

We like to "camp"

We like to “camp”

sabbatical, or whatever they use as a time of drilling down deep into knowledge. This is the phase I have the least vision about, because I see the kids as adults at this point. They will do what I am continuing to do myself. Read, discover, fill in gaps, listen to mentors, and apply their knowledge and skills in some way. There will be no shrink-wrapped final product like the CD made at the end of a recording session, but there will be a more defined, professional education that connects those dots and prepares them for all the twists, turns and transitions in life.IMG_7210

Readers Theater

Readers Theater

Maybe I’ll write more thoroughly on an upcoming transition to Production once I figure out what it looks like, exactly, for these dudes. If I examine my own life and my own stages of education, I don’t think I really hit production until college, and maybe I’m still in post-production. Do we ever stop learning? Thanks for reading!


“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” ~ Alfie Kohn


About creekerkids

Wife, mother, daughter, sister living in Austin, TX trying to give my kids the best life I can.
This entry was posted in Homeschool. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Collaborative Incubation: The Un-unschooling

  1. Celia Cosgrove says:

    Very smart and well thought out!

  2. um…i expect a shrink-wrapped CD at the end of each boy’s educational process, thankyouverymuch. i mean, i FILLED OUT THE FORM. GIVE ME THE CD.

    …i believe a bonus t-shirt was also promised. i’ll check the fine print. that exists. i’ve decided.

    (also, great post – going to forward to my bosses!)

    • creekerkids says:

      Jess, I will make some “Jacketweather Academy” t-shirts! Maybe I can shrinkwrap their transcript in CD form someday. Although, I really don’t want to be doing transcripts. Ever. Ugh.

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