What is Symbiotic/Self Directed Learning?

Is this “unschooling”?

It might be, but I think Symbiotic/Self Directed Learning is more a way of holding space for learning than a prescribed way of homeschooling.  It lends itself well to the the unschooling spectrum but may not fit some peoples idea unschooling.  It is great for the eclectic homeschooler and it works well when you work with early childhood and adults.

Let’s deconstruct it a bit.

Symbiotic : adj. – denoting a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups

It is reciprocity and learning alongside each other.  Not all homeschooling families hold this as their goal or even realize the potential and the beauty it can hold.   I am so passionate about it because life is busy and full!  It can be really challenging to meet the needs of all the members in a family and my family is large!  We all need sustenance, nurturance, to feel of use, to have passions, to have meaning, to pursue interests… but what usually happens? As parents, our own personal needs often go unmet.  Symbiotic learning has a way of “stacking functions”.  It creates opportunities to meet the  many needs of many people at the same time.  It is not only a time saver but a connection builder.  It is creating a habits of presence and turning towards each other and reflecting on challenges, wondering, sharing and celebrating together.

This can be applied to ANYTHING AND ANY CURRICULUM.  Even if you are teaching your child to read.  If you hold the space (take the perspective) created by symbiotic learning you will be enriched as well.  In literacy it might take the form of reflections as you explore their comprehension, for example.  When you reflect together on what you have read it opens a beautiful window into your child’s soul and vice versa.  They want to know you too.  They want to hear if you have had that experience or how you feel or would respond to something.  It is modeling curiosity, support, listening, empathy, collaborating, critical thinking and values.  It is mindfulness, parenting and learning all at once.

In symbiotic learning, as in the Reggio approach, we begin by providing what we call a provocation.  This might be the curriculum you have purchased, a field trip, a video, book, a collection of things on a table or just about anything that may spark curiosity.  From there we learn to explore, looking at it from an educational or personally expanding perspective and finally we try to find a way of expressing it. It involves the whole being and the myriad of ways to be engaged.

Symbiotic learning enriches the family’s experience of learning and living.

Self-directed learning – 

Just like “unschooling”,  people will define and apply self-directed learning in so many ways.  For me, it is ultimately about engagement and investment.  Similar to the idea of “child lead” learning in early childhood development, it allows the child to bring forth their own interests and then either through their own direction and intrinsic motivation or with adult support and facilitation they take that interest as far as they can and across as many learning domains or subjects as possible.

For me, it is not a hands off approach!  It is a curious, observational and supportive one.


To learn more about how to facilitate this type of learning check out our  current Workshops and Offerings or  Exploring Family Learning 




Reflecting On High School Graduation

I’ve been contemplating graduation ceremonies.  I have always felt conflicted about them.  When I graduated, much to my mother’s chagrin, I wasn’t interested in marching.  Our school was big!  My class was big, all I imagined was, so many kids, so many names and so many people.  I am an introvert, after all.  I also felt it was hypocritical.  I seemed to me that I hadn’t really done anything, high school was easy for me.  All I did was what I was supposed to do and had I not, I would have been in trouble.

I realize that context is everything and it is not always an easy thing for children to do.  It has varied meaning for varied folks and for me in various circumstances.

My nephew is quite the young man.  He has faced so much adversity.  He was raised by us all.  His mother was mentally ill and died when he was in 7th grade of an accidental drug overdose.  Following that his cousin/brother, my son died, his father became very ill and my father, his grandfather, died.

He loved public school for a very long time but eventually the stress overwhelmed him.  He needed to heal his heart and that was taking more time than public school expectations would allow.  He began homeschooling his sophomore year and that is when I asked him, who and what he wanted to be.

“I just wanna be that cool skater dude who’s been through so much and never touched a drug.  I wanna be an example.”


Noah has always been deeply spiritual and reflective.  Always loved exploring faith and symbolism.  Whenever we did ceremony at home or spiritual reflections he was always the first to answer questions or offer his thoughts so it was no surprise that he wanted to attend church.  He needed a regular dose and the big feels of community worship.  He is a social kid!

They became his extended family.  They supported him through it all, picked up where we left off and gave him a safe space to share and not have it complicated by our struggles or feelings.  They have given him scholarships to camp, paid for his mission trips and given him a place to grow and develop.  They probably have no idea how much of his homeschooling was from their support and expectations.  That is where he learned public speaking.  It’s where he became a youth leader and worked with children, learned collaboration and responsibility.  It’s where he gained friendships, found his girlfriend and found a reason to be an example.  It took dedication because he was the only Christian in our family.  We practice more traditional indigenous spirituality.

So there it is, he is an individual and we have done our best to honor that.  He learned to love homeschooling but sometimes longed for some of the traditional experiences of public school and he sometimes felt confused by the questions of well meaning adults who had different ideas of what success looks like and requires.

My children who have been unschooled now for 7 years feel like graduation is strange for them.  They usually ask questions like, “What will change? I am going to keep learning just like I am now.  When I want to learn something I’m going to find the way to do that.”  My oldest homeschooler chose not to acknowledge his graduation.  Didn’t even want a party.  That felt strange even to me!  Isn’t there some sort of mile stone?  Some sort of rite of passage?

Where and what is that, if not graduation?  What is the natural rhythm?

For Noah, graduation mattered and although we had conversations about it, considered requesting permission for him to march at his old high school, asked about a party…his answers maybe didn’t match his needs and we didn’t really know it till his church family stepped in.  They created a small ceremony for him.  And suddenly we all knew what it meant for him, for his dad and for all of us to mark the occasion.


Without a traditional educational paradigm, where do you think the natural rite of passages are?

Body Wisdom and Symbiotic Learning

My beliefs about family learning and spirit keeping require that we accept that learning, knowledge, wisdom, all come from everywhere and every experience.  That we approach a problem with curiosity and be open and that something guides us or steers us toward answers.  Still, sometimes I miss the opportunity, we all do for various reasons and that’s ok.  So I want to share with you one of my experiences that felt like a missed opportunity.


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I was recently introduced to the work of Judith Blackstone, a licensed clinical psychotherapist and contemporary spiritual teacher.  She teaches a meditation practice that is about inhabiting the body and All That Is, at the same time.  The newness for me or the primary difference in her teachings is that you do not disappear into the Oneness, you are an equal part in it.  Makes sense, but I have a habit of leaving myself out that shows up in various ways.  I suppose this is one of those ways.  Shortly after that I was introduced to the work of Pat Ogden, a somatic psychotherapist.  She speaks toward the physical response to trauma and how you can work from the body upwards toward the brain.

I share all this because, well, they were helpful to me, but also to express that this was my exploration of a problem, we as a family have been facing.

I’ve never found it easy to inhabit my body. Culturally we even reference it as “the body”.  With good intentions, the idea is to recognize that we are not the physical. So it is far easier for me to access spiritual guidance than body wisdom and to have someone just say directly, “inhabit both spaces at once…don’t leave the body to feel All that is.”  That was huge!

Here’s the most interesting piece.

I was holding all of this as the sun rose this morning and something came together.

Two of my sons spoke body wisdom to me this year, on separate occasions.  They spoke toward the same thing in the same way and yet, I missed it. They said it quite directly but no, they didn’t call it that.  They were just sharing something, a thought and a new goal and I’m thinking I didn’t have the presence in those moments to get curious about it.

The beginning of the story behind the story was the same, an experience of multiple collective family trauma and grief.  But they each came to me separately noticing that their postures had collapsed – they had found themselves literally folding over and frequently sort of squashing things and decided to work on changing that.  I didn’t until just this moment recognize how this shifted how they moved through the world or how it moved them further along in their grief process.


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Myself on the other hand, I have been quite aware of the urges of my trauma body to collapse – to fold into child’s pose and to remain there.  I’ve noticed it has become a symptom of my autoimmune flare ups. The muscles involved are precisely the ones that hold me upright. Still, I couldn’t see clearly till this moment that that is one way I could walk towards the continued healing of my soul.  I see now, if I take action in the body, hold powerful postures, or postures of grace, I can feel Grace and Empowerment.  Now that’s not entirely new to me but it’s new within the context of my recovery from this.  In other words, a smaller more accessible piece than I had contemplated.

Now I can return to them and share my experience and understanding and ask about theirs.  Now I am reminded the opportunity remains.  I just needed a little “wait time” to acclimate to the information or to further experience it and maybe they did as well.  In this conversation we might have the opportunity to explore the nervous system, the physical body’s response to trauma, the grief process, personal empowerment…it will all depend on the space we are in, the places where our experience and contexts converge.

There is so much that I see in this story.

  • I am reminded again, to include myself.
  • I reminded to be compassionate with myself and have faith in the process.
  • I reminded of the interconnectedness of our learning, how important it is to include all  of our parts in our goals for “educating” and to recognize these important pieces to embodying knowledge and experience.
  • And finally, I am given for myself, a new level of understanding and solution to some of my specific challenges.

In other words, my experience confirms my beliefs in symbiotic learning and how the practices of curiosity, openness and mindfulness create an environment that makes life rich with learning constantly.  Learning happens in conversation and experience.  We don’t have to create opportunities to learn, they come and they bring gifts for us all.

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