Choosing to Learn
Perhaps the most basic assumption our society makes about education is that learning is difficult and that it can and should be produced in children. There is a better way!
Near the beginning of my book Challenging Assumptions in Education (published in 2000, now out of print, but available for free download), I wrote, “Perhaps the most basic assumption our society makes about education is that learning is difficult and that it can and should be produced in people. This assumption leads to another one: Learning is the result of compulsory treatment by an institution called school.”
In reality, most of us, no matter our age, learn things quite easily if we’re not compelled and coerced, if and when we see a need to learn something, and if we are trusted and respected enough to learn it on our own timetable, at our own speed, in our own way.
Many people can accept that idea, and can cite examples of it happening in their own lives. However, they reach a stumbling block when thinking about children learning certain things that we know as “core subjects.” “But what if a home educated child doesn’t choose to learn math?”, I was asked recently. My response? A child whose family intentionally allows them to live and learn without schooling doesn’t have to choose to learn math. They will learn it in the course of pursuing their innate curiosity and their developing interests. And that will be true learning, rather than memorization.
Questions like that one are based on a notion perpetuated by adult “experts” who think that children need to be taught certain things, like it or not, for their own good. And few people would actually want to learn math anyway, goes the assumption. We're arrogant to think that real learning should or even can be produced in others. Moreover, we display a huge lack of trust in children's level of interest in and ability to learn a wide variety of things on their own. Rather than deciding what children should learn, our job as adults is to provide an environment in which they can explore all the possibilities of the world.
And that's what happens in the increasing number of families that are successfully choosing a school-free lifestyle.
Unschooled children are busy living life in all its complicated glory, pursuing their curiosity and interests, being involved in family tasks and decisions, discovering, questioning, and exploring. Along the way, they are learning many things – including math, science, languages, geography, economics, philosophy, history, the arts, and much more, as well as lots of other important life skills.
But that’s not the focus, not what they’re choosing to do. They are choosing to ride a horse, play a computer game, catch butterflies, design a website, build a LEGO marble slide, write a short story, volunteer to paint sets with a local theater group, collect and study rocks, garden, bake a cake, play the guitar, attend a public meeting, climb a tree, ride their bike, or dismantle a broken clock. They don’t need to choose to learn anything; they just do, based on their enthusiastic interest in life.
Children are, in fact, born with the desire to discover what they need to know about the world around them. The late Robert White, a developmental psychologist and Harvard professor, called this instinct to learn an “urge toward competence.” What he meant is that we are born with not just a desire but the need to have an impact on our surroundings, to control and understand the world in which we live.
Families that are facilitating and inspiring learning in this way are trusting their kids to learn what they need to know. Rather than teaching them in the school sense, they are allowing them to retain the curiosity they were born with. And, of course, when a child or young person chooses to learn more about a certain topic, more advanced opportunities – including courses, classes, and formal or informal apprenticeships – are available.
The experiences of these families (over decades in many cases) as well as an emerging body of research (some of which I'll be sharing here in the future), demonstrate the effectiveness of choice-driven learning. This is a topic dear to my heart, so I'll occasionally write here about how we can facilitate and optimize this progressive style of living to benefit children, their families, and our communities – and to help us regain control over our time, our learning, our money, our resources, and our ability to manage our lives.
Meanwhile, I've embedded a couple of links to articles on this topic from one of the magazines my husband and I used to publish. I'll continue to do that in future posts but, for now, here's a link to hundreds more articles about this way of helping children learn. Please free to share this article and these links with the many families that are considering home education.
Photo licensed through Shutterstock
Thanks for reading Challenging Assumptions! Subscribe for free to receive each new post via email.