“…people today do not even know what children are actually like. They only know what children are like in schools.”
“It is in this context that we set out to research how human beings learn. But collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.”
– Carol Black
The more I watch my children learn, the more I understand how very true the above quote is. We have all of this information about what children need to learn, when they need to learn it, and how they need to learn it, but what relevance does that have to a child free from the institution of schooling that this research was based on? Extremely little, I’d say.
When you unschool you get lots of well meaning questions about how you will make sure your kids learn, how you know what they are ‘supposed’ to be learning, and how you will make sure they are keeping up with their peers. None of this concerns me as I have seen how children naturally learn. Most people have never seen this and they truly believe that school=learning. So I think we need to talk about it! The learning of a child left to discover the world in their own time is very very different to a child at school.
At school, children
learn are taught information in a step by step pattern, a little of each subject each day, gradually increasing in difficulty, whether they are currently interested or not. I am yet to see that happen with any of my children, and talking to other unschoolers it seems I’m not alone. Our children learn very differently. An interest sparks and all of a sudden they are very busy and full of ideas. They ask many questions and spend hours, days, weeks, or even months learning about a topic. They plan, write down ideas, draw, paint, read, etc all about their interest. You see it come out in their imaginary play and they often like to tell everyone about it. You see big leaps in development all of a sudden when before they may have not been interested for months. They ask big questions that you think are beyond their understanding at that point but they surprise you and you realise that there is more than one way to approach things and we don’t need to overly simplify things. And then eventually they have satisfied their curiosity and it stops, until next time. I often find the same interests come back over and over again with times in between where it seemed like they did nothing on it at all. And yet interestingly when they start again they are ahead of where they were before, seemingly learning and consolidating all that information in the space between ideas. It’s inspiring to watch.
“Children do much of their learning in great bursts of passion and enthusiasm. They rarely learn on the slow, steady schedules that schools make for them. They are more likely to be insatiably curious for a while about some particular interest, and to read, write, talk and ask questions about it for hours a day and for days on end. Then suddenly they may drop that interest and turn to something completely different, or even for a while seem to have no interests at all. This usually means that for the time being they have all the information on that subject that they can digest, and need to explore the world in a different way, or perhaps simply get a firmer grip on what they already know.”
It is the same for any subject. Yes even reading, writing, and maths. At times it feels like my children spend all of their days writing. Writing lists, letters, plans, etc. Asking me countless questions about how things are spelled. And then it can be a month without writing a thing! To a schooled mind this might be worrying. Don’t children need to consistently practice something in order to improve? Won’t they forget if there’s too much of a break between study? There’s always articles about ‘summer learning loss’ and how schooled children lose knowledge over school holidays. But it seems to me this is just the consequence of schooling and children being made to learn in unnatural ways. If children are learning what is meaningful to them, when they are actually interested, then they are much more likely to remember what they have learned. Especially as they understand how it is actually relevant to their lives. On the other hand if you’re coerced into memorizing things every day that are of little importance to you then it’s unlikely you’re going to remember without regular practice.
Learning is not linear. Unfortunately though, it is made to be that way for most kids. When I see the way my kids learn, the excitement in their eyes, the passion, and the sense of achievement, I am grateful they are allowed this freedom. This is something I never want to take from them. Yes, we know a lot about how children learn in schools. But that tells us nothing about what true meaningful self-directed learning looks like. We know a lot about how children perform for adults when instructed, but we’re not confident in the power of children to educate themselves because they are rarely given this right. For our children’s benefit I think we need to get more familiar with what natural learning looks like.
I wonder what the consequences are of routinely ignoring the powerful way children learn and replacing it with a step-by-step, one size fits all, adult imposed ‘education’? I do not care to find out. It seems to me we are doing children a great disservice. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to work with children and let them learn how their brains are wired to learn, instead of fighting against them and potentially damaging their innate desire to learn and their contagious passion? I think so.