There is a perception out there that children would not be motivated learners without force. That unless someone decides what they need to know, sits them down at regular times, and assigns them work, they would be totally lost. People comment all the time that they couldn’t homeschool because their kids wouldn’t learn anything. Thanks for that one, school!
We recognise that young children are brimming with curiosity and have an undeniable passion for learning, but we incorrectly assume that somewhere around middle childhood this naturally tapers off. Someone has to step in and force the learning now.
Why though? Why on earth would we think this was a ‘natural’ thing to happen to a child? Humans need to continue learning. We wouldn’t have survived if it was ‘natural’ to give up wanting to learn and lie around completely unmotivated after the age of five.
Of course, if we want to actually think about it, the answer is staring us right in the face. What is the fastest way to kill motivation? The introduction of demands, requirements, pressure, force, coercion, comparison, standards. Limiting the time you can spend on your passions and instead dictating when you can learn about which subject, for how long, and in how much depth. The introduction of school.
Why on earth would we even expect children to be motivated to learn in the two dimensional, contextless, and meaningless way offered up by schools?
And then instead of recognising that it’s institutionalisation that’s the problem, we think it’s a characteristic of children. They need us. They’d be lost without us! They’d never learn anything! They need rewards for motivation!
“It is hard not to feel that there must be something very wrong with much of what we do in school if we feel the need to worry so much about what many people call ‘motivation’. A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing.” – John Holt
As an unschooler, I do not worry one bit about my kids not learning. As an unschooler, I am privy to the wonderful sight of real learning. I see what it looks like when children are undamaged by external pressure and have the freedom to continue learning as they always have. Passionately!
School has the ability to take so much from children, even our positive expectations and recognition of their capabilities. When children are controlled and forced, they naturally resist that. And so people come to see them as troublesome, requiring more control, unmotivated, lazy, unfocused, incapable, and many other negative things. But children are not like that at all.
Children who have not been to school, or experienced control over their learning, are nothing like this.
“The act of placing the power over learning and life into the individual’s hands is both empowering and motivating. The ‘motivation’ people see in unschoolers is really a joy in learning that is seen far less often among the masses in school.” – Idzie Desmarais
My children recently went to an ‘Unschoolers Market‘, where they ran stalls and sold things they had made for the occasion. They always love these events and started planning as soon as I told them it was coming up.
For four days straight my 8-year-old and 6-year-old worked, with barely a break. They stopped for snacks and fresh air, but for most of these days they were hard at work.
They planned, they researched ideas, they shopped for supplies, they cooked, they created, they wrote signs, they helped each other, they did it all independently. They were highly motivated learners.
Even my 3-year-old, who had decided to make biscuits, spent a day baking and decorating all of them, determined to do it herself. They had enormous amounts of concentration that people don’t believe children this age are capable of.
They were motivated. They were passionate. They were committed. They were capable.
This is not an uncommon scenario. This is how they regularly learn. Because this is what children are really like. There is no need to coerce them, plead with them, bribe them, or convince them to learn. Things that it seems many parents end up engaging in nightly while trying to get their children to do their homework.
“We didn’t have a name for it, but my friends and I often noticed that our kids–– who didn’t go to school–– had this quality of attention as they moved through the world. They were in a different mental state from schooled kids. You could see it. They noticed everything. They remembered everything. Their minds were open, clear, alert, at ease. If something caught their interest, they were on it with laser focus. When we encountered adults who were used to dealing with groups of school kids — at museums, aquariums, archaeological sites, animal-tracking hikes, beach clean-ups, citizen science projects –– they would say they had never seen kids like this before. They would be sort of dumbfounded by it. They expected all children to be wound up, tuned out, half-frantic with suppressed energy, like a dog who’s been locked in the house all day.” – Carol Black
Lack of motivation is not a symptom of childhood. It’s a symptom of schooling. Of being routinely told to put away your own interests and passions, and instead focus on what other people want you to do.
Don’t tell me children can’t concentrate for long periods, are unmotivated and unfocused, are lazy and uninterested, don’t want to learn.
Children aren’t the problem, our distorted view of ‘education‘ is.
“It’s hard to stop happy, satisfied people from trying to learn more about themselves and the world, or from trying to do a job of which they can feel proud. The desire to do as little as possible is an aberration, a sign that something is wrong. It may suggest that someone feels threatened and therefore has fallen back on a strategy of damage control, or that rewards and punishments have caused that individual to lose interest in what he’s doing, or that he perceives a specific task—perhaps correctly—as pointless and dull.” –Alfie Kohn