Homeschooling / Unschooling

Why School Has Learning Backwards

School Learning: Backwards Learning?

What came first: the question, or the answer?

Well, the question, you might say. That’s obvious, isn’t it?

I beg to differ.

It depends on the environment.

A child free to learn naturally, how they were made to, starts with a question. Something sparks an interest. It may be in their daily life, in play, while exploring outside, in any number of places, at any time. And they are off! You see the light in their eyes, the curiosity, the motivation to find the answers they’re looking for. They are unstoppable and insatiable. They’re learning how human beings were designed to learn: they have a question, they find an answer.

For a child in an artificial learning environment, on someone else’s schedule, the answers come first. School comes with a curriculum, with all the answers laid out. And that is why it doesn’t work. Learning is backwards.

“Knowledge which is not genuinely discovered by children will very likely prove useless and will be soon forgotten.” -John Holt

Children remember very very little of what they memorise in school. Because it takes away their right to formulate their own questions, and seek their own answers, on their own terms. Sure, there’s questions. Pages and pages of worksheets often. But they are someone else’s questions, which you have little interest in, and are forced to complete. Someone else’s interests. Someone else’s agenda. Without any attachment to that, or any idea how it relates to real life, it is meaningless and quickly forgotten.

School Learning: Backwards Learning?

“Some schools do ‘child-led’ learning now” people will tell me. But that is not really possible in a school setting is it? Is there no curriculum to meet? No outcomes? No tests? Unlikely. So instead they artificially create ways to try and lead students to ask the questions they want them to ask, and find the answers they want them to find. This to me sounds even more manipulative and disrespectful. Just because you’re not giving the answers directly doesn’t mean it’s child-led, and it certainly doesn’t mean any authentic learning is happening.

We must not fool ourselves, as for years I fooled myself, into thinking that guiding children to answers by carefully chosen leading questions is in any important respect different from just telling them the answers in the first place. Children who have been led up to answers by teachers’ questions are later helpless unless they can remember the questions, or ask themselves similar questions, and this is exactly what they cannot do. The only answer that really sticks in a child’s mind is the answer to a question that he asked or might ask of himself.” -John Holt

The current system of schooling we have for our children seems like one big game. Children are supposedly learning how to learn. But what they are really learning is that adults hold the answers and that their job is to figure out how best to satisfy them. How disrespectful to put an end to their natural learning and replace it with this. To replace curiosity and questioning with either spoonfed facts, or pointless questions to which the asker already holds the answer. Children see straight through this. They know that it is all to please adults, that they are being directed and led no matter how it’s disguised. They know they are not really making any of their own discoveries, but merely playing the game.

School Learning: Backwards Learning?

Children were born with an immense desire to learn and make sense of their world. And they are very capable of doing that! What saddens me is to see this process interfered with so much that they eventually lose that innate love of learning. That joy in their eyes when they truly discover something on their own? Children deserve to feel that!

Human beings are born intelligent. We are by nature question-asking, answer-making, problem-solving animals, and we are extremely good at it, above all when we are little. But under certain conditions, which may exist anywhere and certainly exist almost all of the time in almost all schools, we stop using our greatest intellectual powers, stop wanting to use them, even stop believing that we have them.” -John Holt

So what comes first? Questions or answers? It’s your choice.

Do you value motivated, questioning, curious, independent, learners? Or memorised answers and high test scores?

What will it be?


Kenza Saadi
September 28, 2016 at 4:24 am

Wonderful piece! Thank you.
You may like this one on free play and I think we coincide on some ideas.
Have a lovely evening,

September 28, 2016 at 5:16 am

My son (first child) is 8 months old currently. I’ve been literally losing my mind because he seems bored and I feel I’m not doing enough to guide him..then I read up on Montessori practices and we already practice minimalism and free, uninterrupted play. And my son is developing pretty quickly (walking, climbing, trying to say words) and is happy. I just am wondering if I’m doing enough to keep him happy, curious and growing. I guess I’m sorta looking for ideas and/or validation from other unschooling moms.

    October 1, 2016 at 3:10 am

    At 8 months, what your baby wants the most is interaction with people, especially you. I’m sure you’re doing GREAT! I’ve never met an 8-month old that is really and truly bored. His entire life is new and exciting and if you’re interacting with him, he’s in his happy place. We’re an unschooling family, my kids are almost-4 and 6, and often what they still want the most is to be with me and my husband! 🙂

      October 1, 2016 at 9:57 am

      Whew! Thank you! I needed to hear that.. I get carried away with all these sensory boards and learning tools and he uses them for 5 seconds and is done. He is totally more interested in what I’m doing and I love that.

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