What Should Children Learn? Does It Even Matter?

Can I tell you a secret?

It doesn’t really matter what children learn.

It doesn’t matter what facts they memorise, what they spend their time doing, what their interests are, if they are into academics or not… It just doesn’t matter. As much as we have been convinced it does.

If I look back over the last few weeks at the things my children have been up to I see: a lot of art, soap making, cooking, imaginary play, cleaning, dance competitions, playing with friends, sculpting, celebrating winter solstice, listening to stories, reading books, more artwork, art classes, macrame, nature journaling, planning a sleepover, and lots of play.

Most of it does not look a thing like school. Sometimes it can look similar, but mostly not. I certainly haven’t spent any time trying to shove a bunch of facts into their head because it’s on a curriculum. They’re learning their own way, the things that matter to them. Do I care?

No. Because it doesn’t matter what they learn.

It matters how.

“It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool part of our lives.”

– John Holt

If we don’t remember much, if anything, from our school days that is relevant and helpful to our adult lives, what was the point? Why did we spend 13 years being taught useless things that we wouldn’t remember?

Is this the best way to spend a childhood?

Is this the best way to educate people?

If we had opted out of that and spent our time doing whatever we felt like, would we be better off? Would we have learned everything we need to know? I don’t know about you, but I think so. If I had have been given the freedom to learn what I wanted maybe my list of useful things that were relevant to my life would have been longer. Maybe I would have had more practical life skills by the time I’d ‘graduated’ rather than test-taking skills, which I never use.

“The people who are horrified by the idea of children learning what they want to learn when they want to learn it have not accepted the very elementary psychological fact that people (all people, of every age) remember the things that are important to them – the things they need to know – and forget the rest.”

-Daniel Quinn

There are things way more important than what children learn.

Do they love to learn? Is it joyful? Do they have passions? Are they self-motivated? Are they curious about the world? Are they engaged? Are they free to be themselves? Do they have the support and resources they need? Are they passionately pursuing their goals? Are they learning how to learn?

These are much worthier goals than shoving their heads full of curriculum, boring them to tears, filling their childhoods with stress and pressure, limiting time for learning they actually enjoy, narrowing their interests, putting them in a toxic social environment, stealing 13 years of their childhood… I could go on. You get the point.

“From a developmental perspective, it doesn’t actually matter what children choose to focus on as they shift to mastery learning. The higher-order skill they are practising is how to learn effectively. Once they know how to do that, they can apply it to different situations.”

-Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds

The subject doesn’t matter. The underlying skills do.

Children are born with an innate desire to learn and the skills to do so. When children are following their interests, learning naturally, they are continuing to develop these skills. They are learning how to learn. Gaining experience that will last them a lifetime. When you know how to learn and where to find the information and resources you need, you can learn anything, anytime. You don’t have to rely on how well you memorised something in high school. The power to educate yourself is right there within you, and you have the confidence that you can do it because you’ve been learning this way your whole life.

“Our rapidly moving, information-based society badly needs people who know how to find facts rather than memorize them, and who know how to cope with change in creative ways. You don’t learn those things in school.”

– Wendy Priesnitz

It doesn’t matter what children learn, as long as they are learning something. If they are spending their days pursuing their interests, playing, being exposed to new ideas and people alongside a supportive adult, they are learning. If they have hobbies and passions, they are learning.

Education cannot be reduced to memorising facts. Does it matter if you have test results as proof of momentary learning if a child forgets everything a month later? Instead of focusing on teaching and memorisation, we can see the value in learning through their interests, in the real world.

It doesn’t matter what they learn. It matters how.

Unschooling requires a lot of trust and deschooling. It’s normal to worry about children not learning things you feel are necessary. You can read more on that here.

Follow us on Instagram for more of what daily life looks like for an unschooling family of 6!


July 7, 2021 at 12:10 am

So encouraging to see children flourish without the dull intake of facts for test-taking. Love this, as usual. I wish I could say that the compiling years of this daily proof of learning erodes all of my fears, but I’m still working on me. 😉

School mom.
July 9, 2021 at 11:30 am

I believe school is exactly what our kids need! And mostly because of everything else they learn that has to do with developmental socialization and dependency. Having friends and learning skills of how to cope, transition, have empathy and motivation. There are basic skills that we all get from school so I don’t buy into this idea that unschooling them breeds leaders, team players and dependency. From my observation I see children delayed, privileged and unable to function in the world. I think parents may like the idea but are too busy to actually implement it in their children’s lives. I can only image how many kids are neglected and left on their computers unattended. I’d rather have my kids running in the school yard, overcoming challenges and making friends. Sorry!

October 20, 2021 at 11:29 pm

I love this piece:). I agree with all you write here, but I have a bit of a dilemma! What if one of your kids doesn’t seem to be Experiencing all we hope this way of life brings? Basically what if they (as the younger kiddo) have been stifled by their older sib, and thus doesn’t really let themselves explore, be curious, have passions? My older child does thrive in this life, but I’m worried about my younger kiddo.. any advice as to how to convince her to explore herself and what floats her boat?

December 6, 2021 at 7:09 am

If you enjoy learning and have the ability and willingness to teach yourself, you can readily fill in any gaps in your education that come up.

February 21, 2022 at 12:45 pm

Children need a real education though. A real education includes math, science, history, writing, and reading. A real education means doing something other than following your own whims. If I followed my desires, I would read all day and never do the actual work of keeping a home and taking care of my family. Following whims is a form of selfishness.

I have homeschooled both of my children. My daughter is now on a presidential scholarship at her college due to her grades and in their honors program. She is a published author. It would be challenging to write a book if she had not been taught how to write and research. My son is going to school for carpentry. He has the education to pursue whatever he wants but his passion is working with his hands. If I had allowed him free reign to not do his work, he would not have the same options.

As a homeschooling mom who has done the hard work of educating my children, I don’t like unschooling ever being put in the same category as homeschooling. Homeschooling done correctly indicates a child was educated well. Unschooling is not the same.

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