Unschooled children learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn it.
This is confronting for a lot of people.
They say to me “but there are certain things children need to know!”
I’m sure there are. The thing is, there is no universal set of knowledge that is necessary for all of us. We all have different lives and will need different skills at different times. We can’t possibly predict what will be useful for each child in the future.
What we do know is that children are perfectly capable of learning and they will learn everything they need to know, when it becomes meaningful and relevant.
This lack of control scares people. They do not trust that children will learn the things that seem vitally important to them. They especially don’t think children will be motivated to learn things that were made to seem tedious and painful to them at school.
But when there is no distinction between play and learning, when there is no force and coercion, when there are no ‘have to’s’, children do learn the things that they need to know. Yes, even things that you may have had to be forced to do at school.
For example, my 8-year-old has spent the past weekend learning the times tables. Something that I have been told they would never choose to do. People can not imagine a child voluntarily wanting to learn maths because they never got the chance to be interested in it themselves. They were forced before an interest even arose. Children at school are made to practice every day, whether they’re interested or not, whether they’re ready for the information or not. Consequently, most people end up hating maths. So how did this come about?
The girls have been listening to the audiobook of Roald Dahl’s Matilda (which I highly recommend, by the way, Kate Winslett reading it is fantastic! We listen on audible: here).
Miss 8 came to me one evening…
“Mum, I want to learn more times tables. Can you help me?”
“Sure. Where did you hear about times tables?”
“When we were listening to Matilda. They were doing times tables and she already knew them all.”
“Oh yeah, how would you like me to help?”
“I want you to ask me them and I will work them out, and you tell me if they’re right.”
“Actually, I’ll write them all down, because then I can always remember them.”
I then suggested that she use a grid to write them down because then she wouldn’t have to write as much and could find them all easily whenever she looked them up. I explained how that worked and she loved the idea and decided to do it that way.
She used an abacus to help her with some of the answers.
At this point she realised there was a pattern and that she could copy the answers horizontally and vertically. She also figured out that she didn’t have to start at the beginning to work out each sum, she could just count on from the last answer.
Miss 6, seeing her sister working on multiplication, decided she wanted to do some maths too. She said “I don’t think I’m ready for all the times tables, but can you write me some plusses?”. I love how they know what they are ready for and don’t feel pressured to keep up with others.
The next morning both girls were back to it.
And so, both kids spent the weekend finding joy in maths. Because children don’t need force to learn. They don’t need rewards and praise. They don’t need rules and timelines. They just need freedom.
They will learn what they need to know, when it is relevant.
Bizarrely, sometimes people still ask ‘But what about if something never becomes relevant? How will they learn it?’ Surely the question is, if something is never relevant, meaningful, or necessary to a person then why on earth do you believe they should be forced to learn it?
Our schooling has led us to believe that we do not know what is best for us, only teachers do. That it is perfectly acceptable to dictate to another person what they should find important. That only official ‘educators’ can determine what is necessary for us to learn. Even if we don’t want to, even if it is not useful to us, even if we are not ready to learn it, even if we don’t agree. How disempowering.
I don’t know about you, but I’m taking back my power. I will use my mind how I want to, and so will my children. In fact, despite the pressure, I never did memorise my times tables at school. They weren’t meaningful to me at the time. And would you look at that, I’m still a functioning human being.
So will unschoolers learn their times tables? Maybe, maybe not. But they will learn what matters. Including that they have the right to decide on their own path.
This post is part of a series of posts documenting our day-to-day life as an unschooling family. Sometimes it’s hard to picture what unschooling looks like, so here I hope to provide a little window into the kid’s life and learning. This is just an example of what unschooling can look like, but it’s very different for each family. It’s not designed to be read as an ‘activity idea’ that you can set up for your child, but an account of four inspired young people who have the freedom to learn how and what they desire.