Ever since my daughters began to learn without school
in the 1970s, I have wondered about something. Why so many people need to
know how they learn? Reporters, relatives, colleagues, other parents, and
the merely nosey have all, over the years, expressed curiosity about how
my children learned to read, write, and multiply…if they weren’t taught.
(Interestingly enough, I’ve never once been asked how they learned to talk
I suppose these queries are somewhat rhetorical and
based in disbelief, posed by those who have never before considered the
idea that learning isn’t often a direct result of teaching, or that there
are other ways/places besides school to get whatever they define as an education.
I used to shrug and say that I didn’t know, that maybe it happened by osmosis…then
change the subject. If I embarked on a longer explanation, people’s eyes
either glazed over or began rolling.
The curiosity, however, goes much beyond that. There
is a whole industry of educational research devoted to understanding how
people learn. Most of it is aimed at finding better ways to teach things
in schools – things that could be learned anyway without the teaching and
better, in some cases, without what amounts to interference masquerading
as helping. In addition, there is money to be made in finding better ways
to artificially motivate children to be receptive to that teaching and then
to test the results....
The elephant in the room is that much of what is
supposedly learned in school isn’t really learned at all. It is mostly material
that has been memorized, whether it be history dates, mathematical formulae,
or the difference between a verb and a noun. Absent any interest in learning
the material and any context for it, as well as sufficient time to experiment
with, adapt, and apply the information, I do not think that we can call
this process learning. Rather, it is memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting.
(Why else would teachers and some parents bemoan the “ground lost” during
One clue about how real learning happens comes from
examining the sort of needs-based information that is acquired continuously
throughout one’s life through example, observation, reading, experience,
trial and error, and practice. Some of that learning will involve “life
skills” such as walking and talking, building a fence, growing a garden,
and caring for a loved one. Some of it will involve those moments of insight
that help us continue to fine tune ourselves as compassionate, emotionally
well balanced human beings. And that's the way our unschooled kids learn.
However, when most people talk about getting an education
or becoming educated – in school or otherwise – they are referring to a
certain, externally ordained set of facts called “academics” – reading,
writing, chemistry, and history – as opposed to the set that involves gardening,
plumbing, bicycle repair, or playing the harp (although it is possible to
take a course and get a certificate in many of those fields). In fact, those
skills are scorned in academic circles, considered frills at best and, at
worst, a place to relegate kids who can’t or won’t do (the more important)
academics. They are not, unfortunately, seen as an efficient and effective
way to learn any of those academic facts.
Compartmentalizing and differentiating among various
types of knowledge, and when and how they are learned, is encouraged by
those who commodify education. The types of information that are deemed
important enough to be taught in schools (or obtained by other educative
means) are measured and tested; others aren’t. So it’s not surprising that
what is considered non-academic learning isn’t often studied by the educational
research industry, and seldom thought about by the rest of us.
At any rate, all the categories of learning will,
according to most parents and educator alike, move along more efficiently
if adults (particularly ones who have supposedly been taught about how learning
happens) help children, rather than leaving them to their own devices. Presumably,
that’s because we think learning is a difficult, complicated, and mysterious
Those who wonder about how unschooled kids learn
have a hard time accepting that learning can happen in the presence of need,
when the learner is ready, and without much outside intervention. And I
think that is because a lack of trust in the basic human motivation to learn
has been reinforced by our own school experiences.
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's
founding editor. A writer and journalist for forty years, she is the author
of twelve books, a former broadcaster, and a lifelong changemaker. She and
her husband helped their two now-adult daughters learn without school in
the 1970s and '80s. You can learn more about her and read more of her writing
on her website.