Life learning parents understand that protecting
and nurturing the love of learning is more important than memorizing facts.
Nathan Isaacs, a British author and educator who has popularized the
work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, has described the typical school
classroom as a “looking-glass world.” When children attend school, they
are taken from their situation of living/learning into a totally new, unreal
way of life. This new way of life requires a set of rather passive behaviors
much different from what they were used to, orchestrated by an unknown adult,
and directed by a master plan that is also unknown to the children.
Any real learning that takes place under such circumstances is incidental.
Putting highly curious and motivated children into a numbing, dehumanizing,
and demotivating atmosphere, then trying to artificially motivate them to
learn about the world in a restrictive, compartmentalized fashion to an
arbitrary bureaucratic timetable seems like a very inefficient process.
For this reason, formalized schooling can often get in the way of learning,
rather than facilitate it. As one unschooling mother once said to me when
I was researching my 1979 book
School Free, “Our homeschooling career started when play school
interfered with watching a shopping center being built. We opted to watch.
We opted for life.”
Piaget believed that children are inner-oriented. He wrote about the
importance of children being able to interact with their environment on
their own terms, determining their own process and rate of development.
Indifference to this important concept in our school systems has led to
the testing, measuring, and grading of children, and to labeling them as
“slow” or with some acronym that qualifies them for drug treatment so they
will behave and perform.
But as unschoolers and life learners, we are able to focus on the process
of learning about life instead of the content of a one-size-fits all curriculum.
The protection of the love of learning and creativity – as well as the development
of problem solving and research skills – are what we care most about. We
know that these qualities are fragile and can be easily destroyed by the
coercive teaching of topics in which children are not interested or that
they are not ready to know about. And we know, by observing our children,
that facts and skills are easily retained when they are learned in a context
relevant to daily life and experience – that is, when a person wants to
know them because they have a need to know them.
Schools, of course, focus on process too. It’s just that the process
has nothing much to do with learning. Because of compulsory attendance laws,
schools are concerned with a custodial and management process that involves
standardization and accountability via exams, grades, and certificates,
rather than a true interest in learning. For all the concern about facts
and information (and their demonstrable retention), students in school are
often prevented from knowing enough about the real workings of the real
world to enable them to understand or change it. They also give up their
self-esteem and the ability to think for themselves, end up thinking that
learning is a chore, rather than just a joyful part of living.
So what can we do? We can trust our children’s ability to make sense
of the world on their own, and to learn skills and facts without being taught.
We can trust them not to learn certain things if they don’t perceive a need.
We can be their guides when needed and their inspiration when we truly want
to share a passion. We can model a life of being as well as doing and a
pursuit of life skills as well as intellectual ones. We can share information,
asking them questions only when we don’t know the answers and answering
theirs when we do.
We can opt for life.
Wendy Priesnitz is the founder and editor of Life Learning Magazine,
the mother of two self-taught adult daughters, and the author of
Challenging Assumptions in Education:
From Institutional Education to a Learning Society, as well as