by Wendy Priesnitz
learning (sometimes called unschooling or self-directed learning) is one
of those concepts that is almost easier to define by saying what it isn’t,
than what it is. And that’s probably because our own schooled backgrounds
have convinced us that learning happens only in a dedicated building on
certain days, between certain hours, and managed by a specially trained
Within that schooling framework, no matter how hard teachers
try and no matter how eloquent their text books, many bright students get
bored, many slower students struggle and give up or lose their self-esteem,
and most of them reach the end of the process unprepared to make the transition
to adulthood. They have memorized a certain body of knowledge long enough
to regurgitate the information on tests, but they haven’t really learned
much, at least of the official curriculum.
Life learners, on the other hand, know that learning is
not difficult, that people learn things quite easily if they’re not compelled
and coerced, if they see a need to learn something, and if they are trusted
and respected enough to learn it on their own timetable, at their own speed,
in their own way. They know that learning cannot be produced in us and that
we cannot produce it in others – no matter what age and no matter if we’re
at school or at home.
They understand that the tools used in schools, such as
text books, lesson plans, testing, grading, report cards, course requirements,
motivating students, homework assignments, blackboard writing, bulletin
board decorating, schedules and attendance regulations, are all designed
to manage or account for the efficient delivery of information in a publicly
funded setting. They have little to do with how people actually learn.
Life learning happens independent of time, location or the
presence of a teacher. It does not require mom or dad to teach, or kids
to work in workbooks at the kitchen table from nine to noon from September
Life learning is learner driven. It involves living and
learning – in and from the real world. It is about exploring, questioning,
experimenting, making messes, taking risks without fear of ridicule, making
mistakes and trying again.
Life learning does not involve memorized theory so much
as it requires applying knowledge. And that often means moving around, talking,
experimenting, thinking, jumping up and down...and sometimes appearing not
to be doing anything at all. It allows flexibility, independence and freedom
from all the school-type interferences that can get in the way of real learning.
In conventional education, the curriculum rules. It must
be completed so that testing, grading and reporting can begin. In this sort
of atmosphere, accurately duplicating the results of scientific experiments
that others have already performed is more important than finding out something
new. Finishing pages of math equations is more important than understanding
how the numbers relate to each other.
But kids are natural scientists and don’t need to be taught
science. They are also natural mathematicians and don’t need to be told
how to count things. Developmental psychologist and Harvard professor Robert
White calls this instinct to learn, to manipulate, to master an “urge toward
competence.” What he means is that we are born with not just a desire, but
the need to have an impact on our surroundings, to control and understand
the world in which we live.
We do not just sit and wait for the world to come to us...unless
we are among the unfortunate majority who are told to sit down, line up,
be quiet and wait. Life learners try actively to interpret the world, to
make sense of it. Of course, this drive to discover means we are constantly
learning...and also experiencing the pride that comes with having understood
new things and having mastered new skills.
So life learning is about trusting kids to learn what they
need to know and about helping them to learn and grow in their own ways.
It is about respecting the everyday experiences that enable children to
understand the world and their culture and to interact with it.
Children learn two of the most important and difficult things
they will ever learn during the first two years of life: how to walk and
how to talk. Why? Because they want to. So they work hard at learning the
necessary skills, purposefully, passionately, constantly. As parents, we
encourage, support, protect, cheer from the sidelines and model the behavior.
But most of all, we trust in their ultimate success.
That early learning is a model for all self-directed learning.
As parents, our role is the same as it was when our children learned how
to walk and talk. We talk with our kids and answer their questions honestly;
we provide opportunities for interaction with other people (including elderly
family and community members); we share and model learning; we create a
secure environment by supporting the risk-and mistake-making processes;
we keep their world whole rather than breaking it up into subjects; we enrich
their environment with books, pens, paper and other learning materials;
we celebrate their accomplishments; we learn about and help them utilize
their individual learning styles; and we provide access to the real world
and the tools that are part of it.
We also provide the time for our children to investigate
their own ideas. And – perhaps the biggest challenge for many parents –
we are flexible and patient observers of a process that is not particularly
sequential or organized, in spite of what the curriculum writers would have
Life learning is not a method of education, nor are there
any step-by-step guidelines or rules for doing it the right way. It is a
way of life, a way of looking at the world and at children. It is about
self-direction, about respect, about learning from life and throughout life.
It is about kids, families and communities regaining control over their
days, their learning, their money, their resources and their ability to
direct and manage themselves.
As William Butler Yeats once wrote, “Education is not the
filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning and
author of School Free
- The Homeschooling Handbook,
in Education, and
Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn't Exist. Learn
more about her and her writing. An earlier version
of this article originally appeared in the magazine Child's Play in
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