If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard an adult tell a child that the child’s job is to learn, I’d be a very rich woman. What most adults leave unsaid is “what I’ve decided you need to learn.” That what most adults mean when they tell children that the child’s job is to learn; they just don’t say it quite so plainly.
A child’s role in self-directed learning is still to learn, but it is not to learn what someone else has arbitrarily decided for them that they need to learn.
To choose what they will learn about.
To choose when they will learn.
To choose how much of it to learn. How deeply to dive into the material. How broadly to seek information. How many rabbit holes to explore.
To choose which materials they will use to learn what they want to learn. A video? Sure. A piece of literature? Sure. A textbook or class? Sure. A lecture? Sure. Experimenting on their own? Sure. Utilizing a mentor? Sure.
A child’s role is self-directed learning is that simple. To ask questions and to seek answers.
So, the question was: “OK soo, without boundaries or defined lines how do you learn?”
And my answer is:
My kids learn the same way they learned before it was “time to start school” and the same way we learn as adults. I’m not saying that there aren’t boundaries or defined lines. What I am saying is that our own lives provide those boundaries and lines, rather than the whims of someone else who believes that they know best what we need.
As adults just doing our daily stuff, we encounter times when we discover that we want to or need to learn something in order to do something else that we want to or need to do. We go out and find the resources or materials we need to use in order to learn it. We study or practice until we’re satisfied that we’ve attained a high enough mastery of the skill or information in order to do what we want to do. Then, we repeat the cycle. Education doesn’t stop when we turn 18 and graduate from high school; it’s a lifelong process.
My kids, and other “unschooled” kids, do the same thing…as does everyone once they become adults and assume the power to decide for themselves what they want to or need to learn, when to learn it, and how to learn it. Basically, life prepares you to learn exactly what you need to know, exactly when you need to know it.
It just looks different for every person, and that is not valued within the confines of a K-12 education. Different for every person doesn’t work well when you need everyone on the same page in order to progress through the system together. The reality as adults is that we do not all share the same knowledge. We don’t have to! I have yet to find a compelling reason why kids should be required to share the same set of knowledge as every other kid, either.
It’s a complete paradigm shift to go from a K-12 model of education to what I believe about it. Kids whose childhoods are spent guiding the courses of their own educations will just be better equipped to learn as adults than kids who have limited exposure to charting their own courses.
If you don’t see yourself as a teacher to your children…if you don’t sit with them and make them do schoolwork…if you don’t have a planner with the year’s curricula and lessons all laid out…what is it that you do?
If you ask 100 parents whose philosophy about education is similar to mine, you’ll probably get 100 different answers. That said, those 100 different answers can probably be sorted into five different basic categories: the guide, the mentor, the facilitator, the resource provider, and the partner. I personally slip back and forth between the different roles with ease, depending on which child I am working with and what he or she is wanting to learn.
While the guide and the mentor are similar, the difference as I see it is that the guide isn’t equipped to mentor. The guide lacks the expertise and know-how of the mentor. Instead, the guide is really, really good at asking the right questions. The guide helps brainstorm. The guide helps her children learn the critical thinking skills that are necessary for success. The guide is resourceful, and helps her children figure out what they need in order to navigate an uncharted trail.
The mentor does all the things that the guide does, but the mentor has the personal expertise and the know-how that’s necessary for helping a mentee learn something or achieve a personally meaningful goal. The trail isn’t uncharted when there’s a mentor in the picture. The difference between a mentor and a teacher as I see it is in the distinction between a mentee and a student. A mentee is pursuing a goal that is personally meaningful and has sought the guidance and expertise of the mentor, whereas a normal K-12 student is generally accepting (to varying degrees) the guidance and expertise of a teacher who is leading him toward a goal that was defined by the teacher.
The guide will oftentimes turn into a facilitator. It’s the next logical step. Once the guide has worked with her children to ask the right questions and figure out what might possibly be the next step to take, the facilitator takes over. The facilitator is the one who connects children with the mentors they need. The facilitator is the one who helps her children make things happen when they lack the resources or skills to do it all themselves.
THE RESOURCE PROVIDER
The resource provider is pretty hands-off, because her kids are doing all right on their own. They’ve figured out what they want or need to know. They’ve figured out what the next step is. They’ve found the resources they want to use…they just need the resource provider to get said resources for them.
Because learning never ends, the partner teams up with her children to explore a mutual interest more deeply. Rather than teaching her children anything, the partner is learning something alongside them.
Your children are capable of figuring out what they want or need to know.
Children start off in life as insatiably curious creatures. Their learning comes naturally, from experiencing normal, everyday life. They figure out which knowledge and skills they need to acquire by discovering what the gaps are between where they are now and where they want to be.
Incidentally, that’s the same process we use as adults. Yet, our educational system derails that process. All of a sudden, at five years old, we’ve determined that authority figures must step in and direct the process for the next 13 years – after which, young adults will be spit back out into a world where they must relearn how to do what originally came so naturally.
Your children will choose to learn what they want or need to know at exactly the right time for them.
Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are amazingly capable of picking up what they want or need to learn exactly when they are ready to use it…and not a second earlier. Adults too are capable of discerning what is important or desirable to know and willing to invest the time and energy into doing so. I’ll put forth that, left to their own devices and not pressured by anyone else’s agenda, children between 5-18 are also capable of the same thing.
Having children learning the same things at the same time, to the same degree, with the same resources is simply a matter of convenience for teachers and administrators, and other than convenience, there’s no good reason in the world why that must happen.
Your children’s interests and opinions are valid and deserve respect.
Few other circumstances demonstrate such a pervasive disrespect for the thoughts and feelings of children as is displayed in an authority-driven education. As adults, we wouldn’t tolerate such a blatant dismissal of our thoughts and feelings. Nor we would suffer having our time and energy wasted on as many meaningless tasks as we assign to children in that authority-driven education.
And yet, for some reason, the adult powers-that-be have determined that they know best what children need to know and by when they must know it, and therefore it is acceptable to force that agenda on children.
Your children will choose to do difficult things and things they don’t enjoy if those things are necessary means to an end that is meaningful to them.
Children will not do difficult things and things that they don’t enjoy (if they have a choice) in order to accomplish a task that is meaningless to them. Neither will we, as adults!
However, put a goal that is truly meaningful to any of us in front of us and line the path with difficult or unpleasant obstacles, and if that goal is genuinely personally meaningful, we will tackle those difficult and unpleasant tasks. If we’re not willing to do that, it’s because we’ve weighed the pros and cons and determined that the end goal isn’t significant enough. And that’s okay! Not everything we can do is worth doing.
Your children don’t deserve to have their time wasted any more than you would like yours being wasted.
Let’s re-read that last one: Not everything we can do is worth doing. Not everything that we assign to children to do is worth doing. I’ll put forth that most of the schoolwork we assign to children to do is, in fact, not worth doing. A lot of it is busy work. And when something isn’t worth doing, but we insist that someone else do it anyway, aren’t we wasting their time?
No one likes having their time wasted. No one likes having what they want to do or learn crowded out by what someone else wants them to do or learn.
Your children don’t deserve to have someone else insist that they learn something they see no reason to learn, any more than you do.
Just as no one likes having their time wasted, no one likes having what they want to do or learn crowded out by what someone else wants them to do or learn without their consent. Children aren’t any different.
Recognizing a need or a desire to learn something is a powerful motivator. Once the reason to learn something is in place, the process of learning it becomes smoother and easier. There won’t be any fighting. You won’t need to nag or bribe. The learning rewards itself. Finally, you can be sure that when your children have a personal need or desire to learn something, they will actually learn it. To actually learn something means more than regurgitating information onto an assignment or a test. It means internalizing it, claiming it as one’s own, and using it.
No one I know unschools because they want to be known as unschoolers. The goal of an unschooler (or a self-directed homeschooler) isn’t to exist as the yang to the authority-driven, classroom-style approach’s yin.
I didn’t choose self-directed homeschooling by accident. While I do not have any specific agenda for what my children do or how they choose to live their lives as adults, I do have 10 goals in mind as we go through this self-directed homeschooling thing together:
To preserve my children’s love of learning
Learning to swim – fully dressed in “winter” clothes.
No one has to tell a baby, a toddler, or a preschooler to love learning. They just do! A child’s love of learning is suffocated when they come to associate learning with drudgery, frustration, boredom, and tasks that are meaningless to them.
It is by design that my kids do not associate learning with drudgery, frustration, boredom, or tasks that are meaningless to them. Because they love to learn, they choose to pursue knowledge and skills that have meaning for them.
To nurture my children’s natural senses of curiosity
Just as babies, toddlers, and preschoolers love learning, they’re also naturally curious creatures. They have an innate drive to make sense of the world around them. That sense of curiosity is extinguished by the same things that suffocate their love of learning, and is preserved by allowing life to reward their curiosity with discovery.
To teach my children how to learn
It is not my job as a homeschooling mom to teach my children everything. It’s impossible to do, even if I wanted to. After safeguarding their love of learning and curiosity, my primary task is to teach them how to learn.
Kids need to know how to ask the right questions, to identify and separate what they know and what they don’t know, to locate and evaluate resources, to study, and to determine when what they’ve learned is enough. Those skills are much easier to teach in the context of something that is meaningful to them than in something that kids haven’t claimed as interesting or useful for themselves.
To teach my children how to listen and respond to their own inner voices
We spend 12 years telling children to sit down, shut up, and do what we tell them to do regardless of whether or not they want to do it…and then we wonder why they are so often all too willing to go along with crowd? Really?
I want my kids to be introspective. To know themselves, their values, their dreams – inside and out. Allowing them to begin making their own choices about things that are deeply personal to them as young children gives them plenty of practice before they are teenagers. I knew I had this nailed when Erica (my 14 year old) talked with me about how she was letting “Future Me” help guide and shape the decisions she makes now.
To teach my children how to make good choices
Most children spend 12 years under a system where the decisions are basically made for them. They have to ask permission to go use the restroom. They don’t have the freedom to wait another year before diving into ancient history or to start learning algebra in elementary school – because that just isn’t done…and then we wonder why they have such a tough time making good choices? Really?
A choice isn’t always between something good and something bad. Sometimes it’s between good and good, or bad and even worse. This kind of goes along with teaching my children how to listen and respond to their own inner voices. I want my kids equipped with the skills to evaluate their options and choose appropriately. That comes with practice and guidance.
Jarrod and Erica with Arizona Congressman Trent Franks.
To empower my children to make tough decisions
If the most difficult decision a child has to make before he’s out on his own is whether or not he’s going to study hard enough to pass a test that someone else has said is a crucial part of his grade, he’s leaving the nest ill-equipped to deal with the real world.
I want my children to understand that you cannot have it all, all at the same time, and do it all well. Choices have to be made, and sometimes those choices are excruciating to make. Sometimes those choices have life-altering consequences. Children must be allowed to make these kind of choices.
My son, Jarrod, had a choice to make when he was 16, and he was offered an internship with Congressman Trent Franks’ Arizona district office. The choice was between that and a traditional college-bound course of academic study. He wasn’t going to be able to do both at the same time. We discussed the pros and cons of each, and left the decision in his capable hands. He’s been an intern there for a year now, and is hoping to spend the summer in the DC office.
My youngest daughter, Jillian, doesn’t make such weighty decisions on her own yet. But, she does make the choice about which extra-curricular activity to do. Gymnastics or horseback riding? She wasn’t going to be allowed to do both. Gymnastics was available right then. She’d have to wait for horseback riding lessons. At six years old, she decided to delay gratification and wait for horseback riding lessons. We didn’t care either way what she decided to do, but the fact that she was able to make what was a tough call for her was significant.
To encourage my children to take calculated risks
With everything in school riding on not making mistakes and getting good grades, most children are discouraged from taking calculated risks. As an adult, I’ve never been asked for my grades and the majority of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned have come on the heels of mistakes. I want my kids prepared for that reality.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want my children taking reckless risks. There’s a difference between a reckless risk and a calculated risk. That said, I believe that the lives of our dreams exist right outside of our comfort zones and if we never have the courage to step out there, we’ll never discover what we’re really made of and seize the opportunity to make any profound contribution to humanity.
Jarrod’s decision to take the internship was a calculated risk. He weighed both sides very carefully before he made a decision. He didn’t remain paralyzed in indecision, though. Once he had enough information, it was go time.
To validate who my children are right now and who they want to be next
Jarrod has a passion for shooting sports, and he’s gotten quite good.
One of my chief complaints about authority-directed, one-size-fits-all approaches to education is that they waste an extraordinary amount of time on preparing kids for the future. Let’s just assume that we accept the premise that we even can prepare a child for the future in the Information Age (and I don’t accept that premise), is doing so an efficient use of their present?
Children are people right now. Who they are right now matters. What they want to learn, be, and do right now matters. I don’t want my children socialized to believe that happiness and fulfillment are always in the future.
When they’re left to their own devices to make choices what what, when, where, how, and why to learn something, life partners with them to provide them with a compelling reason to keep pushing forward and places obstacles in their way when they need more knowledge or stronger skills.
To equip my children to pursue their dreams
A lot of people don’t know what makes them happy and fulfilled. They don’t know what they have to contribute to the world around them. They never learn how to ask themselves, “What problem can I solve?” They end up stuck in jobs they hate.
If I have any say in it, that is never going to happen to my kids because they will have spent their entire childhoods learning what makes them happy and fulfilled. They learn how to do the hard things, the things they don’t want to do, as a means to an end that is important to them. They learn to commit to something and pursue more and more of it like an insatiable hunger. They learn to do what sets them on fire inside, regardless of what anyone else is doing. They learn that learning is its own reward!
Jarrod’s soul ignites in the political arena. If you want to be touched deeply by a thing of beauty, watch Erica do a song she loves in American Sign Language. With lessons and a great-aunt who takes her to the annual Arabian Horse Show, Jillian is building a passion for horses. All so different.
Erica radiates joy…and loves donuts!
To preserve the joy in my children’s spirits
The statistics are dismal. Kindergartners are stressed out by developmentally inappropriate standards. Teenagers are overwhelmed by the enormous task of balancing school, all of the homework they get after they’ve been in school all day, sports and extra-curricular activities, time with their friends, time with their families, and time alone. Anxiety. Depression. And for what???
Not my kids. Not as long as it’s within my power to avoid it…and it is. Self-directed homeschooling fuels their need to matter right now, to be successful right now, to explore and discover right now, and to keep moving forward in their own time at their own paces.
It isn’t that my kids live in some utopian home where they never feel stress, anxiety, or frustration. Even if I could protect my kids from that all together, I wouldn’t because it’s a part of life. The difference is that those are fleeting moments, rather than an albatross slung over their shoulders. The confidence and enthusiasm that they own acts as a buffer and preserves their joy.