I’m going to make a controversial statement, and I want you to pay attention to what happens in your gut immediately after you finish reading it. Ready?
Your children should be allowed to determine for themselves what they will learn about, when they will learn it, how much of it to learn, how long to spend studying or practicing it, and which resources to use to learn it.
Okay. What happened? If you’re part of my “tribe”, you found yourself nodding and still waiting for the controversial punchline. If you haven’t quite embraced the idea of self-directed homeschooling, what happened? Did you feel your gut clench? A jolt of panic? Instant rejection, followed immediately by a running list of all the reasons you think allowing your children so much freedom to make such huge decisions? You reacted the way you did because you are operating from a position of fear.
You’re afraid that your kids won’t learn what they “need” to learn in order to be successful.
You’re afraid that your kids will never choose to memorize their math facts, take biology, read a literary classic, or anything else that doesn’t sound as interesting as the latest shiny, new toy.
You’re afraid that your kids are too young or too immature to even know what they need to know to be successful.
You’re afraid that your kids won’t learn self-discipline if they aren’t made to do their schoolwork.
You’re afraid that your kids will never choose to do hard things if they have the freedom to avoid them.
You’re afraid that your kids won’t finish things if they have the freedom to quit.
So much fear. The bottom line is that the most likely reason that you’re so afraid is that you grew up yourself inside an institution and a culture that stops trusting children to make decisions about what they learn and how they will focus their energy when they turn five. Mainstream culture funnels children into an institution that requires them to ask permission before they may do something as basic as use the bathroom for the next 12 years.
You likely grew up having an authority figure tell you what you need to learn, when you need to learn it, how much of it you need to learn, and which resources to use to learn it. You likely heard that homework helps develop self-discipline. Fights about homework at the kitchen table were probably commonplace in your house and the houses of your friends while you were growing up. The sad thing is that this is all so normal to you that you don’t even question it.
If that’s what you’re seeing in your children, pause for a moment and ask yourself why. Before they reach the age of compulsory schooling, children are insatiably curious, engaged with the world around themselves, asking questions, testing theories – busy categorizing, making generalizations, and integrating useful, newly acquired knowledge. They’re young and immature, but still they learn…exactly what they need to be learning in order to meet personally meaningful goals. They’re young and immature, but still they do the hard things they need to do…in order to meet personally meaningful goals. Life – what they are interested in or what they want to be able to do, but cannot because they lack certain skills or knowledge – does an excellent job of helping children provide themselves an education.
A flip doesn’t switch all of a sudden when children reach kindergarten age. Children don’t magically become incapable of learning in a real world, applied, personally meaningful setting when they turn five. The problem is that compulsory schooling has been the norm for so long that we as a society don’t really know what children are like outside of it anymore. Compulsory schooling has stripped so much of the joy from learning, that we have too many children who – just a few short years earlier enthusiastically and aggressively pursued knowledge – think they hate to learn. Children who think they hate to learn will resist every effort they see to make them learn. Children who think they hate to learn will refuse to do difficult things.
Who’s better, than the one doing the learning, to be responsible for what to learn, when to learn it, and how much of it to learn? An education is absolutely worthless unless the person doing the learning integrates what they’ve learned into their essence of self and actually uses what they’ve learned to accomplish ever greater things. When we let life guide instruction, at every step along the way, children are prepared for exactly what they need to know right then. It turns into a beautiful, self-fulfilling cycle.
When we don’t approach our children’s educations from a position of fear, we can remind ourselves that the door never closes on learning. If our children miss something along the way that they actually need to know, they will recognize the gap. They can fill that gap when they realize that the gap matters. When the gap matters, they’ll fill it faster and more efficiently than 12 years of forced schooling could possibly fill it.
So, no. It’s not crazy to allow children to make decisions about their own educations. Doing so works with, rather than against, human nature.