One of the many wonderful things about unschooling is that it presents one with a unique opportunity to observe how children learn naturally. Since most children are put into school at around age 5 or 6 (at the latest), most people do not have the opportunity to watch what happens when you let kids take charge of their learning and lead the way. It’s a fascinating study because what one observes often flies in the face of conventional wisdom regarding children and learning.
First, there is the firmly entrenched cultural belief that children will not learn unless they are made to (thus, school). When you step outside this assumption and take a good look it, it seems absurd. Raise a child in a family that speaks three languages and that child will have mastered all three of them in about four years without having attended any classes nor having any formal instruction. All parents recall the point at which every valuable, breakable, or potentially dangerous item in the home had to be locked away due to the insatiable curiosity and drive of the newly mobile toddler. Almost as soon as they are able to ask questions, kids drive their parents nuts with them. Nobody seems to doubt the abilities of babies and toddlers to learn.
And yet, somewhere between preschool and school-age our attitude changes. Not coincidentally this is when children are routinely first brought into the school system. By the time kids are around 8 years old, we as a culture are quite certain that they hate learning and would, if left to their own devices, do just about anything to avoid it. We’re certain that a life without school would lead to endless hours of video games, delinquency, and disinterest in anything “useful”. We equate learning with school, and that’s where I think we make our mistake in assessing the motivation of children to learn.
In fact, learning is a biological imperative for young humans. Every unschooling parent has seen with their own eyes that the desire to learn, the insatiable curiosity of the toddler, is maintained even after a child reaches school age and well beyond. As a society, we seem to have forgotten that human culture has existed for millenia without schooling and somehow the kids learned all they needed to know without schedules, curricula, or being removed from daily life in their society.
Another thing unschooling parents observe is that the way children learn naturally doesn’t seem to fit very well with the school model of learning. In school the day is broken down into different subjects. An hour here, an hour there. When the bell rings the child must put down what they are doing, regardless of how interested they are in the subject, regardless of how close they are to grasping a fundamental concept and move on to the next, often completely unrelated, subject. Unschooled kids, on the other hand, seem to get obsessed with a certain subject, run it into the ground in a several-weeks-long foray that involves exploration with a variety of media (eg. drawing dinosaurs, watching dinosaur movies, reading dinosaur books, playing dinosaur role-playing games during imaginative play, listening to songs about dinosaurs, etc) only to suddenly drop it and move onto something else. Then later they pick up where they left off, often having mysteriously grasped concepts during the interval.
There is also a cultural belief that kids have to be taught what they need to know. Reading is a perfect example: witness the massive growth in reading-associated learning materials over the last decade or so (Hooked on Phonics, LeapPad, etc). But I’m going to present a crazy, radical idea: kids don’t need to be taught how to read any more than they need to be taught how to speak. Put them in an environment with people who read, materials for them to read, and they will read because they are genetically driven to obtain the skills necessary to function in their society.
In school it is unacceptable to be a 7 year old who is not able to read. Never mind that this child, if left to his own devices, will almost certainly become a competent reader who, at the age of 12, will be indistinguishable in his reading skills from children who learned to read at an earlier age. In addition, I posit that the late-reading child will go from “not reading at an acceptable level” to “reading at peer level or beyond” in less than half the time it took the other kids to make that shift. Because I suspect that the 7 year old probably has nearly all the neurological pieces of the puzzle required to read already gathered in his mind, and merely needs a final burst of motivation to put them all together – motivation that works best when it is intrinsic (driven by the child’s own desire) and not extrinsic (driven by grades and report cards).
What I’m finding is that observing children learn in their natural state reveals several reasons why schools are a sub-optimal environment for learning for most children. We will likely always need schools, since not all parents are able to unschool their children. It would be great if one day the lessons learned from unschooling could be applied to schools so that we as a society could harness the power of natural learning, instead of working against it.