What if Learning Isn’t Anything Like School?

“…one thing we do not have to worry about is how to educate children. We do not have to worry about curricula, lesson plans, motivating children to learn, testing them, and all the rest that comes under the rubric of pedagogy….The more we try to control it, the more we interfere.” Peter Gray, PhD, Children Educate Themselves

Think about it…

Ignore, just for a minute, everything you think about school, learning and education.

You just had a baby. Probably the most important thing your child must learn is how to communicate. You’re a smart parent so how do you prepare for this most important educational feat? Well first you must find an expert to teach her. No? You’re going to attempt it yourself?! Then certainly you have researched and found the most rigorous, well-known language curriculum money can buy, right? Long hours of study? Co-op classes?

NONE OF THAT?! What will become of her? What kind of lazy parent doesn’t teach her child the most important subject she’ll ever learn, the most crucial life skill without which she will be a failure?

See? Until our children are about five years old, we don’t worry about how they will learn, even though they’ll learn more in that span of time than in all their years combined. No one is testing them to make sure they’re on target,  no one is questioning our academic capabilities requiring us to keep progress reports, or threatening us with an over-the-shoulder “I’ve got my eye on you.”

Yet our children learn what they need to learn, remarkably well, without any of that. Through a natural process of interacting with the world and people around them, they have the miraculous aptitude to combine knowledge with experience, resulting in real education.

Just what if that kind of learning continued past the age of five? What if we didn’t worry and fret so much about how many facts they memorized or how much information we could pack into their minds? What if we let them learn what they needed to, what they wanted to, when they needed it?

Can we not think of a thousand things we’ve learned that way?

But we have to do things we don’t always like…

I used to think that since part of living in the real world includes doing things one doesn’t want to do, that was sufficient reason to force-teach children. But reason prevails: there are many opportunities in life to learn that lesson. Why should we sacrifice a child’s natural propensity to learn and enjoy learning, for the sake of a lesson we can teach in another way?

I still have reservations.

I believe in the logic of people learning on their own, I recognize that schools are failing monumentally despite their best efforts, and I know that generally, kids hate school, something that should be a red flag to all of us. Admittedly though, even as I’ve been thinking outside the box for a while, I still have reservations, difficulty breaking out of my own indoctrination of “how school should be done.” Scary, isn’t it, how we can be so convinced of one thing, that even when faced with the reality that it might be wrong, we continue to cling to it. We are afraid of having our familiar methods yanked out from under us. But fear enslaves. Thus, I write and think and continue to push the questions.

I haven’t thrown the text books out, by the way. I may one day, who knows. My intent here, with such a one-sided look at education, is to get us to look at all, past our preconceived ideas that conventional schooling has all the answers. We’re so bent to the left, sometimes we have to bend severely to the right, then maybe we can come up with a more balanced view of things.

Perhaps unschooling (as this method is best-known) is merely one color of a rainbow of ideas about the best way to educate. But at best, it cannot be ignored as a powerful theory, and conventional, test-driven methods, failing so often as they are, need to be highly scrutinized.

Great thoughts by some others.

A few other thinkers like Gatto, Gray and  Schank have dared to propose this simple observation, but it’s doubtful that the mainstream American will ever be able to shake his ingrained philosophy of education, so radical from the idea of natural learning. Still for the few who dare to question the status quo, there is a world of opportunity and freedom awaiting.

What about higher education?

And for those who think this style of learning can’t prepare children who desire to go to college, think again. An increasing number of unschooled adults are sharing their testimonies which include college degrees and successful businesses.

“Children learn wonderfully without anyone systematically or deliberately teaching them, but yet, we adults do have, or should have, the responsibility of providing the conditions that allow children to take charge of their own learning. Real educational reform, in my view, is reform that provides those conditions.

The most important condition is freedom. To learn on their own, children need unlimited time to play, explore, become bored, overcome boredom, discover their own interests, and pursue those interests.” -Peter Gray, PhD, Is Real Educational Reform Possible?


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