A child who is learning naturally, following his curiosity where it leads him, adding to his mental model of reality whatever he needs and can find a place for, and rejecting without fear or guilt what he does not need, is growing – in knowledge, in the love of learning, and in the ability to learn. He is on his way to becoming the kind of person we need in our society…the kind of person who seeks and finds meaning, truth, and enjoyment in everything he does. John Holt
I half-jokingly said many times to my kids that I hope they choose to homeschool their kids someday because the learning really begins as a homeschool parent. Hopefully, my kids learned plenty as they were growing up — only they can ultimately judge that — but I know that I learned a ton while homeschooling them and in a much more pleasant way than in school.
Good grades and test scores came easy to me in school, but grades and test scores don’t correlate perfectly to learning. I was an avid student and eager to learn, but I don’t remember school subjects being applicable to my life. Subjects were introduced before their relevancy was revealed rather than the other way around. My teachers were always in charge of what I was studying, so there was no time or expectation for me to develop a natural curiosity for the subjects in my classes. Concepts were taught out of context, so that many facts were tucked away without any deep understanding of how these fit with each other or connected to me. Without these connections made clear, it was harder to retain information and for me it was simply a game to memorize material in order to give the right answers on an exam.
In this traditional model, I felt dragged through subjects before internally discovering their usefulness or their beauty. I remember detesting history in school, for example. I found it boring and completely meaningless, maybe a common reaction as a young person at a time in life when the present and the future seem more germane than the past. However, as an adult, I discovered genealogy and now history bursts with meaning for me. Those once meaningless dates and events, combined with actual family birth, marriage and death dates, serve to flesh out the lives of my ancestors and the ancestors of my children. There is a meaningful and real connection that makes history fascinating for me now.
Because my kids were allowed to become curious to the point of yearning for more information, they required no pulling, gold stars or rewards to learn. They led the charge and retained more knowledge along the way because they were an active participant in the learning.
Unschooling entailed observing what they were curious about and letting them follow that curiosity. It required attention and active participation on my part to stay aware of their interests and a readiness to assist with resources as necessary that might enhance their exploration. As they experienced concepts, I could follow up with information. In this way, learning stayed relevant and fresh.
My kids knew no other system, but I certainly appreciated self-directed learning because I knew the traditional way and this was pure joy in comparison. It was always fun, because there was no need to spend time on anything we weren’t enjoying. I knew that it was a waste of my time and my kids’ time to dwell on a subject that they weren’t interested in. They wouldn’t be focused on it anyway and we were all better off looking into what was currently important instead. I trusted them to learn all they needed as their world naturally expanded, and in a way that connected new ideas to ones they already understood.
Years before I would ever have thought my son needed a course in chemistry or physics, his interest in model rockets sparked a curiosity about fireworks. This led him to an Internet forum where the art of fireworks was discussed at length by people actually making them. He learned about the materials needed for propulsion and the chemicals needed for the colors he wanted to produce. He took the initiative to make his own black powder which included making his own ball mill/ grinder and experimenting with different media for the best composition results. He researched fuses, ignition systems, created his own electronic ignition system, found storage solutions for materials and learned the rules around licensing required for the professionals staging big fireworks shows. (Yes, he had many failed attempts but also many impressive successes and, yes, it was a more than a little crazy-making to have a son with a fireworks hobby for a few years, but I did get through it.) Because this project was his own idea he never had to be concerned about a grade or a course requirement, instead he was motivated by his own curiosity and free to explore this outlet of self-expression. Besides the joy of learning and creating, a side benefit was a solid foundation of basic chemistry and physics knowledge that made his high school and college science requirements a breeze.
There was no dragging him into this project. It was more a case of watching him rocket through the stages. I knew he was learning way more on his own than I could have taught him and I was confident that his comprehension was higher than it would have been if he hadn’t been free to self-direct.
It took a great deal of patience and trust to follow my kids’ interests rather than require them to focus on things that mattered to me, but the rewards were immense, because it preserved their idea of learning as something pleasant, rather than a chore. Keeping their love of learning intact was one of my foremost objectives. Together I think we succeeded.
© Jean Nunnally and Clear2Learn, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jean Nunnally and Clear2Learn with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.