My son has a good friend who attends public school. As you can imagine, Paul and Thomas have many lively discussions about the differences in their days. Paul still can’t quite wrap his head around the unschooling philosophy. He’s not alone. Lots of people -children and adults alike – struggle to make sense of something that is so radically different from the mainstream. But sometimes listening to the two of them, I get a moment of insight into the very different ways Paul and Thomas view the idea of “learning”.
As intentional unschoolers (a term I’m using more and more), my husband and I frequently talk with our kids about how we define unschooling and why we practice it. We strongly believe that children are wired to learn, and that play is a powerful vehicle by which learning naturally occurs. We also believe that any time our children are engaged and interested in something, they are learning.
Paul, at the tender age of eight, has already formed some strong beliefs of his own with regard to learning. This week, he conveyed those beliefs with one simple statement. He had wanted to stay for dinner, but it was a school night, and he’s generally expected home during the week. When I reminded him of this, he brightened and replied: “Oh, but I don’t have to do any learning tomorrow: we’re going on a field trip!”
Too many children acquire this devastating belief: that only what goes on between the four walls of a classroom can rightly count as “learning”. In their minds, if it’s fun, if it’s active, if it’s part of real life…well, then it couldn’t possibly be learning. And this belief has many repercussions. For some, the pursuit of good grades may supplant actual mastery. For others, the natural curiosity and pleasure of learning becomes diminished. Still others start to see themselves as “dumb” because they struggle to engage in and understand the curriculum others have set for them.
When Paul and Thomas talk about unschooling, Paul inevitably ends the discussion with the same question: “So, you guys never have to do any learning?” I hope that one day he will finally understand. It’s not that our children are never learning. It’s quite the contrary. We have the joy and privilege of watching our kids learn constantly – and their learning never fails to fill them with wonder and delight.