My children follow their own interests when it comes to learning. This sounds rather indulgent, doesn’t it? Why should I let them direct their own learning? Hey, they’re only kids. How do they know what they need to know?
I stop and think about these questions for a moment, and then I remember something my youngest daughter Gemma-Rose said to me a while ago:
“You can’t make me learn anything I don’t want to learn.”
These weren’t the words of a defiant child. They were the observation of a rather astute eight year old.
“You can’t make me learn anything I don’t want to learn.” This reminds me very much of trying to make children eat. We can’t forcibly feed a child something they haven’t a desire for, however hard we try. In the same way, we can’t really stuff knowledge into a child’s head if she isn't interested, though it might appear we can...
... for of course, children learn things they don’t want to learn all the time. Anyone who’s been to school is very aware of this. For years I was subjected to bribes or punishments, or even shame, to ensure I learnt many things I had no interest in. Gold stars, and reports full of compliments and high grades, encouraged me to do my best. The threat of my parents receiving a bad report of my academic work, and the fear of failing the numerous tests and exams (which were apparently essential for a successful and happy future), pushed me to study when I didn’t really want to. The thought of being at the bottom of the class, and labelled ‘stupid’ shamed me into trying harder.
But those methods of getting me to work were worth it, weren’t they? I ended up with a great education, didn’t I? Yes, I received high enough marks. That cannot be denied. But a great education? On the day I finished my formal schooling, I said with great relief, “No one can make me learn anything ever again,” and then I promptly forgot most of what had been forced into me over the preceding years.
Albert Einstein said, "Education is what is left after you've forgotten everything you've learned." I didn’t end up with much of an education.
But our children don’t go to school. Surely homeschooled children are in a different situation? Many years ago, I was absolutely sure there were certain things my children needed to learn. They didn’t agree. The battle was on, and I was determined to win. I was the mother and I knew better than my children. Or did I?
Even if I am convinced I know best, how am I going to get past the problem Gemma-Rose stated so clearly: “You can’t make me learn anything I don’t want to learn”? Like the schools, I could bribe and punish and shame my children into studying what’s in my homeschool plan. But I really don’t believe knowledge gained this way is very valuable. I want my children to have a better education than the one I received, and for that to happen, motivation for learning must come from within, and not from outside a child. That internal motivator is love which every child seems to have until forced learning chases it away.
But just because my children follow their own interests, doesn’t mean I can’t suggest new experiences and ideas they might like to learn about. Like anyone with a healthy attitude towards food, they try this and that, and often discover something new which they develop a real taste for. So frequently my children, motivated by their love of learning, end up learning things I would like to share with them, without me insisting.
I am now wondering what John Holt had to say about this topic. I’m off to find out…
"Of course, a child may not know what he may need to know in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the chances are that he won't learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything."
Oh that is so much better than all I have written. Why didn’t I just quote John Holt in the first place?
My daughter Imogen walks by and I say, "I'm writing an unschooling post. Listen to this: 'You can't make me learn anything I don't want to learn.' True or false?"
"True," she replies. "And even when children do learn something they're not interested in, they only learn just enough to satisfy whoever wants them to learn it. They don't retain that type of learning."
"Do you have an example?" I ask.
"I'm thinking about music exams," Imogen replies. "I'm not interested in all the general knowledge but it's part of the exam. I just remember as much as is needed until the exam is over, and then I promptly forget it."
Then Imogen adds, "But playing the music... of course I never forget how to do that. That's the bit I love!"