Natural Learning Vs. Assigned Learning

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Today I’m going to address the third and final question of a commenter on my post My Answer to a Common Concern about Unschooling. [The comment has since been removed at the request of the author.]

3) It [unschooling] is premised on the idea that people don’t “love learning” if discipline is involved. My experience & observation of others is just the opposite – people tend to come to love those areas of life in which they apply the most discipline – and not just self-discipline, but where adults have taught them discipline.

On this particular comment, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. Unschooling takes a lot of discipline- on the part of the child and the parent. The question is, what is that discipline being applied to? Remember that I haven’t always been an unschooler. Our homeschool has evolved from school-at-home to unit studies to eclectic and then finally to natural learning, so I’ve seen the outcomes of all of these methods. With regard to my children, they have retained the most information from topics that they themselves pursued on their own. Pursuing their own interests, in itself, takes discipline, so discipline is certainly not an issue. And whether the discipline is coming from the child or being taught by the parents is not the issue. The issue is what path will their education take? Yours or theirs?

When we were still doing unit studies and would be learning about a particular subject, such as American Indians, they really seemed to have a good grasp of what I was teaching them, and they did have fun doing it. We made false face masks and headdresses and visited a Lenni Lenape museum. They had a ball. Fast forward a few months- I asked some questions about the American Indians unit, and they hardly remembered anything.

Contrast this with a perfect example of my son, Dillon. He loves spiders- especially wolf spiders. I have never covered spiders, specifically, other than that they are classified as arachnids. So Dillon took it upon himself to find out everything he could about wolf spiders- books, websites, documentaries, YouTube videos, you name it. What did he get from all this? I now consider him to be an “expert” on wolf spiders. He can tell you where they live, what they eat, how long they live, how big they get- I could go on and on.

We spent four weeks on that American Indians unit, and even though they seemed to enjoy it, now they remember nothing, other than a few things. On the other hand, Dillon still remembers everything about wolf spiders and has increased his knowledge of them even more since then.

This is not surprising to me. I did the same thing when I was in public school. I remembered what I was supposed to long enough to make the honor roll and graduate in the top 10% of my class…and then I forgot it. It was no longer needed. What do I remember from school the most? The subjects I chose to take- mythology, theater arts, parenting (thank God I remember that, 11 kids later), cooking, nutrition. What do these have in common? My interest.

And I will go even further to say that, unless you have a need to learn something- and by need I’m not referring to a need to fulfill state requirements, but a need to learn something in order to achieve a goal- a lot of what is taught in schools is unnecessary. In the majority of cases, people will pursue a career in something that they’re drawn to- interested in. Is it really important that an astronomer knows that laissez faire means “hands off”? Does a historian need to know what alliteration is? And who exactly decided what is important to learn? This is why homeschooling is the ideal choice because these things should be decided on a case by case basis. Not everyone is the same. God created us to be unique individuals, and we should nurture that.

Before you jump the gun, let me just interject that I love learning. I’m learning all the time, and it is a good thing to be knowledgeable, but why you’re learning something is as important as what you’re learning. Alluding back to my high school days,- sorry for all the trips down memory lane- I took six years of German. Six. I should be a pro, right? Not so much. I could probably help someone in their first year of German, and it would end there. Why? I haven’t had the need to use it.

Do you see what I’m getting at? It’s great to report to the school district that you taught your third grader Euclidean geometry. It’s awesome to look back at those old homeschooling journals and see that your seventh grader completed a course on quantum physics, but are they going to remember it? Unless they have an interest in those fields, I’d say probably not. Why? Because they won’t need to use it.

This is why it’s so important to let your children’s interests come into play. This time is precious. Let them spend time pursuing things that they’re going to retain and possibly use in their future endeavors. I myself know how hard it can be to realize that our children may not care about the things we care- or think that they should care- about. Let them lead the way. Trust that they have the ability to increase their knowledge in the things that are important to them and that they will have the discipline to do so. That’s the best kind of learning- the kind that they won’t forget.

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Author: Shelly Sangrey

I'm Shelly, a Christ-following, homeschooling Mom of eleven children ( okay, not ALL children. My oldest is 23.) I met my husband right after graduation, and we've been together ever since. Though my life can be hectic at times... okay, ALL the time, I wouldn't change it for anything.

12 thoughts on “Natural Learning Vs. Assigned Learning”

  1. Das ist sehr gut!! Haha. I took many years of German myself, but had no one to really talk to and practice (or use in any way), so I have forgotten most of it. It’s almost like all that time is a void!

    I just love reading what you write. I bet I would just love being around you and your great family. You are so sweet and wise. And your kids are just the cutest creatures EVER!

    A bit about me (if you care): I grew up in a family with 16 kids. My parents had 15, then adopted 1. I am #11. So your family (being large..and that you have 11! :)) just hits a good spot for me. We were not homeschooled. But my mom says she wished she had. I don’t know if maybe back then there wasn’t as much information and help as there is now. My mom is my biggest cheerleader in this homeschooling venture. It is so nice having her support when so many are critical of it (ignorant and/or jealous ;p).

    YOU, lady, ROCK!! xo

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    1. Vielen dank! Thank you so much! I love hearing from people who come from extra-large families. And your parents adopting after 15? That is amazing. You are are always so supportive, and I really appreciate it. You, my good woman, rock, too!

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  2. I agree with you. Most of the things I have learned are because I needed it to meet a goal or because I was deeply invested in it. And I learned the most when those around me supported me and encouraged me in my interests – gently challenging me to dig deeper.

    We started unschooling when my oldest was in 4th grade (she is would be at the end of 7th grade now). It was a slow transition for me. I began to let go of the curriculum bit by bit until one day I realized we hadn’t done anything that resembled our old homeschooling in weeks and didn’t miss it. There is so much learning we miss when we can’t look beyond “educational” vs “other”. Just trusting that our kids are capable of learning and that we can provide resources when they are ready lifted such a heavy burden from our family.

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  3. Yes, children (well all of us) definitely learn more when led by our own interests!! Isn’t it refreshing to know that you don’t have to wear yourself out trying to cover a million different topics before graduation?! I enjoy reading your posts and learning more about your family and homeschool. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. I *know* that you’re right, from my own learning phases, where I’ve read everything I can about a subject until I’m saturated with it, but I think that my kids, if left to themselves, would never pursue anything educational. …Actually, I know that to be true for at least one of them, who asked to “homeschool” this year, and hasn’t picked up a book in months.

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    1. That’s what I thought, too, but kids can surprise you, It’s also so important to remember that books aren’t the only way to learn. The things we see our kids doing which we consider to be nothing could be very stimulating to them. It’s taken a while for me to realize this, but since letting go of that fear, my kids have amazed me. Remember, just because something isn’t listed in a public school syllabus does not mean that children won’t learn from it. Education is actually much broader than people think.

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      1. What a great comment! You have such great wisdom. I feel “supported” by you even though we don’t even “know” each other. Thank you! xoxoxo

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