Let me preface this by saying that while I strongly believe in this learning lifestyle, I realize it is not feasible or the absolute right way for everyone to educate their children and I never mean any offense to people whose life choices are different from mine. However, since I rarely get the same courtesy and am repeatedly asked to defend our choices for educating Cooper, I’m going to go full-throttle in this explanation – and of course throw in some exaggeration and sarcasm (this is me, afterall). So here goes…
First of all, “schools” have only been around for a few hundred years, and the education system in its current form even less than that. Being as humans have existed for 300,000 years and sucessfully in civilizations for about the last 6000 (that’s more than 5500 years without schools), it would seem that school is not a necessity for learning or survival. Let’s get into that in a little more detail: throughout history the human species has gained knowledge and skills through exploration, trial and error, and information sharing. They continuously sought out new information, evolving themselves and their surroundings in the process. There was no one to teach people how to make fire before it was known, just like the wheel, electricity, computers or every other thing in history that has been invented or discovered. Yet even without a “teacher”, all of these things still happened. It’s a natural and on-going process. Just like how younger humans watched their peers and elders and attempted the actions on their own, not because they were forced to but because they were inherently curious and wanted to be active members of their communities. These inherent things have not changed; it is the school system that changes them.
Children are born learners: they are naturally curious little sponges who see the wonder in everything and always want to know ‘why’ and ‘how’. They see something new and want to explore it; see a problem and want to figure out a way to solve it; see someone perform a skill and want to master it themselves. When children are forced to learn, though, it becomes a chore instead of a fun natural process. Their interests and curiosities are stifled when they are told what, when and how to learn and their self-confidence and internal motivation diminish as their every effort is broken down to be evaluated by an arbitrary authority figure who dictates their level of intelligence and ability. Though the purpose of school is teaching, it often has the unfortunate result of making people averse to being educated. But I digress…
So, now that we have established that school is not a mandatory condition for learning to occur (stay tuned for a much more detailed post about the education system), how does Cooper learn? Well, we have adopted a lifestyle by the name of “unschooling”, which essentially takes the schooling process out of learning. It believes in children’s natural interest in and drive to gain knowledge and skills, as well as their ability to become proficient in anything they need for their lives. It trusts them to create and follow their own individual learning and life paths, knowing what is best for themselves as individuals. It involves supporting children on the journeys they choose for themselves rather than dictating the trail we choose for them.
I call this a lifestyle rather than a teaching or learning style because it is an on-going and never-ending process of learning at any and all times throughout our daily lives in all kinds of ways. We are not restrained by scheduled class times or a defined curriculum. We can learn anything, any time, any place (one random Wednesday at midnight, for example, we learned about surface tension after some interesting observations during bath time). Basically, Cooper learns like a natural child. He sees and experiences things, interacts with people and his environment, encounters problems and works to find solutions. When he has questions he either finds the answers on his own or asks for help. He is learning to read not because it’s a developmental expectation for his age, but because he wants to read. He learned to write because he asked us to show him. He is learning science because he loves doing experiments and discovering new things. His vocabulary is amazing, partly because we speak to him like a regular human, explaining things he doesn’t understand rather than dumbing things down for him. He is learning math because, for one, he asked for math lessons, but also because he does things in his everyday life that involve using mathematical concepts.
All of these subjects are integrated into our everyday experiences. Take baking for example: there is language in reading and understanding the recipe, math in measurement, science in the changes that occur throughout the mixing and cooking process, social studies in origin of foods, art in decorating, and of course learning how to bake is a skill in itself. When we go grocery shopping we have language in writing lists and reading signs, math in comparing prices and paying, and health in deciding what foods to buy for our bodies. When we go for a walk there are signs to read and endless scientific facts to discover about our environment. Also, since he is not restrained to spending time at the same place every day with only people in his age-group, Cooper experiences a variety of learning opportunities with a wide range of people all throughout the year, from fishing and building with his papas to gardening with his Auntie to bird-watching with his Granny to Minecraft with his cousins and beyond. Learning is everywhere!
Of course, everything he wants to learn is not just going to naturally occur in our daily lives. Luckily, though, we live in an age when information sharing has never been easier! At the click of a button we can find out what we want to know about pretty much any topic imaginable; there are endless resources for gaining knowledge and skills which are easily accessible to anyone, and we take advantage of that a lot. Google and YouTube (*gasp*) are highly-used learning resources in our lives. We also use books and the knowledge of people we know who have experience in whatever our current topic happens to be. If there is something he wants to know, there is always a way to find the answer.
Cooper is in charge of his own education: what he learns and when. This may sound absurd to the mainstream, but it’s actually more normal than schools have ever been. He simply does what comes naturally to him, and repeatedly shows the positive effects of this lifestyle. Without any force or coercion he wants to learn, he likes to learn and in this way he will continue to learn.