Not long after my son was born, my soulmate and life-partner confided in me that she was weary about sending him to school. And that her first choice would be to homeschool him.
I was kind of surprised. After all, there were some supposedly good schools in our area. The thought of not sending our son to school had never occurred to me. I always just took it for granted that would be the case.
But overall, I didn’t have a problem with my partner’s wish. Both she and I had been pretty traumatized in elementary school and high school (in different ways). She, for example, a victim of a harsh math teacher who told her she was lousy at math and would never amount to anything in life. She was 7 years old.
For me, as a mildly “hyperactive” kid, it was impossible to sit still like a stone statue in a chair. I would eagerly interact with my neighbours (when I wasn’t supposed to), and I often got into trouble with teachers, especially my grade one despotic educator, Mrs. Leib. On more than one occasion, she dragged me down to the principal’s office in a state of panicked tears for the simple “offense” of having talked to my neighbour. I don’t remember a single thing that Mrs. Leib ever taught me, but I will never forget the trauma she inflicted.
So if homeschooling was the answer for our son, I didn’t have an objection. We could teach him everything he needed to know ourselves, and when we couldn’t offer him the resources he needed, we would find the people who could. Simple, right?
Not so fast.
The trouble was, my partner informed me, we were not going to “teach” our son anything, at least not in the traditional sense. Her extensive research into something called self-directed learning convinced her that children learn best when they are interested in something. Just like adults, when kids are passionate about what they do, be it music, art, mechanics, reading, or math, they learn it fast and well.
My alarm bells went off. Not teach anything? So, we were just going to let our son play in the leaves and loaf around all day? No formal instruction of any kind? When would he learn to read and write, to add, subtract, and multiply?! This little venture of ours was quickly turning into an academic nightmare.
Little did I know that my conditioning around learning and education was kicking in big time. Like most of us, I’ve grown up thinking that for children to learn, adults need to transmit the subject matter. The conventional thinking goes that children’s minds are empty receptacles until adult “experts” fill them up with knowledge. If you want to learn a new skill, I or someone else needs to show you how.
Once again, I was dead wrong.
How Do Children Really Learn?
I soon realized that the typical view we have of how children learn is a gross fallacy. I started reading the writings of Dr. Peter Gray, John Holt, and others. According to Dr. Gray, play is the prerequisite for real learning. Play may seem overly simple to adults from the outside looking in, but in fact, play stimulates intricate and complex neurological pathways that enhance the learning process.
A child’s brain is continuously integrating and processing information. Just because we have the impression that “nothing is happening” doesn’t mean that is the case. Just because we aren’t seeing immediate, tangible results doesn’t mean the child isn’t learning anything.
When you think about it, it makes sense. Have you ever really learned anything when you found the subject matter downright boring? Or when the subject was imposed on you?
Reading Is Like Walking
Anyone who brings a healthy child into the world never has much doubt that they will learn to walk and talk on their own. One child may learn to walk or talk at 10 months and another at two-years-old. But by the time both reach the age of 14, you can’t tell which one learned first.
The same thing is true with reading (and writing and so on). As humans, we are programmed at a deep genetic level to learn. And we don’t need anyone or anything outside of our own curiosity to show or “teach” us how. Again, a child who begins reading at age four and another at age 8, by the time they are both teenagers, you can’t tell who learned first.
We never “taught” our son how to read. We have been reading to him since he was a baby. We also sang the alphabet to him and helped him identify letters, but only when he showed interest in it or asked for it, and only when it was fun. He ran with it after that.
Of course, he would ask us how to spell specific words when he wanted to write them down, but the questions always came from him. We never asked him to sit down and learn the alphabet or to write down certain words. We never demanded that he read for X number of hours per day, nor do any kind of drills or written exercises. By looking at books and sounding out phrases on his own, our son gradually learned how to read on his own.
Children Are Hard-Wired to Learn
Because their brains are continually integrating and reacting with their environment, children often accumulate knowledge and learning without manifesting any outward signs of doing so.
Children from a very young age seek to master the world around them. They want to understand the words on the screen, to read the rules of the game, and the messages on your phone! Whether that interest manifests at the age of five, seven, or even nine-years-old, it really doesn’t matter.
Every orchid flowers in its own time, and the same is true with children and the skills they eventually acquire. Just like walking and talking, if left alone to interact with their environment, without pressure from parents or other adults, they will start reading…just like that.
It’s hard-wired into their biology.