FOCUS ON THE CHILD
by Pam Laricchia
Much is made about the building blocks of learning, A to B to C. Humans are drawn to things that proceed in an orderly fashion—there’s less confusion and fewer surprises. We know where we’ve been and we have a good idea of what’s coming next. School’s curriculum is a great example of this.
Yet in real life, learning doesn’t often happen at such a steady pace. Sometimes the learning connections fall into place as quickly as they appear, like ABCDEF, while at other times it’s more like AB-C—D-E–F, determination to accomplish something keeping a child engaged, even in the face of frustration.
And is there really an essential order in which to learn things? Plants before animals? Fruits before vegetables? Counting before shapes? Patterns before measurement? North American history before European? Oceans before volcanoes? Rainforests before deserts? In real life, the order of learning things can vary widely without issue, maybe looking something like C-EF-B—AD.
So why are we so attached to curriculum as the definitive timetable of learning for children?
The value of curriculum is not that its A-B-C-D-E-F order and steady pace closely resemble learning in the wild, but that it’s an organized way to move large numbers of students through twelve years of learning facts and skills, efficiently ticking off the requisite boxes. The value of curriculum is found in the schooling process, not the learning process.
Another detrimental way in which the schooling process interferes with a child’s learning timetable is its intense focus on early reading. From the school’s perspective, reading is an important skill for a child to have to be successful in school. Children need to be able to read worksheets and textbooks because that’s the system’s dominant teaching style—the most efficient way for a teacher to interact with a classroom full of students. Not being able to read fluently means students are disadvantaged in learning every subject: there are textbooks and worksheets to be read for math, science, geography, history etc. Every. Subject.
Let’s step back before school for a moment. Usually young children crawl before they can walk (A-B-C), but not always. For those who skip crawling altogether (A-C), imagine telling them that they need to sit back down and master crawling first. Yet that’s the mindset curriculum encourages us to adopt.
When you add up a whole bunch of ages at which children learned to walk and divide it by the number of children surveyed, you get the average age at which those children learned to walk. But what does that really tell you? It doesn’t mean that the children whose ages lie further from the average are somehow “wrong.” Just different. We are pretty accepting of children that walk earlier or later than that average.
And just because a curriculum frames learning around the average, doesn’t mean that falling outside the average is a bad thing—unless you’re being graded against it. In the grand scheme of things, later readers are entirely normal. There’s a wide range of ages in which children will naturally figure out the reading puzzle, but because of school’s need for early reading, students who naturally lie on the older side of the range are made to feel incompetent and broken.
The beauty of unschooling is that the school’s curriculum timetable is tossed to the wind and we can focus on our child’s learning timetable. And if early, or even average, reading isn’t part of their makeup, that’s perfectly okay. We don’t leave them feeling inadequate, and it in no way impedes their ability to learn other things! We are happy to have conversations with them, to show them how things work, to give them hands on activities, to watch videos and TV and movies about things they are interested in, to share audiobooks, to take them places they are curious about. All the other ways to learn that the school environment is not equipped to provide. Not to mention, we’re happy to read for them in the meantime.
Now, take that logic and apply it to any other skill you may be concerned about. Writing. Tying their shoes. Using a calculator.
The basic skills and knowledge that are helpful for getting along in our community and society are exactly the things that our children will come across because that’s where they spend their days. They aren’t sequestered away from the real world where things need to be introduced to them artificially with the admonition that “you’ll need to know this one day.” That “one day” appears naturally in the life of an unschooled child, and they learn the related information and/or skills as they move through that day.
If the need for that piece of information, or that particular skill never does appear? Then it wasn’t something useful to learn in the first place. Reading, writing, numbers, and many other things are an integral part of our world and unschooling children will find reasons that are important to them to gain fluency. And that will be much easier without the conventional judgment and shame that happens if their personal timetable doesn’t align with the curriculum. If there’s a natural order in which to learn some things, say learning to count before learning to add numbers, then that hierarchy exists in the real world, and that’s how unschooling children will encounter and make sense of them.
In the bigger picture of life, the timetable of learning that matters most is that of the child’s—not a generic, average curriculum delivered at the same pace day after day. When you support your children as they follow their interests and passions as deeply and as widely as they like, and you patiently give them room to move forward (and sideways) at their own pace, you will be astonished at the learning that unfolds.
First published in The Natural Parent Magazine, Issue 20, Spring 2015.