It seems helpful to talk about the concept of lifelong learning when we’re looking at the teen years because at that age the conventional push to graduate high school is incredibly strong. Conventional society has a plan for you! The implication is that mastering this first set of knowledge and skills will allow graduates to eek out a competent adult life in society. Yet marching in unison with that message is one that says if you want more, if you want to excel in life, you need to acquire the next tier of knowledge and skills, which is found at college. And then grad school. Where you choose to step off the treadmill and declare your learning “done” defines your likelihood of conventional success, as measured by their standards.
Yet with the cumulative knowledge of humanity growing at an exponential rate you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone to argue the point against lifelong learning—we all realize technology will be quite different even just ten years down the road. But to conventional society, stuck in the classroom learning paradigm of teachers and students, lifelong learning looks like continuing education classes for adults. Or maybe a stint at college as a mature student. (Funny how that age differentiator is important, isn’t it? You’re not just a regular student, you’re a mature one. You’ve taken an aberrant path.)
But which seems a more helpful way to support our teens as they move into adulthood: knowing a fixed set of information and skills targeted to the world as it sits today or knowing how to learn new things in the future?
Schools think they are teaching their students how to learn, but really they are showcasing only one of many ways to learn: in a classroom with a teacher. And with their unerring focus over the many years of compulsory education their message is clear: it is the best and only “real” way to learn. That style of learning certainly works well for some, but the majority of students are left feeling rather defeated and unintelligent. That’s a big hill to overcome in adulthood before they get to feeling comfortable and competent in their own skin.
Unschooling breathes life into the concept of lifelong learning.
Sure, the idea of lifelong learning is that learning needn’t stop after graduation. But it’s also about content too. For unschoolers, the concept of lifelong learning expands beyond conventional society’s definition of continuing to learn things as an adult so you don’t become out-of-date to mean you have your whole life to learn things. Knowledge and skills can be learned at any point in a person’s life. With that paradigm shift the importance of curriculum, of learning certain things at certain ages, just melts away. Without the artificial time line of curriculum, learning happens when it best works for the individual—not when it best works for the teacher.
So what does that look like, not being bound by a curriculum? An unschooling teen may not be able to dictate the rules of algebra on command, but their years of experience with analytical thinking puts them in great stead beside everyone else who doesn’t happen to be a math major. They may not have read fluently until they were twelve, but you can’t see any evidence of that now—in fact, in those intervening years they figured out so many other ways to learn and explore the world beyond sitting with the written word. Their creativity hasn’t taken a beating at the hands of “do it this way for full marks.” They continue to learn about and embrace the unique person they are. As teens and young adults they are incredibly interesting people to be around!
That curriculum, that fixed set of information that society assumes will launch teens successfully into the adult world, has been created with a typical person in mind. Living interesting lives and learning all they bump into in pursuit of their goals has, in essence, creates a wonderfully personalized curriculum that fits like a glove.
Why does it matter whose idea it is to learn something? Because when someone else is trying to get you to learn something, learning is hard. Your mind gropes for a connection to help this random piece of information make sense in your world. If it doesn’t click into place, you have to stuff it into your brain anyway, floating random bits of information that you hope will stay accessible until the test. That is hard. Much harder than when you are truly interested in something. In that case your mind is engaged, your existing knowledge bubbling to the surface, your brain excited to connect each new piece of information you encounter to build a bigger picture of understanding on that topic.
Unschoolers also value understanding how they learn, not just what they learn. That doesn’t mean tossing the classroom and teacher method entirely, it means placing it as one of the many options on the learning platter, no better or worse than any other options, except to the individual learner. Unschoolers have spent years figuring out how they best learn. And experiencing how that changes over time, and why. This focus on exploring the process of learning gives teens terrific skills to take with them into adulthood. When they want to learn something they aren’t at the mercy of others, waiting for the next continuing ed course to start; or worse, waiting for one to be developed. They aren’t waiting for permission. They seek out others around the world who already have knowledge and experience with the topic. You’ll find them reading blogs, joining forums, meeting up with others locally: expanding their knowledge and understanding. They are in charge of their learning.
Let’s try to sum this up. With unschooling, the act of learning is easier because the learner is interested. Learning is the byproduct of pursuing a goal, not the goal itself. Unschoolers aren’t asking, “why do I need to know this?” because an interest has led them there in the first place. Unschoolers understand that people—children, teens, and adults—can learn things when they encounter a need for them; we gain enough experience through the years to trust that our learning can safely be driven by our own experiences in the world, instead of by the time line of someone else’s generic curriculum.
I think one of the hardest things to grasp for those new to the idea of unschooling is that when we are in control of our lives, we WANT to learn. Learning is not something that we need to be forced to do. Learning is not hard and to be avoided whenever possible. Learning is FUN and an integral part of living, part of life. Learning is “lifelong learning”. We don’t need the modifier, it’s implicit. 🙂