PAM: Hi everyone! And I’m happy to welcome you to my session, Learning in the Real World: How to Help It Thrive.
I’m Pam Laricchia and I’m an unschooling mom of three. We live in Ontario, Canada and my kids were 9, 7, and 4 when I discovered homeschooling and they left school. Soon after, I discovered unschooling and we didn’t look back.
That was in 2002, and my kids are now all in their twenties. Unschooling turned out to be SO much more than I first imagined! Living with children who are free to learn has been the most amazing and joyful experience of my life. My children are lovely young adults: self-aware, curious about the world, and always learning. We have great relationships and truly enjoy spending time together.
And I love sharing what I’ve learned about unschooling, learning, and parenting with anyone who’s curious to learn more about it.
And that’s why we’re here, so let’s get started!
The first thing I want to do is just take a moment to loosely define unschooling so we’re starting off on the same foot.
Unschooling is a style of homeschooling that, at its most basic, is about learning without a curriculum.
It sounds straightforward, but the implications of that simple phrase can be life-changing. It grows beyond an educational method into a learning lifestyle because human beings, from birth, are hardwired for curiosity, learning, creativity, connection, and engagement.
What if we choose to cultivate these traits in our children, rather than trying to direct and control them?
Unschooling IS hands-on learning in the real world.
How can we help their learning thrive?
Figuring out how learning happens is a natural start to our homeschooling journey—conventionally, school is where children go to learn, so one of the first questions that comes to mind when thinking about NOT sending our children to school is, “How will they learn instead?”
We need to understand learning so we can create an environment at home that allows it to thrive.
And, in my mind, there are three characteristics of real and effective learning—learning that is understood and remembered.
- one is engagement, which is the act of exploring and playing with an idea, topic, or skill;
- the second is motivation, which is about staying engaged in their exploration, even through challenges; and
- the third characteristic of real and effective learning is time to think, which is about making space for analysis and creativity, and is key to the bigger picture understanding of how the idea, topic, or skill fits into the world.
When these three characteristics are at play, learning thrives.
What I want to do is dive into each of them and explore what they look like outside the conventional education system. What they look like thorugh the lens of unschooling, From there, we’ll talk about the day-to-day ways we can live this learning lifestyle with our children, and then we’ll contemplate what it looks like in the bigger picture.
So, the first characteristic I want to talk about is engagement. Engagement is all about being genuinely curious and actively exploring whatever has caught your interest.
Why is being engaged important?
When your mind is engaged in an activity, it is making observations, imagining possibilities, connecting ideas, and figuring things out. In other words, actively learning.
What creates engagement?
Genuine curiosity and interest.
Not someone telling you that you should be interested in it, but actually being interested.
There’s a John Holt quote from his book, How Children Learn, that cuts to the heart of it: “Fish swim, birds fly; man thinks and learns.” With this he was speaking to the very nature of being human. Learning is an entirely natural human instinct, evident from the moment we’re born. From the youngest age, all children are driven to explore the world around them and learn how it works.
That insatiable curiosity to engage with life does not fade with age unless the adults in the child’s life work pretty hard to temper it. But that they often do—apparently there’s a UCLA study that found the average toddler hears the word “no” over 400 times a day.
But what if a child’s curiosity isn’t constantly stifled?
Learning happens with unbridled enthusiasm!
One of the refreshing traits of openly curious children is their enthusiasm for life. They are free to explore their world because the adults in their lives aren’t constantly trying to dampen or redirect their interests.
In an unschooling family it’s that curiosity that drives learning, instead of a curriculum.
That’s why following a curriculum can be a challenging way to learn. It’s truly is harder to learn something when a person—child or adult—is not interested. When they are not engaged in the topic or activity. The phrase “in one ear and out the other,” comes to mind. The information just floats on by because it doesn’t connect with anything we’re actually interested in and thinking about.
Yet learning without a curriculum can be hard for many adults to envision because our image of learning still looks so much like school.
What does life with inquisitive and engaged children look like?
Well, it looks like your favourite Saturdays. No commitments to meet. No constraints on your time.
Maybe you’re all at home and everyone is happily doing their thing. Diving into whatever catches their interest for as long as they want before moving onto the next thing. Sometimes, they are so engaged in their activity that they hardly notice life happening around them.
Maybe you go to the park, or the Science Centre. No agenda. No timetable. Just following their nose. Their curiosity.
It can look like a huge Lego town, days or weeks spent building a contemporary community with stores and parks and homes and citizens, or a futuristic base with a control room and sleeping quarters and spaceships and aliens, or a medieval castle with an armory and a mill and dragons and townsfolk.
It can look like a puppet show, put on from behind the couch, full of dialog and sound effects and giggles, with you recording it and everyone watching it immediately after; and as you end up watching the other videos on the memory card an impromptu dance party breaks out.
It can look like each child in their room, one reading and writing on an online forum, one setting up props for a photo shoot, one playing a computer game. Each wandering out once in a while to chat and grab a snack, you calling down the hallway to ask if anyone would like a cup of the tea you’re brewing.
In each of those little vignettes, can you picture their intense engagement with the activity? Envision what is happening beneath the surface?
The learning is rampant.
Because each child is following their own curiosity, they dive into their interests as deeply as they want—maybe the Lego town lasts a day, or a week, or a month; maybe they take 100 photos, then play with perspective and take 100 more, then rearrange the set and take another 200.
Because their time is their own, they let their questions roam as far and wide as their inquisitiveness and imagination takes them.
The days themselves can look very different, but the curiosity driving them is the same.
What do they love?
What questions do they ask?
What would they like to try?
Who do they want to become?
Unschooling is about helping them as they explore the questions that drive them. And when they’re in the driver’s seat, not only are they fully engaged, they’re also learning the way they want to learn. And the way they want to learn, will also be the way they most enjoy learning, and hence, the way they learn best. Maybe that’s reading, or watching videos, or hands-on tinkering, or a combination of them all. They can pick and choose which best suits them in the moment.
Being deeply engaged in a task like that is often described as being “in the flow.” In fact, Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Finding Flow, describes it as “the joy of complete engagement.”
Being in the flow of an activity is an exhilarating way to learn because, as Csikszentmihalyi describes it, “A person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes.”
Remember those times when you’ve been in the flow yourself?
Unschooling families choose to support their children as they pursue their interests, in the ways they enjoy, as deeply as they want, and for as long as they are interested. That is where the most powerful engagement and learning is found: “in the flow.”
When a child is curious and engaged, learning shines.
Now let’s look at a second characteristic of real and effective learning: motivation. Motivation is the inspiration to stay engaged in their exploration, even in the face of challenges, to accomplish whatever they sets out to do.
There are two kinds of motivation.
The first is external motivation. The school system is steeped in external motivation: awards for perfect attendance; charts to track student behaviour with privileges gained and lost accordingly; stickers for completed worksheets; and grades on tests and report cards. The point? To encourage children to learn. But what is the assumption that lies at the heart of it? That given a choice, a child would prefer not to learn. Wow. Is that really true? We talked earlier about young children, children before their curiosity has been dulled—do they seem uninterested in learning? Think about it for a moment. Might this learning-avoidant behaviour be a reaction to the environment, rather than a basic human trait? Might these external rewards actually be undermining the learning they are attempting to encourage?
In contrast, unschooling children are following their curiosity, pursuing their goals, and learning all the time. Their motivation to learn things is intrinsic, or internal, driven by their wish to reach their own goals. They quite willingly learn what they need to know along the way, taking whatever time they need to do it because their learning helps them progress toward their goal. That means that any sense of accomplishment is a result of the learning itself, NOT from an external reward. They are in control of their learning and over time their confidence in their ability to learn things as needed and reach their goals, grows.
If your goal is to help your child understand and remember what they learn, and to help them develop a love of learning that will last them a lifetime, which style of motivation do you think would likely work better?
Still, using curriculum as a standard of “things everyone should know by the age of eighteen” can be hard to give up! I remember when my children left school and I chose to turn away from curriculum. Sometimes I worried if my children might miss something they “have to” know. I was a bit surprised to feel a growing sense of responsibility—I didn’t realize that I had begun to rely on school to provide that. Is there a certain set of skills and knowledge that is needed to get along in society?
Then I asked myself, even if there is, won’t they encounter it living the real world? Think about that for a second. Since unschooling kids are living and learning in the real world, interacting with people in their community as they grow up, won’t they, by definition, then encounter occasions where those basic skills and knowledge will come in handy, and pick them up?
One of my favourite ways to distinguish between schooling and unschooling is that school focuses on teaching the knowledge and skills they believe students will need to accomplish their goals once they graduate into the real world; while with unschooling, children pursue their interests in the real world right now and pick up the knowledge and skills they need to accomplish their goals along the way.
If there’s something they haven’t come across, then obviously it’s not something they “have to” know—certainly not yet. Without curriculum telling us they need to know X by the age of Y, they can learn it when a need or interest develops, regardless of their age—when there’s a real reason to learn it. When there’s a purpose to learning something, there’s internal motivation.
And there’s a much better chance it will be understood and remembered because it has meaning in their lives. Being taught things in anticipation of a need, when there is little interest, is frustrating, more difficult, and diminishes their drive to learn in general. And the chances that they’ll remember it years later when the time comes that it might actually be helpful? Pretty small.
So now that we have an engaged and motivated learner, the third characteristic of real and effective learning I want to talk about is time to think.
It’s about having the time to make the learning connections that bring deeper understanding; it’s about analyzing facts and situations and letting creativity loose to see things in new ways; it’s about time to notice the hidden gems of opportunity, to brainstorm possibilities, to make choices and see how they play out.
When we stop measuring learning against the yardstick of curriculum, we begin to see real learning everywhere.
What does it look like?
It happens all the time—all day, every day, just by living in the real world.
Every day is full of choices, some needing little consideration, others needing extensive thought. Both for us and for our children. What do I want to do today?
Should I sign up for soccer?
Do I want to take a bath or a shower?
Eat a sandwich or a burger?
Should I quit swimming lessons?
Do I want to wade into the river or take the path through the trees?
Often choices are rather basic, mostly personal preference, with no significant consequences one way or the other. But making those many small choices is good preparation for when the bigger ones come along.
Why are choices important? Because making choices is how we gain experience and learn. It’s living in its fullest sense.
Most of the day-to-day decisions in a child’s life may seem significant to the parent in the moment but in the bigger picture of childhood they are often inconsequential. To whom does it really matter if your child wears her favourite Halloween costume to the grocery store? In these moments, she has the opportunity to revel in the attention and delight of the other shoppers as they admire her princess gown, and to decide next time that she’d like a quiet trip and choose to forgo the costume. Or if she eats her favourite peanut butter sandwich for breakfast, lunch, and dinner this week? It gives her the time to discover when she’s had her fill of peanut butter and would like to try something new. What if she sets up a tea party in the living room for her teddy bears and wants to keep it there to enjoy tea and dainty finger sandwiches for the next few days? After immersing herself in all the tea-related fun she can imagine, she eventually notices that she’d like a clean slate for her next creation. And she may well discover that a tidy room can be quite as exciting as a busy one.
As the parent, you can take a moment to look at the bigger picture and realize these are wonderful and exciting adventures to your child; more exciting to her than a clean living room would be to you. It’s about giving the child the opportunity to discover these things on her timetable, as they have meaning for her, rather than on the parent’s timetable, where they don’t.
Experience in making the smaller choices in life while growing up has a number of wonderful benefits for children: they get to know and understand themselves well, their likes and dislikes, what they excel at, and what they find challenging; and they gain lots of experience in analyzing situations and choosing which path forward to take—in other words, thinking. Their parents are close by to talk with as they consider the pros and cons of possible choices in a given situation, available to share their experiences and thoughts.
But keep in mind that this is all at an appropriate level for the child. If he just wants you to grab an outfit out of his drawer and help him get dressed, do that; if he just wants some quick food to munch on while busily building with his Lego, just bring him a plate with some food that you’re pretty sure he’ll like; not all situations need detailed analysis. What is important is embracing the time and attention to discuss situations when the child sees options and is interested in choosing.
With unschooling we care about and support the process of getting to an answer, not “the” answer. There is often no one “right” answer. And making a choice is just part of the process, not the “end.” We continue to talk with them about it. Has the choice worked out as they hoped? As expected? If not, how has it deviated? Why might that have happened? More thinking is done to incorporate their experience into their understanding of the world, into their knowledge base, accessible as they spend time pondering the next situation.
Everything is related—life flows.
When you give everyone time to think and make choices.
So how do you begin to live this learning lifestyle with your children?
If you’re newer to unschooling, be sure to note that, as parents, you’ve been in school longer than your children so you most likely have more deschooling to do than they do—that’s the adjustment period as you discover the many pockets of conventional school-think buried in your mind that aren’t supportive of real learning or the development of strong relationships. It’s not enough to just get out of your children’s way: it’s important to actively live with them and cultivate a thriving unschooling environment with your family.
How? Let their minds roam free—that’s where the best learning is because they will choose to do what their mind is thirsty for in the moment. A thirsty mind is engaged, motivated, and thinking—a sponge.
Be their companion in play when asked, or offered and accepted, to support and expand their exploration.
Answer their questions earnestly, or look them up, so they never stop asking.
Share their excitement and wonder, to stay deeply connected with them. Offer up food and drink regularly to keep them fueled. Share what you know beforehand about the places you go so they begin to understand the world around them.
Be patient. And when you’re tired, sit and watch them for a while. Children are pretty awe-inspiring beings.
Alongside all that learning about the world, they are also learning so much about themselves. Their reactions are often visceral—immediate and strong: deep sadness and frustration when things don’t go as envisioned; bursting joy when they do; overflowing anticipation for upcoming events; overwhelming fear of things that scare them. As you are their reliable extra set of hands as they explore the physical world, you’re also their solid anchor as they navigate their emotional world.
Meet them where they are, emotionally and physically—kneel down to meet them eye-to-eye, or sweep them up in your arms. See the situation through their eyes. Share their excitement and empathize with their challenges. Listen to them, talk with them—either in the moment, or later when things settle, or both. Figure out how you can best help them process their emotions by looking to your child for clues. And don’t assume the process will be the same for all your children. If they’re receptive, point out things you notice that you think might help them make a connection, like “It can be hard to concentrate when you’re tired.”
Be their anchor, their safe place, and build a strong relationship with them. Trust and learning will blossom.
A child’s curiosity and enthusiasm for life is contagious—if you let it wash over you instead of trying to tamp it down. Looking back, those moments when I remembered to be amazed at their persistence instead of battling it would often re-energize me. I eventually discovered a pattern: the exhausting days were those when I tried to make them fit into my schedule. I asked myself what I was really trying to accomplish with that. They often enjoyed the comfort of routine—knowing generally how the day flowed, how we’d get ready to go out and so on, but a routine is not time-dependent like a schedule. So I stopped watching the clock and instead watched them. They were so beautifully curious, and much happier, when they followed their needs and interests, from the earliest ages. And I noticed that I was happier too when I wasn’t continually trying to redirect them; trying to coax them to adhere to my vision of what our lives “should” look like. More deschooling for me.
And what about you? Are you curious and engaged?
I created a PDF for you, Excavating Our Curiosity, to help you begin to unearth your own buried curiosity and enthusiasm for learning.
Soon you and your children will be joyfully exploring the world together.
So, let’s take one last look at these three vital characteristics of real and effective learning: engagement, motivation, and time to think. We dove deep into how they so effectively support the learning process. And I hope I’ve given you some insight into the question, “How do people learn?” and ways you might help learning thrive in your home.
As Albert Einstein said, quoted in Life magazine back in 1955: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.”
What an exciting way to greet each day!