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What if they aren't interested in learning?

My husband had this question: "Has anyone ever unschooled their kids and because their kids were lazy, or totally disinterested in things they might need to know to make an actual living, or unschooling failed those kids?" Is it really wrong to have any expectations of one's kids?


Part of the problem of seeing something new that seems to be open to potential disaster is that we assume that the people doing it either aren't nervous about the potential disaster because they either 1) don't care about their kids as much or 2) because there's something wrong with their brains that they can't see something that's so obvious.


The fears your husband expresses are perfectly normal. Unschoolers have worked through the worst of those fears and most have periodic panic attacks.


The fears can't be logicked away. The fears make sense from a schooled point of view. What helps eliminate the fears is knowledge and experience with unschooling.


What confident unschoolers have is a greater knowledge of the results of unschooling, an understanding of the other benefits of unschooling, an understanding of how and why people learn and the pros and cons of coerced learning vs learning from interests.


Every choice in life has good aspects and bad. Choosing involves picking something where the good outweighs the bad.


It's helpful to read about unschooling success stories. But, of course, schools have success stories too, so the stories of unschooling success aren't a reason to choose unschooling. I think rather than reading them as stories that unschooling does work, they're better read as stories of how learning through interests works. It's not significant that Sandra's Kirby has been working at the game shop for several years and been given a lot of responsibility at only 16. What's significant in terms of unschooling is that it grew out of his passion in playing games being supported and taken seriously.


It's also helpful to realize the goals of unschooling are different than other ways of schooling and homeschooling. The goal of unschooling is helping the child be who he is right now and help him grow into who he will become. The goal of schooling is to get a child to some specific place that it's assumed by society is a beginning point to successful careers (and nonburdensome citizenship.)


The goal of unschooling can be hard to embrace. For one thing it makes it seem like unschoolers don't care where kids end up. But what it is is trust in the process that interests are the best foundation for life's pursuits. Being able to pursue what we enjoy is what makes us jump out of bed in the morning. It's what makes us willing to put up with things we don't like because we know we'll get to do something we really, really like.


And trust in the kids themselves that they are whole people who want to do things in life, not just have life happen to them. (Even -- maybe especially -- when what they may be doing looks like that's all they care about! That's when we need to look further and find out what's really going on rather than what it looks like on the surface that's going on.) And trust in biology that we're wired to leave home and go out on our own. Biology is what drives male lions away from the pride they were born in even though it would be easier for them to stay.)


It's helpful to think about why schooling works and why it doesn't work. School does turn out decent kids who go on to get jobs and not be burdens on society. People may want it to do more or something else, but that's basically what it was designed for.


But sometimes school fails. Sometimes it works okay.


If coerced learning works sometimes and fails others, then it isn't the coerced learning that's working. There are other factors that allow coerced learning to work. And, unfortunately, those factors aren't controllable. It has to do with personality, home environment, school environment, learning style and so on and so on. If someone has the right combination of factors -- they have a learning style that matches school, they have interests that match what's being taught, they have a personality that can conform to being told what to learn and how to go about learning it -- then coerced learning will "work" (that is have the results school is designed to have.)


The beauty of unschooling is that it is independent of many of the factors coerced learning depends on. Unschooling adapts to the child and his needs, rather than the child having to adapt to the needs of school and the needs of the agenda the adults have for him.


The only thing unschooling depends on is how well a parent can respect a child's interests (not just the interests that look like they're leading to a future career or look like something they'd do in school) and strew and nurture and support and model. (And that's part of what the list is for :-)


There's lots more to say on that, but it's a beginning anyway!



I was excited to read what the answer was, but the question ended up going in a different direction than I expected.


I can see that. I was answering from the point of view of kids who've always been unschooling and whether they ever avoid learning. Maybe I'll add this response for those people who are wondering about their schooled kids.


My kids have been in public school most of their lives. I would like to unschool but when I ask my son what he would like to learn he says I don't know. If I show him something I think he might be interested in I ask him and again get the I don't know response.


Simple answer: Don't ask! ;-)


Rather than asking what he'd like to learn, just do things he enjoys, expose him to things you think he might enjoy (as opposed to things you think would be good for him!)


Rather than looking at him as a vessel you want to fill, look at him as a person who is reaching out towards what interests him. Rather than looking at what interests him through a lens of school that filters out everything that wouldn't be done in school, look at all that he's interested in: video games, cartoons, skateboarding, swimming, playing with friends ...


Think about it this way: What if your husband were hovering around, waiting for you to do something that resembled school and kept asking you what you would like to learn? What would you say? How would you feel?


How do you get a kid that has been desensitized to learning to get excited again?


Schooled (and previously schooled) kids look like they aren't interested in learning. All they want to do is play.


That's because:


  1. The parents are looking at what the child is doing through a lens of school. If it doesn't look like something a child would do in school then it doesn't look like learning.

  2. Kids need time and freedom to say "No thanks" to anything that they associate with dullness, tediousness, difficulties of school.

  3. They need time to fill up on what's been controlled or allowed in small doses: TV, running around, "doing nothing" (ie, thinking about stuff!)


Kids who have been in school or schooled at home need time to deschool before they can look all of life as potentially interesting. In the beginning they're going to do a lot of playing that looks like pure fun. That's because school paints big swaths of life with a brush of dullness. Kids associate "math" and "science" and "reading" and "writing" and "history" with being forced to read about and listen to and memorize and practice ideas that have the life sucked out of them so that even if they had been interested at the beginning, they soon want to avoid them.


Schooled kids' play looks like avoiding (school) learning. It often is! (They can't avoid learning. They're always learning. But they can avoid anything that reminds them of school!) They need down time from being forced to learn. So parents assume that it's natural for kids to avoid learning. It isn't. Kids want to learn. They -- just like adults -- don't want to be forced to learn things that have no meaning for them.


How many kids shut down when they see percentages in real life? That isn't because percentages are hard. It's because in school they're hard: learning the details of something you've had little experience with removed from any context you could relate to is hard. It's like memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary to a language you've never heard. In real life percentages are just useful ways of presenting information: resizing pictures in an art program, power left in a video game, how much you'll save on a sale item, batting averages ...


Unschooled kids' learning looks like play too, but for them the world isn't divided into learning and play. It's divided into things they're interested in and things they aren't yet interested in. Genghis Khan, Spongebob, spiders, playacting, drawing, baking cookies, Midsummer Night's Dream, Lord of the Rings, good guys vs. bad guys pretend play, model rockets, CSI: Miami, stuffed animals, Hot Wheels ... they're all just part of life that they're interested in or not right now. (You may have, as you read the list, unconsciously checked off items as either "learning" "entertainment/play". That's a useful habit to be aware of and work on eliminating!)


Unschooled kids learning does look like play. The process is similar to how they acquired English: They didn't decide they wanted to get better at speaking English so they could live life better. They just lived life and did things that interested them. English was a tool they picked up occasionally to get what they wanted because it was more efficient than crying ;-) As a side effect of using English, they got better at it. And the better they got at it, the more they used it because it was more useful. And so they got even better.


Learning about everything is like that. We use things and we get better as a side effect. Unlike the message we get from school, we don't need to understand something before we use it. We just need to understand enough of it to make it work. And the more we use it, the better we understand it. We use a bit of knowledge and connect it to other bits of knowledge and slowly build up an understanding of the world.


If you go to Sandra's collection of some of my writing and click on "Transcript" (second link down) there's a good explanation of how natural learning works.


All that unfortunately makes unschooling sound like stand back and let kids play. But, no, parents have an active role. More active after kids are done deschooling. The best thing you can do while they're deschooling is let them play. And help them play. Make play dates. Make sure they have things they enjoy playing with. Be with them. Find out why they enjoy something so much. When they feel free -- rule of thumb is one month for each year they've been in school, starting from the time when you last pressured them to learn something -- be more active about running things through their lives: movies, TV shows, books, places to go: ethnic restaurants, museums, monster truck pulls, walks in the woods, funky stores ....


Look for the delight in life and it will infect your kids :-) As long as it's honest interest and delight! If it's fake interest to get them to pay attention to something you think would be good for them, they're going to notice and avoid it. It's the tactic they've been awash in since Kindergarten: "Learning is Fun!"


There's another article on my page at Sandra's site: Five Steps to Unschooling that might help you too.



Joyfully Rejoycing
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