Why You Can't Let Go
Talk presented at the Live and Learn Conference in 2002
Many unschoolers, even though they embrace unschooling, still feel an occasional guilty attraction to curriculum. It would be comforting to sometimes have someone hold our hand to help us guide our children. We know the benefits of unschooling outweigh the benefits of some comfort, and yet, still ...
So what is it that's so drawing about curriculum? By curriculum I mean anything that's designed to get kids from where they are to where we want them to be, be it a full year in a box or a math workbook. Why is it so attractive?
We may each have our own list of pros but some of the pros of curriculum for us parents that I came up with are that it:
Removes the burden and responsibility of choice so we can feel confident the kids are getting the right information in the right way.
Provides feedback that "important" learning is taking place. It eases our worries about whether kids are getting what they need because "academic" knowledge seems artificial, as though it can't be learned from life.
And some of the pros of curriculum for our kids are that it:
Builds a framework. They can then fill in the details later.
Lays a foundation to build on.
Provides a key to unlock understanding to everything else.
Filters out the "waste of time stuff" and just presents the essentials, the important stuff.
Now think about something your kids learned on their own like speaking or walking and see how well the pros fit. Do they make any sense?
Now think about learning a foreign language in school. The pros make sense there. And yet which one worked better?
What that implies is that if we can't live something, then we need some substitute for living. So curriculum is just a substitute for life. A rather poor substitute! And because it's a poor substitute we need feedback and double checks to make sure it's giving us the results we're hoping to get.
I'm going to set the pros aside a bit and talk about what natural learning looks like. One of the unsatisfying things about unschooling is that it doesn't look like the model we have in our heads of what learning is supposed to look like. But natural learning and school-style learning are apples and oranges. If we expected our apple tree to produce oranges, we'd feel just as dissatisfied when it grew apples. So what we need is an image of an apple, an image of what natural learning looks like.
Picture learning like piecing together a massive jigsaw puzzle.
With natural learning kids plunge into the puzzle wherever it seems interesting to them. They fit the pieces together here and there working all over the puzzle. They won't go in any particular order. They'll stick with one spot or jump about depending on what's most interesting to them. They'll stumble over new and interesting things. They'll see old things in unfamiliar places giving the unfamiliar places a sense of familiarity as well as intrigue.
Of course a really bad curriculum could jump all over the place too!
But there are three powerful things about the natural learning process.
One powerful thing is interest. Kids want it. They want to understand it. When kids want to know about something it's like they have a vacuum in them. Sometimes the vacuum is big. Sometimes it's small. But whatever its size it wants to suck stuff in until it's full. When kids are taught without them wanting or needed the information, they have no vacuum to suck stuff in so the information needs to be forced in.
The second powerful thing is the sections kids work on are useful to them right now. These are tools and information the kids need now, not potentially useful for the future to store away until "someday". The great thing about tools is they're really good about telling us whether they're working or not. And a special thing about these tools is they don't have to be complete to be useful. All they need is to be functional. There will be holes compared to what someone could know about something, but there won't be any functional holes. A child can't ride a bike without figuring out how to use the handlebars. That hole just can't exist for long. But some kids will have a trail-riding hole if they don't need or want to go beyond the paved streets.
The third powerful thing is integration. As kids fit pieces in one area of the puzzle, those pieces are also unconsciously fitting into other areas. And even better, the areas the piece fits into can provide feedback. So one area can set off an alarm if a child is about to add a piece to another area that doesn't make sense.
As an example, learning about hawks will add pieces to the carnivore area along with lots of other areas too. The carnivore area will also get pieces from cats and dogs and T. Rexes and sharks. That will build up images of carnivore behavior. So if a child hears "Hawks eat rice," that piece won't make sense in the carnivore area. The child's brain will scramble around looking for words that are in both the sounds-like-rice area and the carnivore area. They'll probably say, "Oh, mice!" Or, if they come up blank, "That can't be right!" Whatever they do, they won't just mindlessly accept some fact. They want the areas to work and want the areas to meet their needs.
Yes, there's double-checking with curriculum too. Kids won't just accept some obvious error like 2+2=5. But with natural learning they're motivated to question and understand. They're trying to meet their needs, after all. Not someone else's needs. Not some future needs they might have.
If you think about how your kids are learning English, you can see a working image of this puzzle building. English is an area of the real world puzzle. The more kids use English, the more pieces they add to the English puzzle area. But English is also a tool kids use to build other areas of the real world puzzle.
When first beginning to learn English infants and toddlers let conversation wash over them, tuning in when something seems connected to what interest them. Later they manipulate their world: asking questions, turning thoughts over in their heads, reading and, while they're doing this, the English jigsaw puzzle gets assembled and improved as a side effect. Kids don't usually actively work on the English puzzle. They aren't consciously filing away vocabulary words and figuring out grammar rules about putting the verb before the noun and what nouns and verbs are and what case to use when. They just use English to get what they want and then respond unconsciously to the feedback they get on how well it worked to make it work better. They're trying to meet their own needs so they're motivated to make English work.
The amazing things about the way natural learning builds the tool puzzle areas like English and math and science and grammar and so forth is that:
they don't need to be worked on consciously,
they don't need to be consciously understood to be used,
they don't need to be complete to be used,
the feedback from using them makes them more complete.
Toddlers don't need to know how to put full sentences together or need a lot of words in order to use English as a tool. For them English is incomplete. There are huge gaps and holes. In fact my daughter got a lot of mileage out of "here" for quite a while. It meant "Pick me up," and "Take this," and "Take me over there," and "Let me have that."
You can see that same process with math too. Like with percentages, kids unconsciously file away how percentages show up in real life. They won't understand percentage's use. But they'll get a feel for what kinds of puzzle pieces percent shows up with like the grocery store pieces and weather and sports. They'll get a feel for how it fits into the surrounding puzzle pieces. 25% more free is good. 30% tax bracket makes parents grumble. 200% percent magnification in a computer program is big. 1600% is enormous. 75% of the kids polled liking Digimon better than Pokemon is a lot.
Picture percent as a chunk of the math area of the puzzle. It's a chunk of pieces that also fits into holes in the real world puzzle. It's a tool. When kids first see the percent chunk in the real world puzzle, it doesn't add much to the big picture. 30% off doesn't make the big picture clearer. Percent is just this big blobby chunk of puzzle pieces with an unclear image that happens to fit in a hole. But kids will unconsciously absorb where it shows up and how it's used.
As they get a feel for the context percentage shows up in, they'll unconsciously add pieces to the percent puzzle. Its picture will start emerging and they'll try it out when it feels like a tool they could use in the situation they're in. They may be able to play store and throw percent in. Even if they don't use it right, they've recognized that buying things is a context percent gets used in and that it has to do with numbers. Or they may recognize that 150% off doesn't sound right but enlarging something by 150% is okay. Or they may be able to type in a percentage to shrink pictures in an art program. (And if their mental image of how percent works led them to put in a percentage that doesn't work, the weird result from the art program gives them feedback on how they might be able to make their percent image better.) All before being able to figure a 15% tip. They'll connect and fill in the pieces of the percent puzzle as they need them.
My daughter, Kathryn, and I were reading a book that began with the narrator proudly announcing that the town clock frequently told the right time. She's 11 and certainly has heard the word frequently before. She has probably picked up from contexts that frequently has something to do with how often something happens. Her definition wasn't complete but it had worked well enough until now. But, testing out the pieces she had for the word frequently, she realized it wasn't detailed enough to work in the context of the joke and asked to have more pieces filled in until it did work.
Getting back to the pros and cons, if you compare the pros of curriculum to jigsaw puzzle building, does worrying about the pros make much sense? There's no burden of responsibility about being complete or right because neither completeness nor rightness matters. What's important is whether it works. Framework, foundation, keys to understanding, waste of time stuff, none of that makes sense to worry about. The puzzle is working for what the child needs it to do and it gets more refined as it's used. All because the child wants it to work.
On the other hand, what curriculum tries to do is hand the tool-puzzles like percentage and the important dates in history and photosynthesis to the kids. So the percentage chunk of the puzzle will have just enough pieces pre-assembled to make a basic, clear picture. Then, in theory, the kids can add to the tool puzzle later. It makes sense. The simpler something is the easier it is to learn. But the percent chunk by itself isn't particularly interesting or useful. The effect percent has on the pieces around it can be interesting or illuminating. But without the context, it is just a chunk of jigsaw puzzle pieces with a boring image on it.
And curriculum can't do what we expect it to. It can't hand the child the pre-assembled puzzle pieces. All it can do is show the puzzle pieces to the kids and show them how to put the pieces together. The kids have to reproduce the pieces and connect them in their heads. And unless the kids understand it thoroughly, neither the pieces nor the connections are going to get reproduced properly.
When I was in college, I took physics. I managed to stumble through three semesters of it. The professors showed me all the right pieces, explaining them clearly and assembling them for me. When the class was done, it felt like I had been handed the puzzle of mechanics. I knew force = mass x acceleration, kinetic energy = velocity x mass, for every action there's and equal and opposite reaction. I knew I didn't have a great understanding, but the basic framework was there. All it needed was fleshed out and refined.
Six years later my husband and I were getting ready for our black belt tests in Tae Kwon Do. Part of the test was writing a research paper. I figured it would be easy and interesting to do the physics of a punch. Unfortunately, I soon realized that I had no idea what I was doing. Not only didn't I know enough but a lot of what I did know was wrong. And I didn't even know enough to know what was the right stuff and what was the wrong stuff. I basically had to throw it all out and start from scratch.
The problems were that I had been shown the pieces of the puzzle and told how they fit together. But, since I didn't completely understand the pieces or the connections, when I reproduced them in my head, the pieces were shoddy and the connections were lousy. The textbook had always set up the context and told me what tool what set of puzzle pieces to use in it. I couldn't look at a context and know what tool to use. I couldn't look at a tool and know what context it would be used in. I had gotten enough pieces memorized right to pass the course. But mostly right didn't lead to something that worked. It just led to a grade good enough that I didn't have to repeat the course.
With curriculum the kids are more often than not constructing a puzzle they don't care about or don't need to use right now. In real life, the test is whether something works. So, getting the capital of Germany wrong lands you in the wrong city. With curriculum, the goal is getting as many right as possible, so if someone gets the capital of Germany wrong it has as much impact on their lives as getting the year the Battle of Hastings was fought wrong. Percentage of what gets memorized correctly counts, not whether that accumulated lump of knowledge actually does anything.
And again, if you compare the pros to curriculum, they make sense. It's vital that we try to get the right information into kids because we can't test whether it works in a real life context or not. All we can do is check the pieces off the list when kids demonstrate that each stuck long enough to test them. So we'd better have a darn good list and a darn good method of getting it into their heads. And as far as framework and foundation and so forth, we're entirely dependent on the skill of the curriculum designer to have done it properly because once again, there's no test to see if it works.
So with curriculum, the goal is learning thoroughly how to operate the handlebars of the bike and the pedals and balancing and the physics of rotation and traffic laws and signaling. If you get 85% of that you've done well. But that doesn't mean you can ride a bike.
With natural learning, the goal is to learn just enough to get everything working together. At first steering and pedaling and balancing will be D level at best. And traffic will be avoided. But they'll work together. And they'll all improve with the feedback the child gets from riding as the child needs more from the tool.
I wanted to try out an example of holey definitions and drawing on other areas and tools to fill in the holes and to double check to solve the puzzle. I don't know if this is a great example, but it got stuck in my head and it wouldn't let go so you may have to pretend you don't know what the meaning of the word is.
The cattle are lowing, the poor babe awakes. As far as I know, I've never heard lowing in any other context so in my case the puzzle area for lowing is totally empty. What areas do you draw on to figure out what lowing means?
For me it connects to the Christmas carol area. And that's a subset of the song area. I'm not very musical so I have some big holes in both areas. I don't know much beyond the most common carols. I do know that lyrics are poetry which connects to the English language area. My poetry area has a lot of holes in it too. Maybe that doesn't add much information but it does tell us why the sentence doesn't sound like normal conversation.
It connects to the Christmas area. My knowledge of Christmas basically comes from popular culture so compared to someone who has studied the Bible or the history of Biblical times it has holes. But it has worked well enough in the past for this type of thing. I know where the baby and cattle are and why they're there. I know the baby is just born and that its mom and dad are near by.
It connects to the English language area. Again, there are holes like lowing obviously but experience has led me to feel pretty confident in the non-holey areas. It's English sentence structure so there's probably a cause and effect thing going on. The cows have done something to cause the baby to awake. If the sentence were "The poor babe awakes, the cattle are lowing," we'd assume the baby affected the cows. We've probably all had encounters with poetry and song lyrics that break rules so we don't know that for sure.
It connects to the cow area. My cow area has served me for what I've needed it for but compared to a farmer, I've got holes. But I do know cows make noise. They eat. They're big. They poop. They pee. They produce a lot of gas. They stamp their feet. They give milk. Some people like to eat them. They seem kind of dull and sleepy.
It connects to the baby area. Just born babies specifically as the connection in the Christmas area tells us. I know something about live babies and babies on TV and extrapolations from adults and other animals, so I have a list of probable things that will wake babies.
We can gather some possibilities that fit in all the areas. Like maybe it's gas. Really smelly gas could wake a baby. But that doesn't fit in the Christmas carol area. My experience with carols leads me to be pretty confident they're about nice, gentle things. It could be milk. That's gentle. But the English area suggests the cows are doing it themselves. English tells us poetry breaks rules but the baby area doesn't give us a strong impression of milking waking babies. But my cow area has some holes in it so that's a maybe. It could be stamping. That's not too bad. It doesn't set off any alarm bells but doesn't send up any fireworks either. It could be mooing. That's gentle. As I recall it's noisy. English has some onomatopoeic words like moo to describe the sound cattle make and low sounds similar.
That doesn't give us a definitive answer but if I had to pick one, it would be mooing.
Putting the puzzle pieces together is kind of like solving a mystery. If someone had told us what lowing meant and we weren't curious, it'd be like reading the last chapter in a mystery book that we had no intention of reading. The fun is having the questions and getting to the answer, not necessarily the answer itself.
So, what can we do to help natural learning along?
We can help our kids explore their interests. If they're exploring their interests, they're doing real world work that will provide feedback on how well they're putting their puzzles together. We can bring the world to them so they have access to new interests. They can't know they're interested in the Titanic or haiku poetry or sheep shearing if they don't know they exist.
The worst learning crime we can commit is to drag kids through something boring to build some portion of a foundation or framework. They might retain what we've dragged them through but the price we pay is to tag it with a big BORING label so it's likely they'll avoid building in that area. If they're bored we should stop. There is just too much other stuff in the world to worry about one thing. If they need it, they can't ignore it.
So think in terms of joy rather than need to or important. One cool connection or one good feeling about Egypt with the doorway open and available anytime they want to explore further will serve them far better than a bushel of so called important facts that will fade from disuse and lack of interest.
Think in terms of creating a lifetime learner rather than creating a standard foundation or framework. If we give them the gift of confidence that they can learn anything they decide to, that there's no time limit to learning, no point when they're done, then we've opened every door possible for them.
Think in terms of right now. Today. Help them be who they are right now. They are 4 and 6 and 12 for a reason. School kids spend their childhoods preparing to be adults. Let them be who they are now. After all we didn't worry about them discussing poop and Teletubbies when they were toddlers even though it didn't sound like it was preparing them to be corporate directors or doctors or even first graders. We knew they'd get linguistically where they needed regardless of what path through language they took.
Think in terms of a journey rather than a destination. They're not locked in towards some specific destination but on a lifetime journey of exploration and discovery that they can take anywhere they want to.
Think in terms of nurturing your own enthusiasm about life rather than nurturing their enthusiasm. Don't jump up and down about George Washington if he puts you to sleep. Be honest in your pursuit of what interests you. Let them see that you think something is really cool. Not to get them interested in something you think would be good for them but an honest "Wow! I love this stuff!" And ask questions about life. Be curious. Because it's the questions that are important. Anyone can look up the answers but not everyone can ask the questions.
Think in terms of nurturing your own interests rather than waiting to pounce on their interests. Tackle some new recipe for yourself, not because you want them to join you. But if you do have a choice, doing things in a kid friendly way creates an inviting joyous atmosphere. You're more likely to have company in the garden if you plant a beanpole teepee than if you plant a field of rutabagas.
Think in terms of creating an atmosphere of wonder where people are genuinely curious about life and where there are intriguing things to be curious about. Not because that's what would be good for them, but as a gift to them with no strings attached.
Think in terms of their interests leading them out to the world rather than looking for pathways for the world to get into them.
If we put that plan into action in place of curriculum, the world is open to them for learning for the rest of their lives.