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Learning by Taking Risks and Breaking Rules
by Wendy Priesnitz

Photo (c) Gelpi/Shutterstock

Albert Einstein once said that it is a miracle curiosity survives formal education. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t. When my husband and I decided in the early 1970s that we wouldn’t send our then-unborn children to school, we knew that curiosity was one of the precious traits we didn’t want to risk them losing. In fact, we knew many things that we wanted to avoid about a school-based education, but nurturing the alternative – ensuring they retained their curiosity and other self-directed learning skills – well, that was another matter. Here are some of the components that, through trial and error, we discovered were central to a successful life learning (unschooling) experience.

Ownership of the Process

When children are born, they want to learn about their world by exploring their surroundings in ever widening circles. And that is where learning should remain for a lifetime – in the learner’s hands. Learning is not something that is done to us, or that we can produce in others. An education is not something we “get”…it is something we create for ourselves, on a life-long basis. The best learning – perhaps the only real learning – is that which results from personal interest and investigation, from following our own passion.


Taking ownership of our own education and allowing our children to own theirs requires trust and respect in individuals and in the learning process. In the case of our children, that means having enough respect for them to expect that they will behave sociably, want to learn how to function in the world and eventually want to learn things of a more academic nature. One of the ways in which formal education often fails is by concentrating on negative expectations, on teaching people what their incapacities and weaknesses are, rather than their strengths.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide assistance, but only when asked (and we will be asked, in direct proportion to the amount of trust we’ve built up and in inverse relation to the amount of correcting, quizzing and forcing we do). As unschooling advocate and author John Holt pointed out, “Most of us are tactful enough with other adults not to point out their errors, but not many of us are ready to extend this courtesy (or any other courtesy, for that matter) to children.” 

When we interfere with and try to control the natural learning process, we remove children’s pleasure in discovery and inhibit their fearless approach to problem-solving, which can impede self-direction and creativity for a lifetime. We have all seen that sort of interference in action. Here’s an example. My three-year-old daughter wanted to put her own shoes on. She proudly put the left shoe on the right foot, then determinedly spent ten minutes creating a massive knot in the laces. Her grandmother, not being able to watch any longer and elbowing the child out of the way, said, “You’re doing it all wrong. Here, let Grandma do it for you!” My daughter burst into tears. Fortunately, I had the courage to intervene because that type of “help” had left me with a lifelong resistance to trying something new for fear of not being able to do it perfectly well the first time.

Our respect for learners should extend to those who opt out of school. Rather than labeling these conscientious objectors as “drop outs,” which indicates failure, why not think of them as people with the motivation – or at least the potential – to control their own learning? The author of The Teenage Liberation Handbook Grace Llewellyn calls leaving school “rising out” to a more individualized form of education, which is a much more respectful and empowering notion than “dropping out,” with its connotation of inability to succeed.

Time to Muddle

Along with ownership, trust, and respect, goes time and space for muddling about and experimenting. Learning thrives (as does invention) when there is time and opportunity to explore in a safe, supportive environment, to investigate our theories, ask and answer our own questions, test out our ideas and methods...again, with assistance when it is sought.

Author John Taylor Gatto said this was the basis for his winning the New York State Teacher of the Year award in 1991 (right before he quit teaching because he was no longer willing to hurt children). Here is how he has described his teaching method: “The successes I’ve achieved in my own teaching practice involve a large component of trust, not the kind of trust conditional on performance, but a kind of categorical trust...a faith in people that believes unless people are allowed to make their own mistakes, early and often, and then are helped to get up on their feet and try again, they will never master themselves. What I do right is simple: I get out of kids’ way. I give them space and time and respect and a helping hand if I am asked for it.”

Solitary, reflective time often seems rare in our overly programmed society. But what we call “daydreaming” may provide important time for thinking, analyzing, synthesizing, and other seemingly passive brain activity that is crucial to the learning process.


The risk- and mistake-making processes are supported by a secure physical, intellectual, and emotional environment. Learning something new can sometimes feel like a dangerous adventure, at the same time as it is exciting. You might make mistakes and feel a whole range of emotions from disappointment and anger through to jubilation. Anticipating that, in order to get started on a learning adventure, most people need as much comfort, reassurance, and security as they can find.

Take reading, for example. The typical classroom, with other children ready to correct or laugh at every mistake and the teacher all too eagerly “helping” and correcting, is the worst possible place for a child to learn to read. So one of the best ways to support the learning to read adventure is to avoid demanding regular demonstrations of what the learner might prefer to keep private. We’ll still notice that the child is making more and more sense out of printed language – that they are reading road signs, for example.

I remember John Holt once describing to me how he helped his young niece learn to read. He said all he did was let her snuggle up on his lap and read to her, later letting her read to him. She refused to read unless she felt physically secure. He said that later, she moved from his lap to a corner of the room, shrouded in a tent made from a blanket. Eventually, she was confident enough to discard the blanket and read aloud wherever she was.


In the classroom, knowledge is presented in the abstract and people are expected to demonstrate their mastery of that knowledge in abstract ways. But passive, second-hand experiences can lead to second-hand knowledge. On the other hand, real-life discovery leads learners to find out about the world in an authentic way, which leads to concrete knowledge. Self-directed learners develop knowledge from observing and participating in real-life situations and activities. Because life learners know that all situations are learning situations, they can adapt and learn swiftly when change occurs.

In order to help their kids learn authentically, parents often become chauffeurs and advocates. Since the world isn’t really a friendly place for young people, they might need help making it work for them. Providing access to the real world also includes trusting children with access to the tools of our trades. In our society, children are kept away from most workplaces, on the grounds that they would damage either themselves or their surroundings if given free access to things usually available only to so-called “professionals.” Or they are banned because they would slow down the important work of production and consumption.

A true learning society would make the modifications necessary so that a wide variety of learning experiences could be accessible to people of all ages and abilities in community-funded spaces (libraries, museums, theaters, even school buildings) be used on people’s own initiative and their own timetable. And it might even fund the professionals who could facilitate the learning process – people who would resemble librarians and museum curators more than conventional teachers. Libraries are good examples of this principle and librarians are often great examples of learning facilitators who are able to engage in authentic sharing with learners.

Kids, especially, pick up easily on phoniness or disinterest. And, like adults, they respond to people who are willing to engage in an authentic encounter on a person-to-person basis, without judging or evaluating.

Institutions should exist to be used, rather than to produce something. If they’re effective, people will use them willingly without having to be coerced for to use them for what their elders or other types of superiors or experts say is for their own good.


While for some people, some of the time, learning can be a solitary pursuit, many of us gain inspiration from talking with others. As parents, we will find many opportunities to talk with our children (as opposed to talking at them). But it is also important to just allow kids to listen to adults talk. I remember many times as a child being discovered sound asleep on the kitchen floor late in the evening after I had snuck out of my bed to sit in the dark and listen to the adult conversation. I have since noticed that it is very hard to keep young children in bed if a group of adults is having a lively conversation not too far away. The children will find a hundred different reasons for coming to check out what the grownups are doing. That can get exasperating, especially when the adults feel they need a break from the kids. But the kids are not being bad; they just want to learn and to participate in family life.

Spending time with our children creates many opportunities for sharing and modeling learning, for acting as both resource people and fellow explorers. My children got me interested in many things I’d previously had no interest in and we learned about them together. Often, they’d see me reading or going to the library or puzzling something out, and they’d want to do the same.

Self-directed learners want to have their questions answered quickly and honestly. Being told to go look it up is terribly frustrating to a child with an immediate need to know something. And is that how you’d answer another adult who asked you a question? Tell what little you know, make an educated guess, or say that you don’t know. Often, I found that my daughters only wanted a short answer anyway and would cut me off with eyes rolling if I launched into a long-winded explanation that began to sound like a lecture or teaching. They often went off on their own and found someone else with a better (shorter, clearer) answer. And sometimes they looked it up.

Technology can help connect learners of all ages and backgrounds who share a passion about a particular topic. I often hear about young people with a passion to learn about some esoteric subject (and a parent who knows nothing about the subject) who have accessed someone knowledgeable on that topic via the Internet. Mentors can also be found closer to home, in the person of grandparents, other senior family members, or neighbors.

Learners of all ages will be empowered to move forward by stopping to celebrate accomplishments (and I’m not talking about bribery or gold stars here). And we don’t have to wait until “graduation” to do that…remember how excited everyone was when your child took her first step alone?

Keeping it Whole

Knowledge is an interconnected web of information and insight and doesn’t easily submit to subject divisions and grade levels. In my experience, optimum learning occurs when learners can ignore such arbitrary constraints and venture where their pursuit take them. Keeping the world whole and not dicing it up into “manageable” pieces extends to boundaries between work and fun, between learning and other activities.

Freedom to Learn

A non-coercive learning environment that supports risk taking, curiosity, and exploration, and that encourages the pursuit of new challenges and knowledge in a supportive community of learners will develop a flexible, resourceful self-directed learner able to create a happy, productive life.

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's founder and editor. She has been a homeschooling and life learning advocate since deciding to help her two daughters learn without school in the mid 1970s and launched the Canadian home-based education movement at that time. She is also the author of thirteen books. This essay also appears in the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.

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