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Unschooling is about process over content

Life Learning: Process Over Content
By Wendy Priesnitz

Life learning parents understand that protecting and nurturing the love of learning is more important than memorizing facts.

Nathan Isaacs, a British author and educator who has popularized the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, has described the typical school classroom as a “looking-glass world.” When children attend school, they are taken from their situation of living/learning into a totally new, unreal way of life. This new way of life requires a set of rather passive behaviors much different from what they were used to, orchestrated by an unknown adult, and directed by a master plan that is also unknown to the children.

Any real learning that takes place under such circumstances is incidental. Putting highly curious and motivated children into a numbing, dehumanizing, and demotivating atmosphere, then trying to artificially motivate them to learn about the world in a restrictive, compartmentalized fashion to an arbitrary bureaucratic timetable seems like a very inefficient process. For this reason, formalized schooling can often get in the way of learning, rather than facilitate it. As one life learning mother once said to me when I was researching my 1979 book School Free, “Our homeschooling career started when play school interfered with watching a shopping center being built. We opted to watch. We opted for life.”

Piaget believed that children are inner-oriented. He wrote about the importance of children being able to interact with their environment on their own terms, determining their own process and rate of development. Indifference to this important concept in our school systems has led to the testing, measuring, and grading of children, and to labeling them as “slow” or with some acronym that qualifies them for drug treatment so they will behave and perform.

But as life learners, we are able to focus on the process of learning about life instead of the content of a one-size-fits all curriculum. The protection of the love of learning and creativity – as well as the development of problem solving and research skills – are what we care most about. We know that these qualities are fragile and can be easily destroyed by the coercive teaching of topics in which children are not interested or that they are not ready to know about. And we know, by observing our children, that facts and skills are easily retained when they are learned in a context relevant to daily life and experience – that is, when a person wants to know them because they have a need to know them.

Schools, of course, focus on process too. It’s just that the process has nothing much to do with learning. Because of compulsory attendance laws, schools are concerned with a custodial and management process that involves standardization and accountability via exams, grades, and certificates, rather than a true interest in learning. For all the concern about facts and information (and their demonstrable retention), students in school are often prevented from knowing enough about the real workings of the real world to enable them to understand or change it. They also give up their self-esteem and the ability to think for themselves, end up thinking that learning is a chore, rather than just a joyful part of living.

So what can we do? We can trust our children’s ability to make sense of the world on their own, and to learn skills and facts without being taught. We can trust them not to learn certain things if they don’t perceive a need. We can be their guides when needed and their inspiration when we truly want to share a passion. We can model a life of being as well as doing and a pursuit of life skills as well as intellectual ones. We can share information, asking them questions only when we don’t know the answers and answering theirs when we do.

We can opt for life.

Wendy Priesnitz is the founder and editor of Life Learning Magazine, the mother of two self-taught adult daughters, an advocate for children's rights and life learning since the 1970s, and the author of Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutional Education to a Learning Society, as well as twelve other books.

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