Understanding Life Learning
by Wendy Priesnitz
Life learning (sometimes called unschooling
or self-directed learning) is one of those concepts that is almost
easier to define by saying what it isn’t, than what it is. And
that’s probably because our own schooled backgrounds have convinced
us that learning happens only in a dedicated building on certain
days, between certain hours, and managed by a specially trained
Within that schooling framework, no matter how hard
teachers try and no matter how eloquent their text books, many
bright students get bored, many slower students struggle and give up
or lose their self-esteem, and most of them reach the end of the
process unprepared to make the transition to adulthood. They have
memorized a certain body of knowledge long enough to regurgitate the
information on tests, but they haven’t really learned much, at least
of the official curriculum.
Life learners, on the other hand, know that learning
is not difficult, that people learn things quite easily if they’re
not compelled and coerced, if they see a need to learn something,
and if they are trusted and respected enough to learn it on their
own timetable, at their own speed, in their own way. They know that
learning cannot be produced in us and that we cannot produce it in
others – no matter what age and no matter if we’re at school or at
They understand that the tools used in schools, such
as text books, lesson plans, testing, grading, report cards, course
requirements, motivating students, homework assignments, blackboard
writing, bulletin board decorating, schedules and attendance
regulations, are all designed to manage or account for the efficient
delivery of information in a publicly funded setting. They have
little to do with how people actually learn...and in some cases get
in the way of learning.
Life learning happens independent of time, location
or the presence of a teacher. It does not require mom or dad to
teach, or kids to work in workbooks at the kitchen table from nine
to noon from September to June.
Life learning is learner driven. It involves living
and learning – in and from the real world. It is about exploring,
questioning, experimenting, making messes, taking risks without fear
of ridicule, making mistakes and trying again.
Life learning does not involve memorized theory; it
requires applying knowledge. And that often means moving around,
talking, experimenting, thinking, jumping up and down...and
sometimes appearing not to be doing anything at all. It allows
flexibility, independence and freedom from all the school-type
interferences that can get in the way of real learning.
In conventional education, the curriculum rules. It
must be completed so that testing, grading and reporting can begin.
In this sort of atmosphere, accurately duplicating the results of
scientific experiments that others have already performed is more
important than finding out something new. Finishing pages of math
equations is more important than understanding how the numbers
relate to each other.
But kids are natural scientists and don’t need to be
taught science. They are also natural mathematicians and don’t need
to be told how to count things. Developmental psychologist and
Harvard professor Robert White calls this instinct to learn, to
manipulate, to master an “urge toward competence.” What he means is
that we are born with not just a desire, but the need to have
an impact on our surroundings, to control and understand the world
in which we live.
We do not just sit and wait for the world to come to
us...unless we are among the unfortunate majority who are told to
sit down, line up, be quiet and wait. Life learners are always
actively interpreting their world, trying to make sense of it. Of
course, this drive to discover means we are constantly
learning...and also experiencing the pride that comes with having
understood new things and having mastered new skills.
So life learning is about trusting other people (of
all ages) to learn what they need to know and about helping them to
learn and grow in their own ways. It is also about accessing
life-affirming experiences that enable children to understand the
world and their culture and to interact with it.
Children learn two of the most important and
difficult things they will ever learn during the first two years of
life: how to walk and how to talk. Why? Because they want to. So
they work hard at learning the necessary skills, purposefully,
passionately, constantly. As parents, we encourage, support,
protect, cheer from the sidelines and model the behavior. But most
of all, we trust in their ultimate success.
That early learning is a model for all self-directed
learning. As parents, our role is the same as it was when our
children learned how to walk and talk. We talk with our kids and
answer their questions honestly (but don't question or quiz them
when we already know the answers); we provide opportunities for
interaction with other people (including elderly family and
community members); we share and model learning; we create a secure
environment by supporting the risk-and mistake-making processes; we
keep their world whole rather than breaking it up into subjects; we
enrich their environment with books, pens, paper and other learning
materials; we celebrate their accomplishments; we learn about and
help them utilize their individual learning styles; and we provide
access to the real world and the tools that are part of it.
We also provide the time for our children to
investigate their own ideas. And – perhaps the biggest challenge for
many parents – we are flexible and patient observers of a process
that is not particularly sequential or organized, in spite of what
the curriculum writers would have us believe.
Life learning is not a method of education, nor are
there any step-by-step guidelines or rules for doing it the right
way. It is a way of life, a way of looking at the world and at
children. It is about self-direction, about learning from life and
throughout life. It is about kids, families and communities
regaining control over their days, their learning, their money,
their resources and their ability to direct and manage themselves.
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life
Magazine and Life Learning Magazine, and author of
School Free - The Homeschooling Handbook and
Assumptions in Education.