The Alchemy of Unconfined Learning

I recently finished reading The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. In the story the main character, a boy named Santiago, decides to leave school and become a shepherd. After traveling and caring for his sheep for two years, he reflects on his time with them and thinks about all that they have taught him. But he goes on to think, “maybe it wasn’t that they were teaching me, but that I was learning from them.” I love that subtle shift in perspective and, with it, the clear contrast in meaning between being taught and learning. I’ve written before that “I don’t teach my children (and yet they are learning)”. I’m still exploring what that means to us and as part of that I want to write a little about a recent experience we had. It makes for a rather long post, but I hope you’ll continue reading to the end because I think this topic is important.

In early April, we went on a trip out west. After we returned, an adult asked my son if, when we travel, he takes along his homeschool schoolwork to work on. When my son hesitated, I jumped in, bristling. “I don’t homeschool that way,” I said. “I don’t separate out education and learning from living and life. I don’t do school at home.” And what I was thinking was that I certainly would not ‘do school’ while traveling because my kids would miss out on too much real learning! But I decided, based on the person’s horrified expression, that I was best off not continuing the conversation. My son mentioned that he had taken his Latin along with him, and the woman nodded and smiled approvingly.

After that encounter, I decided to write down all the things we did on our trip, and I spent time thinking about what my kids (and I) had learned. My kids spent some time outdoors with their grandpa learning about the native trees in Western Montana, and the next day when we were hiking near Kalispell they told me the names of the trees, talked about their needles and bark, and looked over pinecones while trying to figure out which one came from which species of tree. They speculated as to the age of trees and wondered whether the forest we were in had been clear cut or selectively cut and when, and how the lack of canopy was affecting what young species were coming up. Later in the trip we hiked in old growth coastal forests along the Puget Sound, reading all the information signs and taking in everything the forest had to show us from the soil on up to the canopy. (Wow, those are some big trees!) We spent time at an aquarium, just like school kids on a field trip except that, without any distracting work sheets to ‘prove’ we were learning, we were able to engage with the displays and soak it all in. We attended a play put on by a local homeschool group, giving us the opportunity to reflect on how differently this group handled various aspects of theater compared to our own experiences in theater. We attended a discussion on Buddhism and a lecture on rights of immigrants. We talked with adults over meals on the train and heard their life story. We visited gem shops and were fascinated by all the information the shop owners shared with us. We asked questions and talked about everything. Together. We investigated and learned. Not only was no pre-planned curriculum needed, it would have hemmed us in. And if we choose to pursue any of our questions further, I have no doubt that we can find the resources we need to help us.

Yes, we brought books along to read, but why in the world would I have brought ‘schoolwork’ along?

It’s disheartening to me that our society has lost its collective memory of how children learned prior to the rise of institutional (confined, top-down, teacher-controlled) schooling. Years ago I watched a documentary on John Adams and his family. The mother, Abigail, taught the children to read and write at home (in English and Latin). Both parents taught the children mathematics and they were all extremely well read. The oldest son, John Quincy, began his French studies in earnest by teaching himself from books while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a ship. During his two stays overseas with his father, his mother continued his education from afar via letters while his father educated him by immersing him in the real world of politics. He experienced formal schooling for about a year beginning at age 11, and was enrolled in school again briefly at age 13. At age 14 he served as secretary and translator to the U.S. emissary to St. Petersburg; after, he traveled (alone) through several European countries, learning the languages and customs along the way. From there, he was on to Harvard.

Certainly John Quincy Adams was a remarkable person, but his education was not markedly different from that of other colonial children. The early colonial schools were only open for six months of the year, and they were considered to be ‘available’ for children to attend as needed and as time allowed. Children did not enroll in school and attend full time for 13 years like they do today. Instead, education was pieced together from a variety of resources such as learning from parents at home, learning from immersion in the community and from a variety of adult interactions both casual and as tutors, and sporadic enrollment in schools. While schools could provide learning, “school” and “learning” were not considered synonymous like they are today. It was ALL learning, and it all ‘counted’, and non-school learning (experiential learning) would not have been frowned upon as irrelevant the way it was after our trip.

Why is it so preposterous to think that children today are capable of learning in the same way that colonial children learned? When someone tells me that homeschooling, especially homeschooling without a formal, purchased curriculum, may work for my kids but it wouldn’t work for most kids, what are they saying? If children are no longer capable of learning without being taught, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why? What has changed in our society and our families and our parenting so that now children must be sorted into peer groups, placed in a facility from age 4 to 18, and told what they are going to learn, when they are going to learn it, and how? I think that our society has changed, and has changed in ways that make it easier to give in to superficial distractions rather than do the real work of learning, but I don’t think the capacity of the human mind to learn on its own has changed in a mere 200 years. What has changed are our assumptions and expectations about what children are capable of accomplishing. And while most schools purport to have a mission of graduating ‘lifelong learners’, everything about their methodology instead promotes passivity and dependency in learning. These school attitudes and methodologies have also crept into our homeschooling.

The shepherd at the beginning of my essay learned from his sheep “that there was a language in the world that everyone understood… It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.” As homeschoolers, we have the opportunity to maintain an open-minded attitude toward what learning can be, and to embrace any approach to learning that is fruitful and joyful to our children and our family.

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