Life Learning - Canadian Home-Based Learning Resources


A Short History of The Homeschool Movement in Canada

Beyond School by Wendy Priesnitz

Challenging Assumptions in Education

Learning is Not Something That's Done to Children

by Wendy Priesnitz

“You cannot teach a person anything;
you can only help him find it within himself.”

~ Galileo

One of the fundamental aspects of life learning is contrary to one of the most basic assumptions our society makes about education. And that is that learning can and should be produced in people. This assumption is based on the idea that learning is the result of treatment by an institution called school...which is,  of course, one of the many conventional beliefs that life learning families are overturning.

Our culture assumes that people – especially children – do not want to learn and will not learn if left to their own devices. So children are forced to gather together in one place for long hours with others of the same age, so that they can be “educated.” Even many people who reject traditional schooling in favor of homeschooling believe that education must be “done to” children. They continue the process of manipulating children to learn, as well as judging and processing them in a variety of ways, then diagnosing them as having a problem or even an illness if they don’t learn what the adults have decided they need to learn.

Of course, people do learn in schools. However, most schools are not the only – or for many people, the best – environment for learning. And that is because they focus on teaching rather than on learning. Human beings do not need to be taught in order to learn. We are born interacting with and exploring our surroundings. Babies are active learners, their burning curiosity motivating them to learn how the world works. And if they are given a safe, supportive environment, they will continue to learn hungrily and naturally – in the manner and at the speed that suits them best. In fact, you cannot stop young children learning from everything they experience. They are always experimenting with cause and effect. And they are always soaking up information from their environment – learning to walk, talk and do many other amazing things.

Cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik, who is co-author of a research study called “The Scientist in the Crib,” says babies’ brains are smarter, faster, more flexible and busier than adults’. Her research has confirmed that, contrary to traditional beliefs about children, toddlers think in a logical manner, arriving at abstract principles early and quickly. “They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments,” she writes.

The late Robert White, Harvard developmental psychologist, called this instinct to learn an “urge toward competence.” What he meant was that we are born with the need to have an impact on our surroundings, to control the world in which we live. We do not just sit and wait for the world to come to us (unless we’ve been told to sit down, be quiet and wait). We actively try to interpret the world, to make sense of it. Of course, this drive to discover means we are constantly learning...and experiencing the pride that comes with having learned.

Some psychologists feel that the pleasure we take from this drive to learn is also its motivation. Perhaps this hedonistic aspect of self-directed learning is also its downfall! How can something so important be so much fun? Can learning really be so effortless? Unfortunately, by turning learning into forced drudgery – intentionally or not – schools suffocate the natural desire to discover and master the world.

What results is a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. Because schools suffocate this hunger to learn, learning appears to be difficult and we assume that children must be motivated to do it. The tools of manipulation and motivation include rewards and a whole array of demeaningly “fun” exercises reproduced from boring workbooks. In reality, people do not need external rewards to learn. We do not learn things because the process is fun, but because what we learn allows us to accomplish something. And that accomplishment is sufficient reward.

Nevertheless, there is more to learning than meets the eye. It is actually a very sophisticated mental process. No matter what the topic is or how motivated we are, people of all ages learn best when there is time for research, for digression, for processing the information, for immersion in the project, for spontaneous activities or even sidetracks. We learn by muddling through problems and discovering the satisfaction of accomplishment. Learning is a process of figuring things out, making connections, getting ideas and testing them, taking risks, making mistakes without fear of ridicule or embarrassment, and trying again. An optimum learning environment provides opportunities to explore, to investigate questions and ideas.

Discovery leads learners to find out about the world. Reading novels sparks an interest in history. Setting up a lemonade stand requires and develops a knowledge of arithmetic. Communicating with grandma hones creative writing skills. A conversation over the back fence can result in the enthusiastic pursuit of a common interest with a like-minded friend – not because two people share the same age but because they share a passion for a certain subject.

A real teacher is a facilitator, collaborator and supporter of this learning process, rather than someone who attempts to create, control or manipulate learning. This type of support requires respecting and trusting the learner; talking with them; providing opportunities for interaction with people and things; sharing and modeling learning; supporting the risk- and mistake-making processes; enriching the environment with books, pens, paper and other materials; celebrating good ideas and satisfying accomplishments; and helping troubleshoot when things go wrong. It also means providing the time for children to investigate their own ideas, and being a flexible and patient observer of a process that does not always appear to be sequential or organized.

Unlike our homes and communities, schools are not designed for this sort of active learning. They can’t possibly present enough opportunities, time, space or flexibility for self-directed learning to take place, in spite of the fact that many teachers will tell you this is exactly what they are doing.

Active learners can benefit from access to resource people but do not require motivation or coercion by teachers. Active learners do not need the forced guidance of someone else’s agenda or curriculum. They do not need formal lessons taught at predetermined hours on days set aside especially for learning.

Nor does active learning require assessment or grading. The concepts of “passing” and “failing” are really only relevant to situations where education is thought of as a series of hurdles to be scaled, and where accountability is the bottom line from an economic efficiency perspective. Nobody needs tests or grades in order to learn.

When we interfere with and try to control or measure the natural learning process, we remove children’s pleasure in discovery and inhibit their fearless approach to problem-solving. We have all seen that sort of interference in action. My two-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, 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 the legacy of that type of “help” left me with a resistance to trying something new for fear of not being able to do it perfectly well the first time.

When people are fearful, confused or bored, or have been convinced that something is too difficult or that they are too dumb, they shut down. The surest way to make someone fearful of risk-taking is to demonstrate their chance of failing; I call what happened to me in school “learned incompetence.” It is no wonder our schools are full of bored, frustrated, angry, passive children who have lost their ability – and desire – to question, experience and learn.

Home-educating parents find themselves with the task of separating what really contributes to learning from what schools say is helpful. And we can do that by trusting in our children’s desire and ability to learn.

Then we can observe how our own children learn and provide them with environments where learning can happen. This often means that we must deschool our extended families and our communities. Everyone – parents, non-parents, grandparents, teachers, politicians, the corporate sector – can take responsibility for creating and maintaining learning environments. This includes modeling the behavior; making the environment safe, stimulating and respectful; providing access to requested resources; consoling when things go wrong; and celebrating when things go right.

Then we life learning parents should get out of the way and not meddle in the learning process unless we are invited. In fact, we need to trust people of all ages – family members, work colleagues, neighbors and employees – to figure things out for themselves unless they ask for our help.

What we should not do is create a school at home because that would be perpetuating the old assumptions of how children learn and about who controls children’s lives.

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of this website and has been a Canadian home-based education advocate since the 1970s. She is also the editor of Life Learning Magazine, and author of School Free - The Homeschooling Handbook, Challenging Assumptions in Education, and Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn't Exist, as well as the editor of an anthology of articles from Life Learning Magazine called Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.

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Life Learning Magazine 

School Free: The Homeschooling Handbook by Wendy Priesnitz 

Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier 

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