Albert Einstein once said that it is a miracle curiosity survives formal education. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t. When my husband Rolf and I decided over forty years ago that we wouldn’t send our then-unborn daughters 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. But we learned how to support them as we went along, and by taking our cues from them. Here are some of the components that, through trial and error, we discovered were central to a successful life learning 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 or are given…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.

Trust

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).

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 is an example of what I mean. Our three-year-old daughter Heidi 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!” Heidi burst into tears: She didn’t want her shoe laces tied, she wanted to tie her shoes laces, but her grandmother didn’t realize there was a difference.

Fortunately, I had the courage to intervene because that type of “help” had left me with almost life-long 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 labelling 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 and home education advocate John Taylor Gatto says 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 can be 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.

Security

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 she is 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.

Authenticity

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, secondhand experiences can lead to secondhand 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 a life learner knows that all situations are learning situations, she 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.

As I’ve written elsewhere, providing access to the real world 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 because they would get in the way.

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)…to 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.

Companionship

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 at them). But it is also important to just allow kids to listen to adults talk with each other. 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 want to participate in family life.

Spending time with our children creates many opportunities for sharing and modelling 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. And the inverse was true: often, they’d see me reading or going to the library or puzzling something out, and they’d want to do the same.

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 it) 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 neighbours.

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 the learner can ignore such arbitrary constraints and venture where her pursuit takes her. 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.

Read the next essay in this series from Beyond School >> RISKING TO LEARN: Dare to make mistakes in a supportive environment

Wendy Priesnitz is a Canadian alternative education and environmental advocate. She founded the Canadian Alliance of Home Schoolers in 1979, and is the author of numerous books on homeschooling. Since 1976, she has co-owned and edited Natural Life, an award-winning sustainable lifestyles magazine. In 2002, she founded Life Learning Magazine, which she owns and edits.

Excerpted with permission from Beyond School: Living as if School Doesn’t Exist by Wendy Priesnitz © 2012 Life Media. Buy the book at Natural Life Books.
image: Cecile Graat