We had a friend to stay recently. As we were cooking together in the kitchen, D (13) and E (11) were chatting with us. The conversation was wide ranging, and encompassed gun control in the US, whether Fidel Castro was a ‘good dictator’, best voting systems, and favourite Roman emperors. Their reasoning was sound and often backed up by interesting data and anecdotes. As always, they ran circles around me.
But how do they know all of this? my friend asked me. Well I don’t really know. Proof that I am not doing any teaching here is that a lot of their knowledge is new to me. Sometimes I can see where it comes from because we watch a programme or visit a new place together, or because they come to find me to tell me something they just discovered. E has started a coin collection, and each addition to it or piece of research takes him into other countries and other periods of history. D has a game going on right now in which he is a ruler and needs to organise his country, keep inflation down, control taxes and win elections. This has fuelled his interest in how countries are organised and led to lots of conversations on the topic. C has a wealth of information about dog breeds thanks to a book she was given a couple of years ago and which she checks when she comes across an unfamiliar kind of dog.
But, for the most part I can just hazard a guess as to how they know what they do. Documentaries, Wikipedia, books, gaming, conversations with other people… We certainly talk a lot. Conversations that take in a breathtaking spectrum of ideas, thoughts and facts happen throughout the day, whether in the kitchen, the garden, or in the car (several people arguing a point in the car can be a bit overwhelming..) . We all learn a ton from these conversations. Where something is disputed, a phone is often whipped out and someone does some quick fact checking.
My friend was amazed at what he interpreted as their ‘love of learning’. He gave me the example of his son having to do a geography assignment for school and not really caring about it. Try as he could, the father just couldn’t get his son to take it seriously. It seemed like the child was bored by everything academic and didn’t want to learn. When hearing D and E chat, his first thought was that they would really engage with that assignment. Well, I think our children probably wouldn’t care for that geography task either. It’s one thing to find something fascinating and to want to know everything about it. It’s quite another to then want to write an essay on it, answer multiple choice questions, come up with a poem or write a short story about it, particularly if you know that your efforts will be judged and scored. That seems a surefire way to suck all of the joy out of anything. Also, there is a world of difference between learning because you want to and learning because you’re told to. In fact this difference really is everything and is at the heart of unschooling. It’s very possible that that geography assignment on that particular day wouldn’t have sparked their interest either.
Even the word ‘learning’ seems to underestimate what is going on in a child’s mind as they absorb information about the world around them. Learning as we often understand it, i.e. engaging in a subject for the sole purpose of acquiring the knowledge, is surely an adult concept. I don’t think children ever set about things in order to just learn, without any other motivation. What would be the point of that? Their goal is to go up a level in a game, to have the best coin collection, to know more about dogs because dogs fascinate them, or simply just to understand the world they’re in. They may just find something interesting or funny. Even in a school context, the desire to learn for learning’s sake is as likely to be about making parents proud or not being a failure as anything else.
And then the inevitable comment. Their son wouldn’t be like that. He needs to be taught stuff or he would play video games all day. I point out that D does spend a lot of time playing video games, but that hasn’t diminished in any way his interest in the world around him. If anything, he tends to choose games that centre around his specific interests: Romans, managing a country, certain periods of history… In fact, his games fuel a lot of interesting conversations.
How do they know so much? They know so much because they choose what they delve into and they’re free to follow their own curiosity. Their days aren’t consumed by someone else saying what their heads should be filled with. I picture their minds as intricate 3D puzzles that expand across time and space. Every new bit of information slots in just where they need it. No fact is random or without context. As the puzzle becomes more complete, it also becomes even more intricate, and so it carries on infinitely. They’ll never know ‘the right amount’. They’ll never finish. And there is something beautiful about knowing that this is not something to achieve, it is just part of a rich journey.