Have you noticed how we remember things better from our experiences in real life and the books we choose to read on our own? I think the reason is that we come to that experience or that book with our sensors on "alert." Because we have questions we want answered, we are wondering "why?"; we are curious to know more. That is why we search out the book in the first place, or if we find it, decide to read it - we've scanned it and seen that it will be useful, maybe, to help answer our questions. The experiences that happen to us, that we remember, stick in our memories because they connect up with other parts of life that we are trying to figure out.
That is why unschooling works better, in my opinion, than trying to open a kid's head and pour in some facts, and then forcing him or her to memorize the facts out of context without the child's own questions to make up the framework to hang the facts.
My husband and I have been talking quite a bit lately about how we, and others we know, tend to see things in an "either-or" mode. I've seen this come up in unschooling discussions as well. If someone says, like I just did,
"don't force facts, don't make kids memorize," someone will come back with the questions and comments about how "children need to learn some things, and if they don't choose to learn them, the parent will need to force the knowledge." I think this is "either-or thinking."
In between the idea that it's "impossible to make a child learn something he or she is not interested in", and the other opposing thought that "it is necessary to make a child learn some things" is an enormous area of space where other ideas can live, too. Here are some of those ideas that I've been thinking about for a long time and that I think fit in to unschooling discussions:
~ Sometimes a child is not interested in multiplication facts today, but they may very well be interested in them next week, next year, or some other time in the future when there will be meaningful reasons for the child to know the facts.
~ Or they may learn them by osmosis, seemingly, because they've played with lego and cooked double/triple/quadruple portions of food, or they love science and want to learn about chemical equations and see the necessity for "catching up" on their math equations.
~ A child may not want to read a certain book that you think is worthy and valuable, but she may choose another book that is also worthy and valuable. The parent and child can discuss this second book, then the child may feel quite comfortable talking about books with the parent, more trust and a strong relationship develops, and someday the child may agree to try a book that is recommended by the parent - because there is a long history of good relationship and interesting discussions about books.
~ Sometimes the parent can jumpstart a conversation or an interest - that is not the same thing, in my opinion, as forcing a lesson. Even if the "jumpstart" is a lesson! For example, I'm teaching art classes to homeschoolers. Some of the children are there because they have to be there - the moms think it is a good idea for them to learn art. My own children are present at the classes because they are interested in art - they can stay home if they wish, they have a choice. So, even though my kids are getting a planned, facts-poured-down-the-throat lesson, they are coming to the classes with their questioning, wondering minds, and what I teach is a good starting point for them to follow up and continue to learn on their own. A few of the other art students, also, I'm glad to see, are mulling over concepts and bringing back their own artwork, ideas, and questions.
Does that mean the other children, who are there because they are forced to, aren't learning anything? I think they are learning lots of things - but not much art! They are learning to submit to their parent's ideas of what to learn and when - and I notice that they have already learned how to figure out what is the teacher's assignment, how to do it as quickly as possible, how to do the minimum required so they are done and can leave to do what they want to do. Maybe, once in a while a fact about color or drawing sticks in their head, but I doubt it.
Only the children who are there because they are already wondering about how colors work together or how shapes are formed by lines and tones are the ones who are adding more to their knowledge. And it's not so much because of what I am teaching them - they are adding my "facts" to their matrix, their framework - seeing where it makes sense to them. Some brilliant (ha!) tidbit that I am offering them might skip over them completely, but other bits they will keep because it fits into what they are already figuring out. But some other day, probably, they will relearn from someone else or teach themselves, or discover that missing tidbit on their own.
I love this quote - "We always learn from others and end up teaching ourselves" (James Beard). As parents who help our children learn, at home and other places in the world, we can show our kids things about life and the world, we can impart some knowledge in many ways (discussion, experience, offering classes, reading books aloud), but our kids will only take what they are needing to know right then, to add to their own knowledge, their long-lasting memory.
If we have good relationships with our children, with trust and love as main elements, this "imparting" of knowledge will be as easy, almost, as breathing. the reason is that we come to that experience or that book with our sensors on "alert." Because we have questions we want answered, we are wondering "why?"; we are curious to know more. That is why we search out the book in the first place, or if we find it, decide to read it - we've scanned it and seen that it will be useful, maybe, to help answer our questions. The experiences that happen to us, that we remember, stick in our memories because they connect up with other parts of life that we are trying to figure out.