By Rachel Rainbolt, an excerpt from Sage Homeschooling
One common concern with unschooling is that a child will have gaps in their education.
If I’m being honest, this was my concern as well.
Then I peeled back layers, got my learn on, because I learn more now than I ever did in compulsory school (combing through research, reading books and articles, connecting with other wise, experienced, and knowledgeable people, and observing my own children), and now understand this issue in a whole new way. I’d love to share with you what I’ve learned.
Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.
William Butler Yeats
School has gaps.
What is decided that children should learn and when is a combination of random and male Eurocentric privilege. Who decided that in first grade children must learn about Christopher Columbus the hero (but not about the children he dismembered in parade or forced into sexual slavery)? He discovered America (except he didn’t)!
What to include, what to omit, and when to teach it is not based on some divine or scientifically researched formula. Think about all of the people that have lived throughout history and all of the scientific concepts in the universe. They pluck a handful and call it a day. There are gaps—loads of them. I was never taught how to pay taxes but the quadratic equation was covered thoroughly.
No matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used.The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, non-school parts of our lives.
John Holt, How Children Fail
Teaching is not the same as learning.
“Schools as we know them have existed for a very short time historically: they are in themselves a vast social experiment. A lot of data are in at this point. One in four Americans does not know the Earth revolves around the sun. Half of Americans don’t know that antibiotics can’t cure a virus. 45% of American high school graduates don’t know that the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. These aren’t things that are difficult to know. If the hypothesis is that universal compulsory schooling is the best way to create an informed and critically literate citizenry, then anyone looking at the data with a clear eye would have to concede that the results are, at best, mixed. At worst, they are catastrophic: a few strains of super bacteria may be about to prove that point for us.” Carol Black, A Thousand Rivers
How do you define learning? Teaching is something done to someone but learning is quite different, and they are not necessarily connected. Teaching is not required for learning and learning is not a guaranteed outcome of teaching.
I define learning as experience that expands your understanding.
I was taught things I never actually learned. And if you define successful learning as anything beyond short-term regurgitation, most of what is taught in school is not learned. A lecture or worksheet given does not equate to a lesson learned.
Did you attend school? How much did you retain? What do you remember? It’s a sure bet that today you don’t have mental access to 100% of the things you were taught. But I’d also bet that the minute you walked out of the classroom after the exam most of it was released. It’s not a shortcoming of yours or even a result of a bad teacher. That’s just not how humans are designed to learn. And the result is gaps.
In Washington, there is a state educational requirement that we meet by completing an academic checklist that is reviewed by a teacher. The sole purpose of this checklist seems to be to prevent or fill in gaps. My husband and I both have graduate degrees, lead successful lives, and didn’t know probably half of the items on my middle schooler’s checklist. It’s like that game show Are you smarter than a 5th Grader? The joke is not that adults are dumb, but that the information children are forced to memorize lacks all context and meaning and is in turn usually quickly forgotten. In other words, we’re all walking around with gaps.
Seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows . . . Americans are basically agriculturally illiterate. They don’t know where food is grown, how it gets to stores—or even, in the case of chocolate milk, what’s in it . . . [Researchers interviewing children at one school] found that more than half of them didn’t know pickles were cucumbers, or that onions and lettuce were plants. Four in 10 didn’t know that hamburgers came from cows. And 3 in 10 didn’t know that cheese is made from milk.
We all have gaps based on our strengths and interests.
Each of us individually doesn’t know everything there is to know in the universe. That’s just not how social creatures in a society work. My sister is a biochemist. Does that mean that I have a “gap,” in the sense that I don’t know everything there is to know about biochemistry? Sure.
My sister knows more science than I do.
But the reality is that we dive deep based on our passions or needs. If I don’t gravitate to biochemistry, I’m not likely going to be a biochemist, and that is okay! I don’t need to be prepared for every life, because I’m only going to be living my life, and I can learn everything I need to be successful in my life (because I have learned how to learn, not because I was taught what to learn).
Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.
Instead of shining a light on what your child doesn’t know, shine a light on what they love learning. Through this approach, your child’s understanding will continue to expand. On a walk through our street my kids ran to the little library box and West pulled out a book about bats. He asked me to read it to him, but since there wasn’t a story, only pages and pages of facts and diagrams, I asked him to point to something he wanted me to read and I would. Over the course of a few weeks his newly sprung passion for bats encompassed so much learning.
Do you know what the skin stretched over a bats finger bones that makes up its wings is called (gap!)? West does: patagium.
We fill in gaps as we have a need or desire.
This is important and the reason we are covering gaps in a chapter about trust. As long as you teach your child how to learn, they will be happily and bravely willing and able to learn anything they have a need or desire to learn. In other words, anything your child has a need or desire to learn, they can and they will.
Curiosity and/or necessity are usually the fuel here.
We recently moved to a new state with no family and no connections and bought our first house on a tight budget. Turned out we had to basically rebuild the whole house . . . while living in it . . . with three homeschooled kids . . . on our own . . . with our bare hands . . . with zero knowledge or experience in this area. Thanks to my Ph.D. from HGTV, my husband’s attendance at YouTube University, and generous strangers with knowledge and experience beyond us in the aisles of Home Depot, we built ourselves a solid, beautiful home. We had a need and a desire, we knew how to learn, and we rose to the freaking occasion, filling in our gaps together as a family.
It’s worth discussing Carol Dweck’s (Stanford University professor and leading researcher on motivation) growth mindset here. She discovered, through some fascinating research, that if you believe your intelligence is fixed, your focus is on avoidance and appearance (doing just enough work to avoid looking unintelligent), but if you believe your intelligence is malleable, your focus is effort. Those of you who have read Sage Parenting are familiar with this research in the context of praise, which sets a fixed mindset. So, when you have a need or desire, you know how to learn, and you believe you can, you do.
The breadth of knowledge is surprisingly robust.
While sitting with my son Bay in his room the other day he randomly asked, “Where is Atlantis?” Do you know the origin of the legend of Atlantis (gap!)? Bay does: Thera, a Greek island that appeared to be swallowed by the sea when its volcano erupted and was storied by Plato.
While getting into the bath with West the other evening he randomly asked, “What metal doesn’t melt in lava?” Cue deep dive into the periodic table of elements.
When your young child asks you 1000 questions a day, do you support and encourage that curiosity or do you shut it down? If you feed curiosity, it grows and leads to endless learning. Actually, research shows that preschool-aged children (cringe, defining children by school categories) ask 75 questions an hour. When those questions are answered fully, the follow-up questions are deeper, elaborating on the concept (whereas “because I said so” is met with the same question on repeat).
While on a nature hike with a group of friends this afternoon, one mom mentioned a meteor shower happening this weekend. Her young son queried, “What’s a meteor?” Without missing a beat Bay turned around and explained, “A meteor is a space rock that’s pulled toward us by the sun’s gravity and burns in our atmosphere. They’re sometimes referred to as ‘shooting stars,’ even though they are not suns.”
When did he learn that? I don’t know.
I never taught him a lesson from a comprehensive curriculum on astronomy.
Was it from that trip to the science museum . . . that night we watched a meteor shower from the trampoline in the backyard . . . that space app . . . a book . . . a show? None of the above . . . all of the above?
Who knows. But he did. We trust each other, I trust his natural learning journey, and he trusts himself.
This post is an excerpt from the Sage Homeschooling: Wild and Free by Rachel Rainbolt. I highly recommend this book for all parents whether you intend to homeschool or want to gain a deeper understanding of how kids learn and the school system.
About the Author: Rachel Rainbolt is the Sage Family coach, writer, podcaster, and advocate for gentle parenting, natural homeschooling, and simple living, with an M.A. in Marital and Family Therapy and decades of experience guiding tens of thousands of families from stuck and stressed to peaceful and confident through her Sage Family podcast, books, classes, and coaching, which can be found here. She works from the Pacific Northwest, where she lives wild and free in connection with her 3 wildlings and the papa bear in their fixer-upper on the beach.