Saturday, July 23, 2011

learning, naturally

So here in Oz, 'unschooling' or 'life learning' are often referred to as

Natural Learning.

There are ways the terms are a bit different (because each carry their own histories, philosophies, websites, magazines, support groups and so on and so forth!). But I think of them as similar (maybe even the same) because at the core of each one is

child-directed learning.

Learning comes naturally to a child after all; it's part of who they are. Intrepid Explorers. Endless Questioners. Whole-Wide-World-Travellers. Figurer-Outerers.

Kids are naturally inquisitive. They naturally want to find things out. They want to seek and discover and claim for themselves, in their own way, naturally.

And when a child learns what they want to learn—when they are allowed to explore their own paths and interests—the learning goes deep. The learning sticks. Naturally.

Now, what a child wants to learn mightn't be what a grown-up thinks is important, or worthwhile or even make sense. And it's often not part of the planned sequence of educational events that you've mapped out carefully in the night hours to please the Education Officials when you register for homeschool!

But it's valid. And worthy. And helps a child become the person they naturally want to be.

I've also found that my kids are happier when they learn what they want to learn.

Joy. Before, during Discovery, and after. I can't think of a better result than that!

Now, this is going somewhere (No, I'm not done! You know me; I do like to go on and on).

I also, actually, think there's a place in child-directed learning, natural learning,

for grown-up input.

In the form of research, when a child expresses an interest in something

(looking up websites they might like, finding books at the library that relate, finding classes that they might like to take, asking friends for ideas, spending hours thinking and brain-storming!).

In the form of putting information and opportunities in front of a child

(that they might not have been aware of, or been in a position to find/organise).

In the form of suggestion

(such as trying new things, extending discovery to ideas they mightn't have thought of, and learning new skills. It can be as simple as, "Hey, I've got an idea. Do you want to…?").

Natural learning, when it flows for us,

feels right for all of us,

grown-ups and kids alike.


The other day, after a wonderful sewing workshop (instigated by my girl, who had asked and hoped hard for sewing lessons),

I said (and felt free and happy to say):

"Hey, I was thinking it might be fun to write a report about our first workshop."

Really? my kids' faces said. A report? I may as well have suggested eating three limes one after another. :)

But I continued, undaunted!

"I thought I'd show you how to plan one, so that it's super easy to write afterwards. It can actually be really easy to write, if you make a plan. And I thought you might like to add photos, if you wanted. I took heaps of photos. You want to see the photos I took?"

Yeah, they wanted to see the photos! Who wouldn't? So we looked through them, and I said, "I think it'd be fun to write something, then type it up and paste the photos in here. What do you think? I think it'd look cool."

My girl said, "I'd want to draw my pictures."

"Well that sounds good too. I reckon this could be great. You want to try it?"

Hmmm. Well. If you're going to suggest it with such a big eager smile, Mum, then we s'pose we'll give it a go!

So we mind-mapped first. Cool circles with information inside. And each time we added something to the circles, I said, "See? This is great. Here are all the things we did. Wow. Hey, we learned a lot."

I said these things genuinely (and anyone who has met me knows I get into things, the smallest things, get excited like a kid, even about report writing. I'm kind of crazy that way :) ).

Then we took the information in the circles and on a new piece of paper, made a Plan. The kids leaned over my shoulders, they listened, closely.

I talked about introductions and how each paragraph would cover a new topic (which wasn't so new for my son, but was new for my girl). I talked about how essays often have a bit of a formula. You know: Introduction, Topics, Conclusion. That sort of thing. Then I told them a funny thing an instructor had said about essays in my Master's program: "In essays, you Say what you're going to say, Say it, then Say you've said it." (Yep, it's a bit like that!)

But then I said, "Once you've written out your plan though, you've made a template. Then you can totally make your report your own. Give it your own voice, and your own style. Add whatever else you like."

And my son said:

"Mum! That's exactly what my drum teacher said yesterday!"

And my husband, who was putting on his shoes nearby, said:

"Yeah, that's how jazz works. You have the form, then you make it your own."

We all stopped then, and smiled at each other. How seamless art is. Music and writing so alike. The making so much the Same.

I LOVED this moment.

This is when the learning I suggested, became the learning

my children owned.

This is when they took their mind-maps and plans to their tables,

bent their sweet heads over the paper,

and wrote reports that were distinctly theirs.

This is when they learned a skill

I thought was a good skill to learn,

but did it with joy and willingness.

This is when they, actually, believe-it-or-not! had fun.

I typed out my boy's report, and he played with the fonts and the layout, checked spelling and paragraphs. He inserted photos (which he formatted himself), printed out the report, then did detailed, hand-drawn illustrations. It was a beautiful report.

My girl hand-wrote her whole report, neatly. She illustrated everything (no photos for her). She didn't have titles like her brother—it was all one fluid piece. She wrote three pages. Again. Beautiful.

And two days later, when the reports were completely Finished,

the kids stood on each side of Dad, showing him. They were so pleased with themselves. Pleased as punch, pleased as peaches.

I got to teach my kids something, AND I taught it to kids who were open, eager, and ready to try something new.

It felt exactly how our homeschool should be.

It flowed.

It felt, all-the-way-through,



  1. How wonderful! I also love that you can continue working on the project if you are in the flow. No switching after every 40 minutes. Much more like life. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. That is SOOO cool! That is what education and learning looks like. And I guarantee you that they will remember how to do a report better than any "assignment" they had to do at school. Great work - love it!

  3. This is a great post! I needed this and I am going to bookmark it. I want to get more into the child-led learning, it just makes sense that you would absorb more if you are interested in something. Thank you so much!

  4. I hear you Helena.

    But I do feel that there is a difference between unschooling and natural learning - particularly in how the latter is perceived and how the former is practised. IMO unschooling really is about "not directing at all" and natural learning is similar to what you guys did with your lovely reports. To me an unschooler wouldn't have suggests writing reports at all. It would be completely up to the child to suggest that that's they wanted to do. I think this is a scary place to be for most people because all too often we feel/are accused of being lazy or neglectful if we aren't steering the learning in some way.

    Natural Learning can have this absence of control, but what I find is that there is still a little nudge here and a little nudge there in NL, and this comes from people I have met and things I have read. There is a little more direction. Whether this is intentional or not I don't know, but I find people who call themselves NLers are not quite in the spirit of letting go.

    So perhaps it's a philosophical difference and in practice is quite meaningless anyway. Perhaps one would class themselves a NLer and be completely non-directive or call themselves an unschooler and be a bit more linear. It doesn't matter, because child-led learning is about knowing your child anyway - which is obvious when we see the difference between your boys' and your girls' reports.

    And appreciating those difference is a beautiful aspect of allowing our kids just to be. Respecting them as individual which schools just DO NOT DO!!!! Don't you think?

  5. I agree with VT; natural learning seems to be to be less dogmatic than unschooling, especially radical unschooling. I love the drawing on your daughter's report!

  6. Thank you everyone, for your lovely comments, and your thoughtful responses—as always it makes me so happy to see your words here!

    Y_T, what you have brought up is interesting. In my post I used one label that I thought was almost synonymous with two others, so I'm surprised to find people see quite big differences. The friends I know who call themselves Natural Learners are very undirected. As for me, I most closely connect with the unschooling philosophy, but I make suggestions when they feel right, or "natural" to me. I wonder if that means I don't fit the unschooling box?

    Does this even matter? I do wonder about the world of labels, and how much value there is in them. They sure can wear people out, trying to see where they fit, and where others fit in relation to them. Labels can lead to people questioning themselves and what they do, spend hours or whole lifetimes searching, for who they are and where they belong.

    This relates to labels of faith, life choices, health choices, politics, books, hobbies, interests, anything really in life. (You've got your Goths, Vegetarians, Scientologists, Republicans, Chick-Lit lovers, Dart-enthusiasts, and Ferret-collectors… Imagine if one person was all these things! Now imagine they were an unschooler too. Blows the mind! So many labels, so many identities! Can't we just call him "Jimmy?")

    But I appreciate that people care about who they are and what group that aligns them with. I appreciate that people don't want their philosophies to get muddied by misinterpretation. I respect that. But I also loved who we were, in the moment, whether we were unschoolers, natural learners, or just three people doing something that made us really happy. We did something that made us buzz. We inspired and influenced each other. Together, we taught each other. I am so glad for that, whoever that made us, and whatever kind of learning it was that we did.

    Sending smiles back, to all of you, and your wonderful, wondering, thoughtful selves :)

  7. I have been searching for the proper "label" for us as well. I coined it guided unschooling, because I prefer the term natural learning more! That is something I have not heard here. I think it is amusing the lengths we go to to define ourselves as "something". We are either this or that but for some reason we can't be both. Since I use a Book of Centuries does that make me Charlotte Mason? But I also use Story of the World and I am more certainly not classical, am I? But I don't teach spelling or writing or reading, so that must mean I am an unschooler? I guess I will have to just be happy being me, whatever that is.....

  8. I got all tangled in the labels too Helena. So much so that I remained quiet about our unschooling until I sorted it all out. There are people who are fiercely protective of the philosophy of pure radical unschooling. I can respect that just fine. The irony is that unschooling has freed me from caring about whether I fit into one box or another anyway. So we live the way we want to live and learn the way we want to learn. I strew, I suggest, I offer opportunity, and sometimes I even push the comfort zone, because I believe it's good to step out of our comfort zone sometimes, or we don't grow. But I never stop listening to and watching my children. They are the true indicators to how learning happens in our home.

    Unschooling looks different for everyone and how it works for your family may look completely different from another unschooling family. That is exactly what I love about it. I learn from you, from Suzy, from Stephanie, and from several other unschoolers out there, and I can guarantee you we all unschool differently. How can we not? We are all so different, as are our children.

    In the end, we are unschoolers, natural learners and life learners. What connects us is the understanding that learning is having fun, following passions, and feeding curiosity, and it's about using everything that is available to us. There is no force, no disrespect. Just joy, and I believe that is the point of your entire post (which I LOVED). Oh again how i wish we were neighbors... big sigh.
    much love to you
    xx oo

  9. I can't pigeonhole what we do, or how we learn. I've stuck the term home school...

    but in the meantime wanted to send an ooh and an aah about this post! Exceptionally inspiring. Thank you.

  10. I agree with everything related to child-based learning -- also with adult-based learning when us grown ups are trying to learn something. So many adult education adventures get spoiled by some instructor trying to "teach" us as if we were some group of zomby-like compliant children. And they should know that children (and adults) are not like that!

    A question. In your girl's report it said at the bottom PTO. How do I do that? What happened next?

  11. "Joy. Before, during Discovery, and after. I can't think of a better result than that!"
    Absolutly! Neither can I :)
    I LOVED this post Helena.
    Our home learning journey sounds so similar to yours.
    I would probably use all three labels to describe the way we "school" :)
    We learn naturally, we learn through life, from begining to end, we learn experientially and we don't "do" school, as in our home is not a classroom in the conventional sense.
    The children's learning is very much self directed but like you I offer suggestions, strew, guide, encourage and facilitate their particular passions.
    I loved the way you helped them design their reports and then let them write them out in the way that appealed most.
    I loved that wonderfully succinct definition of what constitutes and essay :)"In essays, you Say what you're going to say, Say it, then Say you've said it."
    That is exactly what an essay is :)
    I'm going to be borrowing that!

  12. I love all your responses here! Thank you so much for sharing your stories, your thoughts, and your energy. I've enjoyed and appreciated reading them, so much. I love the ways we are different and the Same all at once. I love hearing how others do this Thing Called Homeschool. I love that we can share our ideas, take what resonates, but also stay true to the Selves that feel 'rightest' to us. It's beautiful.

    And I LOVE the dialogue that can begin in Comment Land—it becomes its own thing doesn't it? Fluid and organic, who knows where it will go? People asking, seeking, giving. Everyone adding their own, fine part of themselves. I am so glad for it.

    And 'Chris' (not my name for you because I've known you since I was born :) )—when we see you, which will be tomorrow, you will be able to turn the page over in your actual hands, and see what's on the other side! Ah, the benefits of Knowing us in Real Life :)

  13. One thing I love from all these comments and your post is that we all want the best and none of us really fit into a certain 'kind' of homeschooler. We all pick and choose the parts that work best. I think it is impossible to educate your child using just 'one method'. Like Jess said we are a mish mash of this and that.

    I love this post because your kids will remember this so much longer than if you led them kicking and fighting to the table to write a report. This post is a glorious example of the best of home learning. Thank you Helena. :)

  14. Fantastic post, and the comments made for such good discussion! Thanks, Helena, and all of the commenters here...such food for thought!

    I love how you all worked on the project together, but each of the kids had their own, unique report.
    Natural flow is grand!!!


I love hearing from you! Thank you for your heartfelt, thoughtful responses—they lift me, and give me light.