Accidental v. On-Purpose Learning

January 16, 2007 @ 2:10 pm | Filed under: , ,

Cheryl wrote:

This is a very helpful post. I’ve been thinking about your question –
is this important enough to make them do it if they don’t want to – and
I’m wondering if you require any math curriculum. Do you?

Great segue into my next post, thank you very much!

To answer your specific question, no, at this point I don’t have to require it because Jane and Rose both like Math-U-See so much that they ask for it. Which sounds like a huge commercial, but it’s true. Just ask Jane about MUS and be prepared for a gushing 20-minute answer.

But what’s my stance on requiring certain tasks or fields of study? As I’ve mentioned before, I’m unschoolish but not a one-hundred-percent unschooler—if, that is, your definition of unschooling (a word notoriously hard to define) involves allowing children complete freedom to choose what and how and when to learn (albeit with a great deal of dialogue with parents, and an environment richly strewn with resources).

I’m on board with most of the elements of that definition. Parental connection and involvement leading to lively discussion? Check. Allowing children a role in the selection of topics or skills to explore? Check. Taking into account the individual learning styles, temperaments, and changing interests of each child? Check. Environment richly strewn with educational resources? Check plus plus.

The only place I depart from that definition, really, is in the word "complete." I allow a great deal of freedom when it comes to learning, but complete freedom? No, I can’t say that applies to me. I do steer the ship for certain subjects and seasons. I’m sure this is apparent from our current reading lists. Charlotte Mason was most definitely not an unschooler.

Then again, I’m not a one-hundred-percent Charlotte Mason purist, either. There really isn’t a label that fits, which is fine. When it comes to people (and families), labels are useful tools, no more. They describe but do not define.

Where I connect with unschooling is in the understanding that people (of all ages) learn best when they WANT to learn, are interested in the subject, feel joy in the process, and that standard classroom educational methods are not necessarily (or even usually) the best ways to learn. Children have such an eager appetite for knowledge (it is, as Miss Mason says, the food their minds are made to live on) that it is not, in my opinion, at all necessary to turn the experience of gaining knowledge into a drudgery, conflict, or carrot-and-stick experience. 

Where I depart from unschooling is in my understanding that adults have a wider perspective than children, are (it is to be hoped) wiser than children, and that this is quite natural and proper. And just as my parental wisdom and experience directs me to provide a nutritious diet for my children, so does it direct me to provide a rich and nourishing menu of ideas and learning experiences for their growing minds.

When I think about knowledge, I see that everything I can think of falls into one of two categories: content and skills.  By content I mean facts, ideas, principles, stories. History, literature, much of science: all of this is content knowledge and can be learned quite effortlessly, naturally, one might even say accidentally—by this I mean the way kids absorb information about subjects in which they are interested.

Skill knowledge generally requires a degree of concentrated effort, practice, step-by-step progress. For many (most?) people, arithmetic falls into the skill-knowledge category; most of us have to learn it on purpose, so to speak. We progress through steps, mastering each step in turn.

Playing a musical instrument, speaking a foreign language, learning to draw—these are other skills which most (but certainly not all) people have to learn on purpose, requiring practice and diligence in order to achieve mastery. Learning to read may fall into this category for many people, but I really can’t speak to that since I’ve now had three children learn to read quite accidentally.

In any case, that’s how I draw my lines. There are certain skills I believe are exceedingly useful to possess, and those are the subjects I am inclined to require my children to persue if I perceive that "accidental" learning is not taking place.

Thus far, however, my experience has been that almost all of the skills I think important enough to require are things the children are keenly interested in, anyway. They want to learn to play piano and to draw well; they want to be able to answer the math problems their daddy fires at them on family drives. Usually, my role is to gently (and once in a while, firmly) nudge them along when the first flare of enthusiasm for a pursuit wears out. I "make" them practice piano, but that really just means reminding them to sit down on the bench. From there, their own interest takes over.

Rose’s enthusiasm for Latin ebbs and flows, but there again my nudging is usually only a matter of getting her over the hump. Often she will grumble about having to begin, but then she’ll grumble again when I say it is time to do something else. I think this really has more to do with her innate resistance to change than a reluctance toward the subject, if you see what I mean. Transitions of any kind are difficult for this child.

So far the only skill-learning my kids really dislike is just plain housework, and I certainly have no qualms about requiring that anyway!

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11 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Meredith says:

    Beautiful post, and as I grow in my home education journey with my chidren we are tending toward this style of learning as well, it is quite a joy is it not!!

  2. Jennifer says:

    Excellent post. I agree 100%.

  3. JoVE says:

    I find that some of that nudging involves teaching them to recognize that they do enjoy it once they get started and that it is the getting started which is often the problem. Making music brings enormous joy. Practicing doesn’t quite sound the same. But they are linked and overlap. And providing details about how one gets over the frustrations of a new piece can make the connection clearer for our children

    Math I find a bit trickier because it is the one subject that school taught her was boring and pointless. Not only do I have to find a curriculum that suits her, but I have to slowly chip away at that belief about the nature of the subject. It’s happening. But it is very slow.

  4. Cheryl says:

    Well, thank you. This answer to my question has far exceeded my expectations. (I thought you might say yes…or no…) I agree with much of what you have written here. I’m new at homeschooling and I’ve been trying to find out what’s going to work for my family. I really appreciate your sharing your opinions and experience, especially in way that is so enjoyable to read.

  5. Mary G says:


    Thanks for explaining my thoughts so well! I agree “almost” wholeheartedly with the whole unschooling philosophy except for allowing the child complete freedom; you’ve stated it so much better than I can.


  6. Theresa says:

    Yes, that’s pretty much how we do things around here, too. This home education is very much a partnership and it helps if both partners are on board with the plan.I like the way you describe it.

  7. Laurie says:

    Totally and wholeheartedly agree! You should send this one in to the unschooling carnival on it’s next go-round. 😉

  8. Jane Ramsey says:

    Excellent post, Lissa. I love many things about both unschooling and the CM method. You have found a way to use the best of both and that, in my opinion, makes for an awesome education!

  9. Melissa says:

    Thank you so much for this helpful and encouraging post. As I prepare to begin homeschooling my oldest this fall, my mind often wanders to the “what if’s” and “how-to’s” of it all, plaguing me with worry and self doubt. This was a tremendous eye opener for me!

  10. Jeanne says:

    “Where I depart from unschooling is in my understanding that adults have a wider perspective than children, are (it is to be hoped) wiser than children, and that this is quite natural and proper. And just as my parental wisdom and experience directs me to provide a nutritious diet for my children, so does it direct me to provide a rich and nourishing menu of ideas and learning experiences for their growing minds.”

    I don’t think that your understanding is a departure from unschooling at all. I think it is a departure from what SOME unschooling adherents say is unschooling. There are many, many unschoolers who see things from your perspective or somewhere near there.

    It’s a good discussion to get into when you’re a homeschooler trying to find your “style” or philosophy, but I ended up feeling I needed to find my own way, rather than tailoring my home/unschooling in response to (some) unschoolers’ dogma about not being dogmatic!

    One thing I think this gets into is where “parenting” style crosses into “education” style. If we take some of the ideas in your paragraph above, for example, there are some parents who, after careful thought, do not believe they should make choices for their children about diet, how they spend their time, TV/videos, etc. Their unschooling is going to look very different from mine, since I come from more of a “loving guidance” approach like that which you describe.

    I have often ended up using the following question to determine whether *I* am living up to *my* personal unschooling ideas/ideals: Is what we are doing, is what I am doing, respecting my child?

  11. Karen E. says:

    You always put it so well.

    I think I’ll just start blogging: “See Lissa.” 😉