How do you know what you don’t know?

Recently, a reader commented on a post with a long list of questions. The questions seem to be coming from a curious outsider; a schooled person who doesn’t quite see what all these unschoolers are complaining about. So, instead of answering the questions with another comment, I decided to start a series of blog posts to answer them in depth and to the best of my abilities.

1.  How do children know what they don’t know? Unschoolers say that children pick their own curriculum, but if they have never been exposed to physics for example, how do they know whether or not they would like to study it?

The framing of this question tells me that the asker is coming from a schooled paradigm. The first thing to do is to completely shift your view of knowledge. In life, and in the “real” (a.k.a. non-school) world, knowledge is not divided into subject areas. We don’t really expect a child to suddenly take up an interest in physics as a complete subject area, because it’s a construct.  Also, unschoolers do not say that the children will pick their own curriculum. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find any unschooler who labels what their child learns as “curriculum.”  Throw out those schooly concepts of subject areas and curriculum entirely – they are not found in real life. Instead, allow a person, regardless of age, to follow their interests and watch how much they learn. If a child is particularly excited about, Legos, for example. He or she may first start by constructing buildings based on diagrams found in a kit. Then they may start designing their own buildings and even entering contests or communities in which they share their Lego creations. There are even contests where kids create Lego robots.  What subject area is this? Well, it may involve many things from different areas: architecture, design, problem solving, robotics, logic, artistic creation, and even being part of a community.

The question asker seems to be getting at another concern: exposure. If a child is not exposed to something (which, in this person’s mind, means being taught about it), how will they know that they like it?  Thankfully, this has never been much of an issue for unschoolers. We live in a world where underexposure is almost an impossibility. With multimedia and the internet, being exposed to information is a constant state of being. In fact, we may desire for our children to NOT be as exposed and to have more peace and quiet so they have a chance to process information.

On the flip side, I would argue that most schooled children are not exposed to many areas that would be more valuable and to which unschooled children may be exposed. From all the world of knowledge, school endeavors to “teach” children only a small sliver.  Much of the things they are taught will not be useful to them in their life paths. In fact, much of it will not actually be learned at all. So, schools spend an inordinate amount of time trying to force kids to learn information that is currently or will be obsolete, and which they will promptly forget anyway. They are thereby robbing that child of time they could spend actually learning (not memorizing, regurgitating, then forgetting) information that interests them.

Let me give you an example. Say a high school student loves photography, and she spends as much time as she can with her camera. But, soon her grades in math and history start slipping. What is our response? What would her parents do? What would her teachers recommend? Likely, they will make her stop playing around with her camera so much and start studying math and history. Photography is devalued in favor of information that she will never need in her career as a photographer. And, if she does need that information later? She will learn it as she needs it.

Just remember, the years between 5 and 18 are not times when humans magically stop learning on their own. Before five, our kids brains develop more than they will in the rest of their lives. They learn an incredible amount of stuff, and all without the benefit of direct instruction. After eighteen, adults go back to learning in that same way. We want to know about something that we’re interested in, so we pursue that knowledge.

So, how will our kids be exposed to information? By doing what the rest of us do – living life.  Whereas schools pull from a limited amount of information to teach kids, unschoolers and free schoolers pull from the entire world of information.

Next up: How do you meet your child’s desire for information when you know nothing about that subject?

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8 Comments on "How do you know what you don’t know?"

  1. Kez
    02/04/2012 at 3:44 pm Permalink

    Great post. I remember it was hard to get my head around questions like this when I first started investigating unschooling.

  2. yvonne
    02/04/2012 at 5:18 pm Permalink

    Yes, true! We learn while we live. There can`t be a place for learning and another one for living, can there?

    Hi, I’m a Spanish mum of 3 children who have always been unschooled and I do like your blog.


  3. Cassi
    02/04/2012 at 10:12 pm Permalink

    Love it, Yvonne. Why do we feel a need to separate learning out from living? It’s completely inorganic and destructive. Thanks for reading!


  4. Cassi
    02/04/2012 at 10:13 pm Permalink

    Yes, I think we’ve all been there. And some of us still go there from time to time. 🙂


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