Thursday, October 6, 2011

Child-Led Learning FAQ

I've been thinking about writing a post like this for quite some time, since I often have people ask me what child-led homeschooling looks like. Of course, I can only tell you what it looks like in our family, and I can share our philosophy and what works for us. I've come by this philosophy by combining quite a few different sources and resources, a sampling of which I have listed at the bottom of the post.

I've decided to approach this topic by answering some of the most common questions.

What exactly IS child-led learning?

Child-Led Learning, in a nutshell, is just that. It's allowing the learner to choose the subject, pacing, depth and timing of the learning. Although this is utilized a little bit in institutional schools, it works best in a setting where the entire educational system can be tailored to use this model, on an ongoing and individual basis, not just used "for a few weeks" during vacation or whatever.

It means that we take the things that the kids show an interest in, and explore those things. As a parent, I am BY NO MEANS disconnected from this process. I am absolutely involved in every aspect, from collecting materials that I think will interest them and "sprinkling" them around the house to be "discovered" (sneaky, I know!) to involving the kids in conversations that discuss their chosen topics, to assisting them in researching their topic using books or computers or other experts in the community. I provide materials such as paper and markers to encourage writing about the topic, and books to read. I look up videos on Netflix or at the rental store. Together we look up things on Google Earth, or other internet sites. We do crafts, and take field trips, and do tons of play dates with friends, or join co-ops or other groups.

For example, right now, the kids are fascinated with Orcas. I think this interest came from finding a stuffed Killer Whale at Brused Books the other day. They absolutely consume any information I can give them about whales, from the types, to the anatomy, and the fact that they are mammals, to marine life, to math that explores the size and weight of whales, to videos about whales, to dramatic stories involving whales.

Although I suggest activities or books, I don't usually require any of the materials be utilized, but wait for the child to choose to use that resource. They usually welcome my input, however, and we have not clashed much over this. I think they view Hubby and me as a resource, because their endless questions result in us either sharing our knowledge or looking up the information requested, and we learn together.

What if you skip something vital? How can kids possibly know everything they ought to learn?

Of course, young children don't know everything they ought to learn in order to be an educated adult. This style of learning does not assume that they do. Rather, as the adult who DOES know the academic direction we are headed, I work with them to head in that direction. Instead of an arbitrary schedule of items that they ought to learn, I allow us the flexibility to approach topics as they interest the kids. Skills like handwriting, math, or reading that build upon previous skill levels, we work within the level that they can accomplish, and continue building their skills as we go along.

The idea is, to practice handwriting, they can write about Orcas, which they are quite willing to do, or write about the arbitrary subject on page 20 of the workbook, something they are not so keen on doing. Which one of these results in more handwriting practice, more learning, and more success? You guessed it! This is just an example, but it is fairly representative of how we approach every subject, be it science, math, reading, history, geography or any other "schooly" or "non-schooly" subject.

How can you be sure they are learning what they need to learn?

The real key to answering this question lies in observation. If I change my role from one of controller to one of observer, I take the time to notice the learning that is happening all the time. Things that may not seem to be learning at first glance can really be the most meaningful experiences of all. For example, a video game may look like only entertainment, but when a beginning reader suddenly accurately reads a paragraph-long caption within the game, I realized that a significant learning milestone had been reached.

I keep a private learning blog where I record observations of learning, categorized in various academic subjects. Using this, I can go back and compare a skill level with previous months and see the advancement. With careful observation, there is no need to test the kids, because I am acutely aware of where their skill levels are, and what skills they are lacking or need to practice more.

What if kids only want to watch TV all day?

If given an ongoing choice, kids will naturally gravitate to a variety of activities. As a public schoolteacher, I did not observe this in schooled children, as they were seldom given a choice of how to use their time. When they did have a precious few minutes to choose their own activities, they naturally chose the most relaxing and entertaining activity, because they were tired. My kids, on the other hand, are allowed to choose 90% of their daily activities. They do choose to watch TV or play video games to some degree, but they quickly tire of these activities, and want something more mentally challenging, since they have not had a day of adhering to other schedules.

How will kids learn to do a job they dislike in the future?

I hear this objection quite a bit. Kids must learn that the world is a grim place, and going through hell in school "toughens them up" to deal with a world full of jobs they hate. Dealing with boredom, tedium, bullies and failure are all necessary parts of a complete education.

The trouble with this thinking is that it adheres to a misunderstanding of how the world really works, I think. People do jobs that they dislike, not from practice in doing so, but from a motivation that extends beyond the job itself to an outcome they desire. For example, we do the dishes, not from an inherent love of washing old food off flatware, but from a desire to eat off clean plates the next day. Enduring failure and bullies seems to me to harm children's self-image rather than make them tougher, and the people who do best in the "system" are those who are confident. In general, to become confident, a child needs to accumulate experiences of success rather than failure. Children tend to be able to sniff out false "successes" that are invented by teachers to boost self-esteem, while the "real" success of accomplishing a difficult task, especially one that has been self-assigned and carried out, will resonate far into the future.

In my experience, work-ethic is better built by learning to enjoy the job that you must do, rather than being forced to do a job that you hate doing, and by long practice, merely suffer through. Teaching my kids to have a good attitude and make jobs like household chores or drilling math fun will give them the tools they'll need in the future to tackle other jobs that need doing. Learning to have a servant's heart in our family will help them to serve others in the community and the world as adults.

As a Christian, don't you believe in "training up your children"?

Of course I do! I hope you can see from some of the above explanations that this style of learning is not at all neglecting a child's training, or leaving a child uneducated, but it is a method of learning together with a child so that the learning is enjoyable and productive for both the teacher and the learner.

Don't they take a mile if you give up so much control?

Children are energetic. They surge forward, wanting more, wanting to grow, wanting to learn and to do and to create. In our family, the adult, acting as a guide, is still very much in control. Some of the "radical unschoolers" might disagree that their family isn't that way, but I don't see this kind of learning as actually giving up control at all. Rather, I direct the energy, the enthusiasm and the activity into productive lines. The energy that I would have spent fighting to get them interested in what I want them to learn is instead used to find resources and observe the learning that is already taking place.

The kids in our house do not by any means have carte blanche. They cannot ask to go to 47 different activities in a week; I simply don't have the energy or the money. They aren't allowed to watch 120 hours of television or videos in a week, if they did get it into their heads to do so. They are expected to use good manners and respect other family members, and to contribute to the workload of the family. On the rare occasion that I ask them to do a workbook page or some math flashcards, they are expected to do so without complaining.

I think of it as a reversal of the 80-20 principle. In school, 80% of what you do is determined by someone else, and may not be meaningful to you. 20% is something you enjoy and would choose to do, given the choice. In our school, we simply reverse that. 80% of what my kids learn is chosen by them, and 20% is something determined by the needs of the family, or something I deliberately guide them to do.

How will kids learn to work in a group if all their learning is individualized?

Contrary to popular stereotypes, homeschoolers aren't isolated. My kids learn in groups at Homeschool Co-op, on field trips, at the park, in Sunday School, and wherever else they encounter other humans. Still, this information seems not to satisfy some people, so I'll answer this question in another way.

The skills needed for functioning productively in a group are as follows: The ability to provide your part of the assignment or information, which includes the skills to find and present new information; the social and communication skills to interact with other group members; the work ethic to pull your share of the project; and the tact and patience to put up with other personalities and the inevitable freeloaders. As a healthy school-at-home system, children ought to be learning these skills just to function as a member of a family. Learning manners, doing chores, having to share and take turns, good communication, patience and tact and grace... all of these skills get practiced over and over in the home. In my observation, homeschooled kids actually learn these skills better than many "socialized" kids, and the group work that I have observed within combinations of homeschoolers tends to be quite a bit more gracious and productive than that of kids who are taught "group skills" in many classrooms.

Is this type of learning terribly disorganized?

Absolutely, and delightfully so! Learning is by nature messy, and the path tangled. We don't get there by straight lines or nice, tidy slopes. The important thing is that we get there. To me, learning is about the journey. It's not a competition for getting onto Jeopardy, but it's about having the confidence, the knowledge, the self-discipline and work ethic to contribute to society as an adult.

One thing I do to keep us somewhat on track is: each semester I look up a list of curriculum standards for each grade. Together with each child, I go over what kids in their grade are expected to know and be able to do. We talk about how well they can do the tasks or know the material, and we work out, loosely for now, and more in depth in the coming years, a plan for getting everything accomplished. In this way, I give them ownership of their learning and they see more of the big picture, which helps tremendously in motivating them to do things like handwriting, which is not their favorite subject.

Isn't it a lot of work to find all of your own resources?

Like I teach my kids that a burden is light when you find a way to make it fun, so I approach schooling my kids. Paging through catalogues and going to curriculum conferences seems to me like so much drudgery, and so overwhelming, but looking up books about Orcas at the Science Center, or watching a movie about whales turns out to be as much fun for me as it is for them! So, is it a lot of work? I guess it is, but it's a lot of fun as well. When their eyes light up at the gift of a new book from the used bookstore, or when the light bulb comes on after a conversation about multiplication of fives and how it relates to the clock, it doesn't seem like work at all. There's nothing on earth I'd rather be doing.

What are some of the benefits of using this type of teaching?

Like anything in life, success and pleasure creates a desire to continue doing the activity that brought the pleasurable feeling of accomplishment. A baby learns to walk, not just because its parents praise it, but for the intrinsic joy of being able to do something new.

Success in learning results in enjoying the process of learning, and the desire to learn more things. When a child is allowed to learn at her own pace and in her own style, the child is more likely to have success in the endeavor. Then, the child is more likely to want to learn something else, which, if successful, will lead to more learning.

There is also a culture of enjoying learning. In our house, no one told the kids that "math is hard" or "history is boring" or "reading is icky." In our house, math is interesting, because zeros are a joke, and nines are tricky. Algebra means playing with the swing-arm balance. History is full of stories and drama, and pathos, and good guys and bad guys. Reading is a magical world of words come to life.

Another big benefit to this type of teaching is efficiency. Because each child is able to tailor his or her learning exactly to his or own skill level, and because each child is motivated by his or her interest and involvement, there is almost no need for re-teaching. Review happens naturally, and is just utilized enough for the material to be mastered. Unlike a classroom setting, the kids don't have to wait for other classmates to catch up, nor do they need to struggle with a concept they don't understand after the class has moved on to something harder. Each concept can be wholly mastered, and once it is, the child can immediately move on to a new challenge, bolstered by the success of the previous achievement.


There is a brief look into the method in which we "do school." We don't use a schedule, although our days fall into a natural rhythm, based mostly around the fact that we get hungry at the same times each day. Learning is not limited to school hours, and activities which are "fun" don't get discounted as learning just because they are enjoyable. Neither do activities which are "hard" shoved aside, but are look upon as a challenge, and are therefore brought into the "enjoyable" arena as well.

I'm not saying every day is a breeze! We have plenty of difficult days, and days when it seems like we are together far too much. I have plenty of moments when I question myself and wonder if the kids are really learning at all, or of they are going to grow into lazy, undisciplined adults.

Still, for the most part, this type of educating has been working fantastically well for our family. The kids love to learn, and love one another. They learn efficiently, so much so, that often I don't even realize they are learning, until they pop up with a new skill they had not previously been able to do and surprise me.

I am not criticizing families who choose to utilize a traditional school or who homeschool using a pre-written curriculum. Not at all! Rather, I am trying to show some of the intricacies of what we, as a family, have chosen to do, and why. Many families would not be comfortable using this method, and it doesn't make them inherently better or worse than us, just different.

I'm happy to report that this suits our personalities and needs remarkably well, at least for now. I do realize that we're at the beginning of our journey, with a first-grader and a preschooler, but I have read stories and talked to people who have used this method all the way through high school and into college, and quite successfully. Still, I'm open to changing in the future, and using a more structured, scheduled method, or even a school, if that is what the kids need. Right now, though, I'm thrilled with how well child-led learning is working for us.

Nurtured by Love
Yarns of the Heart
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Theory of Multiple Intelligences
Christian Unschooling Group
The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker


  1. I love reading your blog and have come to understand unschooling so much more by reading it. I most definitely respect it. I couldn't do it, but I love seeing all the fun things you do. I used to think unschooling meant that people didn't think we needed to educate our children. That they learn naturally, and don't need guidance. Your blog has helped me to see that isn't true. Thank you!

  2. This year I've been thinking about delving into some unschooling, too. Sometimes when I'm teaching the history curriculum to the kids, and Isaiah doesn't seem to remember half of what I told him a second ago(of course! He's not interested in it!), I wonder why I even bother. That, and he does like to read, but not the things that the virtual school sends him.
    Kyrie does great with the curriculum, so I'm thinking of possibly keeping her in next year and taking Isaiah out and doing some unschooling.
    In the media, unschoolers are always portrayed poorly- they find the kids in front of the t.v. while the parent doesn't seem to care about anything, and the kids sound like schmucks who don't know a thing. I'm glad that you are a positive voice in the unschooling community!

  3. Thanks for this great post. Recently my 4 year old has just truly discovered TV and everything it entails...I thought I was ok with it but its really challenged me to address some of the issues I had with it. He doesn't sit watching all day - infact he does so many other things, its ridiculous for me to focus on watching things!

  4. What a fantastic post!!! So glad I found your blog:) Adding it to my favorites right now.

  5. Child-led learning and discipline works SO much better than forced learning or forced discipline. The children are given the chance to make choices in a safe environment. I learned a lot of what NOT to do while teaching in public schools. I am thankful that I now know how to trust in unschooling, though I am still learning.