Is it Possible for Children to Learn Without “Instruction”?

WARNING:  My editor (hi, honey!) says this is the most boring post ever.  But it’s what’s on my mind right now.  I would love to hear what you think.  So here goes:

As a parent, I love to watch my kids learn from each other.  Molly shows Joseph how to pause for the comma, Joseph reads board books to JohnJohn, and JohnJohn gets both kids sounding out letters for him.

Joseph shows Molly how to somersault, Molly advises Joseph on how to advocate for himself to Mommy, and JohnJohn gets both kids laughing on a regular basis.

As the kids get older, I find that if there is something they want to do – – like make muffins, or enter a contest, or go on a trip, or play a video game – – they will read and ask questions about it until they figure out how to do it.  They are natural learners!

Is it me or does the cupcake that your child bakes herself sweeter?

Is it me or does the cupcake that your child bakes herself taste sweeter?

And yet, I still don’t trust that my kids will learn without formally structured work in subjects like math and grammar.  I have to admit, I just don’t trust that they will gain proficiency on their own.

I am starting to wonder if that is a failing on my part as a parent and teacher.   Have I been so conditioned by my own education that I am making my kids jump through needless hoops?  Am I wasting their time by making them do workbooks and rote lessons?

I am a really bad unschooler making my kids do math tables

I am a really bad unschooler making my kids do math tables

“Unschooling” was first defined in the 1970s by educator John Holt, (the “father” of unschooling) as “allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear.”   It is interest driven, child-led, self-directed learning.  It is a branch of homeschooling that does not use curricula.

Despite the age of the movement, education researchers have not done much looking at unschooling methods and outcomes.  However, The Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning (Volume 7, Issue 14) recently published two papers on the topic.


The first, by Peter Gray and Gina Riley, The Challenges and Benefits of Unschooling, According to 232 Families Who Have Chosen that Route, reports that the biggest challenge for unschoolers was overcoming feelings of criticism from others.

The reported benefits included “better learning, better attitudes, and better psychological and social well-being for the children; plus increased closeness, harmony, and freedom for the whole family.”

The results of this research make sense to me.  However, the authors’ use of self-selected unschoolers, without comparing them to other types of homeschoolers, muddled whether the results correlate to unschooling or simply homeschooling in general.

The main advantage of unschooling (and I would add, all homeschooling, even if you spend some time on curricula)  is increased time available for other, presumably more beneficial, activities.  Stepping out of the relatively inefficient traditional schooling model, in general, reclaims an enormous amount of time.  That is a fact born out by our own experience this year.

Perhaps if we didn’t use workbooks and assignments we would have even more of this precious commodity?


The second, by professors of education and unschooling mothers, Kellie Rolstad and Kathleen Kesson, Unschooling, Then and Now, compares their unschooling experiences in two different eras, one in the early days of unschooling and the other over 20 years later.

These accounts are interesting in that they actually demonstrate how unschooling works in their families.  I was especially interested to learn the importance of technology from Dr. Rolstad, who handled the “Unschooling Now”, perspective.  She writes:

Unschooled  I-Gen children, freed from the demands and constraints that school places on schooled children, spend their time engaged in their own pursuits, many of which involve playing with technology, whether designed for play, such as videogames, or for seemingly more serious purposes, such as computer programming .  YouTube videos provide an astonishing array of learning opportunities as well, with “how-to” videos on almost anything imaginable, e.g., how to gut a fish; how to speak ancient Greek; how to calculate angular refraction, how to apply anime-style makeup, etc. 

I worry that my kids may have too much screen time already.   I also worry that, without the guidance of formal lessons, my children won’t master a subject comprehensively, especially in subjects that I am less comfortable with myself, but that I also value highly, like math.

While I totally understand how my kids might seek out a video on anime-style make-up or how to clean a fish, I’m more doubtful that, without some guidance, my children will pursue information on, say, basic math, grammar and spelling.

I guess the question is, do I really need to manage my kids until they memorize those addition tables now or can I “comfortably bear” it if they wait to memorize them for years or if they never memorize them at all?


2 thoughts on “Is it Possible for Children to Learn Without “Instruction”?

  1. I think the child-brain is ripe to memorize many basics. I still remember many useful tidbits taught in public elementary school. Now, I like to get creative when applying the basics; music to support math, gardening to apply science. Child-led activities deepen their understanding of the basics and bring them to life. Like anything in life, a good balance is ideal, I find.

    • The elusive balance! Do you have your kids do drills at all or do you just use your knowledge from when you did them to incorporate them with the bigger picture? I have found, as we have lived the homeschooling life this past year, that it’s quite easy to “do” math and science and other basics while “living life”. And the kids seem to remember almost all of it, which is more than I can say for my own elementary education. That is why I struggle with this. Do my kids really need to memorize facts or will incorporating them as we go along (even if we don’t get to all of them) suffice? As a thirty-something it is very hard for this tiger to change her academic stripes!

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