"Educational": A Label Worth Ignoring

by Robyn Coburn

I like browsing stores. I like seeing what’s available in the catalogs. I like surfing the net. I like perusing the TV channel guide, made so easy with our satellite receiver. Now that Jayn has become more acceptant of surprises, I like bringing books or dvd’s or other things into the house before she has asked for them specifically.

What I don’t like is the label “EDUCATIONAL!”

“Educational” is slapped on a lot of stuff for kids in a forced way as a marketing inducement. It’s presumed to be both a necessity and a talisman for sure fire sales. It’s ubiquitous and value laden—and is usually utterly unnecessary for us.

I do not attach any value to the idea that I should choose something educational ahead of something fun for my daughter, or indeed myself. I just don’t live with that kind of dichotomy in my thinking. Just because something is labeled educational doesn’t make it a better product for the child than one not so labeled. Children’s interests should be supported by whatever product best meets the need without regard to the educational veneer.

I don’t reject a product only because it has been labeled educational, either overtly by its name or advertising, or more subtly such as by its placement in the store. That would be silly. We have plenty of “educational” toys and games.

Like Legos. I emphatically did not buy Legos for Jayn because I was concerned with developing her fine motor skills, her ability to plan, or her cognition of space and form. I wasn’t trying to sneak some counting or sorting or any other pre-math skill into her day. I was absolutely not concerned with directing or ensuring her learning in any way. I was just helping her have fun because she enjoys making small houses for small dolls and telling stories with little figures.

Let’s look at the Encarta North American dictionary:

1. “giving knowledge, instruction, or information.”

2. “relating to, involving, or concerned with education.”

Two related yet different meanings, rather like the different value that the label has for adults’ products versus children’s products. The synonyms for “educational” might be:
Fascinating, informative.
Schooly.
An adult who is buying something for himself is assumed to be acting primarily out of personal interest. So if a product, service, or information vector is aimed at adults, it is likely to be intrinsically entertaining to the person. Because adults have choice within their means, the thing had better live up to expectations, or it may just be returned for a refund.

On the other hand, in conventional thinking children are assumed to need a state-defined education for their own good while probably resistant. If we are lucky, the child stumbles upon something interesting to him or her in the process. There is a vague disquiet that if some purportedly essential activity is not interesting or engaging to the child, then at least it should be educational. Many of the products have a “Let’s make the best of this necessary onerous task” paradigm behind them.

Ello scenes

Or the label “educational” is there to reassure parents that even though this activity might look like mere fun, it really is a worthwhile use of their child’s precious time.

Unsurprisingly, it is this “educational” as “schooly” that tends to be a bit of a red flag for me when evaluating the quality of a product.

One of my concerns is that sometimes the label is applied to children’s products in the absence of any other redeeming feature. Some specifically school level educational materials simply contain lower quality information, especially in comparison to interest based scholarly works. Over time I have found several textbook critiques that have made me extra skeptical.

One is the fascinating book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, a professional historian. It is a scathing critique of both the contents (which he considers propaganda) of the immense tomes used to teach high school American History and the ponderous process of selecting, revising, and publishing them. Along the way it is full of the kind of exciting and debatable historical drama that adult history buffs find absorbing.

Outside of school, Americans show great interest in history. Historical novels…often become bestsellers. The National Museum of American History is one of the three big draws of the Smithsonian Institution…Movies based on historical incidents or themes are a continuing source of fascination. (Loewen; New Press, 1995. Pg 2)

How wonderful that our Unschooling kids when free to choose their resources from the whole smogasbord available, without being subjected to someone else’s educational agenda, find history as compelling as do the adult population.

Other textbook critiques have appeared in magazines like Scientific American and at other websites. Here is one that has collected a bunch of articles about errors in science text books: http://amasci.com/miscon/miscon.html#jmp1

From CNN.com (linked from above): “But hard core errors are not the only problem. Studies by The American Association for the Advancement of Science say kids are lugging home heavy books full of disconnected facts.”

I believe that children engaging in free exploration of how the world works and devising idiosyncratic ways of testing their own theories may appear intellectually disorganized to people with a school mindset. Their learning may look random because the real connections between the facts and deductions are internal. But facts observed with Unschooling eyes will be part of a web of links. The path will be wonderful, circuitous, and scenic.

Some educational products covertly support (or openly push) agendas that are pro-schooling and should be approached especially warily by people still deschooling and striving to understand Unschooling. Schoolish approaches to any desired skill are likely to have a bunch of unwanted schoolish baggage attached. If you are trying to free your thinking from mainstream assumptions, like certain sequencing or any ideas about a hierarchy of knowledge, choosing these products can be like immersing yourself in a pond full of piranhas before you can swim. You might escape without a bite, but why get in that dangerous water?

If a product is designed to overcome observed academic deficits in a child—like a virtual tutor to make up for the faults of one’s school district—I tend to examine it more closely prior to opening my purse. Since I don’t view Jayn as having deficits but simply being in her right place on her journey, the primary purpose of these products is devastatingly irrelevant.

Barbie play

One criterion for rejection is whether any “guidance” inherent in the structure could short circuit Jayn’s unique process of discovery, especially if it can’t be turned off. For example anything that resembles a phonics program would be included in my “no thanks” list since it is clear to me that phonics will not be Jayn’s primary path to effortless reading.

There are other problematic characteristics that a product would only overcome with a lot of other positives. Negatives include hidden political agendas, unwanted social conditioning, and the lurking narratives that schools are more important than family or that teachers are essential for proper learning. Just because a math program is fun to do doesn’t mean that the underlying message—that this is something too important to be trusted to the child’s initiative or real life experience—is benign.

Or just being plain dopey. I think it is dopey that might be the most darned irritating.

I found an example of dopey in a Pre-Kindergarten Skill Readiness type workbook, about an inch thick, that the proverbial well-meaning relative gave Jayn when she about four. She ignored it along with most of the other coloring books, which have never been of interest to her.

Then one day, doing a bit of clean up, I decided to peruse the thing. I guess my first clue that there was something just off about it was the teacher’s guide and answer pages in the back. Teachers need to be told what the right answers are to some worksheets aimed at four year olds? How tough is this stuff? Then I started to examine the content of the answer pages and, by golly, I found out why the “correct” answers required clarification. Because many of them were senseless.

Quickly I became dissatisfied with the rigidity of the processes for finding the answers, and most especially the particularly narrow interpretation of answers to visual “problems.”

The example I remember best was an instruction to find all the circles in a perspective drawing, coloring book style, of what was clearly a child’s bedroom. To my dismay the answers in the back of the book listed only two circles, being the flat circles directly facing the viewer. Several clearly circular items such as a lamp, lamp shade, and round rug partially hidden under the bed were not to be counted!

It was so absurd to think that if they used this product per the manufacturer’s instructions, children were being directed to distrust the evidence of their experience and their own eyes in favor of disconnecting the content and meaning of an illustration from the simplistic geometric form they were being enjoined to find.

This seemed a perfect illustration of some of John Taylor Gatto’s remarks, such as in his article “The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher”:

The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach dis-connections….Even in the best of schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions.
More of his thought provoking writing is available at his website, http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/index.htm People new to Unschooling often express worries about “basic” skills. The desire to separate learning the skills from the use of the skills is schoolish thinking. There is truly, rarely a need to buy a product to teach the skill separate from using the skill. Still it is the attitude behind the purchase that is key—even if it is the same book, computer program, class, or toy that you would be acquiring. Attachment to the educational value of it gets in the way of seeing why your kid might love it and valuing what surprising or unique personal uses they may find for the book, program, class, or toy.

Sometimes people report their child asking to learn how to do something. My question is what is the child’s real desire—to learn some skill for its own sake for a feeling of mastery, or in order to be able to then practically apply the skill? For example one day Jayn asked me how to sew. My response was to get to the bottom of why she wanted to sew, rather than look at the request at face value. It turned out that her true, underlying desire in this instance was to make some rag dolls.

Jayn's rag dolls

So the process was not to teach her how to sew with exercises or samples, until her proficiency was such that she could attempt the dolls. It was simply to start with the doll making process. The goal was not for her to know how to sew; it was and is to enable her to enjoy her passion for dolls at yet another level, connecting to all the other bits of information and ideas in the cross–referenced fat file folder in Jayn’s brain marked “Dolls.”

Jayn certainly finds learning inescapable. Educational is an irrelevant label to her, neither endorsed nor discarded. Her first issue continues to be whether the item looks like fun or is simply beautiful enough to warrant a place in the panoply of wonder that already inhabits her imagination.

Truly I believe that her greatest cognitive leaps have come from the most frivolous seeming of her pursuits. Her most profound discoveries have come from her interactions with the least overtly educational of her tools— her play toys and her animated movies. It is not work masquerading as play to make it palatable; it truly is that all her most valuable work is play.

It is crucial to let go of our judgments about the interests, activities, and desires of our children, to let go of the idea that there is some kind of hierarchy of worthiness with “Educational” at the top. Activities that are not enjoyable or chosen by the child should not be suggested and certainly not prioritized just because they might be considered educational. You can enjoy things that are just fun without worrying about whether they are educational or not because wonderful learning will happen anyway. Just for fun is OK!

We are a lot more serene when we can just assume that everything they do or want to do has validity to it, regardless of whether it is designed to be educational or not. Clearly they are learning from everything, so everything has “Learning value.” Once we can trust that the learning will happen, we can start celebrating their interests and buying the tools to expand them without regard to the educational label of the product.


Bio from May 2007, at the time the article above was published in Issue #6 of Connections:
In her past life Robyn Coburn has been Production Designer and Set Decorator for motion pictures, Set, Lighting and Costume Designer in theater, and teacher of technical theater to actors. Now she pursues an interest in writing professionally including screenplays, and contributes regularly to unschooling discussions. She enjoys reading, swimming, sewing, the kind of electronic games that involve puzzles instead of finger drills, classic cinema (ie old movies), various crafts, traveling and is a passionate adorer of James and Jayn Coburn (7).

Robyn Coburn Learning (not 'being taught') Playing —"Play can be serious business."