What if they aren't interested in learning?

Joyce Fetteroll

I got an email about one of my pages on my unschooling site. I thought the response might be useful for others too -- Joyce

I was excited to read what the answer was, but the question ended up going in a different direction than I expected.
I can see that. I was answering from the point of view of kids who've always been unschooling and whether they ever avoid learning. Maybe I'll add this response for those people who are wondering about their schooled kids.

(The page she's referring to is: What if they lack interest in learning?)

My kids have been in public school most of their lives. I would like to unschool but when I ask my son what he would like to learn he says I don't know. If I show him something I think he might be interested in I ask him and again get the I don't know response.
Simple answer: Don't ask! 😉

Rather than asking what he'd like to learn, just do things he *enjoys*, expose him to things you think he might enjoy (as opposed to things you think would be good for him!)

Rather than looking at him as a vessel you want to fill, look at him as a person who is reaching out towards what interests him. Rather than looking at what interests him through a lens of school that filters out everything that wouldn't be done in school, look at *all* that he's interested in: video games, cartoons, skateboarding, swimming, playing with friends ...

Think about it this way: What if your husband were hovering around, waiting for you to do something that resembled school and kept asking you what you would like to learn? What would you say? How would you feel?

How do you get a kid that has been desensitized to learning to get excited again?
Schooled (and previously schooled) kids look like they aren't interested in learning. All they want to do is play.

That's because:

1) The parents are looking at what the child is doing through a lens of school. If it doesn't look like something a child would do in school then it doesn't look like learning.

2) Kids need time and freedom to say "No thanks" to anything that they associate with dullness, tediousness, difficulties of school.

3) They need time to fill up on what's been controlled or allowed in small doses: TV, running around, "doing nothing" (ie, thinking about stuff!)

Kids who have been in school or schooled at home need time to deschool before they can look all of life as potentially interesting. In the beginning they're going to do a lot of playing that looks like pure fun. That's because school paints big swaths of life with a brush of dullness. Kids associate "math" and "science" and "reading" and "writing" and "history" with being forced to read about and listen to and memorize and practice ideas that have the life sucked out of them so that even if they had been interested at the beginning, they soon want to avoid them.

Schooled kids' play looks like avoiding (school) learning. It often is! (They can't avoid learning. They're *always* learning. But they can avoid anything that reminds them of school!) They need down time from being forced to learn. So parents assume that it's natural for kids to avoid learning. It isn't. Kids *want* to learn. They—just like adults—don't want to be forced to learn things that have no meaning for them.

How many kids shut down when they see percentages in real life? That isn't because percentages are hard. It's because *in school* they're hard: learning the details of something you've had little experience with removed from any context you could relate to is hard. It's like memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary to a language you've never heard. In real life percentages are just useful ways of presenting information: resizing pictures in an art program, power left in a video game, how much you'll save on a sale item, batting averages ...

Unschooled kids' learning looks like play too, but for them the world isn't divided into learning and play. It's divided into things they're interested in and things they aren't yet interested in. Genghis Khan, Spongebob, spiders, playacting, drawing, baking cookies, Midsummer Night's Dream, Lord of the Rings, good guys vs. bad guys pretend play, model rockets, CSI: Miami, stuffed animals, Hot Wheels ... they're all just part of life that they're interested in or not right now. (You may have, as you read the list, unconsciously checked off items as either "learning" or "entertainment/ play". That's a useful habit to be aware of and work on eliminating!)

Unschooled kids learning does look like play. The process is similar to how they acquired English: They didn't decide they wanted to get better at speaking English so they could live life better. They just lived life and did things that interested them. English was a tool they picked up occasionally to get what they wanted because it was more efficient than crying. 😉 As a side effect of using English, they got better at it. And the better they got at it, the more they used it because it was more useful. And so they got even better.

Learning about everything is like that. We use things and we get better as a side effect. Unlike the message we get from school, we *don't* need to understand something before we use it. We just need to understand enough of it to make it work. And the more we use it, the better we understand it. We use a bit of knowledge and connect it to other bits of knowledge and slowly build up an understanding of the world.

If you go here: SandraDodd.com/joycefetteroll and click on "Transcript", there's a good explanation of how natural learning works. (←Here's a link to that. —Sandra)

All that unfortunately makes unschooling sound like stand back and let kids play. But, no, parents have an active role. More active *after* kids are done deschooling. The best thing you can do while they're deschooling is let them play. And help them play. Make play dates. Make sure they have things they enjoy playing with. *Be* with them. Find out why they enjoy something so much. When they feel free—rule of thumb is one month for each year they've been in school, starting from the time when you last pressured them to learn something—be more active about running things through their lives: movies, TV shows, books, places to go: ethnic restaurants, museums, monster truck pulls, walks in the woods, funky stores ....

Look for the delight in life and it will infect your kids. 😊 As long as it's *honest* interest and delight! If it's fake interest to get them to pay attention to something you think would be good for them, they're going to notice and avoid it. It's the tactic they've been awash in since Kindergarten: "Learning is Fun!"

There's another article on my page at Sandra's site: Five Steps to Unschooling that might help you too.


Answers to common unschooling questions: joyfullyrejoycing.com

Blog of writing prompts for speculative fiction writers: Dragon Writing Prompts

Joyce Fetteroll