Crystallized Learning

by Ren Allen

As I stirred sugar into my Darjeeling tea this morning, I pondered just which sugar cystal was the one that caused my taste buds to perceive sweetness. If I dropped one crystal into the cup, I wouldn't notice it at all. If I continued dropping crystals, one at time, eventually my taste buds would pick up the sweet flavor, and I would have made a success of morning tea. How many crystals does it take? Which crystal denotes success? What if one of those crystals went missing, would I even know?

I looked at this bag of sugar, this organically grown wonder of mankind and thought about knowledge.

School says we need certain crystals, dropped into our brain in a certain order or they are useless.

School says we ALL need the same amount of crystals at the same time in life in order to be a success.

School says the crystals they give us are valuable, but the crystals you gather in your free time are not.

School says crystals must be memorized and spit back, rather than swirled around, tasted and digested at will.

School is wrong.

Grains of sand, snow crystals, cubes of salt and sugar, floating dust motes suspended in rays of light. These are all things with which we are familiar, but pay little heed. Unless you are building a sandcastle, playing in the snow, baking, growing sugar cane or have some love of dusting, these tiny particles are just another part of the background hum of life.

When a person learns about how water refracts light, that's a tiny bit of information that may not seem connected to anything important at the time. But if it interested you, and you learned something, that’s a crystal of information you just added to the tea of your life. When you pick up a magazine and read something that piques your interest, that's another crystal. When a child asks a question—maybe just a simple one like "what are clouds made of?"—they are picking up a sweet particle of information that is meaningful to them at that moment.

Unschoolers know that these seemingly tiny and insignificant bits are actually part of something very magical: learning. Real learning. Learning that stays with you for life. Learning that slowly, over time and with nurture, begins to sweeten and grow and saturate all that you do. Learning that fulfills the needs of the learner, that assists them in their unique life journey. Learning that brings joy and desire for more experiences. Learning that is meaningful not only for the learner, but for the world.

The "crystals" we pick up from day to day would probably seem insignificant to most of the world. My children ask questions, conversations swirl up, play evolves and interests are tickled. Every day they're living a rich, full, inquisitive life—really living.

Living involves not only exciting "aha" moments, but also day to day activities such as getting dressed, eating and performing daily household tasks. Recognizing the importance of every moment, every interest and question is the key to an unschooler's crystal collecting. Who knows which crystal will begin to saturate one's life with passion? Who knows when that one extra bit of information will lead to something grand?

And if it doesn’t lead to something grand? Well, there are plenty of crystals in the cup, sweetening the whole deal. Isn't that enough? Isn't a desire to know something valuable in and of itself? Isn't that what life is about? We question, ponder, pontificate, muck about, play, seek and make new discoveries. That's what we humans do. We search for answers, and in the searching we find out that the journey is what matters. The process of living itself lends a richness and depth to each day; it is within the journey of living well that we find the greatest meaning.

To take the analogy further, I started thinking about these particles in their natural state. When we stand on millions of grains at the beach, we are standing on a former mountain. We don't usually remember that fact, but a grand and large monument of nature was slowly worn by Father Time and Mother Nature giving way to its smaller particles, providing a lovely cushion for waves and feet, a protective habitat for living beings and plantlife.

When humans gather particles of knowledge, seemingly disconnected, they are wise to remember the grand and monumental mountain that is being built. Every tiny piece of information is connected to every other piece of information in the universe. All of it counts. All of it adds to the framework of the unique journey called life. Every grain is a part and parcel of something grand—try to see the mountain within, try to grasp these grand connections through the eyes of an life-long learner.

Then, there are crystals—reflective, intricate, complex bits that fascinate us. When I think about all the bits that school tried to force into my being, I think about something one-dimensional. This force-fed "knowledge" had little meaning for my life's journey and did nothing for my joy factor. Interest was not the fuel for learning; it was the whim of the school board, the teacher and a history steeped in bias and agenda. I see my children's learning, and like the sugar crystals, it is multi-faceted and beautiful, reflecting unique bits of the wonder-filled universe around them.

As a person gathers knowledge for the sake of passion, fueled by interest, their knowledge has a richness, depth and character to it that is complex. Those bits and pieces become part of them in a way that is deeply meaningful. In discussion, I can hear the excitement and joy in my children's voices, see that light in their eyes that lets me know these bits and pieces are relevant and meaningful. They are not some memorized, useless factoids to be discarded after a short time but an intricate structure of personal knowledge that is built with zeal.

By choosing to unschool, I am giving my children the ability simply to enjoy the journey rather than to seek some unknown destination that falsely promises an end product. My children’s lives are their own; their dreams and passions belong to them, and in gathering the bits that matter, they are showing me that natural learning is grand and simple all at once. The light that emanates from them awes me to silence.

The things in life unschooled children take for granted have the potential to change the world. They take for granted the fact that learning is FUN. They take for granted the fact that the adults in their lives treat them with respect and honor their uniqueness. They take for granted the fact that they have access to the things they love, the places and people they enjoy. They take for granted their unschooling lives because it's what they know and live every day. Learning is just part of living. Adding a tiny bit of knowledge to their cup is what they do every time something excites them or grabs their attention. Information that is meaningful for their journey is not taken lightly but explored with wonder and awe.

It makes for a very sweet life indeed.

Ren Allen has been homeschooling since 1996 and is an active supporter of unschooling both online and in her local community since 2000.

The article above was written in 2006 for Connections (now defunct). Since then, after years of encouraging many people to indulge in artistic expressions, Ren has become an award-winning makeup artist and body painter. Faces by Ren

Photos are small because that's the size they were when they were rescued from a page about to be deleted.

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