Unschooling: Words and Thoughts

"I remember being corrected on saying someone "taught themself" something and thinking it was bullshit semantics, needlessly picky, and a little snide. Now I understand that distinction so well and it's very important.

(Pamela C, after a year or so of unschooling)

What Teaching Never Can Be

Sandra Dodd, and others, on "Learning" vs. "Teaching"

For years I have recommended that new unschoolers stop using the word "teach" and replace all statements and thoughts with phrases using the word "learn" instead. I've gotten much flak back from people saying it doesn't matter, or that's "just semantics." What started as a theory with me became belief and then conviction. Unschoolers who cling to the idea of teaching will handicap their own understanding of how learning works.

The boldface lines below are quotes from someone in a discussion once who was sure she could change my mind:

So if teaching "really" means competently and compassionately faciliating learning, then teaching *does* exist, no?

The word exists.
The idea exists.

In English we expect words to have meanings. We expect a thing to be a THING. And a verb to be ACTION! Wham! Pow!

The action of "teaching" isn't simple and clear.

When there are pairs of words like "pitcher and cup" or "pitcher and catcher" or "ball and socket," we assume the two things are complementary parts of a whole.

So we have (and have had for many languages back up the line, I'm guessing, maybe) "teacher and student."

Now that I'm thinking about it, though, maybe this is, in part, an English language problem. Because in Romance languages (Latin-based, Italian, French, Spanish...) they used "maestro" or forms thereof. "Master" or "Mistress" of an art or body of knowledge. Someone can be a maestro with no followers or students. One can't very well be a teacher without the presence of a student.

But anyway, we do have in modern English the pair "teach and learn."

If I want to teach someone how to use quotation marks, I can talk, show them, make jokes, draw stick figures with speech-balloons, and I could maybe sing songs about it. So IF the person who's in the room "being taught" is thinking about how to file down that one piece of a machine gun that can turn a legal semi-automatic into an illegal automatic, and how to hide that part really well, disguised as something altogether different, what am I doing?

I'm talking, writing, drawing, dancing, and singing. But I'm not teaching. I'm reviewing for myself something I already know. I'm just performing a play of sorts, without any audience. I'm playing with myself. I'm ...well, you know.

So if I'm reading a magazine about machine guns and someone comes and says, "How do I punctuate a quote within a quote?" I can show them. If they don't totally understand, I can draw pictures or give other examples. When I perceive that they have learned the thing they wanted to learn, I should shush up and go back to my magazine, because the action is completed.

They learned. I helped them learn. I was "the teacher" but I didn't do the work that resulted in learning. The learner did that in his own head. I could put ideas in the air, but only he could hear and process and ask more questions. Without his active work, no teaching can possibly take place.

So if teaching *really* means competently and compassionately facilitating learning, then teaching does exist, no?

There's that Buddhist talk about being the water, being the ocean. Think of it as kneading bread, maybe. Here's a truth: teaching has no action to show for itself that is "teaching." You can't really pour useful information into anyone else's ears or eyes against their will. They can learn like crazy, but you can't make them.

Fold and push. People learn from other people.

Fold and push. There are people paid to teach. Some are aware that there are limitations to what they can do. Others are not philosophical and believe that, if they "taught" (presented information), only the lazy and uncooperative could possibly fail to "learn."

Fold and push really hard.

"Teaching" is an idea that most people understand on a quick, simple level. It's an idea that the best teachers and the best homeschoolers (i.e. we unschoolers) think about more carefully and examine more closely.

I feel that I've taught my kids to be kind and patient. If they reject that "teaching" though, they're not taught at all. I would have modelled and discussed and totally failed miserably to teach. But somehow I persuaded them to believe that what I believe was important. Sometimes, somehow, I persuade people to believe unschooling will work and is important. Some people fail to learn it, but I keep singing and dancing anyway..

I don't much like jazz, but philosophy, ideas, and teaching are kind of like jazz. Early in playing an instrument you're told the One Right Way to hold it, to blow/strike/pluck, to use the keys so you don't damage them, to stand or to sit just so, making it easier for you and safer for the instrument. Those are The Rules.

If you get so good at your instrument that you can play it in the dark, quickly, while carrying on a conversation with someone else at the same time (not wind players, but you know what I mean...), the rules no longer apply to you.

At that point you cannot be a beginner who accidentally broke an instrument out of ignorance or carelessness. You will love that instrument and know it really well and maybe be able to repair it. At first the instrument was the sacred goal, but once your musicianship is greater than the instrument, you are beyond and above the simple rules.

Here's a rule: You have to stand to sing. Otherwise your diaphragm is cramped up and it won't be able to support your notes and control your pitches. HAVE to stand up.

Professionals in musicals and operas? they sing sitting, they sing lying in beds, they sing dancing, they sing in all kinds of positions. Folksingers and traditional musicians of various kinds sing sitting in various situations.

I can teach like they can sing. So why am I saying teaching doesn't exist? Beginners need to know that teaching isn't a thing you do to someone else. Rather, learning is something that you MIGHT, if you're lucky, get to assist with.

In beginning stages, like student teachers and beginning homeschooling parents and assistant karate teachers (which my son is) and games teachers (Marty and Holly have both "taught a game" in the past couple of days, or rather recited rules in the presence of other people) need to look for and see learning as a separate process from their own song and dance. In advanced stages there is teaching, but it is compassionately and competently facilitating another's learning.


Originally posted at the original unschooling.com [now gone] in November 2001, discovered, printed out, transcribed, and mailed back to me by Kelly Lovejoy July 7, 2003, for which I am very grateful.

In French: Ce que « Apprendre » ne peut pas Etre

MORE on Teach/Learn

From Julie Daniel, May 2010:
The other day James and Adam spent a couple of hours finishing a Lego model of the Millennium Falcon.

The next day James commented to me, "Adam said something nice to me yesterday when we were doing our Lego. He said he liked *the way* that I taught him to do his Lego construction."

Adam heard and he said, "I said that I like the way you help me learn, didn't I Daddy?"

Nice distinction I thought!!

—Julie Daniel

Colleen Prieto, April 2013:

We just watched a documentary called Lost Castles of England. My 10 year old loves Star Trek and so he was particularly thrilled that it was narrated by Leonard Nimoy. 🙂

We paused - oh - probably at least 25 times during the documentary to look up things ranging from "When was the Bronze Age?" and "What exactly is Stonehenge anyway?" to "Who were the Normans?" and "How exactly big is England?" and "They killed the garrison... What's a garrison??"

We also paused a bunch of times as he described how he's going to be getting up early tomorrow to start work in Minecraft right away - he plans to build a motte-and-bailey timber castle, as described in the documentary. He asked me to keep the documentary in our Netflix queue so he can refer to it as needed for the particulars.

When the show ended, he stood up from the couch and proclaimed "That was AWESOME. And the whole time it was Spock. Spock just GIVING you interesting history stuff!!!"

It hit me right away that he didn't say "Spock teaching you history" or "A show teaching you history" or anything about teaching at all. He doesn't see things in terms of Being Taught. In his mind, he received a gift of new knowledge and facts this evening. A gift given by Spock, which made it all the better. 🙂

—Colleen Prieto

Deb Lewis, April 2013:

I have a "teach" story. Dylan was eight, I think, before I gave that word much thought. And then two things happened about the same time. I got this idea that I wanted to teach him some old songs my Welsh Auntie used to sing. And a discussion came up on an unschooling list about the difference between teaching and learning.

I said I knew some songs that his great grandmother sang to her children and my aunt sang to me and I thought he should hear them because they weren't songs that would probably ever be on the radio. I told him what they were and he said, "I already know those." How? "Because you sing them all the time when you're working in the garden."

"Teaching" is a kind of wishful power play. Like whipping out your university degree, or pulling a gun. (Ok not quite like that) It means, "I have something and now you are going to get it."

Dylan knew the songs because he'd heard them and he found them interesting enough to listen to the words and remember them. He could have just as well heard them and ignored them. And he could have heard them and ignored them if I had thought I was teaching him, too. While someone who thinks he's teaching feels like there's power in the act, the real power is inside the learner. The learner can care or not care, listen or ignore, remember or forget, and all that depends on the learner, not the teacher. If he thought the songs were silly or unpleasant or dull I could have "taught" them all day and all night without making him care or remember. Worse, I could have pressed and stressed him out and shut down any possible future interest in some or all of his family history, music, and spending time with me or listening to me.

I can show someone something they want to know, if I know it, and they will work out they way that's easiest for them to do it. I can give information if I have it. But I can't and don't teach. My dogs can testify to this. My son will be twenty one next month. He learned to walk and talk, and dress himself and tie his shoes, and how to be safe in the world, and feed himself, and read and write and reconcile a bank statement, and work and drive, and all kinds of cool things. He learned. And I got to hang out with him and show him stuff and talk with him. I do regret that he ever had to hear me sing, though. I should have shown him where the ear plugs were early on.

—Deb Lewis

By Benjamin Gilbert (Paladin) on Tuesday, July 15, 2003 - 09:47 pm:

"Teach" has inherently negative connotations. The word "teach" is a verb which places the teacher in the active role (subject) and the student in the passive (object). It implies through the grammatic structure of any statement made using the word, that the teacher is doing the work and the student is merely acted upon.

Whereas the word "learn" makes the student the subject of the statement rather than the object. He is doing the work, not merely being the passive recipient of another's knowledge.

Kelly Lovejoy:

One of my favorite essays by Sandra is the one on teaching vs learning—how teaching can end up just being a song and dance if the learner isn't receptive.

I was recently explaining something along the same lines and realized that it can be something even deeper.

I've mentioned before about a parenting class I took at Cameron's school—way back when he was still in school. As usual, the people who attended the parenting classes (by choice) are the ones that need it the least! 🙂 But there were still a few....

One was Margaret. She had two daughters—like six and eleven or so. I forget ages exactly.

One of her examples of her child's disregard for her authority (!) was that, in the mornings, as they pulled out of the drive-way, she would "ask" her older daughter to get out and toss the newspaper on her elderly neighbor's porch. The daughter had NO desire to accomodate, but after threats and bribes, she'd get out and begrudgingly pick up the paper and put it on the porch. It was a fight every single morning. Margaret wanted a way to get the daughter to pick up the paper *on her own*.

Withholding allowance, grounding, other punishments/threats were suggested. I offered that she should just go out, cheerfully place the paper on the porch, and get back in the car, and MODEL the behavior she was after—for a long time. She should also mention how much she likes Mrs. SoandSo and how hard it is for her to walk so far for her paper. Maybe how good it makes her feel to be doing something good for Mrs. SoandSo. She did—with good results, especially from the younger daughter.

My point is this: She was looking to TEACH her daughter that helping others is a nice way to be. What the daughter was LEARNING, on the other hand, was that bullying another person is the way to get what you want.

In school, my history teacher thought that he was TEACHING me about Elizabethan England. In reality, I LEARNED that history sucks! I actually love many periods in history, just not *his* favorite time period. By spending so much time there, he turned me off history altogether. Took me a long time to "re-learn" that history is fascinating.

Parents think that they are TEACHING respect and obedience by spanking their kids. In reality, what the children LEARN is that the bigger and meaner you are, the more power you can wield.

Parents think that TEACHING their children to do chores will result in industrious, responsible children. In reality, the children LEARN that they can make someone else clean—or expect someone else to do it. By watching you *do for* them, they LEARN that cleaning/helping/doing is a pleasant and joyful thing.

What is TAUGHT and what is LEARNED can be two completely different things.


Brandie wrote:

Recently, I was in a discussion with a homeschooling mom about why I rarely use the word "teach" (and versions of it), but rather the word "learn". I told her that I felt that many homeschooling moms don't want to let go of the word because it takes the focus off of them, that by using the word teach/teaching/teacher, etc they can give themselves a pat on the back for all the learning their child does. I find that many homeschooling parents love to be able to say "I taught my son how to read" or "I am my child's teacher." It's a big boost to one's ego to say that you are teaching your children and to discuss how well they are doing because of your teaching.

Susan M:

People assume that teaching causes learning, like it is part of the third law of motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) or something. Teaching doesn't make someone learn. Learning is a totally independent function from teaching.

If the model of the third law of motion were true in this case, then I think the reaction to teaching is definitely not learning, but *resistance*. That would be the first law of motion, involving inertia.  Students stop trying to learn on their own because they have been conditioned to believe they can't.  (Man, Newton was really smart! LOL!)

And that resistance will definitely grow stronger with the application of more teaching.

Learning is an individual, internal process that takes place in a person's brain as information is sought and applied and connections made.  That is why no state has compulsory education laws, but rather compulsory *attendance*.  No one can force another to learn.

If your daughter wants to learn to knit, she will seek out information.  She will ask questions, ask you to show her.  She will watch and listen, and take it with her and apply it in her own fashion.  She might use you as a resource, she might not.  She might just look it up on the internet or in a book.  Did the internet or the book teach her to knit?  No, she learned it on her own.  If you try to be more than the internet in the process, you will remove the responsibility of learning from her and take on the responsibility of "teaching her how".  Even the process of learning something is showing her how to learn other future things.

— Susan M (VA)

"Have to do" vs. choice

The Problem with Teaching is...

"Learning" in other languages (sometimes no problem; sometimes no possible translation)

Other problem words and terminology

Learning to See Differently (related, but about ideas rather than words)

In 2022, I removed a section from this page. It wasn't by an unschooler, nor was it about unschooling, but it was called "Ways to Learn." It was from a site that's been gone for a while.

Years back it was discussed, but I can't find that discussion anymore—so many have disappeared. One thing then was that "Learn by teaching someone else" would've been better for unschoolers as "Learn by helping another person learn" or some such.

Here is an older version of this page, with that list, in case someone came here looking for that, though.

Wayback Machine; June 9, 2003