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Does Unschooling Suit Self-Motivated or Reluctant Learners?

© Beverley Paine

This question recently came my way... "Do you think a more structured programme suits reluctant or self motivated learners?"

I think this goes to the heart of the issue concerning unschooling or homeschooling methods - we all need to find resources and approaches that suit our individual learners, regardless of whatever style or approach of teaching/learning suits us as home educating parents.

I'd start by looking at the multiple intelligences and learning style theories. A google search will bring up hours of reading, mostly from the guys that developed these theories in the first place. Pigeon-holing a child into a 'style' or 'intelligence type' will help you understand that child's learning needs right now - I say that because a child grows and develops and if we're addressing the child's immediate needs then the learning style should change and the tendency to lean in one direction will gradually become more balanced.

I believe that all children are initially motivated to learn - it's natural to want to learn. Forcing children to learn things out of context to their lives - when there is no meaning that they can grasp or make for themselves, such as teaching algebra for the sake of it because it's a step on the way to calculus which isn't needed to solve a task now, but may be in five years or ten years time... Much better to introduce algebra as a tool for working out mental arithmetic problems while shopping. That's natural learning, or unschooling. But it requires that the parent learns as much, if not more, or already has the knowledge, to 'lead' the child when such excellent learning opportunities present themselves.

Children who aren't motivated to learn are usually children who aren't capitalising on their learning style - they are using an approach that doesn't gel with them. This may have been happening for so long they appear to be totally turned off from learning. Left alone they will eventually find the confidence to become motivated learners again, but it's frustrating and heartbreaking for us parents to watch our children waffle through endless days of boredom, and for teenagers the risk of depression settling in is very real. We intervene because we lack the confidence or knowledge of the best way to support our youngsters. Working out how they learn best is a constructive step. From there it is simply a matter of presenting information and skill building activities in a way that helps learning occur spontaneously, as it did when they were little.

This never precludes the use of school or text books or curricula written by others - not in a natural learning or unschooling setting or any other. These are valid learning tools. It would be impossible to learn the word of God without reading the Bible, for example. Books, television, film, radio, tapes, mentors, tutors, classes... excellent learning tools. What we need to do, as home educators, is set aside our personal preferences and find the tools that best suit our individual child. If we personally can't work with those particular tools with our child then perhaps we need to find someone that can - the other parent, a relative, close friend, homeschooling tutor, learning club...

I found, especially in the early years when my confidence in my children's ability to learn without intervention was practically non-existent, that working with school books in grammar, spelling and maths suited both me and my children. My youngest struggled the most with this approach and by and large we abandoned books until he had developed the skills to use them through other means. His ability to work with texts was not damaged by his limited experience with them during these formative years: at the age of 14 he worked his way through a maths text book and then began a correspondence course in electronic engineering. I didn't need to remind him to study - he set his own schedule and worked diligently through the texts, often with difficulty as he soon surpassed his father's understanding the subject. The motivation to learn, to keep at it every week, came from within. He's abandoned his course, but not because it was too difficult but because, having tried it, he discovered that isn't a direction he'd like to pursue. His interest in computers led him that far, but, as I already knew, electronics is only a minor interest in his life.

The trust I place in my children to work out, on their own, what they need to learn and which direction to put effort into, is very hard to maintain - my confidence still wavers daily. They are in control of their own learning processes though and they understand a great deal about what motivates them, and when they want something they go after it with passion and enthusiasm and they do a great job and feel satisfied. It's not an easy path - learning is full of conflict and painful moments and my kids experience a lot of stress as they work things out for themselves. I always want to step in and guide them... As I've slowly learned, my way isn't always the best way. And if it's motivation I'm looking for, then that has to come from the child, from his or her love of learning, from his interest, from his need to make meaning and sense from whatever he is doing, right now.

I am not convinced that motivation, or the lack of it, is the result of structure in learning programs. When children's learning needs are matched to the activity motivation is usually high. Reluctance to participate can be caused by many factors - these need to be addressed first. I've included a discussion on these factors in Chapter 4 of my book Getting Started with Homeschooling .

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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Welcome to the World of Home Education
and Learning without School!

We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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