In my last blog entry I wrote about essential vs. inessential learning, and was thinking about it from the point of view of what is taught in schools in the name of preparing kids to function in the “real world”. After reading it, a friend and fellow unschooling parent sent me an email in which she asked why I didn’t mention other things that could well be considered “essential”. Knowing how to sew a button, or wield a hammer, for example; knowing north from south, the name of our nearest ocean or where Europe is on a map. She also mentioned knowing things like who MLK Jr. is, or at least knowing enough not to blurt out “Who’s that?” when his name comes up.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what she wrote.
As to practical knowledge – the sew a button wield a hammer type stuff – I think unschoolers often know more than schooled children in that regard simply by virtue of the fact that they spend more time in the adult world and are more likely to be exposed to things like pruning trees or unclogging toilets or whatever. That said, there will be holes; things they don’t know because they aren’t exposed to it. That, however, is the case with everyone, schooled or not. My mother sewed a lot of my clothes when I was growing up, but I was in college before I learned to sew on a button properly. I can change a tire on my car, but don’t ask me to change the oil. I know how to unclog a toilet and do my laundry and am getting better at cooking, but I’ll hire someone to install a new light fixture.
In unschooling or self-directed learning, knowledge is infinite and learning never stops. There is never an age at which we should know all we need to know; as our lives change and we take on new tasks, so our learning changes with it.
As for the other things like knowledge of direction or location or basic geography? In theory it’s the same; we learn what we need to know at any point in our lives, but I am aware of the importance of having a general knowledge of our world and our place in it. For me this has never been an issue. You see, I talk a lot.
Yes, I know it’s surprising, but I’m what Seth Godin would call a “sneezer”. If I’m interested in something I go on about it. Since my kids are the people with whom I spend the majority of my time, they are often on the receiving end of this sneezing. And I’m interested in a lot of seemingly random stuff.
(I know, those of you who know me personally are now thinking of the vast amounts of useless information regarding movies that I have stored away in my brain, just waiting for some unsuspecting person to say, “I loved that film that the guy – you know, the one who played Han Solo – made where he was some sort of farmer…” “Harrison Ford in Witness?” “No, the other one where he was sort of crazy..” “Mosquito Coast?” “Yes, that’s it!” And then I go on for a bit too long about how that movie was made in Belize and how you can stay at a resort on Ambergris Caye near where most of it was filmed. Sorry, everyone who has ever been subjected to my ramblings. )
But that’s not all. When Ben wanted to watch the “Thriller” video at the ripe old age of 4, I let him, but first got my hands on a copy of “The Making of Thriller”. (Never released on DVD, sad to say. What’s up with that, people who take care of Michael’s estate?) This was so that he could see how they did the makeup for the zombies, how they turned Michael into a werewolf, and how they staged the scary scenes. With no creepy music and the director yelling, “Ok Mike! Break on through the wall!” it was easy to take the fear out of watching something that was meant to be scary.
Likewise, when I wanted my kids to know how to find their way around our neighborhood, we talked about directions; north, south, east and west. When we travel, I talk about where we are in the world and what makes it significant. I love history and if we visit a historic site I’ll go on about it and what happened there. Not in a “Hey you need to learn this stuff now” kind of way, but just because I think it’s cool. Enthusiasm tends to be contagious (not always, of course) and some of what I ramble on about sticks in their brains or sparks an interest of their own.
I have a feeling every parent, especially unschooling parents, do this to some degree. Our subjects may differ but we create an enthusiasm and curiosity about life and the world around us, so much so that any “gaps” can easily be filled when the time comes.
Finally, the knowing not to say ‘Who’s that?’ if someone mentions MLK Jr. or any other person of note with whom you might be unfamiliar. Well, that’s a social skill. Because of my ability to retain snippets of random information, I am often able to fake my way through a conversation, even if I know little or nothing of the topic at hand. However I’ve also learned to keep my mouth shut when people are discussing something about which I am clueless. The only way to learn this particular skill, at least in my experience, is to embarrass yourself once or twice. That said, I have noticed that my kids are much more adept than I was at their ages in the nuances of social interaction. They keep silent when appropriate (but make no mistake, they are drinking in every word that is said), and also know when to nod and smile and make sounds of agreement. And they manage it without ever having made an idiot of themselves in a group. At least to my knowledge. I think such social skills and the obtaining of them vary wildly from person to person, depending on their personality and interests. This goes for both schooled and unschooled kids. As a general rule I think unschooled kids do better in mixed company.
So yes, there are many things outside the realm of school subjects that could be considered “essential”. As unschooling parents, I suppose our job is to “mind the gap(s)” as they say in the British tube stations. Be aware of the areas of which our child has little or no knowledge, and be ready to fill them when necessary.