How interest led learning works

The more I learn about learning, the less I understand why many educators believe all kids need to learn the same subjects at the same age and in more or less the same fashion.

That’s not how true learning works.

But, the critics say, if you let kids just learn whatever they want, how will they acquire that all important “general knowledge” base?  How will they become good, contributing citizens?   (By the way, I’m not sure why becoming a good citizen or having a broad general knowledge base is intrinsically tied to compulsory schooling, but a lot of people seem to believe that it is.)

Let’s look at two hypothetical scenarios, inspired by a real-life boy I know.

In the first scenario, this boy hated school and struggled to pass in every subject but one.  Shop.  From a young age he loved cars, trucks & motorcycles and spent all his free time learning about them.  By the time he entered high school he could tear down an engine and put it back together almost with his eyes closed.   He could tell you in detail about the workings of any engine and the vehicle it powered.

No one outside of shop class knew about or put any real value on his extensive mechanical knowledge.   According to the system, it had no connection to anything else he was supposed to be learning.  Teachers thought him difficult & sullen.  He was placed in remedial classes and cut school whenever possible.  His parents despaired of him ever doing anything productive with his life.

He lived up to the system’s expectations, and dropped out, believing himself ignorant and a failure.

In the second scenario, the boy did not go to school at all, his parents having chosen to unschool him.   They recognized his passion for mechanics and automobiles, and encouraged the interest.  They bought models, took out books from the library and visited auto shops so he could watch the mechanics work and ask questions.

After a while, he started working on motorcycles, trucks and cars.  He could tear down an engine and put it back together almost with his eyes closed.  He could tell you in detail about the workings of any engine and the vehicle it powered.

While reading a book about vintage cars, he became interested in the history of automobiles.   Using the internet and the library, he began reading about the first internal combustion engines.   Names like Daimler, Benz, Studebaker and Ford led him to a more in depth reading of those men and their biographies.  Along the way he learned something about the times & countries in which they lived.   Reading that Ford was anti-semitic, he did further research into what that meant which led to an entire month spent reading about the 1st and 2nd World Wars.

All the while, he was also experimenting with engines.   To build an engine from scratch takes a lot of patience and knowledge.   Math, physics and engineering all come into play, and despite frustrations and setbacks he worked hard to master each skill, as it brought him closer to his goal of building his own custom engine.   He salvaged some parts and raised the money to buy the rest.  He budgeted and researched where to get the best deals.    Quality became an issue, so he researched the difference in cost and quality between parts made locally in the U.S. and those made overseas.   In doing so he learned about the political nature of trade agreements and labor conditions in the various countries in which the parts he needed were made.

He decided to only buy parts made here in the U.S.

Once he was old enough he began to work part time in a garage, getting hands on experience with the goal of having his own shop one day.

Which of these scenarios do you think would produce the better citizen; the child with a broad knowledge base who will contribute to society?

In my book there is no comparison.    See how a kid who says they have no interest in history might in fact become interested if it is connected to something about which they are passionate?   See how children who “hate Math” might become very proficient at a range of math skills when they relate to a project or goal they chose for themselves?

But what about those kids who don’t know what their passion is?   For those kids, it is important to be able to experiment without fear of ridicule.  To try a variety of things until they find their passion.    They’ll learn a lot along the way, and once they’ve discovered their area of interest, it will all accelerate.

This works for all kids, and in any area of interest.  That’s right, all kids.  No matter their socioeconomic background or family situation.  If they are encouraged and supported – by a parent, a teacher, a mentor, a grandparent; by someone –  in finding/pursuing their interest, even if those things do not exactly coincide with a curriculum, they are far more likely to flourish in all areas of life and learning.



8 comments on “How interest led learning works

  1. John says:

    A little bit of a rosy scenario on the unschooled path. Why can’t he do the same thing after he drops out of school?

    • Amy says:

      Hi John,
      Thanks for the comment. He could in theory,(and some people do/would) but after years of being told he wasn’t smart, worthy, etc., it’s much more difficult to get back that motivation and curiousity…


  2. Cindy says:


    I’ve actually met many people, especially men, who have forged their way after dropping out of school. An example is my neighbor. He’s a successful builder. But he carries shame from his mismatched school days. When I shared with him that I was writing a book about learners like him, that’s when he lowered his voice and “confessed” that he had dropped out in 8th grade. His shame was palpable. Then, he perked up and declared, “You’re going to change lives!” That’s my hope and purpose.

    That said, and speaking of the post overall, I feel standardized education actually interferes with children finding their passion. I have 7 children, 5 by birth and 2 by adoption. All of them found their passion by between 11 and 13, even my sons with more obvious “struggles” (like those with autism or developmental delays). Schools prevent children from dreaming, exploring, and thinking, all of which help children discover their gifts and passion. The gift-centered, strengths-based unschooling environment encourages finding these things. When this happens, the individual and the world is blessed.

    My thoughts and experiences…

    • Amy says:

      Cindy, thanks as always for the thoughtful comment. It’s true that there are those who do amazing things after difficult, even disastrous school experiences (or home experiences, health experiences, etc.). But how many more kids would be extraordinary if from day one their interests were encouraged?! Love what you wrote. It’s 100% accurate.


  3. And why put kids through that sort of disastrous experience anyway? There seems to be some sense that kids “need” such experiences…to toughen them up, to prepare them for the “real world.” It doesn’t, as Cindy so eloquently wrote.

    Great post, Amy.

  4. […] York blogger Amy Milstein has written this blog post that is an excellent description of how life learning – you could call it interest led […]

  5. […] 5 year old will be learning the same things at the same time, learning through hands-on play) and Interest Led Learning (where you take advantage of your child’s individual interests and build their education […]

  6. […] much better with interest-led learning.  (Although I have not chosen to “unschool”, this is a good source to see what interest-led learning is […]

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