Learning unlimited

By Rebecca Kail

In retrospect, it was an auspicious day, but at the time it was no different to any other. It was our son’s first day of compulsory education; the day he didn’t go to school. And he never did go, not even for a single day. Eleven years, that’s how long most children spend behind desks in a room with a teacher and thirty or so other children their own age. But our son’s education was different.


Parents, you see, must provide education for their children by sending them to a state school or by other means. We opted for the ‘other means’. Education is parents’ responsibility and it is entirely up to them what sort of education they provide. You can put archaeology, bee-keeping and crime fiction on the curriculum if you want, or dendrology, existentialism and foraging. There are minimal rules – none that demands a specific list of subjects. Alternatively, you can forget ‘subjects’ and do things differently. We did things differently.


Having opted out of school at school, why bring it home? We followed this thought to its conclusion. We had no curriculum, no teaching, no worksheets, no assessments and no agenda. CJ, our five-year-old, was curious about everything and learning fast. Why should we dictate which sections were worth knowing about, or measure how long should be spent on each bit? Why should we assume that our teaching would be more efficient than his learning? How could we know what might be of value to him in the future? Surely, we thought, his own enthusiasm would lead him to explore the world in a way that made sense to him. We trusted his instincts and abilities.


So, on that day, life changed far less for CJ than for his peers. He didn’t have a new uniform, rucksack or lunch box. He didn’t have to get up at a particular time, and hurry his breakfast to join the ‘school run’. He didn’t need to leave his parent at the school gate and face a new environment with different rules and unfamiliar people. His life, his varied life, continued exactly as before - with nothing to mark the change to ‘compulsory education’.


CJ continued to spend his time however he chose. He looked at books, played with Lego, and dug holes in the garden. He drew pictures, met friends and played with toy vehicles. We went on walks and bike rides. We watched farmers tending sheep, tree surgeons felling trees and builders building houses. We went on the bus to the shops, to the library and the swimming pool. Days had a pattern linked to the rhythm of meals and household chores, but no formal structure. Education and life blended seamlessly.


Most people, we find, can imagine education working like this for at least some of the primary school years. It’s how pre-schoolers learn, after all – by observing, by listening, by trying things out, by chatting with those around them, by constantly asking ‘why?’ Everyone knows that children learn to walk and talk without anyone teaching them. But, of course, CJ did not stay little forever. He got older, and others became more anxious. What about spelling? When does he learn maths? How will he do exams? Won’t he be missing out if he isn’t taught by a qualified teacher?


And yet moving into double figures and then into his teens, CJ’s learning continued in much the same way. Some of his interests developed further, gaining depth or breadth. Others were forsaken as new ones took their place. The library became a second home as he soaked up as much information as he could find on the weather, World War II or Asterix the Gaul. Clubs run by enthusiasts - in archaeology, birdwatching, history, and railway modelling - provided specialist practical and conversational learning. Volunteering in community projects meant meeting new people and learning new skills. The internet (at the library again) offered a wealth of tutorials about 3D modelling and computer programming.


On that first day, we rebelled and chose not to follow the crowd sending their children to school. We rejected the idea that there is a specific body of knowledge that children need to know, and we let our child chose his own learning. We rebelled against teaching as the only way to learn, and focused on providing a good learning environment. We avoided textbooks, worksheets, tests and assessment, and assumed CJ would keep investigating until he’d found out whatever he needed at that time. We rebelled against cajoling our child to learn, and instead got out of his way while he got on with it.   


Much of this was easy for us. We were used to listening to our child, so acting on his preference to be with his family than with a school full of strangers was no problem. We really believed, too, in children’s innate curiosity and desire to learn. We were concerned that schools tended to blunt rather than facilitate that learning. (How can it avoid this when children have so little control over what they learn and when?) We were convinced that it would be better for our child to have haphazard knowledge and keep his thirst for learning, than be knowledgeable but no longer interested in exploring the world. The difficulty was sometimes to trust our instincts when all around us were concerned. ‘Isn’t he reading by now?’ was a regular refrain. We kept our nerve, and, aged about eight, he took off. 


With CJ now a young adult, we don’t regret our rebelliousness, and neither does he. As we intended, his desire to learn has flourished, and, as a result, his world has expanded. Paid work and college have been added to informal learning and volunteering. Moving away from home to live independently means he must have picked up life skills along the way, too. Life. Education. Work. There were, and continue to be, no fixed lines, and we can’t imagine it any other way.


alternative education, curiosity, rebel parenting