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There's Nothing 'Relaxed' about Natural Learning!

by Beverley Paine, Brisbane Home Education Seminar, 2004

John Holt said “learning is as natural as breathing”. I believe this. Our society has turned something as simple and powerful as learning into a convoluted process in order to control the population. Once the media, motivated by profit, fully takes control of this process, I believe society will decline into chaos. Taking back the responsibility of learning, making it personal, making it meaningful to our individual lives, and to the development of our family lives, is the only way to build strong, healthy communities.

It doesn't matter what method or approach to home education we use – all are powerful statements of our determination to control and manage our own destinies, guided by respect and love for our children, the next generation, the future.

There are many misconceptions about natural learning, or as I prefer to call it, learning naturally. I want to talk about these, rather than define what learning naturally is, as I think it's important to break down the barriers of misconception that prevent communities of learners from having meaningful dialogue. We are all homeschoolers and we all face similar issues in our day to day lives as educators and parents. We need to share our experiences; to learn and grow from each other's experiences. One of the elemental aspects of learning is that it occurs in social contexts.

Our homeschooling style has been described as relaxed. It is no more relaxed, or unstructured, than someone who follows a strict timetable and a meticulously planned curriculum. Many people struggle as they move to a learning naturally style of homeschooling – it takes time to let go of our own schooled beliefs about learning and to trust in ourselves as mentors and co-learners, to let go of our belief that the school method is the only or best way to educate a child. It was not always thus – for millennia children have learned without schools. For centuries the parents and the family home, and daily engagement within the local community, were the learning tools that took a child and grew him into adulthood. Learning naturally is simply a return to that time-honoured practice.

It would take a lot longer than 25 minutes to fully explain the complexities of learning naturally – we can delve into this more fully this afternoon during the group discussion. A useful place to start that discussion is by sharing with you what I believe natural learning is not…

It is not allowing the children to choose what, when and how to learn things on their own . It is, however, it allowing the children to participate in decisions made

about what they want to do, and how, and when, and it gives them the opportunity to have greater responsibility within the framework of the family for their own lives. Children are not left to be responsible for their own learning, but are encouraged to explore and learn responsibility, knowledge and skills, and to develop self-motivation and self-discipline gradually according to their developmental needs. MORE

It is not exposing children to a plethora of experiences and activities – anything and everything! Nobody can learn everything there is to learn and know. Offering children a small taste of everything from the smorgasbord of life can often deny them the satisfaction of savouring something to the end of the experience, of investigating deeper and deeper, of uncovering new territory to explore. If you strive to offer everything then you doom yourself to failure, trying to fulfil impossible tasks! This was leads most definitely to symptoms of burn-out.

Natural learning is about matching up the available resources with what is needed – it is selective, temperamental and responsive to individual and family needs. It isn't about inventing a need to match the available resources. It is staying centred in the real world of everyday existence, not offering unrelated fragments of learning experiences for the sake of learning things others outside of the family deem important.

Natural learning recognises that happens unprovoked, incidentally, spontaneously, and values the quiet times of solitude and contemplation usually referred to a ‘day-dreaming' or ‘doing nothing'; More often than not these are periods of reflection, evaluation or consolidation of knowledge and skills – an essential part of the whole learning process.

Learning naturally is not focussing on the child's life as the centre of the family. All family members are learners, each with their own unique learning needs and experiences. Learning is a social phenomenon, moving naturally from the primary caregiver in the infant years, to the rest of the family, then the extended family and trusted friends in the toddler and early childhood years, to the local community as the child grows, and then to the wider community and beyond as responsibility, skills and knowledge grow, always allowing an interactive and interdependent process to occur. No one family member is more important to the family structure than any other – all have their own special unique contributions and places.

Natural learning allows the process of building families, and thus communities, in a time honoured and tested way. It emphasises the development of beneficial and cooperative relationships and associations. It is centred in family and community values and respect for all people.

I truly believe learning naturally is at the centre of all home learning situations no matter what method or approach we adopt. Natural learning is not something that we can do with our children. It is what happens, despite what we do . Learning is a natural as breathing – while we live we can't help learning – it is our responsibility to learn what we can to survive and help others survive.

Our family chooses to celebrate our ability to learn 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to grow our awareness of our learning needs and how we, as individuals, learn, in order to become trusted, valued and effective members of our community.

There is a general misunderstanding in the homeschooling community that unschooling or learning naturally is simply a matter of letting children do whatever they want, or not setting out anything for them to do - that is, completely unstructured learning. Some people think that natural learning means children are supposed to educate themselves.

However, it doesn't happen like that. We allow life, with all it's complexity, to guide the content and direction of our learning, rather than impose a rigid list of particular objectives or skills, determined by others, to be reached by certain ages or year levels. We reject the notion of a traditional school-based curriculum. Our home learning program isn't devoid of a curriculum - not at all - but from a casual perspective, from a visitor's viewpoint, it would look like it.

In order to feel confident educating my children as we walked along the path of homeschooling I studied education and child development, both on my own using library books, the internet, and talking to other educators and friends who were teachers, and also at University level for a couple of years in the early nineties. It was important for me to know what my children were learning and why, and how to help them set and achieve their own learning goals. I discovered much about individual learning styles and about how learning occurs and applied this to each learning situation. At the same time, we constantly evaluated our values and life goals and designed activities that would move our family in the direction we wanted to go, with life, learning and relationships.

Most people don't know they are natural learners. They don't know they have the ability to celebrate the learning that occurs in their lives every moment of each day. They have been completely dumbed down by the concept that to learn, one must be taught. Natural learners often present as passionate, confident, and fulfilled people with a high-level of self-awareness. They tend to celebrate their ups and downs and capitalise on whatever comes their way to grow as individuals and community members. They are problem solvers, creative people, often high achievers in whatever field of endeavour they focus on. Most people don't recognise their own learning ability in each and every moment, and thus don't capitalise and learn more. Awareness is the key. Schools and traditional educational methods of learning don't value self-awareness. It is not valued highly by our society because it empowers the individual to act to root out corruption and uncaring and unethical practices by others.

Self-awareness is something I see homeschooling parents encouraging in their children across the board, regardless of their home education motivations or methods.

Some people believe that natural learning is a “do nothing” or “anything goes” approach." I've found that “anything goes” quickly leads to children feeling so out of control that conflict arises – it isn't long before my guiding hand is needed to bring their life back into balance. The key element to learning naturally is the natural hierarchy of experience guiding the inexperienced . Some call this the apprenticeship model of learning, or mentoring. We are our children's first mentors, their first and most trusted teachers.

Some people believe that learning naturally means abandoning a structure. I'm not sure we would have survived homeschooling as a family without a solid structure or scaffold in place! In practice this meant setting long term goals – we envisioned the type of adults we wanted our children to become and the type of children we wanted them to be. We set yearly educational goals for each child, as well as short-term goals that encompassed anything from a week to a few months. Goals like learning to read simple sentences, know the times tables, learn first aid, etc. Our short-term goals were often stated as projects - build a fox proof duck yard; learn about the solar system; or the history of South Australia. We set daily objectives – both educational and lifestyle, and often recorded these as a list of things we wanted to do that day. Our days, weeks, months and years were definitely planned and structured, although from an observer's viewpoint it would have looked like we were doing whatever we wanted to each day based on what our immediate needs were.

Looking back, I am amazed at what we've achieved as a family. We've all led busy and full lives and learned a great deal.

Some people think that parents who focus on allowing their children to learn naturally refuse to teach their children anything, and make them learn by themselves, without help or guidance. This would quickly lead to conflict between parent and child, with the child feeling abandoned and lost. It's a recipe for disaster.

'Teaching' children is something parents do from the child's birth onwards. I don't understand why the very effective and natural way that parents teach their child complex skills and detailed social and intellectual knowledge should be abandoned just because a child turns five. We tried ‘school at home' and found it less effective than what we'd done before. Our children taught us that by strongly resisting our urge to teach them things that were unrelated to their conceptual and developmental abilities or were so far removed from their world of meaning it didn't make any sense.

Instead we taught the children what they needed to know right now , what we needed them to know right now , and what society needed them to know right now . We kept their learning in the context of their lives, which was firmly rooted in their family and community experience.

This generally meant talking to them, showing them, helping them, challenging them, encouraging them, and listening attentively to them. I never left my children to learn things by themselves – I always made sure that guidance and help, if needed, was at hand.

I question the direction and intent of school curricula, and the emphasis on 'success' in education in general. I'm not happy with the push for young people to 'reach their full potential' by age 18. I think the pressure on young people to achieve unrealistic goals begins with the school curriculum and is reinforced by the media and misguided parental desire. We encourage our children to be the best sports star, pop star, or film star. If they fail at that then we encourage them to acquire wealth, as though that equates with success. Seldom do we encourage our children to determine their own destinies, to seek self-fulfilment, or seek a life of service to others. It doesn't surprise me that Australia has the second highest youth suicide rate in the world.

The traditional curriculum doesn't value or reflect the learning styles of a good many children – and it fails those young people miserably. There are very many ways to learn and the most effective is hands on activity combined with intelligent and respectful conversation. It is better to learn mathematics with someone who needs to use it for a meaningful purpose than to pour over a silent book trying to make sense of abstract figures. Mentoring is far superior to passive teaching. Society was constructed this way in the past and it produced great minds and great progress. We've forgotten the merits of the old ways of learning, the natural ways.

Some families worry that allowing a more natural way of learning to unfold in the home will mean that children will choose not to learn subjects that are unpleasant to them at the time.

If the learning is meaningful and in context children will work on a concept until they have mastered it, even though the tasks involved may be unpleasant, frustrating or difficult. This is a fact of life and it's one that children accept from the cradle. Not all things in life are pleasant. Our current obsession with the fad “learning must be fun”, one of the most wicked tools of the companies that make profit from education, demeans the natural intelligence of our children and ourselves.

Some of my most poignant and important lessons in life have come at times of greatest conflict, or sadness. I see this also in my children's lives. We celebrate the learning that each moment brings and reject the notion that learning has to be fun, or happy, or cheerful, or easy…

That said, however, my children and I question the need to learn specific things in a specific order at specific times in a young person's life. We determine our own learning goals. We negotiate those goals as a family, to help each other learn best.

We instructed or helped our children learn the things we thought were important when learning them was most meaningful to the learner. Instead of learning a particular skill at say age six, my son learned it at age ten. Learning still followed a natural sequence, but much of the dull repetition and rote learning used in schools was not necessary. Learning, like physical growth, didn't follow a smooth curve, but leapt and lagged and lagged and leapt. Our goals, nonetheless, were reached.

As John Holt emphasised in his writing, parenting and educating our children in this way takes faith in their ability to learn. We must trust that they can, and want to, learn, and that they can guide us in that process as much as we can guide them.

Most of us begin with ‘school at home' because that is what we are comfortable with and what we know. It's a great place to start. All families move on to find the structure and routines that best suit their individual family values, needs and lifestyle. We select from a vast variety of learning tools. John Holt, the writer and educational reformist who coined the word ‘unschooler', believed in textbooks as a useful method of instruction. As a natural learner I've learned from textbooks and courses, both in class and as a distance education student, as have all three of my children. The difference is that we are in control of our learning processes – we negotiate with our mentors the learning objectives. We make the learning tasks personally meaningful.

Underpinning our educational endeavour is the swift current of learning naturally, taking us on exciting voyages self-discovery and building community.

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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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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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