Isn’t school necessary for children to learn?

“How is your own learning affected when someone else is telling you what and how to learn, and looking over your shoulder to check that you are doing what they require? The inherent control and monitoring of the school system and similar coercive education is a major learning hurdle.”
– Brad Matthews


Children taken seriously tend to choose not to go to school. For many parents new to the idea of children being free, this raises fears of their children failing to learn knowledge needed for a productive life. So let’s compare school-based education to the education of taking children seriously. How well does taking your children seriously stack up against compelling them to go to school against their will?

Taking children seriously creates opportunity for them to develop emotionally in a way that is natural for them. Human beings yearn to be free and to control their own lives. School says that that normal human wish is illegitimate—and that it is legitimate to control and coerce other people. In taking away children’s responsibility for themselves, it interferes with the development of the responsibility and autonomy that are so needed in life as an adult, and in some cases messes up their emotional development. For some children forced to go to school, the emotional impact on them blights their lives. Isn’t it remarkable that so few people question the logic that appears to assert that coercing and controlling children for the first 18 years of their lives helps them learn to treat others well?

By contrast, taking children seriously allows them to develop naturally and facilitates the development of responsibility and autonomy in a way that controlling children cannot. It allows them to learn that they have human rights, dignity, and freedom, and it does not teach them the toxic lesson that it is fine to order others around or command them like dogs.

But it’s not just worthwhile from a moral or ethical standpoint. A child taken seriously has the freedom to pursue their interests and explore unrestrained by ‘curriculum’, time of day, or other arbitrary constraints. Children are also able to learn faster, more deeply, and in genuine contexts rather than isolated silos. If they are learning particular skills, for example, children taken seriously can practice what they learn in the real world, and avoid the baggage that comes with traditional methods of ‘learning’.

A child who is taken seriously is free to learn at their own pace and on their own terms. This means being free to ask their own questions—whether that’s to you as a parent, a subject matter expert, a slightly more experienced fellow traveller, an internet search engine, or a relevant book’s table of contents. This facilitates their learning in a way that the miserable battle of coercive education cannot.

It’s not so much that a child will necessarily move at breakneck pace—though they certainly can. When ‘educational’ material is assigned in school or school-at-home homeschool, in addition to the time wasted in the battle for control, and the fact that the teaching to which the children are being subjected rarely if ever answers the burning questions in the children’s minds, much time is taken up getting organised, setting up, packing up, dealing with ‘misbehaviour’. To make it easier on the teacher, everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, and those who finish early are idle or assigned busy-work. That model slows everybody down, even in its own terms.

When children are in charge of their own learning there’s no risk of being told off for “reading too far ahead”, or “reading outside the provided material”. When children are free to explore a topic, they can choose to drip feed information as they are learning, or devour three books, a dozen YouTube videos, and countless online articles to get a big picture understanding of the subject. They can pursue knowledge of interest to them in a way that is natural and thus most efficient for them, and they can drop any line of exploration the moment it is no longer answering the questions in their mind.

Deep learning leads to understanding how different related pieces of knowledge fit together. Learning about style, for example, leads to learning about colour combinations, accessories that complement an outfit or body, body language and presentation, how certain attire looks on different body compositions, etc. Each element of new knowledge makes all the others clearer, painting a more detailed picture of what constitutes style.

A child who is truly free to learn how and what and when they choose gets to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. A child learning videography for instance, may end up down a multitude of interesting rabbit holes. This results in them learning not only about concepts related to the camera and capturing audio and video effectively, but quite possibly also about how to market their video to get it seen by more people, how to present, how to edit video, how to speak engagingly, how certain colour and audio tones can be used to invoke particular emotions in the viewer—and countless other aspects relating to what they’re filming and why.

A child who learns to code will inevitably learn far more than the programming language. They’ll learn which websites have reliable information and assistance for new developers, how to think logically, the best places to ask questions and get feedback, whether they make more progress through videos, books, or being taught in-person by somebody.

Learning for its own sake is interesting and valid. Typically we don’t learn history or the arts for the purpose of putting that knowledge into practice on something specific. Yet for those for whom these things are interesting, having that knowledge is enriching to the human experience and may prove useful at some stages throughout life. No knowledge pursued by the learner is wasted knowledge.

That said, the idea that practical knowledge is somehow less important than academic knowledge is a mistake. Practical skills are empowering because they allow us to create. Unfortunately, practical learning in traditional environments is artificially constrained. There’s a disconnect between school and the real world; there are rules about keeping oneself and the classroom clean and tidy; there’s inflexibility for students to go outside and do messy things due to requirements around supervision. There are limited resources and limited practical creativity.

Consider how the subject of light is explored in school. Groups will gather around a torch and shine the light at several blocks of various materials to ‘learn’ reflection, refraction, opacity, wavelengths, and so on. This ‘learning’ is incredibly sterile and detached from the world. For children taken seriously who have an interest in this, reflection can be explored much more naturally and interestingly via glass in the shade, car headlights, car side mirrors, microscopes, telescopes, polished surfaces, and more. Likewise refraction could make use of magnifying glasses, water, swimming pools, all the way to magic tricks and illusions using real world objects.

Abstract learning is wonderful when it interests the child. But practical learning is valid too. The beauty of practical learning by doing is not only retention, as you might think if you are thinking of education the way the school system does: it is far more likely to answer the questions in the child’s mind than the sterile, narrow version of such education that is typically imposed by schools. And it is far more likely to spark further thinking about related or seemingly unrelated areas of thought.

Children forced to attend school are not free to explore a topic deeply or broadly wherever it leads. There is always the fear of upsetting the authority figure if their investigations do not go the way the teacher requires. How is your own learning affected when someone else is telling you what and how to learn, and looking over your shoulder to check that you are doing what they require? The inherent control and monitoring of the school system and similar coercive education is a major learning hurdle.

A child who is completely free to learn and whose learning is not being monitored and assessed is empowered. Their learning is for themselves, not because an authority figure asked them to memorise and regurgitate a set of facts or ideas. They are engaging in learning dynamically rather than filling out worksheets placed in front of them. The child forced to go to school receives the message throughout the entire process that learning is unpleasant, forced, and something to try to avoid if possible. Free children never get that destructive message. For them, learning is exciting, interesting, useful, valuable, and meaningful.

As a result of being in charge of their learning, children taken seriously become confident and independently engage with the world, as opposed to merely doing what they are told like dependent and fearful or helpless school children. There is much more opportunity for free children to become competent in any skill they learn than can possibly be the case for unfree children. There is none of the school-related reducing learning to seeking a good score on a test, or feeling deflated because their answers were wrong. This confidence and competence leads to improved self-esteem and self-efficacy, because their learning has arisen naturally from their own interests, using their own agency.

The key difference in the learning afforded by taking children seriously versus that afforded via the standard coercive education system can be summed up by the following quote from Plato.

“Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.”

I do not advocate compulsory exercise (or compulsory anything) but that is a separate point. A child can learn to repeat the right talking points when they are ‘taught at’ by a teacher. That is a shallow idea of learning. For knowledge and deep understanding, whether of practical skills to be used and implemented, or deep knowledge about seemingly abstract ideas, the child must pursue it themselves out of their own interest, and not because someone else is directing their education. That is what the freedom of taking children seriously allows.

See also:

Brad Matthews, 2023, ‘Isn’t school necessary for children to learn?’,

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