“Children learn the same way everyone does when they are completely free of others’ expectations and other interfering impediments to learning. They learn by wondering about something, thinking about it, finding out about it, perhaps reading about it or discussing it or looking it up on the internet, all driven by their own curiosity.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
“What does education taking children seriously look like?”
“I am having a hard time imagining what education taking children seriously might look like. If you are not sending them to school or teaching them the way homeschoolers do, what are you doing to educate them? How do they learn if not through school or homeschooling?”
Think about things you have been curious about and looked into independent of any education programme—things you have pursued out of your own intrinsic interest. Notice how, in many such cases, you have not just stopped the moment you have satisfied your curiosity about that particular thing—how that interest led to another question in your mind that you then wondered about and looked into. And so on. That is how people learn, as Lulie Tanett makes so beautifully clear in her interview on Arjun Khemani’s podcast.
Children learn the same way everyone does when they are completely free of others’ expectations and other interfering impediments to learning. They learn by wondering about something, thinking about it, finding out about it, perhaps reading about it or discussing it or looking it up on the internet, perhaps consulting experts in the field, all driven by their own curiosity.
When there are impediments to people’s freedom of choice, such as when children are required (or pressured more subtly) to study something, as in all involuntary forms of education, that throws a spanner in the works of learning. When, instead of being steered along particular paths well-meaning adults think they need to be following, children are free to pursue their own unique interests, concerns, preferences, wishes, ideas and problems—whatever matters to them at any given moment as the unique individual they are—making their own choices, that facilitates learning.
Being free does not mean having no educational support. It just means that when we are offering our educational support, help, ideas, suggestions, engagement, and so on, we are sensitive to whether or not our engagement is welcome in that moment, and when it is not, we back off, just as you would in any good relationship. Children are sovereign individuals: their lives are their own. They are entitled to the same freedom, rights, respect and control over their lives and learning as we are.
So what does education look like in practice in children being taken seriously? Well for a start, it does not look like child-object being acted-on or done-to by a parent with their own pedagogical agenda that is independent of and impervious to the child’s own wishes. I have come to dislike words like parenting and educating/education precisely because they suggest active adult steering of (coercive control and direction of) passive done-to child-object. Children’s minds are not passively receiving knowledge poured in from outside, as if their minds were buckets and knowledge was a fluid like water being poured in. As Karl Popper argued1, minds are active, not passive, more like a searchlight than a bucket.
Free children learn just like we do, through pursuing what interests them in each moment—not by being subjected to any kind of pedagogical agenda on our part. Their learning is curiosity-driven, unique, and in general it looks absolutely nothing like school or ‘homeschool’ learning.
Curiosity-driven learning is idiosyncratic. Some children might choose to participate in an adult education evening class to facilitate their learning of a difficult foreign language; other children might actually enjoy going through, for example, a school or college mathematics textbook with a friendly mathematician. But anything of this sort that is engineered by the parents is not taking the child or their education and learning seriously, and is going to be impeding and impairing the child’s learning.
Just as adults’ interests and concerns vary dramatically from person to person, so do children’s. So any expectation that curiosity-driven learning will meet any school-like external criteria is a mistake. For example, it is as unlikely that a free child will produce anything remotely resembling school work or school projects as it is that a free adult will.
What we do as parents is to embrace our children’s interests and support them in pursuing those interests any way we can (any way that our children want us to, that is). We are noticing what they are interested in and trying to find ways to facilitate their access to and exploration of that, and we are drawing their attention to related things that might be of interest given that interest. We try to give our children as much access as they want, to the world, and interesting people, and ideas, conversation, debate, free unfettered access to everything that technology offers, lots of engagement, free play, fun activities, and the freedom to be alone and quiet too when they want that—and anything else that they might find fun and interesting.
Some children are fiercely independent from babyhood, and dislike any suggestions whatsoever, whether or not the suggestions are coming from a pedagogical agenda. In such a case, just like with an adult, we don’t want to harangue the person—we do not keep making suggestions if they are not welcome, we just do our best to support them in whatever ways they do like, and do our best to make sure their environment and lives are interesting and rich rather than boring and stultifying. Other children love lots of suggestions.
Some children ask loads of questions and learn vast amounts through conversations discussing their questions. Other children ask us almost no questions ever, and yet at some point (perhaps not until the teenage years!) it becomes clear that they are very bright and that they have evidently been following their curiosity and in their own mind asking questions and discovering answers to them. Some parents worry that their children have never asked lots of questions—and then when I see them together with their children, there are fascinating conversations happening—the parents just somehow haven’t noticed that vast numbers of questions are being discussed in those natural two-way conversations.
Some children learn to read as if by magic in the first years of their life; others have no interest in learning to read until they are teenagers—and then suddenly pick it up surprisingly effortlessly.
Our children being completely free to pursue whatever is of interest to them means we would not even dream of restricting their access to the internet, video games, television, radio, books, AI, and any other sources of information, equipment and activities they might value. Instead, we strive to notice what they seem interested in and find more ways for them to pursue those things, and we think about what they might possibly also find interesting given what they currently find interesting, and draw their attention to those things. To the extent welcomed by our children (which varies considerably from individual child to individual child, just like it does for adults) we actively engage with them rather than just leaving them to it.
1. Objective Knowledge, 1972, 1979, Appendix 1: The Bucket and the Searchlight: Two Theories of Knowledge, pp. 341-361
- Lulie Tanett’s interview on Arjun Khemani’s podcast
- A detailed argument against coercive education
- Unschooling is not the same as non-coercive education
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2023, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘What does education taking children seriously look like?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/what-does-education-taking-children-seriously-look-like