Monthly Archives: August 2013

Life Learning and the Problem With Potential

potentialA recurring theme in this magazine is the idea of potential. (There are two articles about it in the upcoming September/October issue. See the bottom of this post for a list of some of the other articles we’ve published on the topic.) It’s is a misunderstood concept that puts a great deal of pressure on children and young people. Those not familiar with self-directed learning wonder how children who don’t attend school will be motivated to work hard at anything (i.e. live up to their potential) because they’re not forced to. Parents of all sorts – schooling and homeschooling alike – worry about helping their kids live up to their potential (whether it’s written on a school report card or not). In some cases, it’s the mantra for success, for winning the competition of life.

Having never viewed life as a competition, I’ve never understood what’s so important about this mysterious and amorphous thing that we call “potential.” It’s really just about possibilities, about having the capacity to develop a skill or talent in the future. People act like we all contain some bundle of specific stuff inside us just waiting for us to let it out, and if we don’t strive to do that, we are less than whole people…unsuccessful and presumably wretched. In fact, we all have potential…we are potential! But we are also complete just as we are, no matter how old or young we are.

And here’s the thing – well two things, actually: What happens to choice and free will in this pressure cooker of potential-meeting (as in what if you are interested in something that you aren’t thought to have potential for, or dislike what those supposedly in the know think you have potential for)? And where does the present fit in to our lives if we’re always focused on a future possibility?

I grew up in a family that always lived for the future, anticipating future events, saving for a rainy day, worrying about what calamity could happen, sacrificing for my education, and yes, waiting for me to do all the wonderful things I supposedly had the potential to do (and those, I realized as a teenager, had little to do with what I was interested in.) But my parents seldom seemed happy or at peace with the current day. They always seemed to be trying to just get through today in anticipation of the potential held by tomorrow, although more often than not they seemed pessimistic about the future. Perhaps in reaction, I have cultivated living mindfully – enjoying, or at least appreciating, each moment as it happens. That doesn’t mean I don’t set goals or work hard, don’t appreciate/use my talents, or don’t consider myself successful; it does mean I don’t single-mindedly chase an invisible, possibly unreachable carrot called “potential.”

Wrestling with the notion of potential (and its cousin, expectations) has informed my beliefs about life learning. When our daughters were living the school-free life decades ago, we weren’t concerned about their future financial success or happiness (although, as parents, we wanted both for them – as they defined those terms), or what sorts of careers they’d have when they grew up. We were concerned about living, being, and learning with them every day; we figured the future would take care of itself if they had freedom, trust, and respect in the present. And it did. Have they lived up to their potential? Well, as adults, they still work hard at the things they care about and feel are important. They’re happy, and financially capable. They try to do their best and are still always learning. They’ve each developed some of their talents, and they’ve both become accomplished at things I never foresaw in their futures.


Over the years, we’ve covered this topic in many different ways in Life Learning Magazine. Here are just a few of those articles. (They are not all live on the website, but if you’re a subscriber, you will have access to them using your password and the back issue archives.)

On Expectations About Learning by Katherine Michalak in Life Learning Magazine, March/April 2003

Living for the Future And Why I’m Glad My Family is Unschooling by Charles Morris in Life Learning Magazine, July/August 2007

Whose Goal Is It, Anyway? by Pam Laricchia in Life Learning Magazine, March/April 2006

Doing Their Best Naturally by Rachel Gathercole in Life Learning Magazine, September/October 2007

Unschooling Helps Children Achieve Full Personhood by Tammy Takahashi in Life Learning Magazine, July/August 2007

Life Learning Isn’t Just For Kids

Life Learning Isn't Just For KidsWhen my partner Rolf and I were designing Life Learning Magazine back in 2001 (the first issue was published in March of 2002), we didn’t intend it to be totally dedicated to homeschooling (or unschooling or its various refinements, for that matter). Our vision included adults as well as children.

The about us section on its website describes its mission as helping readers to “discover how to employ self-directed, life-based learning in your own life and/or that of your child.”

In fact, I think adults have the more difficult task in terms of employing interest-based, learner-directed education – i.e. learning from the real world – because most of us were limited by our schooling and continue to be limited by a society that still believes in standardized, classroom-based education. On the other hand, children who have never been to school don’t have to deschool themselves or be taught how to learn – they just do it naturally…with a little bit of assistance from adults (which can sometimes include keeping out of the way).

But not everyone sees it that way, as I was reminded recently in an exchange I had with one of our readers. Life Learning Magazine was spun off from Natural Life Magazine, which has included articles about life learning since we founded it in 1976 (partly as a way of staying at home with our school-free daughters). Nevertheless, a Natural Life Magazine reader informed us that she was mystified as to why we cover education there. That subject, she declared, has absolutely nothing to do with gardening, sustainable housing and green living, and we are duping our readers by including education in the magazine.

Actually, those topics have everything to do with each other. I see no contradiction between growing one’s own food, building or upgrading one’s own house to be energy-efficient, and being self-reliant in terms of one’s own education.

But beyond that self-reliance, I think there are two issues behind her comment, which reflects a common viewpoint. Firstly, for some reason that I think has to do with ageism, we view children’s learning differently than that of adults. We think that kids must be coerced to go to school and to be taught a certain and ordered menu of subjects. Once they finish secondary school, they’re allowed more input into and ownership of their education. And then we typically treat education as over and done with (although in the current economy, many adults are being forced to re-educate themselves for second careers).

Secondly, we separate so-called “academic” subjects from life skills. When we publish articles in Natural Life Magazine about how to build a worm composter, or ways to eliminate plastic in our lives, or the culinary and health benefits of garlic, we are encouraging people of all ages to learn by doing. As Matthew B. Crawford writes in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, the way we come to know a tool is by using it, and the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world “depends on our doing stuff in it.”

That’s exactly how and why we hope the readers of all our magazines and books, and their children, will learn both academic material and more practical stuff. As I wrote in an article for the upcoming September/October issue of Life Learning Magazine, self-directed learning is not just for kids – especially if we adults can get back in touch with our childlike curiosity, trust our ability to learn by doing, and stop separating the world’s store of knowledge into silos.

Studying alongside our children makes us good role models for independent learning. Remembering that we’re always learning from life can help us deschool ourselves and move beyond the limits of formal education.