Instinct to Learn

Children Have an Instinct to LearnI believe that children have an instinct to learn (and that anecdotal evidence is pretty well backed up by research.)

Unschooling parents (or those who want to be) often worry about how or if their children will learn without schoolish things. Well, one of the underlying ideas that people have about education is that children need to be taught how to learn. And I think that’s where many parents go wrong.

People have an instinct to learn. Children are born with the desire to discover what they need to know about the world around them. The late Robert White, a developmental psychologist and Harvard professor, called this instinct to learn, to manipulate, to master an “urge toward competence.” What he meant is that we are born with not just a desire, but the need to have an impact on our surroundings, to control and understand the world in which we live. Children who are lucky enough to have families who trust that need are what I call life learners. They don’t need to follow somebody else’s second-hand curriculum, to be artificially motivated to learn, or to be tested about something they are learning. They don’t need school. They can live as if school doesn’t exist.

Unlike people who have been told to sit down, line up, be quiet and wait, life learners don’t just sit and wait for the world to come to them. They actively try to interpret the world, to make sense of it. As Leonardo da Vinci put it, “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Unschooled kids are constantly learning…and also experiencing the pride that comes with having understood new things and having mastered new skills. As the adults living with these constantly learning young people, we are most helpful when we can honor their right to set their own learning agenda, trust them to learn what they need to know, help them develop in their own ways, and provide opportunities that will help them to understand the world and their culture, as well as to interact with it.