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Unschooling Leads to Self-Motivated Learning

by Alison McKee

How often have you considered the unschooling option, only to put such thoughts aside because you donít think your child is the self-motivated learner that one needs to be in order to make unschooling work? Maybe you think this way because your child is similar to this one: A five-year-old who spends hours of time absorbed in imaginative play. Heís so absorbed, he doesnít hear you when you ask him to dress, so you raise your voice to get his attention. With some effort, he brings himself to the present moment and promises to be ready in a few minutes. As you leave the room, you notice the few books that are scattered about. They are basically picture books about trucks and other large construction equipment. You lament, "Trucks, trucks, trucks! How could I ever unschool this child who seems to lack motivation to learn much of anything at all?"

Or, maybe your child is like this one: A ten-year-old girl whose interest in academic tasks is becoming unmanageable. She doesnít show signs of being self-motivated at all where academics are concerned. How could unschooling work when she prefers imaginative play, her books on tape and singing songs to accompany both of these activities? Sometimes she even memorizes favorite parts of her favorite books. Unschooling a child like this? Ridiculous! Indeed, her lack of motivation is making you quite nervous.

Often, parents considering unschooling give it up because having children like these two seems to indicate that they will never become self-motivated learners. After all, they already show a total lack of interest in learning academic material. What an unfortunate conclusion to draw. Once again, the educational institution has co-opted the term "self-motivation" and infused it with an institutional definition -- a definition which is only relevant in school settings. This definition implies that self-motivation and motivation to do traditional academic studies are one and the same. How many of us, when taking the time to consider whether or not our children are self-motivated, think of self-motivation as something that encompasses all learning, including learning to play imaginatively, to sing, or to listen to books on tape? Not many, I would guess. Generally speaking, when our children are motivated to immerse themselves in these non-academic tasks, we are more likely to force "school-at-home" routines than to embrace unschooling. If you find yourself agreeing with this statement, but still lean toward unschooling, Iíd like to suggest that unschooling is just what you need in order to help your child with self-motivation. Letís consider the issue.

Letís look at the five-year-old. I choose this scenario because it is so familiar. Indeed, it perfectly describes how my grown son spent his time twenty years ago. Like most children, he was drawn to imaginative play, and that play absorbed his attention for hours. Such play is normal for a five-year-old, and Iíd argue that the attention children give to imaginative play is "the nursery" where learning the skill of self-motivation is best nurtured.

Let me digress for a moment. Young children, from the earliest of ages, are self-motivated. For nearly a year they devote themselves to the task of developing the muscular strength and balance they need to walk upright. No lessons or lesson plans guide them. This is self-motivation. We simply trust the process. The same can be said of talking. At young ages, then, our children demonstrate that they are self-motivated. We simply donít recognize it because no institution of learning has formally taught us to think about the issue of self-motivation in relation to learning to walk and talk.

Now, lets get back to the five-year-old absorbed in imaginative play. We think that children this age arenít self-motivated because they are playing. Yet, through play they learned to walk and talk. We allowed their self-motivation to lead the way. Now, slightly older and immersed in another sort of play, we assume they are unmotivated as learners. Why? Because when our children are school age, and absorb themselves in interests of their own, that donít reflect traditional curricular material, we unconsciously evaluate self-motivation in terms of that curriculum, forgetting that self-motivated learning has nothing to do with learning school subject matter. Self-motivated learning is simply about being motivated to learn. As parents who have been trained by educational institutions, we instinctively equate motivation to learn with learning school subjects, and forget that motivation to learn is so much broader.

Iíd like us to explore this puzzle. In the process, Iíll describe why unschooling is the perfect way to enhance and broaden skills of self-motivated learning which begin to take root at five and ten years of age. We will focus on the children I described because their choice of activity is a typical representation of what stirs up our fears. A childís single-minded attention to play causes us to worry about whether or not children will become self-motivated learners. Those worries keep us from being able to see the broad picture and, instead, put our emphasis on school-based learning.

"Wait a minute", I can hear you say, "these children are simply playing. What possible learning value can imaginative play hold and how can play teach children to become self-motivated learners?" Both the examples Iíve given are not fictional, they are composite portraits of my children when they were five and ten years old. From observing them grow into adulthood, I can emphatically say that it was their immersion in childhood play that nourished deep commitments to self-motivated learning in later years. It happens like this: We know that children love to play. What we fail to understand is that play broadens skills of self-motivation our children cultivated when they taught themselves to walk and talk. We see play as somewhat meaningless, because it seems to have no bearing on a childís development as a reader, much less someone who will be able to do math or write. We know that those academic skills are going to be difficult to learn, take hours of practice and often will be very frustrating. It is the latter that concerns us when we watch our children play. We ask ourselves, "How will our children learn to master difficult situations if play is all they do?"

My premise, and one that is supported by some educators and psychologists, is that in play, children learn significant skills. When the towers and buildings that five-year-old children build, crash to the floor, true frustration and disappointment are experienced. Weíve probably witnessed tears of such frustration and disappointment at these times. Yet we often fail to witness what happens next: Our children simply go on playing. This "going on" is what is most significant here. What does the self-motivated learner do? He or she "goes on" without regard to the obstacles. In this case, the five-year-old child seems to have found something intrinsically motivating about building the tower. He stays with the process for hours, until he masters the art of tower building. Why? Because he is self-motivated and finds pleasure in learning when that learning is associated with personally meaningful tasks. No one is evaluating or placing judgment on his ability to master the challenges he faces. More importantly, no one is forcing him to move beyond his ability before he is ready. This very play, therefore, enhances and nourishes his desire to work through difficult problems until they are solved.

"Well, thatís all well and good", you might be thinking, "but what about the ten year old? She doesnít seem to be motivated to learn anything Ďimportant.í" In fact, we know she reads little and does much less math. Does she already lack self-motivation? In fact, this girl, more than anything, needs to be unschooled. Why? Because she has the most to lose if she is pressured by school-at-home methods. When put under pressure she may lose all touch with what motivates her to continue learning. But, what, is she learning? We may never know, but she seems to have an interest in singing and spoken stories and her imagination is still, at age ten, vivid. What is so wrong about helping her nourish those talents and gifts? Are we simply going to forfeit them to the predictable course of school work?

As I said before, the profiles of these hypothetical children were based upon thumbnail sketches of my own children. My belief that self-motivation exists in all children is grounded in the experience of raising my daughter. Her self-motivation never looked like the schoolís definition of self-motivation i.e., a child eager, willing and waiting to open the textbooks and follow the lesson plan. Instead, she spent endless hours playing. There was nothing conventional about this. However, we trusted her. If she could teach herself to walk and talk, we were pretty sure she could master independent reading. Therefore we invested ourselves in her self-motivation. We read to her in order to stoke her imagination, gave her ample opportunity to listen to a wide variety of music and invested in books on tape. By the time she was a teen, the pleasure she derived from imaginative play allowed her to mature into a skilled babysitter. The regularity with which she worked earned her enough money to travel internationally with the auditioned choir she had joined. Finally, her love of the spoken stories, and the ability to memorize and recite those stories, motivated her to hone her reading skills and take up acting. She began talking about going to drama school.

Ultimately, our daughterís love of acting led her to change her goals. Drama school wasnít going to be enough. This daughter, who had never wanted a college education, now craved one. At nineteen, with little formal instruction in the basics, this dedicated unschooler began to take classes at both a technical college and a university. The self-motivation that we had come to trust when she was an infant, had lead her to discover the inner joy of working hard to achieve her goals. The study of statistics, philosophy of science, and other subjects were difficult to master, but she never gave up. The seeds of self-motivation she relied on as a child had grown and deepened according to her own needs. As an adult she fearlessly continued to expand and take on complex tasks of higher learning based on what she learned through play: Learning is fun and difficult.

I wonder why we doubt children are self-motivated when we look at the track record of schools in relation to children such as my daughter? The children our schools label as "failures" are often children like she is. These children, whose self-motivation leads them through natural courses of learning at a pace other than the pace set by school, and whose interests are not necessarily represented by standardized curriculum, are often most adversely affected by the process of schooling. For these children, and the majority of school children with the desire to learn that is so vividly present in them at kindergarten, school becomes a place where they begin to know themselves as failures. They become failures simply because they fail to achieve school expectations within the framework of a schoolís curriculum and pace.

Unschooling offers us the opportunity to avoid this situation. It forces us to recognize that self-motivation is already at work when our child wants to learn to walk and talk. Therefore, by choosing to unschool, we simply choose to focus on what is already present, not on institutional notions of what should be present. This subtle shift of focus allows self-motivation to continue to effortlessly challenge our child to grow and mature into self-motivated adults. Ė A.McK.