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Meaningful Learning Starts with the Child, Not a Curriculum

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Meaningful Learning Starts with the Child,

Not a Curriculum

By Linda Dobson


A curriculum is not a very good starting point for meaningful learning.

Those of us who attended public school caught on pretty early that school was all about curriculum, or the list the teacher had containing all the tidbits of information she was to pass on to those children in her charge. As a child, I had such blind faith in the importance of what I was supposed to learn. It took me until high school to finally figure out it was all a game I didn’t have to play to still get good grades while just barely staying out of trouble.

It wasn’t until I began homeschooling that I saw the truth about learning. A curriculum is nothing but a course to run, populated with tidbits of information for the masses and chosen by…whom? Do you have any idea who created your child’s curriculum and made it the center of his/her school universe? Did this person – orĀ  more likely, committee – know your child? Was this person or committee somehow smarter or more intuitive than another person or committee that could have produced a better curriculum? You probably see where I’m going with this: a curriculum is not a very good starting point for meaningful learning.

What Homeschooling Teaches

Us about Meaningful Learning

A large majority of homeschooling children use much of their time to learn about and participate in topics of personal interest. (Isn’t this what you would have done had you not been trapped in your school’s schedule?) In many cases, these topics actually become the basis of a homeschooling child’s adult career. Just ask Samantha about her older son, Jason.

Intrinsic Motivation

“Would you believe when he was eight years-old I’d be awakened by noises coming from the kitchen,” Samantha asks, “and at three o’clock in the morning come downstairs to find Jason concocting the recipe that just couldn’t wait until Morning? The first book he read cover to cover was a cookbook.” As a teen, Jason wouldn’t take a summer job unless it involved a kitchen, and at age seventeen he headed off to culinary school.

“He toured the finest restaurants in France and Italy and graduated with honors,” says a proud Samantha. “Next month he opens the doors to his own restaurant.” (Sure wish one of my kids had been intrinsically motivated by cooking!)

Homeschooling families across the country find that pursuit of knowledge motivated by interest – intrinsic motivation – offers children the freedom of mind and heart to discover that which is inside them: passions, fears, strengths, weaknesses, temperament, tolerance. In other words, at the same time a homeschooling child learning about a topic, that child learns much about herself, “leading out” that which is within, a true measure of meaningful learning.

The pursuit of knowledge intrinsically motivated by interest provides children the chance to learn at their own pace without fear of failure. Interest allows homeschooling children to create, recognize, and follow up on opportunities. Intrinsic motivation becomes the gateway through which children go to develop the relevant skills they’ll need as they advance toward independence.

Homeschooling with an Intrinsically Motivated Child

A homeschooling friend of mine always joked that she decided on homeschooling for her children because she was too lazy to get up in the morning to put them on the school bus. While it’s true that many homeschooling families are able to avoid the morning’s mad dash, there is another reason why the outside world may thing that homeschooling parents are lazy – some of them want their children to begin educating themselves as soon as possible. They achieve this most thoroughly and rapidly by cultivating their children’s intrinsic motivation, the motivation that comes from within the child instead of from external factors – like a curriculum.

It isn’t that these homeschooling parents are really lazy. Rather they see their role in their children’s learning less as “teacher as dispenser of knowledge” and more as “creator of an environment that supports intrinsic motivation.” Their function is different, but it is no less challenging and rewarding.

A Homeschooling Child’s Path to Purpose

We need only recall our own school days to see how external forces of control permeated our experience. How frustrating this was! Consider this posting I once read on a national homeschooling e-mail list: “Kids need purpose in their lives,” wrote homeschooling mom Pam Sorooshian. “They are filled with purpose when they are young – everything they do, every move they make, has purpose. Respectful and observant adults honor the purposes of little children. Some kids make school their purpose (as the adult world tells them they must), but many do not. By the time they reach their teens, many kids, most kids, have lost that sense of purpose – even many of those who originally made school their purpose have, by that time, lost interest in it (for all kinds of reasons).

“Ask a four year-old, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and she will always have an answer.

“Ask a high school student, ‘Why are you studying the French Revolution?’

“I asked this of my sixteen year-old niece, an A student in the gifted program,” Pam continues. “She answered, ‘I don’t know. I guess because of that old saying that if we don’t remember history we’re doomed to repeat it.’

“So I asked, ‘Out of all the history of the world, why the French Revolution? What is important about it?’ (She’d just spent six weeks studying about it for hours per day).

“She answered, ‘I don’t know, but I can tell you the headings of all six chapters on it.’

“I am serious; that is what she said! She’d been working on a ‘report.’ Her report had a section for each of the chapters in the book and the titles were what she remembered. I could get absolutely nothing out of her about why the French Revolution might be useful to know about.”

See also Putting the Child Back into Childhood

Some historians contend that schools were created mainly to supply the Industrial Age with employees. “Schools had bells; factories had whistles,” writes Daniel Pink in Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live (Warner Business Books, 2001). “Schools had report card grades; offices had pay grades. Pleasing your teacher prepared you for pleasing your boss. And,” he adds, “in either place, if you achieved a minimal level of performance, you were promoted.” The Industrial Age has come and gone, and most of our nation’s other institutions have evolved into new roles. Yet schools, for the most part, have not kept up with the times. This lack of change is creating an educational irrelevance that makes it much more important for us as parents to pursue homeschooling and create a sense of educational purpose and opportunities for meaningful learning for our children at home.


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2 Responses to “Meaningful Learning Starts with the Child, Not a Curriculum”

  1. Cristina says:

    I asked my daughter if she knew why we would study the French Revolution and she replied, “To get ahead.” :oD

    When I gave her more background on the question she answered that it was important because it was inspired by our own American Revolution. I think that is pretty good, considering she hasn’t studied the French Revolution in years, although she did cover it a bit in an art history class in college.

    Of course, if she hadn’t already had that love of history from homeschooling, I doubt she would have taken a course in art history. I’m glad homeschooling her helped me develop my own love of history, proving you are never too old to learn. :o)

    • “You are never too old to learn” – and thank goodness for that. I can’t imagine how boring life would be without it. I can’t tell you how many homeschooling parents have said the same; I thought history was boring when I was in school, but I loved it in homeschooling. Me too!

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