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Learning as Pleasure: Why Schooling Doesn’t Work

By Lauren McClain

We homeschool. We’ve had our moments of glory…the learning work that just flows.

We’ve also had some rough moments. Days of failure, fighting, or loss of control as the kids spiral away, retreating to their room or hiding in a tree.

So, I’m at a cross-roads. The paths before me include sticking to my guns, insisting until I (hopefully) win the fight, or going the path most trodden.

When I was a public school teacher, I had two quotes on my classroom wall. One was George Bernard Shaw: “What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” The other was Plutarch: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

So much of education in schools and, by extension, at home, falls into the pail and child-chasing categories.

Daily I am reminded that, when left to their own devices, my children are already heavily in pursuit of knowledge. They excitedly ask questions, read, create, and think things through every day. My mistake is in not harnessing that fire where it is…in delight.

In Playful Wisdom (Pathways, Summer 2017), Michael Mendizza tells the story of his parenting journey with his young daughter. He tells of realizing that her life was filled with pleasure-seeking, and that all her seeking was learning.

Learning that is not pleasurable, Joseph Chilton Pearce points out, is merely conditioning.

I learned this in high school chemistry. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t understand anything about those bonds and little diagrams of electrons. They all made my brain alternately shut off and giggle.

Confused by every lecture and chapter, I showed up, did the work, completed the worksheets, took the tests, and got an A in chemistry. No idea what any of it meant, but I did the work. That’s conditioning.

Some conditioning is necessary, especially early on. Babies, after all, don’t learn to avoid electrical current, they are conditioned to. “Do not touch the outlets!”

Babies, children, people… We all seek pleasurable experiences. If you make something unpleasant or it’s naturally unpleasant, we may avoid that in the future. Conditioning works.

We don’t want our kids to learn that it’s unpleasant to be electrocuted. We want them to be conditioned to avoid it in the first place. This is an important part of parenting safely, but it backfires more and more often the older our children get.

Babies and young children, before we expose them to institutionalized learning, are in a constant state of education. They chase learning all around by following their pleasure. What pleases their bodies and brains is to be learning. Fires light for them around every corner.

The problem comes when we condition them to ‘learn’ on our terms, at our desks, between two bells and four walls. The learning drops off in favor of high-school, chemistry-style survival.

My goal, then, as a teacher-mother, is to help my children expand the pleasure they find in the fires they light on their own. Adults can open locked doors, make advanced creation possible, procure materials, answer questions, ask the appropriate mind-expanding questions, demonstrate, plan trips, and support.

When our babies are little, we don’t force them to play with the shape sorter when they are not interested in it. Eventually they find it and sort and play and become frustrated and ultimately triumphant. They do it on their own time, when it best aligns with their developmental needs and is therefore pleasurable for them to work on.

This fall, when we start up again, I’m going to follow my children’s cues—their development about what they need to learn and how they want to learn it. I’ll ask lots of questions to help them deepen the learning, providing space, materials, and support. If they don’t want to work on a project one day, that’s OK.

Maybe this plan will fall flat on its face and I’ll end up supplementing daily with workbooks or flash cards. I don’t know. But, as Mendizza says, “Failure is an integral part of learning itself, feedback, and adaptation.”

I’m willing to learn with and alongside them. It’s my pleasure.


Lauren is a childbirth educator (Birth Boot Camp) and the author of the Breech Baby Handbook. She owns Better Birth Graphics, a shop full of practical, intuitive birth media for professionals. Her work has been published in Mothering, Holistic Parenting Magazine, Birth Issues, True Birth, Mama Birth, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland with her family of five.